The opportunity to race XTERRA Tahiti was presented to me after winning XTERRA Worlds and my wife Ingrid made it an easy decision. We immediately set the turquoise waters of French Polynesia as our screen saver and dreamt all winter about this distant place.
After a long day of travel, we experienced the warmest greeting from the race organization with cultural dancing in the airport at about 3 am Mountain Time. It was good to see our old friend Nicholas Lebrun from France on his working vacation as the XTERRA representative and Christophe Betard making his pro debut after placing first amateur at the 2015 XTERRA Worlds. Our English-speaking friends Leslie Patterson and Simon Marshall also made the trip and we shared some good laughs during our culture shock. We tried our best to keep it a laid back experience and really just take it all in.
One of the big attractions I have to XTERRA racing is the adversity and unknown variables on race day. I love challenging courses that take you off the beaten path and physically challenge you just to finish. This was one of those courses.
The rainy season in Tahiti is typically early in the year and May is supposed to be a dry month, but thanks to El Niño there was consistent rain up to and including race day. The rich tropical soil made the mountain bike very challenging and for the first time ever I raced with a true mud tire on the rear. The issue wasn’t as much about traction, but the mud building up on the full suspension linkage and into the drivetrain with leaves and pine needles. On the second lap I had to stop twice to scoop mud/leaves/needles out of the frame.
In such adverse conditions it can be a relief to get off the bike and proceed on foot without the mechanical limitations. I enjoy the agility and strength required to navigate such variable terrain with roots, rocks, mud, leaves, and water. In a post race interview I described the run course as diabolical, and I’ll stand by that statement, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. The outrageously wicked course took us up, up, and up, through the jungle on a freshly cut trail in a ravine. It was so steep that there were several sections with steep stairs carved into the dirt and climbing ropes to hold onto. It is rare for me to break my running rhythm on any course, but there was no choice but to hike/crawl with one hand on the ground and another on a rope. The fun continued and whenever you thought it was over, you would turn back up the mountain. Even with the rain and fog, there were a couple spectacular views from high, narrow ridges.
The day after the race, the skies cleared and Ingrid and I were able to enjoy a couple more days in the tropical paradise. Thanks to Jean-Michel, we made an overnight trip to Moorea which was icing on the cake. It was everything we had been daydreaming about all winter. We took a jet ski trip out to Cook’s Bay, swam with dozens of sharks and kissed a stingray named Lucy.
The incredible race organizers Jean-Michel and René and the VSOP Club, the amazing destination, the cultural experiences, and the interesting race course make this XTERRA a must-do.
What a crazy week. It started Sunday, 6 days before my races with a surprise bout of the flu. It didn’t last long, but caused a quick 7 lbs of water weight to be lost that took me until Friday to rehydrate and get some energy back. Sometime Wednesday before we started our road trip, I bit down on an already cracked tooth and started an incredibly painful tooth ache. The tooth had been sensitive for some time and I hadn’t been able to chew food on that side for about a year. Friday morning after being up two nights in pain, I decided to try to get into a dentist in Ogden and ended up getting an emergency root canal. As if the back-to-back Fat Bike and Snowshoe races weren’t going to be enough of a challenge.
The Fat Bike race went off at 11:00am and the small field of about 20 pro men was surprisingly competitive. My initial goal was to finish in the top 3, which I knew would be no easy task. The start was fast and mostly downhill on hard packed, wide groomed trails. About midway through the first loop of the 6 mile course there were still 12-15 guys in the front pack and we turned into some incredible crosswinds and we ended up forming echelons as if we were road racing in Belgium. If it weren’t for the intense effort, it would have been comical.
I needed to stay as close to the front as possible and ended up leading through most of the crosswind and when we turned uphill into a headwind. The Felt DD30 Fat Bike I was riding has been a great bike for training outside through the winter, but since I was riding it stock it weighs in at over 32 lbs, so I was giving up 8-10 lbs to most of the pro competition. All fat bikes ride like tanks with the high rolling resistance so I thought the weight might not be as much of a factor and I think I was right. When the course got steep I couldn’t keep the pace with the eventual winner Alex Grant and second place Rob Squire, but I likely wouldn’t have been able to climb with them anyway. To my surprise I was able to ride away from the rest of the field even on the climb, but then spent the rest of the race solo through the crosswinds and headwinds. After all of this fat bike training and racing I am looking forward to climbing on my Felt Edict soon. I was happy with my 3rd place finish and now I had just a couple hours before I needed to warm up for the snowshoe race.
I never doubted whether or not I would do both races, but I knew I might be putting the snowshoe race in jeopardy by racing flat out on the fat bike just a few hours before. I am typically not one to look over race results or keep track of streaks, but it had been over 10 years since I had lost a snowshoe race and I had won the National Championship 6 times, on every attempt. I felt some self-imposed pressure going into the race and when I tried to warm up 30 minutes before the race my quads were burning at a moderate pace.
