Pushed to the Limit: Endurance champ Sonya Looney goes enduro in New Zealand

I’ve always considered myself more of a slow-burn adventure seeker than an adrenaline junkie, however, my name was on a start list for a five-day enduro race where only the downhills were timed and big-travel mountain bikes were required. This could hurt.

I’m a professional mountain biker and I have what normal people would consider a problem. I want to do things that are on the edge of being too hard or too scary. I like feeling somewhat anxious because it means I’m about to do something incredible, something that will guarantee I won’t be the same once I’m finished.

The problem is that every time you push your limits, it takes something even bigger to satisfy the craving the next time. As an ultra-endurance specialist, I’ve chased the longest, most grueling races across the globe. But this month, I would try something completley different.

Despite the blockbuster snow year we were having in the mountains in my Britsh Columbia home, my quest for endless summer had me on a 14-hour plane ride across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. My first stop would be Rotorua in the North Island to defend my title at the 24 Hour Worlds, however, my aspirations came crashing down after a destructive fall. I had been riding an easy trail preoccupied in a daydream. Somehow my bike slipped off a wet bridge. It ejected me squarely on my head, cracking my helmet and crushing my repeat dreams with it.

After a few medical opinions, it was decided that I had a mild concussion and I was strongly advised not to defend my title in Rotorua. I was heartbroken by the verdict, but changed my outlook and decided to travel to the event anyway to support the other racers and volunteer. I was in New Zealand not only to race my bike, but also to build community. The outdoor and cycling world is special and it feels like family no matter where you are in the world. For me, being a part of it is truly so much more rewarding than just going fast on a bike.

Besides, after my time in Rotorua, I had my sights set on an event the following week in the South Island and it was the one I was secretly most excited to do: the Trans New Zealand Enduro Stage Race. I’d never tried an Enduro nor did I quite understand the format. I did know you have to race downhill at full speed on trails you’ve never seen and drop down very steep technical descents. Hey, that sounded like the perfect way to regain confidence a week after a big crash!

Photo by Digby Shaw.

Only the downhills are timed, but you still have to grind through the climbs. We would start individually in 30-second intervals on each stage. You ride all the descents blind—none of the racers get a chance to scope out the course before the start.I questioned whether I really should be lining up for a race where crashing would carry such high consequences. I felt intimidated and worried that my skills would not be good enough for the features on the trail. I love riding challenging, technical terrain but I generally slow down to look before I bomb down it. In the Enduro, I’d have to approach each feature at full sprint. Sometimes it would appear to be the edge of a cliff, and sometimes it might be just that! But I would not have the time to hesitate if I wanted to be competitive.

The event featured 22 timed descents/stages over five days, travelling through the rugged landscape outside Christchurch and Queenstown. We would ride anything from panoramic high alpine ridgelines with tufts of bunchgrass, to dry, loose rock rolls lined with fragrant thyme and scrubby bushes.

As I found myself in the queue for the first stage of the race, I chuckled. I was actually nervous and intimidated. I usually relish the start of a stage. But my mind was running: Would I crash and end up a total yard sale like at Rotorua? Would it be caught on camera? Would the person starting 30 seconds behind me mow me down? Would there be mandatory 10-foot cliffs I’d have to huck and try to land? Where was the balance between being smooth and fast versus a spastic muppet? How was this brand-new type of bike )for me) supposed to feel and ride?

All the questions came to a screaming halt. I was next in line. I clumsily scanned the RF ID card strapped to my wrist. The transponder beeped indicating the timer had started, and I pushed forward hammering downhill.

We rode down narrow skree trails carved into the sides of craggy mountains. We wound down slopes with perfectly manicured berms that pushed you out as quickly as you railed into them. Day after day, we started in the chutes and entered a world of pure instinct.

It wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. Sure, I had my fair share of “oh shit” moments when I would turn a corner stare down a cliff or a steep root section that would be a challenge to even navigate on foot. But those ended up being my favorite moments, those times when I faced split second decisions. I loved the thrill of simply having to rely on my skills and just believe it would work.

The hardest stage had sustained 30-49 percent grade. This was the longest continuous steep trail I had ever ridden and it required as much pure mental toughness as it did skill. Once you left the start chute, it was almost impossible to stop. I was overwhelmed but I pressed on. I kept my wits about me. I pushed out any thoughts of doubt. And in the end, that stage ended up being one of my best of the race.

Racing blind requires full commitment. You have to trust in your abilities instead of letting hesitation stop you in your tracks. It requires intense focus. For me, the biggest challenge was not dwelling on my mistakes. Bombing at 25 miles per hour down a trail, there were a couple times I missed an arrow resulting in a wrong turn. It only took 30 seconds to realize my mistake but when the stakes are this high, you can’t lose 30 seconds. But I realized that you have to just leave the mistakes in the past and look to the future—a lesson that’s applicable in many situations in life.

When I saw something scary coming up straight in front of me, part of me wanted to stop and get off my bike, but I would punch through the fear, ride faster. I felt like one of those cartoon characters who is stuck between an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, one telling me to be careful, the other just to ride. The decision to listen to the devil happened in a split second. I could barely even remember  what I came down after it was over. The adrenaline rush grew stronger.

For someone who races through climbs, the transitions were odd. It was a foreign feeling riding uphill at a leisurely pace with a number plate on my bike. But it gave the chance to enjoy riding with other people and take in the impressive landscape. We’d see faint signs of a trail zigzagging up the shoulders of enormous mountains with tiny dots of people making their way to the top.  Soon, we would be heading down impossibly fast again.

As I accepted my unexpected award for third place overall, I felt satisfied in a way that I hadn’t felt since I first started endurance racing. Success was defined as trying a new discipline and pushing a new type of limit. One I hope to visit again someday soon.

Related Stories


Play Every Day With Kelty

Kelty: noun | kel-tee (1) activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation. (2) something way more fun than work At Kelty, pranks on the boss,...

How to Incorporate Nature Into Your Fitness Routine

There was once a time in most of our lives that our parents sent us outside to play in the morning, and didn’t see...


Written by: Bri Golden, Outdoor Educator and BVMA Guide It’s winter in the Rocky Mountains! Framed by 13-and-14,000-foot mountains sits the beautiful town of Buena...

YMCA of the Rockies, Colorado Perfect Winter

At Two Beloved Locations—Estes Park Center and Snow Mountain Ranch— YMCA of the Rockies Offers Up Top-notch Programming for the 2022–23 Winter Season That...