This weekend brought my fourth race in five weeks, XTERRA King of the Hill at the Round Valley Recreation Area in Lebanon, NJ, nearly a four-hour haul from DC. As with all three prior races this season, the course would be new to me so we headed up the day before for reconnaissance.
Pre-riding on Saturday, the course was true to its name. The entire bike course is either very steep uphill or very steep downhill. Rain during the day made for very unfamiliar riding for me, as the trails I usually frequent are closed in wet conditions. I really enjoyed the challenging uphill sections and was able to safely navigate the downhills. Overall, the bike course was true to the XTERRA spirit: technical with lots of adrenaline.
I burned my legs out quite a bit trying to follow the run course. After missing a turn and running about two miles too far, I back-tracked and ran into someone who knew what they were doing who told me that a key turn was unmarked. Back on course, I ran up the steepest incline I’ve ever encountered, a unique course feature called Toboggan Hill. And when I say “ran up” I mean I walked up to save my legs. The view at the top was spectacular: a pristine lake below, surrounded by green countryside. I ran down the far side of the hill, a treacherous descent on slick grass, and again I couldn’t find the course markings. By this point, I was already feeling pretty tired and didn’t want to run up and down the monster hill again. I caught the park service road back to the transition area. I checked the course map I had printed in the car, and got on my bike to ride the parts I had missed. After that, we had a quick dinner at Casa Maya and headed to the hotel.
On race morning, I got a chance to catch up with Jersey Devil podium finishers Daryl Weaver and Anthony Snoble as we registered and set up in transition. After the race meeting, the lifeguards let us warm up on a small portion of the swim course about 15 minutes before race start, then we lined up on the beach.
The swim started with a quarter-mile beach sprint on the sand, then two laps of a straight-line out-and-back course. A lead group of five or six swimmers quickly formed in the first lap. I swam comfortably towards the front of the lead group and picked up my pace on the second lap, moving into the lead. Once again, the De Soto wetsuit felt fantastic, allowing me to keep my regular swim stroke with its unrestricted design. I emerged first out of the water, followed closely by a handful of competitors.
I led the first portion of the bike, which contained a couple of slippery gravel downhill sections and some very gnarly switchbacks. Consistent rain the night before, the morning of, and during the race made the bike course much more technical and dangerous than it had been the day before. I soon realized my tire pressure was too high to provide the traction I needed and rode the slippery rocky downhill and switchback sections conservatively. I was followed closely in the first several miles by Ironman pro and QT2 coach Tim Snow and XTERRA standout Anthony Snoble, but gapped them on the first long sustained climb. I rode alone for the next several miles of sustained climbing, followed by a harrowing descent in the rain.
The trail conditions had changed dramatically from the day before, and I was not comfortable riding downhill at race pace. Additionally, after my season-ending injury last year, I did not want to risk a crash. Sure enough, towards the end of the long descent, I heard the sound of a biker approaching. I’m familiar with the leading east coast XTERRA racers, and once again I called out my best guess, “Daryl?” “Yep” came his reply, and he flew by me, bombing the descent. All credit to Daryl here; he is obviously a superb athlete and fantastic technical rider. I did ask him about his fearless racing afterwards, he told me he ran super-low tire pressure for traction and is very familiar with the course as it is close to his hometown, so he was much more comfortable than I was on the slick course.
I rode safe and in control for the remainder of the course, which was mostly downhill after a ton of climbing. The last four miles of the course were ridden in both directions, which means I encountered several racers who were still heading out onto the bike course. Fortunately we were able to safely share the trail. The steep switchbacks at the beginning of the bike course were even harder going up in reverse because of the minimal traction, but were another fun challenge that made the course unique. I came into T2 after ceding a few minutes to Daryl on the bike.
I felt pretty strong for the first mile or so of the run, but then began to feel the effects of the reconnaissance the day before and the grueling bike leg. I lost focus surging up a hill and ended up missing turn on the run. Within 30 seconds I realized my mistake and backtracked to where I had left the course.
Charging up Toboggan Hill, I hit my maximum heart rate and walked the last portion to save something for the rest of the race. I zigzagged down the back side, and ran past the turnaround point looking for a timing chip mat. After running for about 20 seconds past the u-turn point and seeing no mat, I realized the turnaround was on-your-honor. Daryl was so far ahead by then that this did not affect the final placement at all. I knew the rest of the field was gunning for second place, and high-tailed it back to the turnaround. Sure enough, as I crested the back side of Toboggan Hill I saw Tim and Anthony about to begin their descent towards the turnaround.
I made it down Toboggan Hill without wiping out, and ran hard for the final two miles to finish second overall. Tim Snow sprinted to the finish about a minute later to round out the men’s overall podium. Anthony Snoble had another solid performance, finishing close behind in fourth place.
I spent some time chatting with fellow XTERRA athletes and enjoyed the festivities of the swag giveaway and awards ceremony. I was even able to use my handstand skills to win an XTERRA National Championship DVD.
I am thoroughly enjoying the process of continual improvement in all three sports. For the rest of the season, I plan to focus on technical skills and power on the bike and top-end run speed to push my racing to the next level. Next up is the XTERRA East Championship in Richmond on June 9th.