The race was going to require a tremendous effort no matter what, so I figured I should just start the suffering right away and took the race out hard. At mile one, Eric Hartmark and I had already gapped the rest of the field. I needed to hang on until the climb at mile 3, but Eric lost me on the gradual downhill and flats between miles 2 and 3. I thought maybe I could claw my way back into the race on the long climb to the finish, but it wasn’t to be. I poured everything I had left into that climb and Eric was racing incredibly tough. I knew he was suffering, but he stayed strong and held me off by somewhere around 30 seconds. There was nothing I could have done in the moment to squeeze out any more speed so I am satisfied with the effort even though I can’t help but be a little disappointed with the result.
It was a great family trip to some beautiful mountains. That area of Utah is breathtaking and it was so much fun to share it with my family and friends. Sullivan and Porter jumped in the junior 5k race and went 1, 3 in the junior B division (14 and under). I am so proud of those boys and our new National Champion, Sullivan.
The Mt. Taylor Winter Quadrathlon is a classic winter multi-sport race, and 2016 was its 33rd year. I put it on my calendar every year, but sometimes injury or life circumstances have kept me from racing. It combines 4 events as you summit the highest peak in New Mexico. From the top of Mt Taylor you can see for 100 miles in every direction. It starts with a 13 mile road bike, 5 mile run on dirt which turns to snow, 2 mile ski with skins, and a 1 mile snowshoe to the summit and then everything back down. As you progress up the mountain the grade gets steeper and you climb roughly 1200 ft in altitude with each leg (1800 ft biking, 1200 ft running, 12,00 ft on skis, 600 ft on snowshoes). Since you repeat each discipline on the descent, its really 8 separate legs. The changing terrain, the altitude gain, and the long out and back course on ancient lands truly give this race an epic feel.
The unique part of this race is the roughly 300 local volunteers which outnumber the solo racers. The race sounds very equipment intensive, but the logistics are dialed in by the race organizers and you really only have two transitions to send gear to. Once everything is labeled and sent out on trucks the night before, you are left with only your cycling gear to start the race.
This year my dad decided to do the race as sort of a bucket list goal. Helping him prepare for the race and hearing his story gave me a new appreciation for the race from a different perspective. Living in Michigan, the altitude was one challenge, but more than that was the continuous 6000 ft climb. We are from Northern Michigan which can be very hilly, but there is a big difference when you are on a hill that never ends. Since turning 60 my dad has also battled with spinal stenosis, which at times has been crippling and his running has been very intermittent. He was unable to run for several years and for the last two he has only been able to run once or twice per week. Finally his third challenge would be fueling for such a long event. His running background mainly consisted of 5k and 10k runs so he never had the need to fuel during an event. This race we estimated would take him around 7 hours. It took 7:45.
By the way, if you want to predict a finish time, look over the results for your age group, then be very conservative with how long each leg will take (due to the elevation gain, soft ground, mud and snow, and cumulative fatigue of each preceding event), add extra time for the 6 transitions, then add one hour.
Our fueling strategy was very similar. We both used two bottles of the EFS Pro drink mix (160 calories each), one for the bike up and one for the bike down. We carried two EFS liquid gel flask with the goal of finishing one by the top and using the other on the way down (400 calories each). I did a pretty good job of finishing the first flask on the climb, but only took in about half of the second flask on the way down. The only real difference was that my dad was also taking additional calories at the aid stations and I was only taking water.
Early in the bike up, I decided I would try to go for a good time, since it seemed like a good day for it. I rode away from the field early and by the end of the bike segment I had over a 3 minute lead. I didn’t see anyone for the rest of the race, but I was losing time to the 2012 version of myself. At the top I had about a 6 minute lead, but I was 7 minutes behind the pace I set in 2012. It can be hard to compare one year to the next due to variations in snowpack, route variations, and equipment choices. At the finish I had about a 16 minute lead, but missed the course record by around 8 minutes.
I have done this race 11 times, and this was my 10th time winning. It has never been easy. I have had a few close races, a couple big wins, and twice I raced with the flu and just getting to the finish took everything I had. The challenge of the mountain, the camaraderie of the participants, and especially the support from the organizers and volunteers is what keeps me coming back.
July 18th, Beaver Creek hosted the XTERRA Mountain Championship with a swim in Nottingham Lake in Avon and then the second transition and finish line in Beaver Creek. This is my hometown course and it definitely suits my skill set. This is one of two championship courses with a net elevation gain on the bike with the other race being the XTERRA National Championship in Ogden, Utah (Snowbasin). The demands of the course mimic the way I train with a threshold focus. The climbs are long with lots of sustained pedaling and the run also has two massive climbs where you really need to find a rhythm. There are few places to hide on this course.
It was good to see a strong, international pro field at the race since some athletes duck this challenging course even though it shares the most similarities with the National Championship.Braden Currie from New Zealand won in Alabama and Rom Akerson from Costa Rica beat me on his home course.Ben Hoffman was also returning after a runner up finish last year and more impressively a second place finish at the Ironman World Championship.We also had the strong Colorado competitors like Brad Zoller, Branden Rakita, and Ryan Ignatz to name a few.Alex Modestou was just coming off an altitude training stint in Utah and had a breakthrough finish here last year.Super biker Brian Smith was returning to XTERRA but unfortunately came down with a cold the night before and was unable to start.
