The Xterra Tribe gathers annually in Ogden, Utah on the last weekend of summer. The Xterra off-road triathlon USA Championship brings elites from around the world and top age-group athletes from across the United States to celebrate the season together in an epic battle in the Wasatch Mountains. The race begins with a mile-long, open water swim in the Pineview Reservoir, followed by an 18-mile mountain bike with two arduous climbs and thrilling descents, and a 10k trail run on the slopes of Snowbasin Resort. After a two-week homestay with a wonderful family in Ogden, I was as ready as I could be.
Less than five minutes before the start of the race after a short warm-up swim, I pulled my goggles back over my head as the plastic nose piece broke apart in my hands. Fortunately, I was surrounded by 700+ Xterra athletes and thanks to the generosity of #109, I was soon hooked up with a pair of amazing new Roka goggles. It was my luckiest slip-up this season. The lenses tamed the previously-blinding sun behind the first buoy, proved to be legitimately anti-fog, and gave me a ridiculously wide field of view. It was an unexpected upgrade to first class.
When the cannon blasted, I kept my scary hypoxic swim experience at Mountain Champs in mind and took the first few hundred meters out cautiously. From there, I slowly picked up the pace, closing in on the lead pack. Halfway through the swim, I got into a good rhythm and was holding tight about 30-ish seconds off the lead. I quickly lost sight of the blue-capped elites up ahead however, as I wiggled around several hundred green-capped age group swimmers on my second lap. Sighting was more of a challenge when coupled with slipping through gaps between swimmers, and I ended up losing about 10 more seconds to the lead swimmer heading into T1.
With temperatures still in the low 40’s, I decided to play it safe and take the time to put on socks in transition. I’ve had issues with numb toes in the past and wanted to make sure my feet would be ready to run on the rock-laiden course. I exited T1 in 8th place and pushed hard right away to move up the leaderboard.
My first catch was a road triathlete, relatively new to Xterra. The catch took longer than expected, as he was illegally riding on the road while I stayed on the bumpy gravel shoulder where all racers were required to ride en-route to the trail head at Wheeler Canyon. Fortunately, the athlete didn’t place in the top-15, so he didn’t take away any pro series points or prize money from athletes that rode within the rules.
Xterra super-star Josiah Middaugh caught up to me as we entered Wheeler Canyon, and I stuck on his wheel for a few minutes before he left me in the dust. I focused on keeping my cadence high and my effort level just below the red line as I ascended up the stunning canyon.
Halfway up I caught up to ITU standout John O’Neil and Xterra stalwart Brad Zoller. John’s been on several ITU Continental Cup podiums and Brad was the 2nd American at nationals last year, so I wasn’t surprised in the least that they stuck on my wheel like glue. We pushed hard for the rest of the initial climb. Brad suddenly dropped off due to what I later found out was a mechanical, and John couldn’t quite keep the pace on the first descent.
At the bottom of the first descent, I heard a split of 45 seconds to Matt Lieto 5th place, and I took a chance with my effort to reach a podium position. I made the catch about 10 minutes later, just at the start of the Sardine Peak climb. Matt’s a strong on-road triathlete, finishing 2nd at Wildflower this year, but has also had success off-road. He stuck to my wheel most of the way up the climb, which helped me focus on keeping the pace as we zig-zagged up the switchbacks.
Perhaps 10 minutes from the top of the final climb up Sardine Peak, I heard an “on your left.” I thought Matt was going to move up and take a pull, but it turned out that he dropped back a ways. Instead, it was Brian Smith who was on my wheel. It looked like he had jackhammers for legs when he made the pass, and it took me about 5 agonizing minutes to slowly reel in the gap that he had quickly opened up. When I finally got back in touch he attacked again, this time staying out of reach. I rode the final descent solo and relatively conservatively, as not to derail a potential podium finish with a flat, crash, or mechanical. I ran into T2 in 5th place, one minute behind Brian Smith, and 2 minutes ahead of Matt Lieto.
The first half-mile of the run course is pretty much straight up and wide-open, which let me see the seemingly small gap to Brian and Branden Rakita in 4th place. My initial push up the high altitude ski slope felt like running chest-deep upstream in a river. The “small” gap was illusory.
After the first climb, it felt great to open my stride and cover ground at a faster clip. I was feeling optimistic about holding off the rest of the field and potentially catching Brian or Branden. Before getting ahead of myself though, I had to mind every step to navigate over and around the mine fields of rocks throughout the trail, along with energy- and speed-sapping 180-degree switchbacks.
Just over halfway through the run, I caught and passed Branden Rakita, but Brian Smith was nowhere in sight. With a stacked field, I knew my 4th place position was far from secure, and I kept fighting to leave it all out on the course. The last few miles of the run were a blast, flying down the hill, running up on the sides of switchbacks, and leaping over the worst of the rocky bits. I crossed the line in 4th place, my highest finish to date in my second year of elite racing. The result was somewhat of a shock, as I’ve been dealing with a lower leg injury for about a month that greatly limited my run training. The night before the race, I decided I’d pull out of the run if the the pain crossed the searing “I might break something” threshold, but my leg held up. I’m not going to push my luck though, and am axing my late season race plans to let my leg fully heal.
Chronologically, I finished 10th, 9th, 7th, 6th, 5th, and 4th in Xterra racing this year. My 4th place finish at the US Champs moved me into 4th overall in the US pro tour. Last year, I was 10th at the US Champs and 9th overall in the series. I’m elated with the progress, but hungry to keep improving and inch closer to the very best in the sport.
As always, the best part of the trip wasn’t the race itself, but the the people I met and reconnected with on the Xterra tour. I can’t thank my host family enough for all their support, generosity, and good nature. The Ogden community as a whole also goes above and beyond to embrace the event and the competitors, making the experience all the more special. I look forward to returning in 2016.