With IMBA epic mountain bike trails weaving through Alabama’s largest state park, Oak Mountain is the perfect venue for the XTERRA Southeast championship, which doubled this year as the USAT off-road triathlon national championship.
I made my pro debut here last year, on the heels of a long fight with GI parasites and was looking to improve on my 11th place finish.
Race Week Prep
I am fortunate with my job situation to be able to work remotely from afar when needed to facilitate race prep. Knowing I needed to get in some quality pre-rides on the technical course and having a very generous homestay, I headed down to Birmingham early on race week.
Although I know it’s best not to make equipment changes immediately prior to a race, I needed to get my full-suspension bike into racing condition. Rotor was gracious enough to send me the cranks and Q-rings I needed, but I wasn’t able to get the shipment in time for my regular shop to install it. Luckily, the race shop—Cahaba Cycles in Pelham—is awesome and arranged their schedule to jump right on it when I pulled in town.
The next day, I went out to Oak Mountain for my first pre-ride. Within twenty minutes of hitting the trail, my wheel washed out on a loose turn. I jumped off the bike. But I also managed to get my shoe stuck in my front wheel and ripped out five spokes. Cahaba Cycles to the rescue, again. I didn’t have time to go back out for a ride that day, but I was ready to hit the trails the next morning.
Over the rest of the week, I was able to get in several good loops on the bike and run course. My homestay was also hosting three-time world champion Lesley Patterson, and the two of us got in some good quality swim workouts at the YMCA as well. With my prior stomach issues, I doubt I will ever pre-swim in open water again.
Staying with Lesley was a great opportunity. It was inspiring to see day in and day out the level of commitment and attention to detail with her training and diet that have helped her to become such a tremendous success.
Although the week started off hectic with the drive and the bike issues, it smoothed out thanks to some excellent hospitality and camaraderie. On Saturday morning, it was game time.
I started the swim sandwiched between über swimmers Craig Evans, Brad Zoller, and Branden Rakita, hoping I’d muster the strength to stay on their feet. I held on for about 400 yards and then the rope broke, leaving me off the lead pack but ahead of the chase pack. For the rest of the swim, I focused on staying in the present, putting out a race worthy effort on each stroke, and maintaining a good line through the course.
About a third of the way into the second lap of the 1500 m swim, superfish Sara McLarty caught me. The pro men had a one minute head start on the pro women, but she crushed the swim, out-splitting all but one pro male. I tried to hold her feet and ride the McLarty Express into T1, but I didn’t have the horsepower. I’m going to need a lot more hard yards in the pool.
I came out of the water about 90 seconds behind the lead pack and about a minute ahead of a chasing pack. The first section of the bike isn’t especially hard to ride, but is extremely hard to ride very fast. There’s very little pedaling involved, but serious bike kung fu is needed to negotiate all the root-laden corners with speed. I crashed once when my rear wheel slid out on a wet root but quickly regained my composure and rhythm. Josiah Middaugh caught me on a short stretch of dirt road between the singletrack and I held his wheel for an agonizingly long minute or two. He’s been the strongest cyclist on the XTERRA US pro tour for years now, and it’s highly motivating to race and gauge my performances against the very best.
I did my best to balance the need to stay upright and in one piece with the desire to fly through the course on the rest of the twisty and technical Seven Bridges trail. Olly Shaw and Chris Ganter did better at this than I, as they caught me at the base of the Red Road climb. We stayed together for the first half of the climb. When we caught Brad Zoller, Chris launched a vicious attack that I couldn’t quite counter. Brad and I rode the rest of the climb together with Olly Shaw dropping back a ways.
Then, all of a sudden, Brad went flying past the sharp right turn onto the Bump Connector trail. I immediately yelled out for him to turn around and get back on course. The last time something like this happened, at the XTERRA East Championship back in 2012, the athlete I helped ended up beating me for the overall amateur title at a race. The thing about off-road racing, though, is that we’re a tight knit group that tends to care more about having a fun and fair race than engaging in a rat race. But, less than two minutes later I found the limit of my sportsmanship. Another pro was off to the side of a trail with a flat, apparently already having used his CO2, and asked me for mine as I passed by. I only had one Effetto Mariposa Co2 canister and we weren’t even halfway through the bike. Giving it up would spell the end of my race if I got a flat. Furthermore, the 30 seconds it would have taken to slow down, stop, and give him my CO2 could have been the difference between coming away empty handed or finishing in the money. I apologized and kept going.
After the long, tricky descent through Blood Rock, bike wizard Olly Shaw caught back up to me. We rode together on some pedaling sections and then he dropped me on a descent, riding with sublime technique. I’ve been working with Ride Kore on my bike handling skills but have a lot of work to do to bridge the gap to the more technically adept pro riders. After the race, Olly told me that the singletrack just outside his front door in New Zeland makes the trails at Oak Mountain (arguably the toughest track on the US series) seem like child’s play.
I headed out of transition onto the run in 7th place, about 90 seconds behind two athletes, and 90 seconds ahead of another two. Once again, I concentrated on staying in the moment, stride for stride, and putting out a race-worthy effort with every labored breath. Fortuitously, my buddy and former collegiate XC runner Josh Loren left transition to start his first lap on the run as I stared my final lap. We ran together on all the flat bits, and I put in a hard dig on the short hills, knowing that the fleet-footed Ryan Ignatz was on my heels. I crossed the line in 7th place, completely spent and elated with my race execution.
As always with these events, after the race I enjoyed the fellowship with the rest of the XTERRA “tribe.” For me especially at the east coast races, it is great to catch up with all of my mid-Atlantic buddies I have raced with over the last three or four years.
It was very rewarding to see Daryl Weaver snatch the amateur title with a 10th place overall finish. I consider my epic battles with Daryl in 2013 to be perhaps the single greatest influence on my athletic career and transition from amateur to elite, and am so happy to see him staying healthy and continuing to crush the field.
Big shout out to Rob Ricard, Josh Loren, Anthony Snoble, Jim Fisher, Ali Arasta, and Nicole Valentine for getting on the podium. It was also great to see young bloods and Colorado State University triathlon teammates, fellow Iowan Cole Bunn and Richmond-VA-based sensation Greg Schott, pick up the other two spots on the overall amateur podium.
Urban Exploration in Birmingham
While it’s hard to leave the natural wonderland at Oak Mountain, my better half and I like to stomp around the historic Birmingham downtown for a change of pace.
For the next four weeks, I’ll be working on my swim speed and technical mountain biking skills in anticipation of the XTERRA East Championship in Richmond, VA.