Monday, April 4, 2016

Muddy Smiles for Miles: XTERRA Bluebonnet Race Report

This weekend I took my triathlon racing career off-road for the first time and participated in the XTERRA Bluebonnet Off-road Triathlon. This was my first experience with XTERRA racing and the first time in a long time I felt true butterflies before a race!

I have only been mountain biking since October, and have never raced my mountain bike before. I can count on one hand the number of trail running races I've done. Overall, despite getting dirty being second nature for me, this race was new territory and I was pretty worried about eating it. I was less worried about getting hurt, and more worried about holding up those behind me, since passing on the trails takes a lot more cooperation than a fast and furious road race.

As it turns out, I had nothing to be nervous about! Not because I was a sudden phenom on the mountain bike or anything, but because XTERRA racing is truly about fun and friends first. The vibe at this race from start to finish was so much more relaxed and full of enjoyment than any race I've done. Everyone, both men and women, were super friendly, whether in transition, down at the dock, or on the trail. The crowd was smaller, the competition was fewer in numbers (but just as tight in skill!), and the amenities were not fancy, but I felt my racing time and dollars were the best they've ever been spent. I'll go over my experience for the day, then what went right, what went wrong, and what I know I'll need to bring to the table next time.

Race Run-Down
When we woke up at 6:30am to make the 45 minute drive from our house to Burnet, we were first thankful that it wasn't 4:30 am like many of our race wake-up calls, and second horrified to find out that the beautiful 60 degree mornings we'd had that week had dropped down to 36 degrees. I was pretty unhappy with the Great State of Texas as I put on sweat pants, a long sleeve shirt, and jacket over my race kit to get in the truck. What the heck!

We got to the race venue and parked at around 8am. It had rained pretty heavily the day before, so it was muddy and cold, but the sun was shining and the location, Reveille Peak Ranch, was gorgeous and absolutely covered in wildflowers. So covered, in fact, that we felt pretty bad about smashing a bunch of flowers to set up transition. I apologized to every bluebonnet I stepped on, but organizers didn't have another choice because the original location was too muddy.

 Check-in was quick and easy. We got our race chips, a shirt, and the numbers for our bike and run and headed to transition. Since XTERRA racing has a smaller, closer crowd, there were no body guards at transition. Bryce was able to come in with me and help me get set up while we checked it out. I came in to this sport this season having learned that pretty much no women participate. At this race last year, there were 11 women TOTAL. I got it in my head to change that really quick, and apparently so did a lot of other ladies! There were at least 30 women racing this year, so although our individual age groups were still small, there was a great sense of community. Almost every woman I talked to, both on course and in transition, was there for their first XTERRA race (a couple for their first tri ever!) so it was a lot of fun cheering for each other. Of course, after ensuring we could be friends because our age groups were different. :)

Before reluctantly taking off my jacket and pants, I hit the potties and realized there was absolutely no line and plenty of toilet paper, forever solidifying my love for small off-road racing before the starting gun even went off. Although I have never used it in a race before, I do thankfully own a wetsuit, so I changed into it and we headed down to the quarry lake for the pre-race briefing.

So thankful I had this!
The swim took place in the quarry lake, which had incredibly clear water that was about 67 degrees, which felt downright warm compared to the air. There were two starting waves, which sent the men 39 and younger off first, and the masters men and all women off second. At first I was a little annoyed, since the swim area was very narrow and a two -lap course, so I knew it was going to be crowded, but it ended up working out well. This allowed the men I may be faster at swimming to go ahead so that they wouldn't all have to pass me on the bike.

The swim start was the first wave start I'd done in a long time and it was a crowded splash fest with the added unpleasantness of freezing water on my face. I had to consciously calm myself down as the water sucked the air out of my lungs, but after about ten yards I got control of myself and sunk into a rhythm. I've been working hard on my swim, so I was a little disappointed that I never really got a chance to push myself because of the crowd, but overall the swim went smoothly. I only had to kick one man in the shoulder because despite the crystal clear water allowing everyone to see everyone's arms and feet he would no stop grabbing and shoving me.  Otherwise, it was pretty smooth sailing. On the return leg of the second lap I got on the outside edge and was unable to pass another woman who was blocking me. I don't think she realized she was pushing me right in to the boundary line and I couldn't simply go around, so I wasn't mad. I was either fourth, fifth, or sixth woman out of the water (we all exited at the same time) but I could have been third had I been able to get around her.

I got in to transition, stripped my wetsuit, threw on my shoes, backpack full of Infinit, gloves, and glasses and headed out. The bike trail was an excellent mix of wide jeep trail and single track, with even an awesome pump track section thrown in, so my worries about holding people up or causing issues with my newbie-ness quickly dissipated. The issue I did run in to was letting my sense of competition overwhelm my level of experience with this type of racing. When I race road, I FLY on the bike and rarely leave zone 2 on my heart rate. I'm confident, strong, and able to push hard. Mountain biking is different. I'm still pretty new, and although obstacles, downhills, and technical climbs don't scare me, I'm not awesome at them (yet!)

I was about a mile in on the 11 mile bike course when I stopped, got off my bike, and let my heart rate come down. I had a serious pep talk with myself and knew that if I made myself miserable I wouldn't enjoy this experience. Why waste time outside in a beautiful setting being upset?