The swim at altitude is always interesting with everyone feeling the effects.The price to be paid for a hard start is just higher all around and I am not immune to that.Efficiency usually wins in swimming and with oxygen limited, this is even more important at altitude.For me it just feels like there is a governor on all the time in the water.Needless to say, I exited the water with a deficit I would need to make up on the bike.
Last year perhaps I was a little more rested and I remember feeling good on the bike.This certainly was not the case this year.Even though I biked faster, I felt like I really had to dig deep to do it.It took me longer to catch the leaders and I was running out of course to build a lead before the run. The first 5 miles gains 2000 vertical feet and I was about 1 minute behind at the high point of the course. That meant that there wasn’t much more climbing for me to make the time back and have a buffer for the run. There is a long, false flat in the middle of the course where I was able to reel in the leaders Ben Hoffman and Braden Curry. I took a few chances on the final single track sections to have a small cushion heading into the run. My Felt Edict full suspension really came through over the second half of the race and I was able to nail the last couple sections of single track.Even though this is a good course for a hard tail I still feel like I personally race best on full suspension even on climbing courses.
Since I knew the race would be a bit shorter (2hrs 7min) I decided to rely exclusively on the new EFS-Pro drink. I mixed it pretty strong with close to 200 calories in each bottle. I started with one bottle on my bike and was handed my second bottle at the first aid station. On the run I meant to grab my flask of EFS liquid shot but I forgot it in the shuffle and had to rely on aid stations which worked out fine. I did a good job of making sure my glycogen stores were topped off with a high carbohydrate meal the night before and the morning of, but had the race been longer, I would have needed more intake.
The run starts with a 2 mile climb and I considered it a race to the top.After the high point of the course I heard my lead had increased from about 40 seconds to close to 2 minutes.It wasn’t all smooth sailing to the finish with one more hard climb, but the pressure was off and I was able to enjoy the last 2 miles of the course.
Although there were some good indicators, there is still some work to do for Nationals and Worlds. The way we structure my training allows for multiple peak performances throughout a season and there is the ability to make adjustments to the plan following key races. We use a version of block periodization that is basically several mini-periodization cycles each leading into a key race. Conversely, with the traditional periodization model it is hard to know if you are on track or adjust since it is only designed for one or two peak performances in a calendar year.Then all of your eggs are in one basket and big adjustments can only be made for the next season.Generally I don’t believe in training through big races, so planning a race schedule with enough time for training blocks between important races is critical so you can arrive fit, rested, and confident.
For better or worse, the XTERRA World Championship race tends to define my entire race season. 2014 was a very successful racing season for me with a National Championship title and the first place in the XTERRA US series. In other global tour races I stacked up second place finishes in Costa Rica (behind Leonardo Chacon), Czech Republic, and Germany which also doubled as the ITU Cross Triathlon World Championship. In the European races I was second to Ruben Ruzafa and he entered the Worlds as defending champion on a 12 month win streak. He was the hands down favorite for the race, but I had been close in the last two races and I was the only one to really challenge him so far this year.
I pulled out all of the stops with my training and final race prep which I will detail in a later post. I knew that I was in the shape of my life, but I didn’t know for sure if it would be enough to win. I had learned from the last race in Utah that the race cannot be won on paper and even though I was fit enough to beat Ruben from 2013, I didn’t know if it would be enough this year.
The ocean delivered on race day with a large swell and a constant chop in the deeper water. I don’t mind a big shore break since I can get through it pretty easy compared to most. My problem is with the actual swimming that is involved. I was out in great position for the first 200 meters and even after the beach run in the middle I was still within 45 seconds of the lead pack. I held my position in what I thought was a strong group of swimmers including Asa Shaw, Michy Weiss, and some of the top females. But the conditions were rough. Even though the second time out and back was shorter and I stuck with my group, we still lost over a minute in that 700 meters. Then to my surprise I learned that Ruben Ruzafa had the swim of his life, exiting 1 minute 45 seconds ahead of me. I was prepared for a 30-45 second deficit, but not that. I had a lot of work to do to have a chance to win.
On the bike my main goal was to stay focused. I knew the fitness was there and to get a little more power I just needed to ask. I tried to nail every climb with at least a threshold effort and I wasn’t afraid to redline it on multiple occasions. I tried to crest every climb and sprint out of every corner. I moved into third place before mile 5 and eventually caught Ben Allen around mile 12. With Ruben’s World Cup and Olympic mountain bike experience I know he is a better technical rider, but I was able to more or less match his output. With 4 miles to go I was 1:30 behind but the last 4 miles of single track were a challenge for me. I lost a little focus there and exited T2 about 2:38 behind.
