During the week of the race, people asked me how I ended up at XTERRA Saipan. I've been doing XTERRA races for 5 years now, and have known about this race because it's one of the most famous ones on the XTERRA circuit. It's known as the "Crown Jewel" of XTERRA. Last year there were several articles about it in Triathlete Magazine. You can see some of the photos here: 2009 XTERRA Saipan photo gallery. The photos showed white sand beaches, tunnels on the trail run, and beautiful, green surroundings. Truly an adventure! My husband Zac had been traveling a lot for work, and so in the middle of last year I said "Hey, we could always go to Saipan next year" and he didn't say no. So I made the plans, and we were on our way.
This is also a championship race, with slots available to the XTERRA World Championships. It's a smaller race, so the possibility was there that I might get one of the coveted slots. I wanted to arrive at this race as prepared as possible, so I enlisted the help of Coach Scott Blanchard from Pyramid Coaching, and he came up with a plan. I had 20 weeks of focused training leading up to the event, and averaged right around 13 hours a week of training. This was right up there with the volume for half Ironman training, and some of the Ironman training weeks. But I've always felt the tough XTERRA races feel like the same level of effort on race day as a half Ironman, so it fit. Over those 20 weeks I did a lot of time on the trainer, climbed a ton of hills, and ran a lot of trails. Oh, and I swam too. ;) Everything was set to peak at this event, and I went in as ready as I could be. I felt confident that I had done everything in my power to be prepared for this event, and whatever would happen on race day would happen.
The morning of race day started with rain. We headed to Micro Beach and arrived at 5AM to a sprinkle. By the time we got the car unloaded and got to the transition area it was a downpour. We took shelter under the event tent, and I didn't even bother setting up transition until the rain subsided. This meant that the jungle would be very wet and slippery on both the bike and run courses.
I set up transition in the dark, but thankfully the race had large floodlights lighting up the area. Once the sun came up, I walked down to the beach to check out the water. The west side of Saipan is protected by an offshore coral reef where the waves normally break, and then it's pretty shallow water up to the beaches. So I was a bit surprised to see waves breaking on the inside of the reef, right where one of the buoys for the swim was positioned. A jet ski kept having to go out to grab the buoy because the waves were pushing it off course. Zac spoke to a local surfer who was spectating at the race, and he said normally the water is very calm and flat, but that evening the swells had come in. Great...perfect timing of course!
Trying to smile for Zac and the camera, but not happy looking at the swim course.
The good thing is that I've swam in the ocean a few times at the La Jolla Rough Water Swim, and last year's swim at La Jolla was especially rough. So I did have experience in rough ocean water, and I tried to remember that to remain confident. For the XTERRA, we would be swimming a 750 meter triangle, with a 50 meter beach run in between laps. XTERRA is keen on the beach run in between swim laps, and XTERRA Saipan is no exception.
There were two distances for today's race. The full championship race course was a 1500 meter swim, 32K mountain bike, and 12K run. The sport course was half of that. But if you want points in the XTERRA series, you gotta do the full course, which is what I was there to do. There were only 65 people doing the championship course, so it was a much smaller group than what I was used to lining up for the swim start. No separation of guys and girls in waves here, we would all be starting together. A little after 6:30 AM the horn sounded and we all went running into the water.
The start of XTERRA Saipan.
I had positioned myself to the far right of the group, which put me in line with the first buoy. The water is very shallow, so we were able to run into the water pretty far before having to start swimming. Immediately I started getting pounded by waves, and they got worse as we headed towards the furthest buoy. This is when I noticed the major difference between this course and La Jolla. In La Jolla the waves are in a pretty consistent phase with each other. Once you get out of the cove you can start to get into a rhythm with the up and down motion of each swell. Here in Saipan, I was in the middle of waves coming from several directions, and once in awhile I would get caught when they all came crashing together in a huge peak. It was like being in a washing machine that was on the churn cycle. The only good thing was that the water was only about 5 feet deep, so at certain points I could put a foot down briefly to get my bearings and time when to sprint.
The water is incredibly clear and warm. The water temperature that day was right around 80 degrees, so that meant no wetsuit. At some points I wished the water was a bit more murky so that I didn't have a reference of motion under the water. I would be swimming, trying to move forward, but the view when I put my head down in the water made it look like I was moving backwards. Once in awhile I would close my eyes when my face was in the water just so I wouldn't have that underwater reference.
