Xterra World Championships in Maui, Hawaii, October 29th, 2017
I’ll preface this post with a few things. This was my 3rd and final “A” race of the year…The Blue Ridge Marathon being my first in April, and the second being Ironman Wisconsin just last month! In 2016, I began triathlon as a sport. Sure I could swim a little, I could bike, but I only really had knowledge of mountain biking. So when I looked up races for triathlon and combining that with “off-road” or mountain biking I came up short—with the exception of one race: Xterra. I learned about Xterra quickly and fell in love with it immediately. The swim, the same as most triathlons, the bike is on trails, and the run is also on trails! Reading more carefully, I learned about Xterra World Championships and how to qualify. 2016 was the first year for “Regional Champions” meaning that those who place first in their age groups (based on number of points received at races in their region—this changed in 2017 to include outside your region too) in their region qualified for worlds. I browsed results and realized not many females even entered. This was my chance of a once in a lifetime opportunity! I seized it.
So I decided to do my first sprint to get a little knowledge of triathlon, and did find, it seemed natural. My next few races in triathlon would be Xterra races however. I signed up for the regional races, none of which were closer than 6 hours away, traveled, stayed in hotels, and explored several neighboring states. It wasn’t too bad until the first race was canceled due to strong storms and lightening…unfortunately this was the furthest race. They rescheduled the race, to my relief, and I drove back and did it. But the travel to everywhere in such a short time wore me out mentally. I told myself it was all worth it, and at the end of the 2016 season, I had qualified. Back then, I could defer my race entry until 2017, which I needed to to save money to go. So in 2017, I went to Xterra Maui, and boy what an experience.
I might as well start off by saying, I did not now how recovered I would be after completing IMWI, and I would not find out until race day. I had gone into depression after IMWI for two weeks, it was very frustrating and I didn’t really train. I kept blaming myself in my workouts for not performing up to par. I had such unrealistic expectations and I hated my body. I needed friends, but no one I needed really reached out. I was crumbling and a mess. Finally, the week of the race, I managed a few workouts and was feeling a bit better. I got new MTB tires and a bike bag for travel. Everything went smoothly until I realized that delta charges $150 for bikes because it’s sporting equipment, never mind that it was within normal baggage limits. It was what it was. When we, Rich and I, arrived on the island, after a grueling 13 hours of travel (9 hours of which I was in the same seat on the same plane), the island of Maui had just gone through a wicked storm where power was lost on the whole island and mud was everywhere. This didn’t bode well for the trails. But hey, it couldn’t be worse than last year where it was so muddy they extended the cut off times.
We stayed in the Ritz-Carlton, with a heavy race participant discount, which is where the race was to be held. I have no regrets staying there, as it made racing WAY easier and convenient. It took us over 2 hours to get to the hotel due to unknown reason bad traffic, you know what I’m talking about. I was very impressed that the hotel staff never looked down on us or thought we weren’t good enough to be there, which I kind of expected to be honest. We settled in Wednesday night and just relaxed for the next few days and ate some good food.The weather was very nice the next few days leading up to the race, drying out the course nicely. The race staff informed the athletes daily with emails and facebook posts to their page via video and text, it was very nice and professional…the biggest issue they discussed were when and where the bike course was to be open due to the horrible weather the island had had making the bike course impassable. I did not preview the course before the race, and actually glad I didn’t.
So Xterra held a few events called “Xterra University” where you could go and learn about the course and how to be better from the pros that led them. I attended the swim and bike workshops. The swim was probably the most valuable. I had been in the ocean and swam in it, but this was rough water. Because of all the turmoil in the weather recently, surf was dangerous and higher than normal. I felt unsafe swimming alone, so the workshop (which was held almost at the worst possible surf time where the waves were really bad haha) made me feel better being around more people and having lifeguards there just in case. I was super nervous and didn’t want to be there. But I sucked it up. I practiced getting past the large breaks and dealing with current and undertow a few times, and recorded a quick swim session. My time without a wetsuit and in the ocean was pretty fast! This workshop was well worth my time and glad I got over myself, because it was FUN being out there. I have never enjoyed swimming more than when I am in the ocean.
The next workshop was the bike later in the afternoon. I had to choose between going out on course or going to the workshop. The course was still very wet from what I heard so I opted for the workshop. Here, I got to meet Flora Duffy, the 3 time (now 4 time) Xterra female pro winner from Bermuda. She was so nice and my height, and it just inspired me getting to take my picture with her. I took what the pros said in the workshop with a grain of salt. I had different tires and tire pressure than what they recommended. I’m glad I stuck with what I knew for the race though looking back.