Nutrition is often referred to as the fourth discipline of triathlon and with the heat/humidity and energy demands of the course, hydration and fueling had to be carefully planned out. This starts in the days before the race by topping off carbohydrate stores (muscle and liver glycogen) and arriving in a hydrated state. Actually, my goal was to arrive hyper-hydrated, and carbo-loaded. At high intensity levels, about 95-100% of your calories burned are coming from carbohydrate and your stores are limited. Since you can only put back about 1/3 of what you are burning, it is imperative to start with the highest possible level of stored carbohydrate. And yes, I eat gluten, I like gluten. The same goes for water, but if you just drink straight water you can actually dehydrate yourself or worse, flush out your electrolytes (hyponatremia). To hyper-hydrate the cells, water needs to be consumed with enough electrolytes, primarily sodium. I made sure consume some First Endurance EFS drink the day before, add sodium to my foods, and another full bottle of EFS consumed in the final 30-45 minutes prior to the swim start. On the bike I went through 3 water bottles, two of them with about 160+ calories of the new prototype EFS cucumber flavored drink and another 100 calories of EFS liquid shot.
In T2 I had a small cooler full of ice cubes, a leg of pantyhose full of ice, tied into three sections, and two frozen 6oz flasks of EFS drink. Even though my transition looked painfully slow I am convinced the 10 extra seconds allowed me to run 60+ seconds faster. I wrapped the ice cubes around my neck and held the frozen flasks in each hand. As the flasks thawed I drank them and they each contained about 80 calories.
Anything more than 2 minutes was going to tough to pull back on Ruben. I know he is not a pure runner, but he is very good climber and very good on tough run courses, and mile for mile there is not a tougher run course out there. Mentally, I broke the first 3 mile climb into 5 uphill sections and tried to go as hard as possible for each section. At the top of the climb I had barely made any time and heard I was 2:20 behind. The win had fallen out of reach, but I never want to give up because you just never know. I pulled back about 1:15 but it was too little too late. I told Trey before the race that I was going to run 3 minutes faster than I did last year (same course) and I ran 3:16 faster. Energy wise it was the best I have felt in the World Championship and I never felt like I was overheating.
I know it isn’t apples to apples, but my time this year was over 6 minutes faster than last year with a longer swim this year and over 3 minutes faster than last year’s winning time. Like I mentioned earlier, the race is not done on paper which makes it very hard to predict. I felt poised for a winning performance, but triathlon is an offensive sport and you can only control the variables that affect your own performance.
As much as I want a world title, I am very pleased with my performance and humbled and honored to even be among the top 10 in this sport. The talent level now in XTERRA is so high and even with the influx of talent from other forms of road triathlon, it is great to see some mainstays that have helped define the sport and raise the bar. Guys like Conrad Stoltz, Dan Hugo, Ben Allen, Mauricio Mendez, and Bradley Weiss are XTERRA specialists, great competitors, and friends that I race with all over the world and it is good to see them always duking it out at the front of the race. Every one of those guys always has a shot on any day. I know some of them didn’t have the race they wanted but just like the cream of the crop still ended up in the top 10. The races so dynamic that everyone has an amazing story to tell and there is no such thing as a perfect race in XTERRA.
No elite triathlete I know stands alone. Nothing I say can express how thankful I am to my sponsors and support network. This is not by any means a complete list, but it’s a start:
Ingrid my lovely wife: This blog is not the place to express my thanks and appreciation, but I want everyone to know how much I appreciate the sacrifices you make and the slack that you take up for me.
Friends and advisors Craig Evans, Adam Wirth, and Yaro Middaugh: Craig thank you for the stroke correction that has put me one step closer to the front of the race. Look that guy up! Adam, thank you for the life coaching and help with the mental aspects of racing. I’m not sure if you are taking more clients. Yaro, thanks for collaborating with me in our coaching business and advising me on my training.
Beaver Creek: I am proud to represent my hometown resort and training grounds. A destination for many and a luxury for my family in all four seasons.
First Endurance: Thank you to one of my longest sponsors. I believe in the products and FE’s commitment to continued research and development in products specific to endurance athletes.
ENVE Composites: It is unusual to have a carbon fiber composites company based in the America and I am proud to ride on their wheels and parts. They are recognizable for their high quality, high performing products and it is great to have confidence that there is nothing better out there.
Dogma Athletica: Dogma Athletica is my home away from home. It is my place of employment and also the place where I do a huge percentage of my own training on their CompuTrainers, Woodway treadmills, and state-of-the-art fitness center.
Felt Bicycles: It is very important in my sport to have confidence in your bike and Felt has always delivered. This is evidenced by their disproportionately high numbers of World Champions and top performers riding their bikes.
Optic Nerve: It’s great to have the support of a locally owned, high performance eyewear company. In addition to great products, Bill and Tom also have awareness in the way they run their company.
Pedal Power: Specifically, Bruce, thank you for believing in me from day one. Since the first snowshoe race I ever did you have always offered more support than I have ever asked for or could ever repay.
Salomon: It has been great to finish my third year with an association with Team Salomon, known for high quality outdoor products and shoes that are very specific to my pursuits both summer and winter.
Vail Integrative Medical Group: Thank you Joel for the continued support. It was a good sign that I didn’t need quite as much attention this year, but thank you for keeping my body on track and in alignment!
CompuTrainer: The secret is out. CompuTrainer has been a very important component of my training year-round and almost exclusively for several months of the year.
Synergy Wetsuits: Thank you Stefan for coming through last minute right before XTERRA Nationals with a new suit. Super flexible, super buoyant, super fast!
