When my husband wasn't dodging lightening bolts, hopping mud puddles, or searching for me among a couple hundred other mud-spattered, bedraggled racers, he was participating in his own sport of people-watching while I raced XTERRA Gator Terra. While he waited for me to come in from the run course, he overheard two other athletes talking and said one gave the other the best analogy for the different between off-road and road triathlon he's heard yet.
Athlete 1 to Athlete 2, who had apparently never raced a road tri before: "It's like private vs. public school."
Athlete 2: "What do you mean?"
Athlete 1: "Road tris are about the newest, fanciest, most technical, most expensive ways to be faster. They are taken extremely seriously, even by age groupers who aren't even that good. You go to a cross tri and look, you can bring a cheap bike and set your gear up wherever you want and no one cares or judges!"
It's not spot-on, but it's true in a lot of ways. This weekend was my first time racing an XTERRA that wasn't produced by my hometown company and among my local crowd, and yet, it carried the same air of relaxed, fun-loving, everyone-is-welcome attitude that I've always noticed in cross-triathlon, but is sometimes sorely lacking in Ironman settings.
Novice to expert, $6,000 S-Works carbon rig to $400 LBS Special, everyone was there to race, but more importantly, everyone was there to play and have fun. The peacocking, nerve-wracking tension felt at pavement races disappears when you put some mud on it, and I love it. (No hate intended to my road-only friends, but for real, off-road is more fun, you need to try it!)
Back to the Point:
XTERRA Gator Terra, also known at the USAT Cross-Triathlon National Championship, took place on June 4 in Arkadelphia, Arkansas and since it is the same distances as Worlds in Maui and featured similar elevation gains and weather, I decided to race as a benchmark for what I need to work on come October. There were a couple of surprises, but overall I did about as I expected I would considering the conditions. Iron Mountain proved formidable, but not overly exhausting, so even though Hot Springs was pretty disappointing (definitely not the National Park experience I was expecting!) and the dietary options in the area were abysmal (my pre-race meal was Cici's Pizza sooooo....), I'm glad I took advantage of the opportunity to race there!
We camped at Iron Mountain Campground just down the road, which was a great campground with excellent showers (PIVITOL for reasons you shall see!) The race site was super easy to access right off a park road, with the swim site at one end of a spacious parking lot and the transition on the other side of the road near the trails. Parking was quick and seamless in the morning, so we walked into transition in plenty of time to set up, drink some Infinit, and get nervous.
|This was apparently foreshadowing...|
The swim was a two-loop 750m course for a total of 1,500m. I wore my BlueSeventy swim skin since the water temp was 77 and it was hot enough without bringing neoprene into the mix. Women started in a mass water start after the men, and I began at the front left of the pack. IMy swim was just.....not awesome? I honestly have no idea what happened here, other than I must just not have been focused. I swam steady, never got off course, and rarely scuffled with other swimmers, and yet, had no speed or power. I think the two-loop set up threw me off, as I thought to take it easy on the first loop and go harder on the second. Well, when I sped up, I realized I was STILL not even close to tired, and knew before I even hit T1 that my time was going to be slow. Sure enough, it took 33 minutes, a 2:00/100yd pace. That is really bad for me, and I know without a doubt I can and will do better, but at least it was still enough that I was leading my AG by several minutes.
|In my BlueSeventy swim skin|
Whoooo boy, this is where all my mixed emotions come in. I was not able to pre-ride the course because it was raining when we got to Arkansas the day before, but according to my friend, it was going to be non-technical with "rolling hills." Let me tell you, if anyone ever uses the phrase, "rolling hills," they're a damned liar, expect to have your heart broken.