Well, let’s skip to race day! It was beautiful, hands down a perfect day…the sun was out, the surf was a little more calm than it was, the bike course had dried out tremendously, there was a slight wind in the air and everything was easy up until race start. I had purposefully not adjusted much to Hawaiian time (6 hour time difference I believe), and this was rewarded. I woke up naturally on race day at 5:30am. We tried to watch the sun rise, but the mountain was in the way come to find out. I was able to relax and hydrate and collect all my things into my transition bag. This was going to be quite different as I hadn’t had just ONE transition area in a while in a large race! I ate what I had planned, and drank what I needed. I headed out at 6:40am to transition even though I knew it opened at 7am (Race start was 9am for pros, 9:20am for all age group females). I got a nice place to rack my bike, and several people had already racked their bikes. Bike racking was first come first serve with some numerical order (cluster order). I met a lot of people around me and discovered there were a lot like me, just average janes hoping to have a good race and make the T2 cutoff and not die.
As I set down my things in order, I realized I had forgotten my helmet (doh!). I sent Rich back to the room to get it. At least it was only like a 5 minute walk back to our room haha…race hotel…very worth it. Crisis adverted. Now it was time to chill until race start. Around 8:30am, I headed down to the beach. The beach start area was so far down from transition, down a long and moderately steep hill…not looking forward to going up that after the swim (the pros had mentioned their heart was never higher than it was right after the swim heading up to transition). Down on the beach, I took part in the annual blessing done by a native Hawaiian. I felt blessed. Well, the gun went off for the pros and then started a 20 minute wait to get into the water as the last swim wave. Not much to say really, it was a long wait haha. We were held back by volunteers with oars until the cannon sounded (and it sounded for EACH wave and was LOUD). Finally, with a smile on my face, I positioned myself a little to the right of the middle of the wave in order to take advantage of the current (the current would push you to your left, so I didn’t want to swim more than I had to!), it worked very well. I got past the breakers pretty easily and went with the flow of the ocean with breathing in rhythm. I was going hard, but I felt like I could maintain it. I turned the first buoy and headed back to shore, where a short beach run awaited my legs. I managed to drift a little off course but I blame the current on that one. The swim course was basically two “V” shapes, with a run between them on shore (VˉV). Getting back through the breakers heading to shore was pretty easy as well. I sighted under my right arm and watched under it for the waves. I felt pro haha. The beach run was way harder than I expected. I spent my legs and my heart rate spiked SUPER hard. I did push and I ran. Back in the water, I gauged the waves again. I sat there for a quick minute and evaluated and went for it again. I was a bit slower entering again as I tried to bring down my heart rate from the beach run…that was difficult to say the least, while trying to breath and ride under waves at the same time. I never looked down at my beeping and vibrating garmin as much as I wanted to check my pace. I headed back out to the second buoy, and the waves were a little more prevalent here and took more focus to sight. I had stopped to sight a few times as when you are in the ocean you cannot always see what is in front of you because the water is above you head in front of you. Rounding the 2nd buoy, I headed back to shore. I aimed a little to the left coming in, and was glad because the current took me in a straight line back! Now I was in the breakers again. This was VERY different this time.
The first wave, I managed to ride a little in, sighting the same way. But the second wave after it came fast and I barely saw it in time. I ducked my head into streamline position and was pulled towards the shore with the wave a little ways. I recovered and then the third wave I was ready for…or so I thought. I prepared to body surf it in. I got in position and rode the wave 90% in with it, but at the last second, was pulled straight under by the rip current under it and was tossed upside down under the wave head first into the ocean floor. For those of you who don’t know, I almost drowned back when I was younger in the ocean. I got caught in a rip current and the undertow dragged me under and I couldn’t escape or feel which way was up, my aunt had pulled me out, and the water was only 2-3 feet deep back then. I will always remember that moment, but I didn’t let it scare me. So I oriented myself under the water as fast as I could, push off the ocean floor and surfaced to be presented with one last wave. The water was only about 4 feet deep here, and I grounded myself and braced the wave. After the wave had passed, the undertow tried to drag me backwards. I used my strength to plow through the water (instead of dolphining back to shore) and ran to shore before the next wave could affect me. After the big wave had taken me under, the lifeguard nearest me looked very concerned and pointed at me. I looked at him and gave him a thumbs up. I felt like a beast! Of course with all that work, it was very hard to get my heart rate down heading up to transition. I looked behind me, and I was not even close to last out of the water, I was so happy. I looked down at my time, and I couldn’t believe it! I had just beaten my best time on a mile by 7 minutes. The course had been very accurate, as I swam a total of 1.05 miles! I saw Rich and told him to post about it! I ended up walking half way up to transition working on getting the sand off my feet as much as possible.