The XERRA USA Championship is the final race of the US point series. I had a solid lead in the series heading into the race, but since the race has to count I still needed to have a race free of mechanical problems to hold my position. With the addition of Ruben Ruzafa from Spain to the start list I had a more serious obstacle. Ruben has been undefeated this season since his big win at the XTERRA World Championship last fall. I had the opportunity to race him twice in Europe and both times I was second. But this course was at altitude, had long gradual climbs, and I had beat him at this race last year. I knew he was more prepared this time around, but I still felt the course favored my strengths.
In Germany I had lost about 1 minute 20 seconds to Ruben in the swim but this time around I had a secret weapon. Super swimmer Craig Evans has been working with me remotely all season, reviewing short swim clips and fine tuning my stroke. He was able to fly out early and stay with me for 4 days before the race and really dial in some of my weaknesses. He is the man for triathlon swim fixes. The changes are not yet permanent, but the results speak for themselves. I was able to exit the water three seconds behind Ruben and much closer to the lead pack. It also helped that I had just received a new wetsuit from Synergy (the Synergy Hybrid Full).
On the bike my plan was to ride on Ruben’s wheel, let him set the tempo and have it come down to the run where I knew I had the advantage. In hindsight I should have done more to disrupt his rhythm and done more of the pace setting. I rode on his wheel for the first 5 miles of the climb, but that meant that I was reacting to all of his accelerations and whenever we passed other riders the rubber band would stretch a little more. When we got up to Dan Hugo who was riding in second I took just a little more time to get around since we were now on single track. Then when we caught Mauricio in the lead, Ruben passed him and then a TV motorcycle got between me and Mauricio. By the time I got around the motorcycle and Mauricio, Ruben was 25 seconds up the trail.
Another miscalculation was how good of a technical rider Ruben is. With his World Cup and Olympic mountain bike experience I should have known. He also had been in Ogden for two weeks studying “every turn on the course”. When we hit the first downhill, his lead went from 25 seconds to 50 seconds and he was out of sight. I fought hard on the second long climb and heard splits of about 1 minute at the top, but it was likely closer to 1:30. When I entered T2 I was a full two minutes behind. I had ridden over 2 minutes faster than Ruben did last year, but this year he was much stronger, acclimated, and more prepared.
In Germany I took back two minutes on Ruzafa on the run so I knew the race was not over. I pushed every climb, accelerated with every change in grade, and absolutely hammered the downhill but in the end I only made up 1 minute. Ruben had an excellent run and won by 56 seconds. Last year Leonardo Chacon had the fastest run split and pulled away from me in the last two miles, but compared to his run from last year on the identical course I was 1 min 46 seconds faster this year.
For nutrition I decided to use a new prototype drink made by First Endurance that I have been using since July. It’s main ingredient is long high branched amylopectin. This super starch has a very low osmolarity which means that it can be mixed at higher concentrations and has better absorption and risk of gastric stress reduced (also low sweetness). Since there was only one aid station on the bike at mile 4, I decided to be completely self sufficient and raced with two full water bottles each mixed with 200 calories of the First Endurance Prototype.
Overall I was very happy with my performance but not satisfied with the result. I thought I knew what I had to do to win the race and I did all of those things. I was a full 5 minutes faster on the bike + run this year and another minute closer to the lead pack in the swim. Third place was over 6 minutes behind me, but one obstacle in front of me. Henry Ford once said “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off the goal.” When I finished the race Adam Wirth reminded me “this is not the goal.” Maui is the goal.
I am more determined than ever for the XTERRA World Championship in one month. I always say that you don’t learn much from winning races and I feel like I have learned a lot in my last three second place finishes. Time to focus on my strengths for the final race of the season and leave it all on the course.
The competition around the world for XTERRA has blown up in the last few years. Now with a strong global tour and a hotly contested European tour, there are many top XTERRA racers that I may not see until the XTERRA Worlds in October. It used to be that the best of the best raced the US series and although it is still very competitive, several racers stay in Europe all year and I only see them at the US National Championship or maybe just the World Championship. I figured it was my turn to meet some of my competition in their back yard and get out of my comfort zone.
When I decided to go overseas to race the ITU Cross Triathlon World Championship, it made sense to try to hit another race either before or after. With XTERRA Czech in close proximity it seemed like that would be the easiest to pull of logistically. It would give me a chance to get over some jet lag and used to the time change. Two tough courses on back-to-back weekends might not be ideal, but in such an unpredictable sport it would give me two chances to put together a good race. Also, I had to see for myself just how strong this Ruben Ruzafa character was and if he truly was “unstoppable.”
XTERRA Czech had a smaller start list, but Ruben was there and several others I hadn’t seen all year like Braden Currie, Ben Allen, and Alexander Hass. If I were to have a chance of matching Ruben on the bike I knew I had to come out of the water close and keep him in check on the bike. That would be tough on a course with the steepest climbs I had seen all year. I did like the looks of the run course with two 5 k loops with a long steep climb that we would repeat.
