“Triathlon was not only my passion, but my sanctuary”
A difficult upbringing set Rob Hutchings on a path to become the man he is today – the king of DIY endurance challenges. This is his epic story…
In February 2020 Rob Hutchings became the first person to swim the 256km Clutha River in New Zealand.
But before that epic challenge, he’s also competed in races and marathon swims across the world. Here, he talks about the impact that sport has had on his life and where it’s led him.
Where it all began
My first triathlon in 1990 was an unmitigated disaster. I slammed headfirst into the buoy 25m offshore from the start and zig-zagged my way through the swim. The drive-train on my $200 road bike malfunctioned, so I only had the hardest gears to climb through the Appalachian Mountains of Western Newfoundland.
I posted the second slowest bike time of the day and threw my guts up repeatedly on the run. But at the finish line, I decided I’d throw everything I had at pursuing triathlon and endurance sport.
By the time I was 17, my biggest challenge came not from the course, but in confronting my increasingly-violent alcoholic father. Just days before a race in Truro, Nova Scotia, he drunkenly attacked me for the first time, and again the next day. Triathlon had not only become my passion, but also my sanctuary.
Standing at the start line of the Truro Triathlon, I made a firm decision. I’d been coming out of the water close to the leaders in recent triathlons to then drop back on the bike. But in those seconds before the start, I decided that I wouldn’t let my father shape my life.
Stepping things up
I decided to annihilate the field on the swim and make them hurt like hell to catch me. Fuelled by four years of training and a strong sense of living life on my own terms, only the top-ranked triathlete in the field caught me on the bike and I very nearly ran him down. I finished second, winning the junior category. My soul felt released.
After a spell in Britain, where I completed dozens of races, I moved to Australia and continued in triathlon and marathon swimming. This led me to become the first person to swim the 17km distance from Whitsunday Island to Hamilton Island in the Great Barrier Reef. I also competed in a long-distance race in the outback.
Seconds after repairing a flat tyre, I was forced to sprint away from a deadly brown snake slithering towards me. The temperature during the run soared to 44°C and in the final kilometre, the soles of my run shoes literally started to melt.
A switch to DIY challenges
Eventually moving to New Zealand, I was still competing in triathlons but was yearning for self-made adventures. So, a month before I attempted the Clutha River Swim, a 256km challenge, I was hurtling down the lower 42km of the Buller River. The day after, I was on my mountain bike on the picturesque Paparoa Track. The final day I was on the summit of Avalanche Peak. It was a transformational self-made event.
The Clutha River Swim was my biggest adventure challenge. From the small town of Wanaka to the Pacific, over five days I battled rapids, dodged rocks, sprinted out of whirlpools and had the time of my life.
As I approached the Pacific, I reflected on my life experiences. Every step of my life – my career, nomadic travels, my father, the friends I’ve made, the experiences I’ve had – can be traced back to deciding to become a triathlete.
Rob’s book, Downriver Nomad, documents his adventures in endurance sport and can be found on most online book retailers or on his website.