I caught my breath, hopped back on, and hit the trail. I had a blast on the squishy fast sections, and enjoyed working over the rocks and obstacles. My Vittoria Saguro tires were my saving grace more than once as I fishtailed through the mud and multiple water crossings. I was covered in dirt, but at least I didn't loose control and land in it! If at any point I got to an uphill that was steep enough to slow me down below 3.5 miles per hour, I got off and walked. I can walk uphill faster than that pushing my bike, and I still had to run after the bike course. No need in exhausting my quads for the sake of my pride! There were definitely instances where walking was the only option. I seriously wish I had my GoPro with me, because the course was beautiful, but parts were pretty fierce! 

After 11 miles on the bike, I got back to transition and dropped my bike and pack, grabbed my handheld bottle, and left for the run. My legs felt surprisingly great, all things considered, so the run went better than I expected it to. There were some really intense portions that made it more swim-bike-hike, but I'd say of the 3.7 miles, I ran at least 3 and never felt sick, exhausted, or regretful of my life choices. That's saying a lot for me for a run portion of a race!

The finish line came almost before I knew it on a gloriously fast downhill. There was no fanfare or announcements, just Bryce clapping and taking pictures, but that's OK. There was also no finisher medal, but they never said there would be, and I was so busy telling Bryce how much fun I'd had I didn't even notice. We packed up my stuff and went to the finisher party, where there were good sandwiches and even better free beer, and I enjoyed chatting with all the ladies I'd met along the way. We all had the same thing to say- that was super tough, but super fun.

It turned out that I got first in my age group! I accepted my medal from the race director, Joel, who looks and sounds exactly like Billy Bob Thornton, which was fun for us because that's our favorite actor ever. (Don't worry, Joel, it's absolutely a compliment!) The whole race staff was super friendly, and made a point to learn my name and said thank you so much for coming out. It made me want to sign up for the two other races I'm not already registered for, until I remembered that I'm both broke from wedding planning and also already committed those weekends. I'll do them next year, though! My overall experience was excellent- my performance was better than I anticipated, the event was easy to navigate, well run, well marked, and had an incredibly friendly atmosphere. I absolutely recommend giving it a try!

 What Worked
Aside from my general approach to the race, which was to try it out and have fun, I definitely had a few things go right that I will be ensuring I repeat next time.

Infinit Nutrition-I'm not just saying this because they sponsor our team, either. I had Infinit on the bike and run and am truly a believer now. Normally during races I get GI issues, especially when running, that force me to slow down to let it settle. Not this time. I mixed enough in my backpack for two hours (didn't need it all because I was faster than that, whoo hoo!) and enough in my run bottle for about an hour (run was roughly 45 minutes) and didn't have to think much about nutrition in the heat of things. I just drank it when I was thirsty and had steady energy and calorie intake. I wasn't hungry or sick the entire time, nor did I get nauseous at the finish line like I often have before. If you're looking to try something new, give this a go and see if it works for you, too. (Code Maverick saves you 10%!)

Vittoria Tires- Also a sponsor, but also worthwhile! I didn't realize how crappy the stock tires on my mountain bike were until I switched for the Vittoria Saguros. You can use their website to see a handy graph for each tire that shows that models ability with grip, wetness, traction, weight, rolling resistance, etc. I firmly believe these tires kept the mud in my mouth to a minimum- it was super muddy and slick at points!

Amber lenses- Although it was bright sunshine, I rode and ran with amber lenses in my sunglasses, allowing me to see the terrain, even in the shade. There were corners frought with slick leave piles, roots, loose rock, and all other manner of knee busters, so this was really helpful.

Sewing snaps on my kit- I know my teammates have teased me for this, but I sewed snaps on my tri top and shorts to be able to snap them together and it totally WORKED to keep my top from riding up while running. No accidental crop tops for me!

Swiftwick Socks- I kept the same pair of shoes on for the bike and run, and am grateful I had really good, moisture wicking socks on because there was no way to avoid my shoes going completely under water at more than one point. I'm not sure yet if I want to try a pair of shoes for the bike and a different pair for running, since my feet got wet on both, but I'll say my feet crossed the finish line blister-free, so it worked well enough!

 What Didn't Work

My super-crappy, bottom shelf component group- I knew this going in, but the bike I have has the lowest of low Shimano groupsets on it. I had originally planned to switch to the NuVinci hub since Bryce works for the company that makes them and I can get it for free, but after studying the efficiency of it (and listening to him gripe uphill on his) we decided against it since they're not really meant for this application. However, multiple shifting issues and a dropped chain later, I know a tune-up isn't what I need, but rather just better gear. I've already replaced the tires and the handlebars (with sweet carbon ENVE bars), so this bike will just be a slow, piece-by-piece build up for me. Thankfully the shocks and brakes work great.

My stupid. Seat. Post. That. I. Hate- The adjustable seat post on this bike is also bottom shelf and drives me insane. I have literally gotten a wrench after it and tightened it well beyond spec, and still the post sinks down by about an inch for every 4 miles I ride. I had to stop twice to crank the seat back up to regain my power transfer in my legs and hips. That part is getting changed TODAY.

That's about it! Overall the day was a blast and I can't wait for my next XTERRA challenge in  just a couple of weeks! To end, I'll leave you with a classic, Texan picture of my baby in the bluebonnets.  :)

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