It had rained off and on all week and on race day the course was sloppy (but that was before I saw the course in Germany). I had a solid swim (wetsuits) and came out of the water right on Ruben’s feet and about 2 minutes behind the lead of Ben Allen, Braden Currie and Branden Rakita. It was a perfect scenario, but as I hopped on my bike my shoe fell off my bike and I had to stop to put it on. It made no difference in the outcome of the race, but instead of riding most of the course on Ruben’s wheel, I rode 20 seconds back for about 12 miles. Then when the route shot straight up and he was out of sight.
Onto the run I was around 2 minutes back. It would be a tough catch to make, but not impossible. I felt strong and motivated on the first 5k loop but was just barely cutting into the lead. Then I started to feel the fatigue of a very tough bike course. The split to the lead stopped coming down and would soon start to swing the other way. I ended up about 3 minutes back, but I didn’t feel like I had put it all together especially on the run.
The towns and the race organization in both Czech and Germany were fantastic. This trip felt a little more like business than pleasure without my family there, but Branden and Bree let me be their third wheel and sometimes fifth wheel when Suzie and Chis were with us. Then in Prague it was more like seventh wheel with Branden’s parents as well. But it was still a good time and they were all nice to include me in many of their dinner plans. Next time I definitely think I could bring my family to both venues and make it a real European vacation.
Another week in the same time zone and I was feeling better. The bike course was extremely challenging with a little of everything–power flat sections, long gradual climbs, and steep barely-on-your-bike climbs, and possibly some hike-a-bike…depending on the weather. Speaking of, the forecast was crazy with 60-90% chance of rain every day. The lake was also getting colder, but I wasn’t counting on a wetsuit legal swim.
On race morning the low temperature was 49 degrees F and pouring rain. As most mountain bikers know, riding a course after heavy rain is about the worst thing for the trail. There would be hundreds of age group racers making their way around the course before or afternoon start. It also meant the course would be riding completely different which made me smile. I like the idea of everyone on an even playing field as far as course knowledge and for some reason I really like adverse conditions. Safety is a concern, but I don’t like it when someone has figured out an extra second or two on dozens of corners and lines, just because they were able to spend more time on the course pre-riding. The rain would change all of that, but would also make everything very unpredictable.
This time the swim was no wetsuit and the pro men’s field was around 70 strong. I basically was chewed up and spit out in the first 200 meters of the race and ended up around 3 minutes down from the lead and 1:20 behind Ruzafa. It wasn’t the scenario I had rehearsed, but a familiar one, and it would just mean a long mountain bike time trial as usual.
Luckily there was plenty of passing room in the first 10k of the ride, but then the course really kicked up. By the high point of the course I was back in the race with Conrad, Braden, and Michy Weiss. I knew Ruzafa and Chacon were still ahead and at least one more. At that point we also started running into the pro women who had started 20 minutes ahead of us—not a good idea. The mud was out of control and I had to clear my glasses every couple minutes but I was happy to have the mud out of my eyeballs and with my decision of clear lenses on my Optic Nerve Thujone’s. The rest of the way I couldn’t even tell who I was passing even though we had our names and country on our backside, but it wasn’t even legible. When we popped out on the road with only 5 or 6 flat k’s left I had someone just 10-20 seconds back. Rather than regrouping and getting ready for the run, I hit it as hard as I could in full on TT mode to see what I could do when I knew others would be backing off. It worked and I pulled back another 30-40 seconds on Ruzafa and put about a minute on Braden (I though it was Chacon, but couldn’t tell).
This time the run course was flat and a short 9k instead of our normal 10k. I generally like more hills on the run, but I knew a flat course would fall in my favor compared to Ruben. I ran hard, but the gap was just too much. I pulled back nearly 2 minutes on Ruben, but finished second at 55 seconds back. It wasn’t as sweet as the top step of the podium, but I was very honored to be that close and ahead of some amazing athletes. Everyone in that top 10 wants to be world champion and I was just one place out. I am very happy with the experience of the two races and I may have seen just some small chinks in Ruben’s armor. His English is much better and we shared some good laughs and jabs after the races. The last thing he said to me with a smile was “we will fight again in Utah.”
Confidence is a funny thing. Too much of it and it breeds complacency, and too little creates anxiousness and inhibits performance. I realize that the conditions surrounding this race should play hugely in my favor as an altitude dweller, a climbing specialist, and home course advantage. But for some reason I have not always had my best performances here and I have been on both sides of the confidence continuum.
This year I had my racing schedule arranged with a little more thought and had an ideal amount of time for a training block and a short taper. I was relatively healthy and there shouldn’t have been any excuses to race to my potential. Then a week after the Richmond race I crashed on my mountain bike and sustained a few broken ribs–not displaced, but definitely in a lot of pain. For the first few days I couldn’t swim, run, mountain bike, or even breathe (ok, I could breathe, but painful). It is one of those injuries that there is little treatment for and time is the main solution. I decided I couldn’t afford to let my fitness completely disappear, so as soon as I could handle it I started to road bike and then run again. I would start easy and eventually things would loosen up as long as I didn’t breathe deep. Then about two weeks after the accident I just had to start swimming again. Flip turns hurt, taking a stroke hurt, and even just raising my arm overhead hurt, but I had to just do it. With a little ibuprofen I was able to get through a swim workout but now there was only two weeks until the XTERRA so I wasn’t sure if I could bring it all around.