I didn’t get much sand off. So thankful for baby powder! I got to transition and poured that stuff all over. It took some time and work, but I got most of it off. I ended up leaving transition in 9 minutes, 4 minutes longer than I wanted. Now the scary part – the bike.
The only cutoff in Xterra was in T2, you had until 2pm to get out of T2. I thought this was plenty of time until I met the bike course. The first 3 miles of the bike course was single track. Nothing new to me, but the climb was something very new. Mentally I had an idea of the course and how much climbing was involved in the first 10 miles, but until you do it, you have no idea. This was the hardest thing…getting up all those miles without any break. Mountain biking is a lot slower than road biking as it is, but it was painful trying to make it those miles. Mile 1.5, I had to adjust my seat, which involved me taking out my tools from my water pack, that took a lot of time. I adjusted the seat because the bike guys had put more pressure in my frame shock so much I couldn’t get on and off my bike easily, not could I get my butt behind the rear wheel for balance. By mile 3, my calves were done. No more matches to burn. By mile 5, I realized my bike seat was not screwed in tight enough, ugh. I didn’t noticed for a while because I wasn’t in the saddle much with all the climbing. A lot of frustration and high heart rates were experienced. I honestly was panicking a little because I was so far behind the cut off time pace now by mile 7. I pushed and pushed, I would not let myself fail, and if by some chance I did fail, I had more than nothing left to give on this course. I slid into the dirt at some point in here, not a big deal, I just ended up miscalculating something or another and went down. The bruise wasn’t bad during the race though…nothing like I had had in the past when I crashed. I ended up walking my bike up a lot of the steeper portions of the first half of the course (the course was 20 total miles). Then finally I reached razor ridge, the one thing I looked forward to more than anything.
When I crested the mountain, I realized I instantly regretted not coming up there with my GoPro prior to race (although I’m still arguing with myself about this because then I would have known the course beforehand and potentially gotten discouraged). The view was the most breathtaking thing I’d ever seen. All the hues of green mixed with darker shades from the clouds and mountain shadows, and the bright ocean far far below…the sun showing every detail of all the trees and terrain. Everything was alive and moving around you, and even though there were hundreds of feet of drop on each side while riding your bike along this ridge, I felt safe and at the top of the world. Holy cow, this view was what paradise really was. Nothing else comes close. Razor ridge will always have a place in my mind and heart and soul.
Short lived, razor ridge being at the top of the mountain, quickly turns into an all out drop off on the other side, so I returned to having my wits about me and buckled down. Butt of the seat and behind the rear wheel and time for controlled descent. The bike course was the most amazing course I had ever encountered: it was WIDE, it was smooth with just a few tree roots and some areas of moderate sized rocks, a few muddy section and sandy sections, and it was FAST going downhill. Mile 14, there was the 2nd aid station (stopped briefly at aid station one, just to get some water and throw some trash out at mile 7), I stopped to refill my water pack. Best idea, I was running out of water and fast. Mile 15, I couldn’t stand my bike seat any longer…I struggled to jack it back up mainly due to sweaty hands (I had forgotten my gloves in the hotel room). I tried tightening the bolt hard, but later the saddle post sank back down anyway. I realized how little I had left on the bike. I was in the smallest ring on my bike and could not make my legs pedal uphill with any momentum. So I smashed the down hills the best I could. I returned to single track the last 5 miles, which was a huge blessing it turned out. I was not good at climbing, but I was good at navigating technical single track! This kind of single track was similar to what I was used to, but the wider path made it easier to go faster and navigate around. And I thought I was bad at single track! The single track back home and the Xterra races I went to must just be harder on purpose.
I made up a lot of time here. I reached the pavement again, and flew towards transition, I was going to make it. My time ended up being quite slow at 3 hours and 38 minutes. I knew what the run was going to be like…but I had made it. I was already going to finish now and this made me smile.
In transition, I dropped my bike and helmet, grabbed my race belt and was off! Very simple T2 and a much improved time from T1. Running back up a mountain didn’t seem fun at this point, my legs were crying (well the looked like it anyway with all the sweat, the temperatures had risen to the upper 80s). It was around this time that I realized I had not put on sunblock all day. RIP me. I walked-ran and talked to some interesting gentlemen. I met up with the 80 year old, and was super happy he made the bike and unbelievable he did all that at his age! What a role model. The run course followed the bike course for the first 2-3 miles, all up and up and up. Nothing technical or new about the run course. Single track is not that easy to maneuver but it was still the same wider course as before. Around this time, I noticed there was a lady behind me. I was determine to stay in front. No one had passed me on the bike, and I will prevent someone from passing me on the run! I stopped at the next aid station, hit a gel, and continued on thinking I would put some distance between us.
