OK, first things first, let's get this "Cross Triathlon" thing straightened out. This has absolutely nothing to do with cyclocross and everything to do with Xterra off-road triathlons, except it can't be called an Xterra because it is sanctioned by the ITU (International Triathlon Union). To make things even more fun, consider that this race was both the ITU World Championship and also the Xterra Southeast Regional Championship, but it was not the Xterra World Championship (that race is always in Maui in October). This race could qualify you for the Xterra World Championships, though! Confused yet?
In essence, the ITU wants to better promote off-road triathlon and they created a separate world championship to do this. The ITU is particularly interested in developing off-road triathlon as a possible new olympic sport since triathlon has been so successful. Last year the ITU race was in Spain and something that I didn't consider at all. Fortunately, I had a few decent Xterra finishes in 2011 so I received an invitation from USAT to race this year's ITU World Championship in Pelham, Alabama (the race was by invite only). For reasons that are even more complex than my first paragraph, this year's race, which was held on May 16, wasn't even announced until the beginning of February. As I described in my 2012 Season Preview, 2.5 months is no where near enough time to get into peak condition for a world championship. Still, this was a rare opportunity to be able to drive (read: cheaper) to a major world championship. One of the coolest things about doing an ITU race is that all athletes have to race in their countries' uniforms. So for this race, I put away the Evotri gear for the first time in years and raced in a US uniform with my name across the butt! This is the same uniform that the U.S. pros were wearing so that was a pretty cool feature of this race!
|"Dude, what's mine say? Sweet!"|
There's not much to tell about my preparation for this race other than it was minimal compared to other big events I've done. The biggest change I made was swapping out my hardtail 29er to a new full-suspension Specialized Epic from Bloomington Cycle and Fitness. I knew the Pelham course had a lot of rocks and a few technical sections, so this bike switch ended up being a great move- more on that later. I had really hoped to get at least one mountain bike race in prior to the world champs, but it occurred so early in the year most of the midwest mtb races had not happened yet and I had conflicts with the few within reasonable driving distance. On the plus side, I did get in a couple trail races that were part of a local series. I took third overall at a trail half-marathon and then won a trail 10k- so running was going well at least!
I was able to make the trip down with the awesome Bev Enslow from Metamora, IL (my hometown, about 1 hour from Bloomington). Bev is a long-time Xterra racer and has many Xterra age group world and national titles on her race resume. We had gobs of time to talk shop on the 10 hour drive to Pelham and back! Bottom line: I want to race the Xterra World Championship in Maui more than ever and am bummed to have missed the old bike course with lots of climbing and sketchy descents. As always, travel costs are the big barrier for getting to this race! Bev also had a great story about last year's ITU Cross Tri World Champs where she racked up another world title. At the race, longtime pro and multi-time world champion Melanie McQuaid's bike got hung up somewhere along the way to Spain. Rather last minute, Bev offered to loan Mel the Trek she was racing on right after her race was over (age groupers went first). Melanie was racing for another brand at the time, but managed to notch another world championship on Bev's borrowed bike! This season Mel is racing on a Trek- coincidence? I think not! Bev seems to know everyone that regularly races on the U.S. Xterra circuit and I got meet lots of her friends including the 2008 Mr. and Mrs. Xterra Circ and Cindi Toepel.
Bev and I were able to pre-ride the course the day before the race, which wasn't ideal for me but we would have had to take another day away from family and work to have done it a day earlier. We took it very easy, but unlike road triathlons a course preview is almost a necessity if you want to race both fast and (relatively) safe. Fortunately the majority of the course is shaded so I made it through the pre-ride without any crashes and without expending tons of energy.
Anytime I travel to the deep south in the spring I am worried about heat. Coming from Illinois in mid-May to Alabama (or New Orleans like my Evotri did a few years ago for the 70.3) can be a challenge. Race day did get up into the 80's but since both the bike and run courses had quite a bit of shade the high temps didn't take much out of me. The pros who raced much later in the day could probably tell a different story!
Thankfully the ITU has adopted a much more sane wetsuit cut-off temperature of 72 degrees. The lake was probably upper 70s so no wetsuits which I always prefer. The swim start area was rather congested and probably not big enough for the men's age group wave (we all started together). Since it was crowded I got out fast to escape the chaos and get on some fast feet. I hadn't been swimming a lot so I kept the pace pretty comfortable and just tried to maintain good form and swim straight lines between buoys. I swam a 25:06 for 1500m which was an ok swim for me and only put me 3-4 minutes down on the fastest swimmers.
