This weekend marked the sixth and final Mid-Atlantic XTERRA triathlon of the season at Walnut Creek Park near Charlottesville, VA. This year, for the first time, the XTERRA Charlottesville course was expanded to be a full championship distance off-road triathlon with a second sprint distance race.
The mountain biking trails in Walnut Creek Park are epic, so as usual we went the day before to pre-ride. Not to discount the other XTERRA courses in this part of the country, but the Walnut Creek bike course is substantially more technical and challenging than any other I’ve done. Every section of singletrack is littered with large rocks and extensive rim-bending roots on top of the steep, undulating terrain that’s characteristic of the Charlottesville area. Normally I like to stop and take pictures along the course, but on this day I needed to put my full efforts toward learning the course and finding my lines. Fortunately, I was able to meet up and ride a loop with my buddy Daryl Weaver who had just acquired a new 5-inch travel 29er ideally suited for the course. He is surrounded by similarly technical trails in PA and showed me how to rip through everything on the course. His technical skills are at a level far beyond mine, he gapped me several times on downhills and had to wait for me to catch up.
Two laps of the bike course left me mentally and physically drained, so I opted out of my typical pre-run and pre-swim recon. We headed to Chipotle for a quick dinner and called it a night.
As forecast, the area experienced heavy rainfall overnight and into the morning. As we drove through high standing water on the way from the hotel to the race venue, I knew that the mountain bike leg of the race was in jeopardy. Sure enough, when we pulled into the parking lot, Daryl came up to our car and relayed “might as well put on the road tires.” The park has done a great job improving the trail system, and cut some excellent new switch-backs this year around eroded sections of trail. It was definitely the right call to protect such magnificent trails, but I was certainly disappointed that the entirety of the bike leg would be ridden on the road.
In the pre-race meeting, the race director informed us we would ride out of the park and make four successive right turns before combing back into the park to T2. When naming the intersections for each of the right turns, he stated that there would be a course marshal with flags directing racers, and insisted that we would not need to make a turn unless a course marshal was present. I’ve ridden at the front of races on several occasions, and have been burned more than once by beating the course marshals to the first few turns, so I took careful note of the road names anyway.
After the pre-race meeting, the race organizers allowed a full 25 minutes of swim warmup, which I used to pre-swim one lap of the course. This gave me a chance to practice my sighting between the buoys, as well as get my first real swim warm-up of the season. Although the race was deemed wetsuit-prohibited, the water definitely felt colder than 78-degrees. When I got out of the water after my “warm-up” lap I was shivering from head to toe.
Just before 8:15, the first wave of swimmers congregated in the water near the start “line.” As the race director called out final instructions, the mass of swimmers treading water seemed to drift out toward the first buoy. At the sound of the starting siren, I swam a hard first 50 meters to separate myself from the pack and settled into my mile-swim race pace. The heavy rain made buoy sighting slightly more difficult than usual, but it was nowhere near as bad as sun glare. I swam alone for the entire two laps, and focused on maintaining a quick turnover and taught body position. I wore two swim caps to try to keep in some heat and left them on as I ran out of the water and into T1. In hindsight, I should have kept them on underneath my helmet on the bike course.
After a simple and smooth transition, I headed off on the 15-mile road bike course on my full-suspension Giant Anthem X-29er trail bike. To my surprise, there was a lead vehicle escort for the full bike course. Sure enough, no course marshal was present at the first right turn. The lead vehicle made the turn and I followed. With a little under one-half horsepower in my legs, I was no match for the lead vehicle which easily maintained a gap of several hundred meters on me for the duration. I stayed seated for the entire bike ride to avoid pedal-bob in the rear suspension, and tucked into a precarious “aero” position on my Enve Sweep handlebar. Visibility was very poor due to the heavy rain and low-lying clouds, but I did wear my sunglasses so I could at least open my eyes. It was a shame, too, because the surrounding countryside is very scenic and I would have enjoyed the views. I had a few close calls moving my arms from my invisible-aero-bars to the shifters on the rain-soaked and rapidly undulating roads. Thankfully, I got to use a little bit of my suspension on a long gravel road littered with potholes and ruts.
Coming off of a summer cold and some sub-optimal training weeks due to lingering fatigue, I was expecting Daryl and some of the roadie converts to catch me on the bike. Unfortunately, I found out later that Daryl circled the intersection of the first right turn, not sure of what to do without the course marshal present. Thinking back on the race meeting, he remembered the race director repeating “Do not turn at an intersection without a course marshal” and thus decided, hesitantly, to go straight through the intersection. He ended up biking several miles in the wrong direction before being flagged down by a police officer and turned back toward the course.
I rode alone the entire bike leg and into T2 where I pulled my running shoes out of a plastic bag, slipped them on, and headed off to the trails. My dry shoes were soaked in less than a minute, as about a third of the run course was covered in an inch or more of standing water. I didn’t mind the adverse conditions at first, but quickly realized I had made a major apparel-related tactical error.
After finding my minimalist racing shoes somewhat lacking on technical, rocky trails earlier in the season, I just switched to a new brand of trail running shoes. And by just switched, I mean I just got new shoes two days before the race. In dry conditions on one moderate-pace trail run with SmartWool socks, the shoes felt fine. However, sockless and soaking wet at race-pace, my feet were slipping around substantially, especially on downhills. Within a mile, I knew my pinky toes were in trouble. I tried to keep a fast cadence and smoothly navigate the rocks, roots, and water, but lacked precision and confidence due to the painful slipping of my feet within my shoes.
With the right footwear, the run would have been pretty enjoyable. The challenging and scenic trails work your mind as much as your body. While a 10k is run more slowly on trails than on pavement, the perceived time, at least for me, is much less. Rather than a monotonous slog on a track or pavement, the technical trails force your mind to stay alert.
I limped home and managed to hold onto first place, but was followed very closely behind by two roadie converts Christopher Meewes and Justin McMurrer. After crossing the finish, all the racers huddled in the beachfront gazebo after the race to dry off and fill up on pizza, cookies, and fruit.
Podium swag included a bottle of Monticello County craft beer, an XTERRA Charlottesville pint glass, a box of Powerbars and a set of Shimano XT pedals.
Over the next few weeks I will let my feet heal, reconsider my race footwear choices, and get ready for XTERRA Nationals in Utah.