It was epic...in a really hard, XTERRA-y kind of way. Its the kind of race you love to hate and probably hate to love! There's really nothing easy about it...but that's what we all sign up for right?
I had prepared for it as much as I could and was super excited to race, for a few reasons. One, I love to race. Two, I wanted a reality check against the pros. Three, I wanted to figure out at what level I REALLY wanted to be competing at this season and be able to go forward with my training and racing having nailed my performance goals down a bit more.
I'd crammed a bit of mountain biking in beforehand that increased my comfort level, competency and strength dramatically...though that's not saying much...against longtime mountain bikers that is! Still after a 2nd place in Cat 2 of the NORBA sanctioned Mountain States Cup MTB race the other day, I was content. However just as in ITU racing, where you've got the likes of Olympic gold medal swimmers and NCAA All-Americans, in XTERRA you've got World and National Champion mountain bikers. And when the swim takes 20 minutes and the bike between 1hr 30 to 2hrs...you can see the challenge against these girls! That said, I'm stoked to get stronger and more skilled on the mountain bike. I know its going to take a lot of time in the saddle on the mountain. I'm loving it and think it will compliment my road biking a ton.
I've definitely been roughing it with my introduction to mountain biking. I think I've been out only ten days this year, five of those being races! And although its true that you do need to just get out there and ride in order to learn, a more efficient way would be to also commit to a mountain bike skills clinic or camp. I know they're all over the place and I'm working on getting to one. I'm also working on hitting up my friends for their expertise. I need to convince (coerce?) them to get out on a ride that's meant for skills and not just me trying to keep up with them!
LEADING INTO THE RACE
The day before the race, we pre-rode a bit of the course. That only confirmed how hard the race would be. But glad we did it. Pre-ride is a new common word in my race vocabulary. As you can imagine with the intricacies and dynamic nature of mountain biking, it is extremely helpful, and often necessary, to know the course before you race it. On the other hand, pre-riding (or driving) a road bike course, although certainly useful to get familiar and visualize turns and the occasional advance shifting needed for a blind turn or climb, is not typically decisive for race day.
Since I hadn't planned to be gone from home for the entire 4 weeks leading up to the race, I had to do a bit of scrambling for gear. XTERRA Wetsuits overnighted me a Vortex to race in...THANK YOU! My friend Brandyn, oddly enough had brought me a race top of mine that I'd left in Maui at the 2007 XTERRA World Championships (things happen for a reason!) and she also had an extra race belt. Turns out Intense Cycles had organized to bring their Demo Truck to the race, so I had full support for my Spider FRO, which needed it, having been on the road, and trained and raced on over 4 weeks. I was SUPER thankful for that. I like to be very careful when it comes to the bike and keeping it dialed in for training and racing, both for injury prevention AND performance! My goggles were the only other missing link. The only ones I had with me were an old pair of Swedish goggles: those low-profile ones with no padding that lay perfectly within the eye socket. I've worn them for years in training, but ever since one of my first triathlons, Wildflower 1998, when I got smacked in the face and the goggles split my eyebrow open I've opted for more open-water and slap/kick friendly pairs. However, knowing this would not be a super aggressive start (swimming is the weak link for most XTERRA pros) I didn't go out of my way to find another pair, and wore them. More on that below...
Should I admit I hadn't done a swim workout since December? Not ideal, but I had other priorities in my training, many of which help my swim performance anyway. It worked out. I was still out with or ahead of the eventual top 2 finishers. The googles ended up working out fine, except for that they were so worn that I couldn't see well at all in them (and the course wasn't very sighting friendly but luckily the feet I was following stayed on course well.) There were a couple times I made a quick stop to clear them and even one time when, thinking of Chris McCormack who I've seen swim races without goggles at all, I pulled them up on my forehead to take a couple strokes without them to see if that would be better. It wasn't.
Of course that was the least of my worries. The bike and run were going to be the story of the day...
It wasn't super technical, but as a new mountain biker, my view is that there is a level of technical to all mountain biking terrain, save for a wide open fire road, which this hardly was. The hard part on this course was the super steep and soft climbs and decents. There were a few. Mostly in the first few miles of the 9 mile loop. Think: Escape from Alcatraz Sand Ladder - only having to run up it AFTER having climbed up a monster hill just as long and then running up even steeper stairs, pushing a 20+lb mountain bike up it. Then after a quick decent (oh why does it have to take so much less time to go down than up?) do the same thing on a similar climb. My calves were screaming. I was TRYING to get my effort into my glutes somehow and take the pressure off but it was really impossible with the angle of the hill and the soft sand and leaning over to push the bike up! That was something they weren't ready for. I'll remember next time. Ha...If there is one! The second loop was not as bad. That's been typical for me in every MTB race I've done so far. I think its the steep learning curve I'm experiencing...and maybe being more warmed into the bike ride. Hmmm.
As usual, on the second loop I was technically better. Meaning I got up the climbs farther by holding a straight line longer before I had to step off. At some points it really was just my overall fatigue, and not technical skill that caused me to step off. Mountain biking is killer, in a good way. I also tend to take chances more on the second loop in places where I know I won't kill myself if I gun it. Usually that little extra confidence and momentum works. There was one time however where I went for it, decending down a single track shoot with super soft sand and a bit of a turn at the bottom. I'd crashed the first loop. And crashed again on the second loop, only this time my quad completely cramped up! (I rarely have gotten cramps in my career. I think it was the dry air. Needed more hydration. I was super salty.) I felt like I couldn't move off the course, but also knew that if someone decended down the slope without seeing me, and nailed me while I was lying there, that impact would hurt worse than the cramp, so i pushed the bike out of the way and rolled over into the brush with it, off the trail. The cramp subsided and I went on. Fell off again shortly after because my chain had seized up. Looked pretty funny stuck in some bushes while other riders went by (asking if I was fine of course...) Whew. I'd had fun, but was ready to get off the bike and on to the run. I don't know what I was thinking...
Pretty much h-e-double hockey sticks. The course looked like it and felt like it! Monotone, treeless, rocky twisty turny, mostly uphill it seemed. There was hill after hill after steep hill to climb. (I've noticed that XTERRA races, triathlon and trail running, seem to break the what-goes-up-must-come-down rule.) My body was rebelling from imbalance of electrolytes and fluids so all the cells in my body seemed to be collectively saying, "Um, no." LOL. Much of the decending was steep, soft, rocky sand. None of it felt easy. The second loop was much harder than the first. Turned into a bit of a death march, run, walk thing. Dare I admit. I will say, I hadn't done much running other than my interval work, and I can see how I need to start incorporating some longer, stronger intervals in my training now that my body is dialed and ready to handle it. I'm excited to not have that run be so hard next time!
Cold water never felt so good at the finish.
IN THE END
XTERRA is legit. Nothing like road triathlon racing yet I know it will be super complimentary to my road performance, due to the strength, efficiency in cycling pedal strokes, and because I'm thinking everything else will seem like a piece of cake! Ok, I won't take it that far, but I'm curious to see the overlap.
While I decided I won't be running around the country competing on the entire XTERRA Cup Circuit until I bridge the gap to those stellar MTBers, I will definitely be mixing up my on and off-road racing this season. Lookin forward.
Hope you're also having a fantastic start to your own racing season!