From adventure races to XTERRA to Ironman, New Zealand’s Braden Currie has done (and won) it all. This is the tale of how an off-road adventure athlete became this year’s dark horse Kona podium contender.
This feature originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Triathlete magazine.
“Can we chat on Friday? I’m out doing three days of sea-kayaking until then.”
That’s not the typical response I get from a professional triathlete when emailing to set up an interview. But then again, Braden Currie is far from your typical pro. The 31-year-old learned how to swim five years ago so he could race XTERRA Motatapu and is equally at home running through 10,000-foot peaks or paddling white water as he is hauling 112 miles in the aero position. With dozens of adventure racing and XTERRA wins, and now an Ironman title to his name, he’s hands down 2017’s Most Versatile Man in Triathlon—a guy who proves that when it comes to endurance sports, doing it all makes you stronger in everything. And also really hard to reach on the phone.
It’s not because he doesn’t like to do interviews, but because he is often very disconnected from the digital world and very plugged into the natural one. I finally Skype with Currie once he returns from his sea-kayaking voyage and let him know that I’ll probably e-mail some additional questions over the next few days to fact-check a few things. He responds that he might be slow to respond because he’s getting ready to leave for a weekend-long mountain bike tour. He adds that he can leave right from his front door in Wanaka, on New Zealand’s South Island, and ride for three straight days without ever getting off the trail. There are even little “huts” where he can rest and cook along the way. It’s easy to be jealous of him.
Like most Kiwis, Currie’s love of the outdoors was instilled in him from birth. He grew up on a large farm near the ski village of Methven in the Southern Alps of the South Island. His parents owned 1,300 acres of land, which Currie and his older brother and sister shared with roughly 3,500 sheep, 600 cattle and enough crops to feed the entire town.
“Growing up on a farm, your parents are always so busy working that you get a lot of freedom from a young age,” Currie says. “We’d be off cutting down trees and building jumps for our dirt bikes—anything we could do to entertain ourselves outside instead of watching TV. You get a sense of adventure quite young with that kind of environment.”
Currie’s path to becoming perhaps the most versatile multisport athlete in the world was circuitous, to say the least. There’s no running pedigree in his family; he never dabbled in competitive cycling; and there’s that whole bit about not learning how to swim until signing up for his first XTERRA five years ago. True to his Kiwi roots, Currie’s introduction to organized sports came at age 4 when he started playing rugby. By the time he was in his early teens, he realized he didn’t have the size to make it to the next level, so he transitioned into competitive snowboarding in the 12,000-foot peaks surrounding his hometown. He picked up rock climbing and mountaineering to stay busy during the summer months, and that eventually led him to adventure racing or “multisport,” as it’s referred to in New Zealand.
While adventure racing remains a relatively obscure sport on the international stage, it’s a very big deal in New Zealand, and there’s no bigger event than the annual Coast to Coast race across the South Island. The event starts with a run along the Tasman Sea and ends the following day with a cycling race to the Pacific Ocean in Christchurch. In between there’s a total of 151 miles of road cycling, mountain running and river kayaking. It’s one of the most grueling endurance events in the world, and winning it is huge for Kiwis.
Currie had watched his older brother compete and do quite well, so in 2006 he decided it was his turn to give it a try. What Currie lacked in race-specific preparation, he more than made up for with a lifetime of outdoor sports experience. He finished third in his first attempt, and was left with the difficult decision of pursuing a career in a high-risk and low-reward sport, or doing something more sensible.
Newly married and expecting their first child, Braden and his wife, Sally, chose the more practical path and moved to Australia to start a bike sales and touring outfit. It wouldn’t make them millionaires, but it was certainly more secure than doing multi-day adventure races for the shot at a few thousand bucks.
Currie took a five-year hiatus from competition between the ages of 20 and 25, something that is completely unheard of among world-class endurance athletes. Although adventure racing took a back seat, he wasn’t exactly standing still. His business venture kept him plenty active, and when he decided to return to adventure racing in 2011, he was even more fit than before and his newfound mountain bike prowess piqued his interest in off-road triathlon. He returned to Coast to Coast, finished third, then spent a few months in the pool teaching himself how to swim properly. Learning to swim in your mid-20s most often turns into a decades-long struggle, but all those years of kayaking gave Currie a natural intuition on how to interact with the water, as well as the upper-body strength necessary to swim efficiently.