On the bike and run I went back to my bread-and-butter threshold training and was able to fit in just a few key monotonous, but effective workouts. I am still trying to determine what exactly were the key elements that allowed me to feel so good on race day. I am a firm believer that one workout can make a difference and one poorly placed workout can also sabotage a race. So race week I played it by the book, dropping volume with a fast (exponential) taper where I quickly dropped the volume but kept (actually increased) then intensity. I also did some taper reps on Friday before the race, but had a close eye on watts so I didn’t over-cook it.
On race day I tried to pay attention to the little things like transition set-up and timing my eating and race warm up. This also keep me focused on these small tasks instead of any excessive pre-race nerves. About 20 min before race start I drank half of my water bottle with EFS drink and planned to start the bike with a half full bottle since the first aid station would be only about 25 minutes into the race.
After taking some time off from swimming I had definitely lost a little swim fitness and coupled with the altitude I decided to take it out conservatively. I think a seasoned swimmer can afford to take bouts of time off with only small repercussions, but my swim fitness and feel for the water goes away fast. After a slower than normal swim start I was able to immediately find my own rhythm in the water, but tried to keep pushing close to my own threshold effort. If I relax at all in the water a 1 minute deficit on the first lap turns to 3 minutes after the second lap. I was pretty happy he hear that I was about 1:35 down from the lead by the time I left T-1 (I was 1:55 down out of the water).
To pace yourself for a 5 mile climb means you shouldn’t go out too hard, but that doesn’t mean you should start easy. I tried to get right into my steady threshold intensity as soon as I got on the bike and by the time I hit the dirt about 1 mile into the race I was just 1 minute behind the leader. I was actually surprised I was making up time that quickly and originally my goal was to catch Mauricio, Branden, and Ben by the halfway point of the bike. To my surprise I caught Ben and Branden around mile 2.5 and Mauricio shortly after, finding myself in the lead. The XTERRA pros are some of the nicest guys to race against, but I didn’t get the feeling that they were happy to see me that early in the race.
At the first aid station I took a bottle hand-off with about 200 calories of EFS that would carry me through the rest of the bike course. The race is very demanding because of the terrain, but is actually a little short with the bike around 14 miles and the run a little shy of a 10k. This meant that I was able to get by just fine with about 300 calories on the bike leg since it took me about 1:08. I kept pushing hard since you never know when a mechanical might strike or when the body might start to disagree. I also had thoughts in my head of the strong competitors that weren’t on the start line, but were racing in Europe. That goes back to the confidence thing, and for me to feel a boost from this race I knew I had to post splits that I would be happy with against anyone.
I really like to run from the front, which doesn’t happen to me often with my swim ability. It’s sort of like the lion and the antelope–there is certainly some incentive to chase, but even more incentive when chased. I felt like I was running with and endless supply of energy even on the climbs. If I could only bottle that up for the rest of my races this season.
Another sense of accomplishment came from the ten or so coached athletes I had in the race with two pro podiums and several Maui qualifiers. The key there is meeting individual expectations which doesn’t always mean finishing on the podium but achieving some personal victories even if that means just getting to the finish line or even the journey to the start line.
With the fastest bike and run splits of the day, I have the confidence boost that I was looking for. But I can’t get too complacent now with two big European races in August. On August 9th I will race the XTERRA Czech Chamionship, and on August 16th XTERRA Germany which also doubles as the ITU Cross Triathlon World Championship.
The XTERRA Southeast Championship was everything an XTERRA should be. The world class mountain bike trails at Oak Mountain State Park are the reason this race is a favorite of many. Then you add a little adversity with pouring rain and it makes for quite an adventure. On race morning we were greeted with a heavy rain, but looking at the weather it looked like it would stop about 30 minutes before the start of the race–boy were we wrong.
The swim was wetsuit legal for both amateurs and pros with water temp measured at 64 degrees F, a very comfortable temperature with the suit. I hate to admit it, but I do swim a little closer to the leaders with a wetsuit and I knew 30 seconds could mean the difference in this race. There were so many reports of crashes on the mountain bike course, but my crash came in the middle of the swim. How is this possible? Well, most XTERRAs have a two lap swim with a short beach run in the middle. For this race we had a gravely swim exit, then a short run on the grass (wet from the rain) and a dive back into the water. As I turned the corner to dive back in the water, I slipped on the grass, then fell hard on the gravel with some deep scrapes on my ankle, knee, hip and hands–right through the wetsuit. It must have been pretty funny to watch. Then I flopped back into the water and tried to catch my breath, which is not easy to do underwater. Eventually I exited the swim about 2 min 20 sec behind the charging lead pack.
At low to moderate speeds the course requires a fairly high level of focus with so many turns, rocks, and roots. At race pace the course becomes much more technical, and with darkness and wet, muddy conditions the focus must be constant. I had to keep reminding myself to blink. About 20 minutes into the race the sky became eerily dark, the wind picked up, and then the sky opened up. It was a full-on downpour for the next 20-30 minutes, just in time to hit the technical “Blood Rock” with the worst possible conditions. By this point I had gradually worked up through the field into 3rd place, but had no idea how far up Dan and Craig were.