As I finished the first lap, I stood up and tried to walk in from the knee-deep water, but found there were sharp rocks on the ocean floor. I beat my feet up but just wanted to get back to the beach. I got out with a group of people and ran down the beach and jumped over some downed trees, before starting my second lap.
Running over the beach debris, ready to start lap 2 of the swim.
The second lap was even rougher than the first. It felt like it took me a lot longer to get to the turn buoy. The good thing was that there was someone else my speed there, and I ended up swimming right by their right hip, which is a great spot to get a draft. I have no clue if it was conserving any of my energy but I've heard it works so I was willing to try anything. Then a bunch of people in green caps appeared. It was the sport wave, as they had just started their race, and I lost my draft buddy. As I turned and made my way back to the beach I felt like I was getting tossed in all directions. It was ridiculous! I just wanted to get out of the ocean and onto my bike. Finally I reached the last buoy and did a few dolphin dives to make it up to where I could walk to the beach. I stubbed my toes a few more times on the rocks hidden below and emerged from the ocean, happy to be free of the salty washing machine.
I took a little bit longer in transition than I normally do to rinse my mouth out with fresh water and rinse my face off. Then it was on with the socks and shoes, Camelbak, and helmet and I ran out of transition ready to start the bike. I had my gloves strapped to my handlebars and put those on as we rode down the street.
Leaving transition, ready to start the mountain bike portion.
Then it was time to climb Navy Hill. From my earlier blog post, Navy Hill is a steep paved road, about as steep as Gates Pass or parts of the Mt. Lemmon climb. I had climbed this hill 3 times already on pre-rides of the course, and my plan was to take this climb slower than normal. This was the first 2 miles of a long bike course, and I wasn't going to blow it all here. So I rolled along at a steady pace and good cadence, and several people passed me on the climb. I ignored them, and instead wondered what the Cartagena area would look like now that it was race day. I finished up the climb and made the turn onto the dirt driveway of the shanty area, and blasted down the hill. This time when I reached the bottom there was an arrow pointing where to go. It pointed to a cleared section in the jungle. I was right behind another rider, so I followed him.
This was the first time my tires hit wet jungle that day. The trail was freshly cut and all the clippings were on the ground, and wet from the morning rain. This made it feel like I was riding on ice. My rear wheel slid all over the place. The other rider in front of me was having worse trouble, so as soon as I could I passed him. There was a piece of corrugated steel on the ground in the trail (like what horse stalls are made out of here in Tucson), and as I rolled over it my rear wheel shot out from under me. I corrected, and felt all of my core muscles go to work to English the bike back under me. Somehow I pulled it out. Ok, no more riding over corrugated steel. Thank goodness for all those core workouts. Apparently this is what those muscles are needed for.
The path took us downhill and onto a road. I would never have guessed this is where we were going to end up back when I tried to pre-ride the trail. There really are no trails in the area, just pieces of private property that they route the course through for this event. I was on the road for a short while before being directed back into the jungle, and a couple of steep climbs. Climbing on the slick, muddy jungle floor wasn't going to happen. I made it as far as I could (which was a bit further than those in front of me) and got off to start the hike-a-bike. I dug the toes of my shoes into the hillside to try to gain traction. This is where toe spikes would have come in handy. Being a desert rat, I've never had to use those on my mountain bike shoes. So I did the best with what I had. My shoes were also drenched from all the water running off my body, and so they sloshed with each step. I climbed the hill with everyone else, and then came to a crazy steep bank before emerging into someone's backyard. The owners of the property were watching and cheering from the elevated porch. I stopped for a second to catch my breath before mounting the bike and rolling down a paved road.
This is how the course would go all day. We would climb through mud which would cover the tires with pounds of mud, then ride pavement which would fling it all off. This section of road brought us to the next section of jungle singletrack. This section was longer, and muddier. I've never ridden in the jungle, or on mud covered with plants, so I was basically learning a whole new style of riding on the fly. If the rear wheel shot out I learned you couldn't correct with the normal pounding of the pedals. That would cause everything to go unstable. You had to finess the bike as much as possible, but also realize you were not going to regain traction anytime soon. So you were teetering on the extremes of finess and riding ragged. At this point in the course I learned to stay away from all tree roots. One section of singletrack was blocked by a group of tree roots completely covering the trail, causing it to be off-camber. I knew it would probably be slippery, but attempted it anyways. Bad choice. Both tires slid out from under me, and since I had half anticipated this, my right foot was already clipped out. But it's amazing how quickly you can go down on that slick stuff, and my right knee plowed into the ground. Thankfully it was just skinned and covered in mud, so I picked myself up and hiked over the rest.