“Paddling teaches you a lot about the water,” he says. “You get to see your paddle enter the water, catch the water, pull the water, and then exit. That’s what gave me a base for swimming. I got in the pool and was like, ‘All right, what does my paddle do?’ From there I just got the hang of it.”
In 2013, Currie made the commitment to do adventure races and triathlons full-time and the results came quickly. He won his first major triathlon at Challenge Wanaka in January, and followed that up a month later with his first Coast to Coast title. He spent the rest of the season winning smaller XTERRA events and adventure races around New Zealand and Australia, and then finished fifth at his first attempt at the XTERRA World Championship in Maui that October. The following summer, with his wife, daughter and newborn son in tow, he moved to Europe for the summer to follow the XTERRA European circuit—the only way to test himself against the best off-road athletes in the world. He competed in a total of seven XTERRA events that summer—with a handful of adventure races thrown in for good measure—and finished first or second in every one he entered.
Whether the event involves swimming, kayaking, mountain biking, time trialing or running up the side of a mountain, if the arena is the great outdoors and the goal is a finish line, chances are Currie can do quite well. And while he’s driven by a love for being outside and testing his physical limits, he’s still very pragmatic about his approach to sports. His move from adventure racing to XTERRA was in large part because there was the opportunity to race more often and make a better living for his family. It’s the very same reason he entered his first Ironman this March. He chose Ironman New Zealand (of course), which he won (of course).
“I’d prefer to only race XTERRA,” he says. “It’s possible to make a living, but you’re just scratching by. It makes it tough to pay off your mortgage. But if you do well at Ironman, you can make pretty good money during a short career.”
Currie’s win at Ironman New Zealand gave him an automatic slot to compete in his first Ironman World Championship in Hawaii this October, making him one of the most intriguing wild cards to compete in a long time. The traditional path to reach Kona immortality has been to start in the short-course ranks, move up to Ironman 70.3 and then finally take on Ironman once an athlete has built the base to handle it. Currie was competing in events nearly twice as long as Ironman when he was only 20 years old, so competing for “only” eight-plus hours feels like a short day at the office. Even more so than Ironman, adventure racing is all about survival and slowing down less than your competitors—two things that will be a huge advantage for Currie come October.
“I’m lucky in that I’ve built endurance through years and years of racing,” he says. “Before Ironman, I was doing races that might last up to a week across the Gobi Desert. I look at those now as being big training blocks. And it was all off-road. That kind of racing has given me a lot of durability and resistance to fatigue.”
Currie has never been to the Big Island and doesn’t plan to visit before his Kona debut. He’s seen plenty of videos and has a wealth of experience racing in oppressive conditions. He knows it’s going to be a hard day, and that’s precisely what gives him the confidence that he can be a major contender over the next few years.
“We Kiwis don’t brag much,” he says. “We just go out and do it. Even though most of us wouldn’t come out and say it, I think we’re bred to be pretty tough. We just give things a pretty good crack until we can’t go anymore.”
Train like Braden Currie
His methods may be far from traditional, but they’ve proven effective—and they can work for you too.
Train some place new. “I’ll spend seven or eight months a year on the road. Last year we spent six months in the States, and the year before we spent the summer in Europe. This year I’ll do a few months in Australia and in the States. Traveling with my family and seeing new places helps keep me motivated.”
Run off-road often. “I know that if I go out and do a 30K trail run in the mountains that it’ll cross over to my marathon on the road. That kind of running is better for the body—it’s good for my joints and it makes my stride more fluid. I think it’s given me an advantage over athletes who have been brought up pounding away on the road.”
Listen to your body. “The things I’ve learned about nutrition and hydration from adventure racing are the kinds of things it might take years of triathlon racing to learn. You have to be able to step back and assess what your body needs, especially during those tougher spots. The biggest thing I’ve learned is the importance of staying ahead of your hydration. Once you get behind, it’s really tough to make things right.”
Learn from others. “When I started out, I was lucky enough to get asked by [five-time Coast to Coast winner] Richard Ussher to race with him in Mongolia. You learn so much from racing with a teammate like that. You get to see how they’re eating and hydrating, and how they mentally get over those low points. I learned a lot from him that I’ll be able to apply to Ironman racing.”
Go really long. “The way you build endurance for adventure racing is different from triathlon, but there’s definitely a crossover effect. The longest segments I’ve ever done are 42 hours straight of jogging and hiking, eight hours of continuous kayaking and about 200K of cycling.”