A surprise to me, I caught Dan with about 3 miles to go on the bike but Craig was nowhere to be seen. After a global winning streak, Dan was definitely off form. Apparently he spent the previous week on holiday and traveled red-eye from South Africa arriving the day before the race. Still–a guy you can never count out. Showing class, Dan immediately moved off the trail and let me go on my way. I thought for sure would see Craig around the next corner, or the next, but he was off to the races putting a large gap on Dan in the final 4-mile section of the course.
I had skimped a little on my original nutrition plan and only took in one water bottle of First Endurance EFS during the bike and carried the EFS liquid shot onto the run. Luckily the temps were in the 50s and the course is not as energetically hard as some of the pure climbing courses we will see in the second half of the season.
I started the run about 45 seconds behind Craig and in hindsight I was a little over-confident about my run ability. I knew Craig was stronger all around this season, but honestly didn’t expect him to be running that fast. After the first of two laps, I had only made up 15 seconds so I had to buckle down. I finally made the catch at about mile 4 and had some smooth sailing to the finish. Behind me there was also some tight racing going on with a big sprint finish with Brad, Mauricio, and Branden all within seconds.
For an unbiased recap you can check out the XTERRA News race recap. Congrats to Flora Duffy with the overall win for women and Emma Garrard for a strong showing in second. Also a breakthrough performance by Dani Molnar the first place amateur, coached by my brother Yaro.
Next up is the GoPro Vail Mountain Games on June 7/8. I will race the Ultimate Mountain Challenge, consisting of 4 events in two days—Downriver Sprint (kayak), Cross-Country mountain bike race, trail 10k run, and the Vail Pass road bike time trial. Then back to XTERRA racing with the East Championship in Richmond Virginia on June 15th.
XTERRA West Championship at Lake Las Vegas kicks off the US Championship series and it is always a race I look forward to after a long winter. I call it a fitness course because of the challenging climbs and lower technical demand, but the truth is, it does require a degree of technical ability. The surface is always loose with gravel, baby-head rocks, sandy washes, and off-camber turns. Courage is required for the high speed descending and high power output for the long stretches through the dry riverbed “washes”. The run course is completely exposed with some of the same tough climbs as the bike course.
The water temp on race morning was 58 degrees F, which felt pretty comfortable with a wetsuit and was likely a few degrees warmer on the surface. I sported a new wetsuit, thanks to Stefan and Synergy which helped me make up some of my swim deficit to the leaders. In Costa Rica I was 3 minutes behind the lead swimmer and in Las Vegas I was 2:30. It was still an unsatisfactory swim and I feel more motivated than ever to do something about it. As the international pro field has gotten so strong over the past 10 years, my response has been to get even stronger on the bike. I realize this strategy is not sustainable as the rest of the competition bridges the gap on the bike. For me to win the important races with such a poor swim I need an absolutely lethal bike ride and top run split. Stay tuned…
Onto the bike I started to make back time gradually the first lap and my race plan was to empty the tank on the second lap. I took in about 400 calories total on the bike with two bottles of EFS mixed with 1.5 scoops each and about 100 calories from the EFS Liquid Shot flask. I noticed I wasn’t reeling in riders quite as fast I did last year so I’m not sure if my bike fitness is a little behind or if some of the athletes have made some off-season gains. Perhaps both. Going into the second lap I was in sixth place with Craig and
Branden riding together, Mauricio and Bradley not far up the trail, and Dan off the front with about 1:45 lead. I knew I had to put some time on the young, fast running Mauricio and I needed to get within striking distance of Dan. When I finally caught Bradley in second we were about 1:30 behind Dan. Bradley surprised me and put up quite a fight, matching me on several tough climbs. Then with about 4 miles to go, following a very tricky technical rocky section we saw Dan off his bike airing up a tire. Instead of a feeling of excitement to be in the lead, I felt more disappointed for Dan and a bit of a letdown with no one to chase. He rode with us for a while until his tire went too low. I found out later he had double flatted and it would take him 8+ minutes to get back on course. It would have been a great battle with an unknown result, but that is part of the sport and we will have to battle another day.
I transitioned to the run with a slight lead over Bradley and Mauricio, Craig and Branden riding close together in 3rd, 4th, 5th. I decided on the Salomon Red shoes, thanks to some last minute Facebook advice. I feel confident in my run on a hilly course, but not knowing where Mauricio was lurking kept me pushing hard up all of the climbs. I am feeling very fit on the run, but not very fast if that makes any sense. Two weeks ago on a flat run course in Costa Rica, Mauricio had taken back about 3 minutes on the run, but on a hilly course in Las Vegas he was only about 30 seconds faster. I finished the race with good energy, but I’m not sure where I would have applied it on the course. As I transition out of the winter cross-training mode, hopefully some of that speed will return.
It was great to see many of my coached athletes performing well early season and getting some good racing experience. An early season race is great for the winter motivation and a good way to gauge current readiness and determine future training directions…as long as expectations are realistic.