Nathan Fa’avae: The GOAT

Adventure Racer

Nathan Fa’avae is generally considered the best adventure racer in the sport’s history. Discover how Nathan became the dominant force in the world’s toughest endurance sport.

One of the world’s most famous tests of physical endurance, the Tour de France takes about 90 hours of cycling, spread over three weeks, to complete. An adventure race can take up to 160 hours of non-stop racing over as much as six days, with virtually no sleep or rest. It requires an elite level of skill in mountain running, mountain biking, kayaking, rafting and navigation but, above all, an almost superhuman capacity to endure suffering and pain.

Generally considered the best adventure racer the world has ever seen, New Zealander Nathan Fa’avae’s career has taken him all over the world, from the deserts of Africa, Mexico and the Emirates, to the plains of Tibet and China, and the peaks and valleys of Nepal, Ecuador, Brazil, Patagonia, Russia, and the European Alps. Nathan is also the creator of New Zealand's most successful Adventure Racing, Team Avaya.

We caught up with Nathan to discover how he became the dominant force in the world’s toughest endurance sport.

'In a typical race we won’t sleep at all for the first day. Then we’ll start having 2-4 hour sleeps each day after that...'

How did you get into adventure racing?

I’ve always been an adventurous person, curious to know what’s on the other side, around the corner. My father is a sportsman from Samoa, so outdoor activity and sport has always been part of my life. When I left school I wanted a career in the outdoors, as a guide and instructor, so I worked towards that. Where I live in New Zealand – Tasman Bay at the top of the South Island – is an outdoor sports utopia. Practically every outdoor adventure sport is done in the region, so as a young person there are loads of opportunities to try new things.

In adventure racing, sleep is often described as a secret weapon. How do you manage your sleep during a race?

It’s a constant balancing act. Not enough sleep makes it impossible to perform, yet every minute spent sleeping is a minute not spent racing. The ideal time to sleep is so that when you wake up it’s sunrise or close to it. As a rule, we don’t like to go more than 40-hours without sleeping. In a typical race we won’t sleep at all for the first day. Then we’ll start having 2-4 hour sleeps each day after that, taking more sleep if we think we really need it. Sometimes we get lucky and can get a full night’s sleep mid-race, which allows us to move for longer with minimal sleep. 

'A nutritionist can design an eating plan... but it’s not applicable in an adventure race because there are so many factors at play.'

What’s it like racing when you haven’t had enough rest?

If our team is in a sleep-deprived state we just find somewhere to sleep. We’ve learnt that stumbling around trying to race when the sleep monster has got you is incredibly inefficient. You can think you’re going well, going fast but it’s not the case. Our team has gleaned that from races early in our careers where we made errors because we weren’t thinking clearly. It’s probably the part of adventure racing I dislike the most because you know you’re pushing your mind beyond what is healthy. It’s cruel.

 How do you approach nutrition while racing?

Getting enough calories is key. Like sleep, it’s a balancing act. The challenge is that we have to carry our food so we need to travel light but at the same time have enough energy. I started my own freeze dried food company, Absolute Wilderness, as that technology means we can carry real food as energy-dense meals. 

You can’t directly overlay food science into an adventure race. A nutritionist can design an eating plan that will meet your caloric demands, but it’s not applicable in an adventure race because there are so many factors at play. You can feel nauseous, or your sense of taste might be limited, or you’ll only feel like a certain food type (fat, sugar, protein). So you have to carry a variety of meals and what’s most important is eating something rather than nothing. If all you can stomach is salted chips, for example, eat as many as you can.

'Preparation is key to being on the start line ready to be competitive.'

As team captain, what is your role and what challenges do you face?

These days my captain’s role is mainly being the spokesperson and managing the administrative aspects of the racing. When the team was first established my role was different, setting team culture and facilitating discussion around being a champion team was really important. I also spent quite a bit of time on transfer of learning, seeing what we could extract from one race and use it beneficially in the next. My teammates are all intelligent, mature and professional people so these discussions are always easy to have and are at a high level. There’s no detrimental ego behaviour happening in our team.

Why have you and your team been so successful for so long?

Our team members all have similar core values. There’s a high level of respect and trust, and everyone is valued for their skills and experience. We also know each other’s weaknesses and how to minimise those. Collectively we are able to work hard for each other and the common goal we have, which is to race like champions and give it our 100% best effort. We like winning races and we know that preparation is key to being on the start line ready to be competitive. 

I don’t think it can be underplayed that we’re also very good friends. We enjoy spending time together outside of racing and there’s always lots of fun energy in what we do. We often don’t portray a team who is serious about racing but once the race is underway we switch into that mindset. With our reputation and race record now, I know it’s difficult for other teams to challenge us, but they do and that’s what makes the racing exciting and dynamic, it forces us not to be complacent.

'Adventure racing highlights what is humanly possible.'

What’s the best way to improve endurance?

Improving endurance is simply spending time exercising and training your body for what you want it to do. I find longer, slower sessions are excellent for that, all day bike rides, multi-day hiking trips etc. It’s really about spending lots of time outdoors doing adventure sports. There is no shortcut or magic technique.

How does adventure racing make you realise the extent to which the human body can perform?

Adventure racing highlights what is humanly possible. When you do a 5-day, 650km race, it expands your perceptions on what can be done in a day. In an adventure race, the scale you measure things by is different to most other things you do. For example, when training I would consider a 6-hour mountain bike a long ride. Afterwards, I’ll feel fatigued and often proud of the training achievement. By comparison, in an adventure race, a 6-hour bike stage is minimal in the grand scheme of things.

What are your plans for the future?

With Covid we have decided not to race offshore in 2021. Hopefully in 2022 we can compete at the AR World Champs. If Eco Challenge returns we’d love to participate in that, and if there is a GODZone in New Zealand in 2022 we’d try and race that also. Individually we keep active doing many events locally and nationally so there’s always something happening.

Nathan Fa’avae is a 6x Adventure Racing World Champion. Find out more about Nathan by checking out his website and following him on Insta.