Running and cycling across New Zealand proves no obstacle for Rachel

Eamonn Wynne

Eamonn Wynne

A Clonmel woman bade a temporary farewell to life in New Zealand by completing the famous Speight’s Coast to Coast two-day race.

Rachel Purcell was one of seven Irish people based in New Zealand, as well as some Irish living in Australia, who last month undertook the gruelling event that crosses the South Island from Kumara Beach on the Tasman Sea to Sumner Beach on the Pacific Ocean.

It was an eventful week for Rachel, the daughter of Maureen and Pierce Purcell from Davis Terrace, Clonmel. A research scientist in children’s cancers, she relocated to Lyon in France five days after the race to take up a job with the World Health Organisation (WHO) on a two-year contract.

She will be joined in France by her husband Tony O’Connor and their young daughters, 4 year-old Grace and two and-a-half year-old Lucy, on Easter Monday when Tony’s teaching contract in Christ’s College, Christchurch finishes.

Tony was supposed to join Rachel on a two-person team in the coast-to-coast event by kayaking in the glazier white rapids but had to cry off when he damaged his wrist in training. His place was taken Bob McLaughlan, one of New Zealand’s leading kayakers.

Competitors cycle 140 kms (87 miles, three stages of 55km, 15 km and 70 km); run 36 kms (22 miles, including a 33 kms mountain stage that crosses the Southern Alps) and kayak 67 kms (just over 40 miles) of the grade-two Waimakariri River through the Grand Canyon of New Zealand, the Waimakariri Gorge.

Rachel had a stomach bug - as did many of her fellow competitors - on the mountain run, the first day of the race, which cost her two hours. She completed the run in 7 hours, instead of her usual 5, as she scrambled over rocks and through freezing waters in the Southern Alps.

About 100 international competitors enter each year from approximately 15 countries. The event, sponsored by the drinks company, has been won six times by internationals from Australia, Canada, England and South Africa.

Rachel completed her PhD in paediatric cancer last August. She and Tony have lived in Christchurch for the last 8 years, which just over a year ago was hit by an earthquake while her parents Pierce and Maureen were visiting.

Tony, who’s originally from Shankill in Dublin, was one of Ireland’s top rowers and was coach to the Irish team that competed in the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004.

He and Neville Maxwell, who’s also from Dublin, still hold the world record for Double Sculls rowing, which they set in Paris in 1994.

Because of the earthquakes in Christchurch over the last year and-a-half the River Avon cannot be used for rowing any more so Tony brings 60 local rowers to Twizel, a little town near Mount Cook and four hours from Christchurch, every second or third weekend where there is a huge lake suitable for rowing.

For several weeks during the major earthquakes several of the teachers, including Tony and Rachel not only coached but also held classes in the local primary school each evening to prepare 60 students (and rowers) for their exams until it was safe to go back to Christchurch.