|Men's Age Group Swim Start|
I knew the bike was going to make or break this race for me. Among Xterra age group triathletes in general I have a strong bike leg. Among the very best age groupers from the US and a sprinkling of internationals, I wasn't so sure how I would fare. The bike course was a little short compared to other Xterra regionals. Somewhere around 16-17 miles. Oak Mountain State Park has some stellar trails! There was good mix of everything: tight, twisty singletrack like home, long climbs, both fast and technical descents (although not together). There were actually far fewer technical sections than I had imagined. Blood Rock is the one everyone talks about and I'll get to that. I went hard out of the gates to move up a few places before hitting the first single track. The first couple miles of these races are always sketchy before everyone settles in and spreads out a bit. I was almost immediately in a tight group with people yelling from behind and things packing up. I saw lots of dumb, risky moves in the first 3 miles that worked for some, but not so well for others. Initially I kept trying to go with the faster riders that went around me. This turned out to be a sketchy strategy for me as well because they could just plain handle the bike better than me. I blew a corner once and slid out a couple times before I backed off a notch just so I could finish in one piece. About 4-5 miles in the single track opens up to a long, 2+ mile climb on doubletrack. No part of this climb is what I would call steep, but it was a consistent grade with no breaks and quite a bit was loose rock. I knew this is where I could make up time on the technical riders and I was right. I just hunkered down on this climb and started making up places. No one passed me on the climb and I most have picked up at least 10-15 places. Following the long climb there were some fast descents with lots of loose rock. I really started appreciating the full-suspension 29er at this point! Next up was the famed Blood Rock section (it has that name for a reason). When people talk about Oak Mountain this is the section that always comes up. It is far shorter than it looked in the videos and I shorter than I had built up in my head. On the other hand, it is the most technical section I've ever encountered in a race situation. I've messed around on lots of technical stuff, but that is different than racing. Blood Rock must only be around 200 meters long. It is a series of big rock steps with a turn and some water in the middle section. The drops were pretty steep- some of them were more than 2 ft I would guess (check out the videos!). Also note that this is part of the course is used for a Super-D mountain bike race later in the year! I rode this section clean twice during my warm-up and got applause for doing so! It is one thing to do it under control when you are not fatigued and another altogether when racing at lactate threshold pace. So on race day I wanted to try it if it was clear, otherwise I was pushing down. As it ended up I rode 1/2 of it and executed a rather tricky dismount because there were riders up ahead having problems and pushing. I learned later that the guy who was leading the age group race misjudged something on Blood Rock, went down hard and dislocated a finger in the rocks. He managed to finish the bike and still took 2nd overall!
|Then race leader Bryce Phinney going down on Blood Rock|
Non-race video of Blood Rock
I wanted to add my two cents to the ongoing debate around 29 inch wheels. For lots of years I raced a nice full-suspension 26er (Titus Racer-X). I liked the bike, it felt quick in most situations and I didn't feel I was loosing a whole lot to those on 29 inch wheels. Eventually I wanted to experiment with a 29er and picked up a relatively cheap Felt Carbon hardtail which I raced all last season. Even with a season on the 29er I was still somewhat ambivalent. As you can read anywhere the 29er was absolutely better at riding over obstacles- log piles, rocks, etc. It was also very stable and predictable during long, fast descents. I did not find it as good in tight singletrack or on steep climbs. The Specialized Epic on the Oak Mountain Trails finally made me a full convert. The Epic is just a great all-around race bike. It has the "Brain" shock so it locks out the suspension most of the way when you are climbing or on hardpack. I think the geometry on this bike is also superior to the Felt. The steering did not feel sluggish on the tight singletrack. Moreover, I don't think I would have even attempted to ride something like Blood Rock on a 26er. The big wheels were just more forgiving in the technical stuff. I also had lots of low back problems mountain biking last year. My back is still hurting (tight hamstrings and weak core I think) but things were definitely better on the full suspension. In short, this is a great do-it-all bike. I'm not even missing the lighter carbon hardtail.
|My new Specialized Epic- Thanks BCF!|
Finishing Blood Rock was a nice load off. There were a few more technical sections that I had to stay sharp for, but I was starting to feel good about my prospects for finishing the bike in one piece. For the second half of the bike I mostly held my own. A few people passed me and I caught a few. The closer I got to the end, the more cautious I started riding because I really wanted to finish this race (I saw tons of different mechanicals and crash-outs in this race). I nearly wiped out on the asphalt coming back into transition because some coolio ahead of me was getting out of his cycling shoes on the bike for a fast transition and lost a shoe right in front of me which I ran over while getting out of my own shoes.
In the end I had a much better ride than I would have predicted. I only lost around 7 minutes to the fastest rider (and the top riders are all accomplished, expert-level mountain bikers). My time was 1:19:23
I was super-excited to have survived the bike and was pretty confident in my ability to turn in a fast run split. The run course was a two-loop affair around the lake we swam in. This was the flattest, easiest Xterra run that I have ever done. It had long sections of pavement each loop which are usually avoided in these races. The course has some singletrack and small hills, but none of the long climbs that I was hoping for where I could have made up even more ground. Since the run was only a 10K I took off pretty fast. I started reeling in people right away, but none of them were from my age group. When I hit the flat, fast sections I really strided out and was surely running sub-6 minute pace. I was hoping to really lay it all out on the run, but my quads took a big hit (fatigue-wise) during the bike and started acting like they would cramp whenever I really pushed it. I kept the pace pretty high and picked up quite a few places, but only 2 or 3 from my age group. I finished the run in 41:22 which is 6:39/mile. That time tells you two things: #1 I was moving along pretty good and #2 the course was not very difficult.
My overall time was 2:25:51. That was good for 8th in my age group but more importantly 21st overall! It's hard to compare to the other world champs that I've raced because they are far larger and have more international representation, but this is probably the best finish of my triathlon career. Moreover, if I actually focused on mountain biking for any significant period of time, I'm sure I could have knocked 5 minutes off this course, which would have put me into the top 10. There were only a couple of Illinois racers at the event, but I have to give huge props to Chris Scott from Morrison, IL. Chris completely dominates all the midwest Xterras and this race showed why as he won the ultra-competitive 40-44 age group and took 4th overall! Huge race for Chris- congrats!
We're now mid-way through tri season and I have yet to race another Xterra. I love to do it, but most of the midwest races are a really long drive. Peoria (about 1.5 hours away) has an event in August, but right now I've got another scheme going and may have to skip that race....more on this later!
Age Group Video Recap
Video of the Pro Race (they rode the easy bike course!)