Sia Svendsen – Christchurch, New Zealand

WHO YOU ARE, TELL US ABOUT YOUR FAMILY AND WHERE YOU WORK AND PLAY?

I was born on a little cliff island in the Baltic Sea belonging to Denmark but closer to Sweden. My parents divorced at age 4. I lost 3 of my beloved grandparents before 17 and also no longer had my dad. At the age of 10 I was diagnosed with a life threatening illness caused by a troubled childhood. I lost my hair, my weight plummeted to just 18kg which meant I could barely walk or function. I spent a year in a special children’s hospital unit and faced a few years of recovery and rehabilitation. Doctors told me that my heart probably wouldn’t be able to deal with strenuous sports.

Little did they know that it gave me a drive to never give up hope. After my recovery I came back to my sports of horse riding, handball and gymnastics. During a year in the US as an exchange student I ran cross country and enjoyed the hard yards and competition. After travelling the world I came home and went to college. It was during this period my life ventured into doing triathlons, mountain biking and finally adventure racing. Sports became my saviour and continues to motivate me and inspires me to do challenges. In 2001 I came to New Zealand to obtain a degree in Outdoor Education and Adventure Recreation. The beauty and people captured me and I have now made this magnificent country my home.

I am passionate about multisport and adventure racing. My love for these sports has greatly influenced my successes, failures but above all upheld my continuous passion and motivation to train in good and less ideal conditions. I have met many amazing people and enjoy have a balanced life outside sport. I do have a wee dream of becoming a firefighter but currently looking at moving to Wanaka with new job challenges and training buddies.

How did you first get into adventure racing?

In 2000 I was asked to race my first adventure race in Ireland called the Adrenalin Rush. We placed 9th. A Canadian team told me to travel to New Zealand if I wanted to pursue adventure racing as the Kiwis were the best in the world. Having watched most of the Eco Challenge races and the Raid Gauloises I told mom I was moving to New Zealand. She had seen me travel the world alone, done an ironman at 22 and crazy 100 and 200km mountain bike races in the Alps without much training or skills so she didn’t seem too surprised. I didn’t worry much then – just loved the challenges and would work wherever I was in the World to save as much money as possible.

My first adventure race in New Zealand was a 24hr event in 2002. My team mates pulled out as they had found the going tough but I waited to join the last team so I could finish (Seagate won that race – which shouldn’t surprise anyone). I started in the orienteering club where I met Chris Forne and Emily, Sara and Aaron Prince and John Howard. John was one I clearly remembered from Eco Challenge and he asked me if I wanted to house sit for him while he was overseas helping with adventure races. It was pretty cool. I didn’t own a car so biked everywhere and spent a lot of time getting to know a lot of the legends of Kiwi adventure racing.

What attracts you to an event like GODZone?

Knowing that the race organisers like a skilled, tough, yet rewarding race is hard to miss. The organising team have raced a lot and also been involved with expedition-type races for a long time so they know what racers are looking for. Chapter 3 was a magnificent course but I did enjoy the Milford Chapter as it was a hard race physically.

You’ve been to GODZone three times now. What do you think are the key things you have learnt about racing at the event?

I love racing in a Kiwi team and racing in New Zealand. Not many places can compare to the ruggedness, clean beauty and rivers you encounter on a journey like GODZone. You know you have to be strong on foot and in the water to be successful. I also enjoy the kiwi’s humbled attitudes towards the challenges and their sense of fashion (chuckle).

Do you have any particular training plan or key workouts that you do to before competing at an expedition event?

I don’t have a special training plan at present as I have been working so much and haven’t had the finances for a coach. I think identifying skills you need to work on to become a better athlete or need for the race is useful. Then I think missions with friends and team mates are the best way to improve, have fun and share adventures. I train a lot on my own or with people better than me. My favourite missions before Chapter 3 of GODZone was with Chris Forne and Emily – especially the trip into Garden of Eden/Allah. Unfortunately I suffered a dislocated kneecap and torn cartilage over summer which left me unable to run and race local races. New Zealand has so many races that you have no excuse for not having a goal.

You have written elsewhere about your personal highs and lows. How have you managed to cope with the emotional upheaval that expedition-length events can throw up?

It’s not an easy subject to talk about but when you do it’s incredible how many can share a similar journey, even among a relatively small adventure racing community. I hit rock bottom 2011 after a successful year in 2010. I had achieved good results in the road cycling scene competing in Elite Road Nationals in both New Zealand and Denmark without any road cycling experience. Then, without warning, I was battling a big black cloud that drained all the happiness and joy of life. The depression sucked the life out of me and made me feel like the loneliest person in the World with no self-esteem. Somehow I clung on to the hope that I could get better, I just didn’t know how as I was afraid of asking for help. My recovery took a few years but I just had to fight again like I did when I was 10.

Adventure is about living and loving life. It can give us confidence and a direction in life where we can extend our capabilities beyond what we thought possible. The expedition length races and in particular GODZone is where I feel my heart is. I can race these races without thinking of anything but the race, my team mates and absorb the environment we are in. We all have different ways of healing ourselves and these expedition races have been, in a strange way, my saviour. Close friends know that it is what can make me feel confident despite being afraid in certain situations. The race format allows me to switch off from the outside World and just be happy in the present with my team mates.

My experience with severe depression was the biggest challenge I have faced and only a few know what I really went through as you can hide a lot. I owe Kristina and Nat Anglem so much. When I saw Kristina after GODZone in 2012 she had tears in her eyes and told me how happy she was. It meant a lot to me and I will never forget that.

My philosophy is that GODZone and expedition racing can be an amazing adventure therapy tool to heal oneself against depression because you are valued and needed by your team mates. No expedition race will ever cause me so much exhaustion, fear, fatigue, tears and pain as the depression did. Adventure racing is good fun suffering and I love it. Life constantly throws us adversity, in all aspect of life, but it is up to us how we tackle it and let it become something that can enrich us.

What key advice would you give to a team racing at GODZone for the very first time?

Race because you are passionate about the sport and you would do anything for your team mates. Don’t forget to enjoy yourselves.