Eventually I got tired, and told her, “you can pass me if you want to!” and I heard her reply, “No no no, you have good strategy, I like it, I was done before the run started and you help me keep going.”
I was not alone for the rest of the run course. I was thankful to have her around and it kept me accountable for trying beyond my hardest to keep pressing forward as fast as I could go…which wasn’t too fast. Mile 4 the course started going downhill again. This was hard on the quads, but I handled it well, at least my mountain training had not yet left me from earlier this year! I ended up running into some cactus on course with my head, the needles getting caught in my hair. No damage done though! Moving on! The course became more and more technical as it descended. More rocks and more trees, more narrow overall. I even had to say “on your left” as I passed a few more people. One last incline, as the aid station had told us. It was brutal. The course left the trail and was on pavement, and it was HOT. It was super steep, probably at 25% grade, but it was short, just 0.2 miles or so. But at this point, you just want to be done. The lady following me started counting her steps (in Spanish), I listened and followed suit mentally, one foot in front of the other. Finally, we got back on the trail and headed back down. I could see the hotel, and it looked way further than a mile away! We crossed a dry creek bed, or maybe an arroyo, but it was very rocky, and a lot more fallen trees, most could go under except for one that we had to go over. I kept thinking: wow the pros do this course in under and hour?! Mad props, and mad respect. Then I heard the ocean. It was calling. I hit the sand, the last section of the run…where we had started our journey.
Running in the sand is no joke, it’s tough, but I had nothing to give back, and with the heat radiating up from the sand, and effort to push through every step, I could see how this is so hard at the end of this race to move forward at a decent pace. I kept trying to find a sturdy place where the sand was dense enough, but no place was better than another. The last steep climb up the hill from the beach heading back up towards transition again, I saw the finish chute. I could not go faster, I could not sprint, I was beyond what I had left, but I went and I smiled and finished! I was greeted with a lei and a medal (although very not impressive, like what?, how was this medal not very good!?), and muscle milk!
I waited for some of the people in my age group I had met to finish before heading back up to get my stuff from transition. It was so exciting seeing people finish, knowing they went through the same things I did, the same conditions and course. We did it! I was so happy. I was in the best place in the world.
I can’t say enough about race organization, and support, and overall clarity of the event itself. Everything was clear and transparent as possible with information. It really makes me proud to have been a part of this and participate in making Xterra as a brand out there, I’d love for it to compete with Ironman or run along side it as another triathlon option since the two are almost night and day. There is so much challenge in Xterra racing, everything is much more technical and more about skill and technique, and experience is your friend…but the community is also your friend. Every time I have raced with Xterra, everyone who has passed me in a race has asked if I need help or am ok (as I have crashed many time in Xterra racing on the bike). I haven’t had that in any other situation. I look forward to racing more Xterra races and newer courses next year in 2018 and making my way back to Worlds hopefully.
As for how it felt for me…this was harder than Ironman in the way that I had to push beyond what I had to even finish the bike, every ounce of energy was to move forward the best I could. It took more out of me on the bike, even as technical as the IMWI bike course, in any Xterra race, you have to be paying attention every second you’re out there, every rock, every root could throw you off the bike. It’s true that I spent about 10 hours less on this course, but it took way more effort to get through it. You can’t pace yourself in a race like this. It’s all or nothing, give it your whole heart. I did recover way faster than I expected, so there’s that.
It was sad having to leave on Monday after the race, all the Xterra banners had been taken down, the transition taken apart, and the finisher chute that had been there the whole time I was, was now gone, but the mud tracks created by all the incredible athletes I raced with are there still…fading slowly. This was one of the best experiences, and I have had an incredible year of race. Now Hawaii is down on my list of states to race in, and I hope to be back again. Nothing sparks my fire for getting better than completing this race.
Here are some stats from the race recorded by my garmin:
Swim: 1855 yard, or 1.05 miles, in 41:06
Bike: 3,326 feet of gain, most of it in the first 10 miles
Wind speed of about 10 mph
Run: 1,069 feet of gain, most of it in the first 3 miles
Total distance: 26.59 miles, 6 hours 5 minutes 4 seconds
Temperatures between 84° and 94°F
Bra and Tri shorts: Coeur
Run top: INKnBURN Paradise Cami
Shoes: Altra Lone Peaks 3.0s
Bike: Santa Cruz Juliana, 26″ wheels, full suspension
Nutrition: Honey Stinger Orange-Mango Gels and Waffles, Tailwind