May 17th marked the second stop on the XTERRA Off-Road Triathlon US pro tour at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham, AL. My apprehension swelled with the approaching race date as I tried desperately to build fitness after seven months of relative inactivity due to a battle against a parasite infection and post-infection complications. By mid-March, I was finally able to train consistently and spent six weeks rebuilding a base of fitness to prepare for my first season of racing as a professional. When the XTERRA West Championship rolled around in mid-April, I was concerned about compromising my tenuous recovery and postponed my season debut. By early May, I was able to incorporate quality training in all three disciplines and decided to get back into the ring.
I was fortunate enough to have a great home-stay with a local athlete, a great person, businessman, triathlete, and distance runner. I headed to Pelham mid-week for extra recon as it was my first trip to Alabama, the most technically challenging race on the circuit.
I spent the days leading up to the race riding the bike course as much as I could to work on all of the technical sections, and finding lines through the rock and root laden descents and turns.
Compared to the bike course, the run course is a breeze. It consists of two laps of a relatively flat but twisty 5k course around the lake. The terrain is mostly forgiving, with nothing akin to Blood Rock on the bike, and fewer rocks and roots overall.
The biggest surprise leading up to the race was how quickly the course dries out. It rained on Tuesday and pretty much all day on Wednesday, but by early Thursday afternoon the trails barely had a puddle on them. Coming from the mid-Atlantic, where a day of rain will leave most trails closed for a week, I was shocked. The trails also had a lot of clay hard-pack and loose rock, and making the mud tires I brought in anticipation of the wet forecast unnecessary. Even in the wet, Schwalbe Racing Ralphs, Specialized Fast Tracks, or similar XC oriented tires are the way to go on this course.
I was far more nervous than usual on race morning. Despite my best efforts to focus only on positive thoughts and my own race, the stellar pro field and my prolonged illness left me full of doubt and fear of failure. When the gun went off, I was immediately flung into the washing machine, a frenetic churning of arms and legs. In my previous races as an age-grouper, I would pull in front of the chaos as swimmers settled into a more sustainable pace. This time, within a few hundred yards, I was the one getting gapped as I realized I couldn’t match the pace of Mauricio Mendez, Dan Hugo, Craig Evans, Flora Duffy, et al.
By the start second lap, I was swimming in a chase group with Josiah Middaugh, Ryan Ignatz, Karsten Madsen, and Chris Ganter.
Coming out of the swim, we were nearly two and a half minutes down from the lead pack that finished the 1,500 meter swim in an incredible 16:05. I had a relatively slow transition and by the time I was out on the bike, Josiah “Beast Mode” Middaugh was already out of sight and speeding towards the leaders.
I rode harder than ever before in the first several miles, riding with Karsten and reeling back Chris Ganter and then Ryan Ignatz. As we weaved through the Seven Bridges singletrack the sky turned black and unleashed a downpour. I flipped my sunglasses up on my helmet, but it still seemed like night riding. The bridges became as slick as ice, and we all took straight lines across to keep it rubber side down. By the start of the only major climb on the north trail, Ryan Ignatz turned on the afterburners. It took every ounce of strength I had to stay with him, and all the while I was thinking I might collapse at any moment. By the crest of the climb, I was seeing stars, but Ryan just kept up the power and opened up a gap. The second half of the course, with the descent through Blood Rock and the serpentine singletrack on Rattlesnake Ridge, was a huge challenge as I hadn’t pre-rode the course during a rainstorm or anywhere near the pace of the riders I was fighting to stay with.
I lost my rhythm and ended up riding too defensively. Uber-biker Nick Fisher passed me just before Blood Rock, and Karsten reeled me back in about halfway through Rattlesnake Ridge. I burned my last few matches to stay within sight of Karsten on Rattlesnake Ridge and arrived at transition totally cooked.
Onto the run, my legs felt flat and I fought to keep my cadence high, my form reasonably in check, and my breathing under control. I stayed positive as I clocked in the first 5k at 18 minutes. At just over two hours into the race however, I felt on the verge of collapsing mid-stride. About halfway through the second lap, just after the speedy Chris Ganter chased me down, the bottom of my left foot suddenly stung with each stride. I looked down and found that my shoe was gone! I quickly realized it was stuck in the mud I had just slogged through, so I turned around, fished it out, slid it back on and resumed the chase. Chris held onto a 30-second lead and I crossed the finish line in 11th out of 17 professional men. Here’s a full account of the men’s and women’s professional race courtesy of XTERRA and Lava Magazine.
Reflecting on the experience, I would like to swim with a team again in order to match the competitive fury of the pro field. Training alone in the pool simply isn’t hacking it. I need faster swimmers to chase in training to regain my swimming strength. My biking fitness is coming along well, but I always need to work more on technical riding at race pace. On the run, I need to work on my top end speed.
I’m delighted to be healthy again and back to racing. Next up is the XTERRA East Championship in Richmond on June 14th.