The 2014 Xterra off-road triathlon US national championship marked both the end of my season and the beginning of my journey as a professional off-road triathlete. The stunning Ogden, UT area is a worthy venue for the annual event drawing a world-class professional field as well as the best amateur racers from across the country.
As an East Coast lowlander, I was fortunate enough to get in a few weeks of mountain training in Boone, NC prior to the race a stacked international pro field, most of whom live and train in thin Colorado air.
I got into Ogden a few days before the race, and was able to pre-ride the challenging bike course. While the two descents pale in comparison to the climbs on the course, I’m not used to prolonged mountain descending on the loose gravel and rocky Utah dirt. The descents also feature six blind switchbacks that must be committed to memory to avoid flying off the course.
New to the course, I wanted to familiarize myself to the terrain before the race, but ended up riding too much in the two days before the race. There’s no such thing as bad riding around Ogden, but I’ll have to remember to save my energy for race-day next year.
Race morning was quite smooth and relaxing. I warmed up on the bike as the sun was rising over the hills, thinking about all the tough sessions in preparation for this day. I made my way to the start line excited to test my limits against so many great competitors and friends.
At the boom of the cannon, the men’s and women’s pro field sprinted towards the first buoy obscured by the glare of the rising sun. The wide boat launch enabled us to spread out and find clear water in the sprint for positioning. After a lot of work this summer, I held my own in the first 300 meters, staying on the toes of the lead pack. By 500 meters, I was just off the lead pack with another swimmer, fighting to keep the gap to a minimum. I maintained my position in no man’s land between the lead pack and the chase pack for the rest of the 1.5k swim. I focused on keeping my breathing under control at altitude while still fighting hard and finding straight lines through the sun glare. Running up the steep boat ramp out of the swim towards T1 spiked my HR to the max. After overheating in the 67.5 degree water, I was happy to finally get the wetsuit off and feel some breeze on the bike.
I pedaled hard in the first few minutes to catch fellow rookie pro Ryan Petry. I though we were moving at a good clip until my coach Josiah “Beast Mode” Middaugh and three-time world champ Ruben Ruzafa came motoring by. I stuck with them for about two minutes before nearly blowing up. The opportunity to ride, if only momentarily, with the best in the world in a championship race was the best motivation I could dream of for the upcoming season. Whenever I think I’m at my limit, I’ll just remember what is was like riding at Middaugh-and-Ruben pace up Wheeler Canyon.
Petry and I rode together for a good stretch up the Canyon. While taking a pull on the front, and passing a few racers, I realized Ryan fell off the back. Ryan is a ubber-biker, with the 2nd fastest bike split at the Xterra Mountain Championship, and an 11th place finish at the Leadville 100. I was disappointed that he wasn’t having a good day; it would have been quite a battle to ride with him at 100%.
Next up the hill were Brad Zoller and Ben Allen. Ben is a superstar in the sport, with more than 10 championship wins and a 3rd place finish at Worlds last year. Again, I knew I wasn’t riding out of my mind, but that sometimes even the best athletes have an off-day. Brad hung tough on my wheel for a long, long time however.
Shortly after gaping Brad, however, my mechanical problems began. My gears somehow got jammed up riding up some baby head rocks, and I had to dismount and shimmy the chain back in place just as Brad and Ben caught back up. Then, when the first downhill finally began, I realized there was an air bubble in my rear hydraulic brake system, severely diminishing braking power and modulation. To maintain control, I had to stay on the brake for most of the descent, losing big chunks of time to the riders up ahead and again allowing Brad and Ben to catch back up.
On the second climb up Sardine peak, I maintained a steady rhythm, pulling Brad Zoller up the hill until Cody Waite came charging. When Cody rode by, I upped my effort to stay with him to the top of the course. There’s nothing like racing to show that limits and suffering are relative concepts. You can always dig deeper.
The braking issue reared its ugly head again on the downhill. On a fast, dusty, loose rocky corner, I couldn’t scrub off enough speed and nearly went tumbling down the hill. Fortunately, I remounted my bike nearly unscathed, and continued on trying to catch back up to Cody. Riding scared and preemptively on the brakes, I was once again caught by Brad and Chris Ganter. I rode with them into transition, relieved to get off the bike and put my technical troubles behind me.
As I hastily zipped up the elastic laces on my Brooks PureGrits, however, one side of the laces popped through the tightening clip. With Cody, Brad, and Chris all charging up the hill, I ignored the problem and run ahead in pursuit.
Halfway up the hill, the loose lace was unwinding more and more, and my foot was slipping out with each stride. Not wanting to lose my shoe completely, I stopped, feverishly struggled to pull the thick elastic lace through the tiny eyelets, and tied a knot when I finally pulled it through the last eyelet. Good enough to keep charging. Unfortunately, instead of continuing to reel in Chris, Brad, and Cody, the three were now out of sight.
By mile 2, I was really feeling the effects of dehydration. In an effort to save weight, I rode with one bottle on the bike when the course really demanded two. All the wiser for next time. I pushed to the limit in isolation for the the next five miles, trying desperately to catch the speedy trio. With less than a half mile to go, I passed Branden Rakita to finish in 10th place.
Despite the hiccups, the race experience was amazing. The venue was unbeatable and I cherished the opportunity to commune with the Xterra tribe. I was content with my performance on the day and happy see fellow competitors Brad Zoller, Craig Evans, and Chris Ganter have lifetime best performances at the USA championship. Xterra racing truly is a family affair. Even at the professional level, we all want our fellow competitors to have the best race possible. Racing is an personal journey towards an ideal, not a dog eat dog affair.
With my illness-shortened season now over, I’m looking forward to having a healthy and productive off season, putting more focus on my work in education consulting, and continuing to build partnerships in the triathlon industry.