After a few weeks of solid mountain training in Park City, Utah, I was eager to toe the line at the Xterra Mountain Championship in Avon, Colorado. Despite my Iowan upbringing and flatland existence in North Carolina, I race best when the elevation profile tilts upward. With 3,800 ft of climbing on the bike, and 1,000 ft of vertical gain on the run, the this race is right up my alley. Piling challenges atop the daunting course, the pro field was as stacked as any so far this year. Among the favorites were 10x US champ and 2x Xterra World Championship runner up Josiah Middaugh, 2014 Ironman World Championship runner up Ben Hoffman, 2014 ITU Cross Triathlon World Championship bronze medalist Braden Currie, Xterra Costa Rica champion Rom Akerson, and a handful of top domestic racers. Perhaps more than ever before, the race presented an opportunity to test my mental and physical limits against some of the best athletes in the sport.
When the start cannon went off, all 18 of the pro men seemed to be clustered in the same 10 ft x 10 ft moving block. I’ve never experienced so much thrashing and dunking at the start of an off-road triathlon. I got pulled, jerked, and held under just enough to swallow some water. Trying to cough up the water and take a breath, with my heart beating out of my chest at 7,400 ft, survival instincts kicked in. For a few seconds, I forgot about the race entirely and just focused on getting air into my lungs. I treaded water for a few seconds, regained composure, swam backstroke for about 25 yards, and got my head back into the race. By that time the lead pack of swimmers were well ahead. I surged past the chase pack, into my usual spot in no man’s land between the two packs. I built into a strong pace, keeping the gap to the lead pack in check, and distancing myself from the chase pack. Once again, my Roka Maverick Pro wetsuit worked like a charm, but throughout the swim I was desperately wishing for a set of gills.
I exited the water about 1:20 down from the first swimmer, elated to be back on solid ground and breathing continuously. I didn’t know what place I was in out of the water, and just went into full time-trial mode on the bike. As soon as the course turned uphill, I passed James Hadley, and a resurgent Flora Duffy, who in my opinion, is the strongest female triathlete on the planet. She has a great chance of earning a medal in the 2016 Rio Olympic games, and it’s great that she still finds the time to race off-road.
After several more lung-searing minutes of climbing, I passed two more athletes, moving up into 6th place. I stayed just below my red-line for the rest of the climb, and took advantage of my dropper post to descend quickly and safely. Towards the end of the first descent, bombing down a straight and narrow stretch of trail, I saw a baby head rock smack in the middle of the trail, and just barely hopped over it. The rock certainly wasn’t there during my pre-ride, and was likely pried loose from a hard impact. Sure enough, I passed Branden Rakita fixing a flat rear tire a few minutes later. I focused on applying maximum power to the pedals on the 5-mile false flat middle section of the course, and kept a good balance of speed and control on the descents. My Rotor Bike Q-rings were a big advantage on the pedaling sections, and Effetto Mariposa caffelatex sealant kept me flat-free once again. I entered transition in 5th place, about 2 minutes down on Rom Akerson.
The whole race took me 135 minutes and change, but once I got onto the run I was taking it one step at a time, focusing on laying every last ounce of my physical and mental energy out on the course. At the start of the second climb, I could see Rom Akerson, about one minute ahead uphill on a steep service road. Over the next ten minutes, I reeled him in and passed him on some winding downhill single track. Once the course opened up to a wide downhill service road in the last mile, he opened up his stride and reeled me back in and then some with an impressive display of speed and flawless run form. I did everything I could to stay in touch, but crossed the line about 15 seconds behind him in 5th place.
Given the difficulties of altitude racing and the depth of the field, this was my best athletic performance to date. It’s a stepping stone for a good result at the Xterra USA Championship in September, and puts me in a position to fight for a top-5 finish in the Xterra US pro tour. A special thanks to Jerry and Nancy, my wonderful hosts in Beaver Creek.
For the next six weeks, I’ll resume life as usual in North Carolina. Now that I’m back, Roots Hummus can once again be a staple of my diet. Working in an office isn’t so bad if you have the right attitude about it. I’m also eager to start coaching the Durham School of the Arts cross country team, and give back to a sport that’s given me so much. Happy trails.