Now, it wasn't a miles-long climb like you'd have in Colorado, but there were some serious ascents that were made harder by the wet trail conditions and my apparent lack of climbing legs that day. That was the first ten miles. When I began working on mile 11 of 20, the sky opened and the bottom fell out. About 3/4" of rain fell in 45 minutes and the trail flooded. I had already been taking it a bit easy in unfamiliar territory with the knowledge that I needed to avoid injury since I race again next weekend. Well, my slower speed went from optional to mandatory. I kid you not, I hit a puddle deep enough that it completely submerged my 29er tires. (That was fun!) Water ran in rivers as I climbed each hill, and the lightening served to nervously balance the fact that I actually quite liked the rain because it was suddenly not so dang hot outside. Also, my sunglasses had come apart when I tried to wipe the lenses before I started, so I wasn't wearing them. You know what sunglasses are good for on a mountain bike? Keeping mud out of your eyes. I got a lot of mud in my eyes.
The bike course was 19.5ish miles, and I finished in 2:36, a 7.3mph average. Definitely not my fastest, but considering the conditions, I'm OK with it. It was a bummer I didn't get to hit that course when it was dry because it seemed super fun and flowy, but it's not too far away, so I'd be willing to ride again! I also experienced searing, debilitating back pain in my lower back after about the first hour of riding. There were several points I had to stop and get off to let my back relax. Since I've never been formally fitted to my mountain bike and have made various changes, I'm thinking fit, along with the added stress of the conditions, had to be the culprit, but I fully intend on solving that mystery BEFORE being miserable in paradise in Maui.
Have I mentioned before that I hate running? I do. I hate it. It boils down to the fact that I am an above-average swimmer (um, most of the time?) and love bikes in all forms, but am a terrible runner. I've had seasons where I slack on my run training (i.e: now) and had seasons where I worked my absolute butt off (last season) and the results are always, frustratingly, similar: I dominate out of the water, hold my own on the bike, and get passed on the run, watching my podium spot go down, down, down.
When I hit the trail, my new XTERRA friend Lizze had passed me at mile 3 of the bike, so I was fairly certain I had 2nd place in sight. That is until I saw another girl in our AG (who I had beat by thirty freakin' minutes on the swim alone) plugging up the mountain of a hill on the run course I was slowly hiking. I died a little inside, I really did. I was trying SO hard. I had run all the downhills and flat portions, at a good pace, too, and was going as hard as I could on the hills, and it wasn't enough. Not to mention, this run course is literally uphill for like 2.5 of the 6.3 miles. That didn't help.
When she passed me, I sat on a rock and caught my breath while I cussed a little. My pity party was short though, as you never know when you'll get lucky and someone else melts down, so I kept at it, finishing in 1:34, about 14:50min/miles. When I finished, I told Bryce I was going to take a break from tris after this season so I can stop HAVING to run, and therefore hopefully learn to like it again. Now that I've slept and had a snack, I don't know if I still mean that, but we'll see.
|Pretty sure this was the only DOWNhill part... (only kind of exaggerating)|
I was covered, head to toe, eyeballs to nostrils, hair to shoes, in mud. Gritty, sticky, Arkansas mud. When I took my socks off, globs of mud fell out (Still no blisters, thanks, Swiftwick!) and you don't even want to know all the other places that produced mud when I took a blessed shower back at camp. Conditions were tough, to say the least, but it was still a freakin' blast to race, even when hating my life on the run course. I was frustrated that the bike strength I gained this season racing XC didn't shine through, but as a benchmark race, I think this was excellent preparation. I know what I need to work on, what equipment I need to improve, and what attitudes I need to adjust.
3rd place in my Age Group, and YES, there were more than 3 who raced! That qualifies me to compete for Team USA in Denmark at Cross-Tri Worlds next year. I don't think I can make the trip, but still pretty cool. My shiny bronze medal was hard-earned!
Although I know I need to put in some serious work to improve before Maui, I'm really looking forward to it. I've got what it takes to go into it with what Bryce calls my "Let's win this," mind, rather than my "Let's survive this," mind, and although I know I won't win, I think I can compete and keep 'em chasing me!
Looking forward to hitting the home turf at XTERRA Muleshoe this weekend, hopefully with a little self-redemption on my mind!