The XTERRA Mountain Championship, held on the ski slopes of Beaver Creek Resort in Avon, CO presented the perfect opportunity to finally explore the Rocky Mountains.
Last year around this time, I was nursing a knee injury from a hard crash and was unable to race in the upcoming national championships. To rub salt into the wound, the airline I patronized charged absurdly high change fees. To hedge my bets this year, I’m flying exclusively with Southwest. Not only does Southwest serve airports near every XTERRA US Championships series event, but bags fly free and change fees don’t exist. Even on the 6am flight from DC, the service was great, and our bags were waiting for us when we arrived at the baggage claim area in Denver. After picking up the rental car, we arrived in downtown Denver on Thursday morning just in time for rush hour traffic (I must have brought it with me from DC). After passing through the city, we were treated with breath taking views of the prodigious Rocky Mountains as we ticked off the miles on I-70 between Denver and Avon.
Halfway through the drive, we took an impromptu stop after seeing signs for a “Buffalo Overlook.” It turned out to be a preserve immediately adjacent to the interstate.
When we arrived in Avon, I unpacked and reassembled my bike from my trusty Pika Packworks case, and headed out to pre-ride the bike course. The first five miles featured over 2,000 ft of climbing, reaching an altitude of over 9,500 ft. Coming from sea level, my body felt flat and incapable of churning out a lot of power. But, I wasn’t about to let the ill effects of altitude get me down, especially not with the stunning mountain and aspen forest views.
After five miles of straight uphill, I blasted down a thrilling two-mile high-speed descent. I had to practice the very tight and steep 180-degree switchbacks, as it’s not something I come across on east coast trails. The rest of the course consisted of a long false flat traversing across ski runs, with another steep, semi-technical (aka tight and twisty) descent at the end. The 3,600 ft of climbing on loose, dusty trails at high altitude wore me out, so I opted to pre-run the following morning.
The run course mirrors its precursor, with a long, gradual climb out of the gate followed by some steep downhill running. I ended up walking several uphill sections of the run on Friday to save something for race day. Once again, I was treated to jaw-dropping views at every turn.
I probably drank about 12oz of water per hour on Thursday and Friday, and had two nights of restless sleep at 8,200 ft. On race morning, I wolfed down some oatmeal, nuts, and fruit, and biked down the mountain to Lake Nottingham (elev. 7,400 ft.) for the swim start.
The race began at 9 AM, with the pros getting a two minute head start for clear water in front of the large amateur field. When the gun went off at 9:02, I charged to the front of the amateur pack in the first few hundred meters of the swim as I normally do, but felt the burn of lactic acid far too soon and had to back off from my usual pace. Fortunately I was ready for this, having discussed the effects of high-altitude swimming with Josiah Middaugh and Danelle Kabush at the previous evening’s Xterra University. Swimming at elevation is an entirely different beast, and I was forced to cruise through the mile swim, and hope that my lungs would come around on the bike. After a terribly slow transition (needed to catch my breath), I hopped on my trusty Open O – 1.0 and commenced pedaling. I relished the opportunity to breathe continually on dry land, and looked to reel in the competition. Within the first few miles of the bike, I passed several amateur riders but wasn’t sure if I was in the lead. I rode with a couple of male pros for a few miles, and weaved through the women’s professional field. I was happy to see Julie Dibens back in action after two years of battling foot and knee issues. On a steep gradient, I opened up a gap on the two male pros I was riding with and rode the rest of the bike course alone. I held back a little bit on the downhill sections (you have to finish the race in order to win!), and slowly increased the intensity of my effort on the back-half of the bike.
After a solid effort on the bike, I sharpened my focus and made my second transition more expedient than the first. Heading out on the run, my better half informed me that I was in the lead of the amateur race. I was rather confused about my position in the race however, perhaps by the lack of oxygen, and also from seeing several bikes already perched on the amateur racks in transition. I dug deep and pushed myself to catch any remaining amateurs and as many pro men as possible. I teetered on the edge of overcooking on the first long, steady climb. Fortunately, I was able to relax and lower my heart rate on the subsequent downhill section. As always, I struggled to block out the pain and focus instead on my run form (upright posture, high cadence, and forward lean). Passing a pro racer about halfway through the run course gave me extra fuel to even dig deeper. Over the next two miles, and reeled in and passed several pros, many of whom were also flatlanders struggling in the rarefied air. With about a mile to go, I was bolstered by the satisfaction of reaching my physical limits and executing a smart race. I crossed the finish line as the 1st amateur and 9th overall (among a male pro field of about 20).
Having come to the race mainly to experience Colorado and see how my body would respond at high altitude, I was shocked with my performance. The race definitely served as a confidence booster for the upcoming national championships in Ogden, Utah.
After a few hours of recovery, I got my hair cut at the Paul Mitchell charity cut-a-thon, and went for a relaxing hike with my better half.
Having raced twice in seven days, I’ll need some down time before my next race in a few weeks: Xterra Appalachia in Penn Run, PA.
I can’t wait to come back to Colorado next year!