In this section of singletrack, I caught up to two other riders. One was a girl and a guy was right behind her. He wasn't too confident in passing, but kind of had to when I came up behind him. As soon as it widened he went around, and I hopped over in the rough to get around her. I took the chance to pass him and finally had open trail ahead. We were heading downhill, which is my favorite part of mountain biking. I flew down the muddy singletrack downhill, probably faster than I should have but I didn't care. My suspension felt all wonky, probably due to the strange terrain under me. I was so used to dry, loose rocky conditions, and this was about as far from it as you could get. The downhill turned to doubletrack, and I had plenty of room to get around the other riders. I passed a bunch of people that had passed me on the Navy Hill climb, as they were struggling in the technical sections. At this point it started to rain again. It seemed to be a micro-burst but it was enough to keep the trail extra slippery.
The trail opened up into a clearing and the sun broke through the clouds. I could see the ocean on the other side of the island at this point. But there was no time to take in the views as I had to stay concentrating on the trail in front of me. Before long I reached a road, which was a long, winding downhill, similar to descending down Mt. Lemmon. Once again, mud popcorned off of my tires, most of it landing on me. The road turned and headed west, which is where the long climb began. The paved road turned to dirt, and we were officially on the climb to Mt. Tapochau, the highest mountain on the island at 1500 ft. The climb was a long grind up a dirt road covered in loose rocks, but I didn't care because I was out of the mud. I rolled along, once again in my steady cadence and churning up the hill. This time, not many people passed by.
Mt. Tapochau, the highest point on the island.
I passed by the turnoff where the sport course racers would turn and head back. Since I was on the championship course, I had to continue the climb. I knew what was on the sport course turnoff as that was one of the few sections of the course I found, thanks to the tip from Fish. But today I had to keep climbing. I made it up to the base where the climb became super steep and chewed up. It was very similar to the scree hills out by Chiva Falls. I had run out of momentum, and got off to start the hike up the hill, as all the other racers ahead of me were doing. Rain had chewed up the dirt hill into a rutted mess, so it was a tough hike-a-bike. My record of having to hike my bike on a portion of each XTERRA course still stands at 100%. There was a car parked up ahead, and I hoped the volunteer there was parked at the top of the hill. Turns out he was, and as soon as it flattened out I got back on and started the descent down the other side.
The descent was more of my style of riding and what I was used to. It was a steep hill covered in loose rock and dirt. I flew down this hill, making up any time I could. The bliss was short-lived though, because the road led to, you guessed it, more muddy jungle. I passed by another shanty area, where matresses and other random items were lying on the side of the road. The road had been heavily used by ATVs, so it was a complete mess. Puddles had formed in depressions in the road, and my bike started to get so clogged with mud that I started to ride through the puddles in the hope that it would clear some of the mud. My cleats became so crammed with mud that clipping in was no longer possible. This is why I ride clipless pedals with platforms, because at least I still had a platform to put my foot on. When the trail leveled out I would bang my cleats on the pedals, trying to clear both of them out. It worked, and with some force I could clip in again.
Since I had gone downhill, that meant I had to go back uphill to get to the point where the championship course and the sport course met up. That was on the mountain, and I could tell from my surroundings that I had a lot more climbing to do. I had to stop once in awhile to clear plants and debris that was building up between the rear tire and the frame. It got annoying to have plants constantly hitting my legs as I pedaled. Once again the trail became too steep and slick to ride, so I got off and hiked some more. I had no clue how far I was from the junction. I reached a mental low point where I was tired of pushing my bike, tired of the mud, tired of the jungle, and tired of being constantly drenched. One of the tricks I've learned in endurance racing is that chocolate fixes everything. I had put a bento box on the top tube of my Blur just for this race so that I would have food handy, and not have to deal with taking off my Camelbak. I reached inside and pulled out a fun sized Snicker bar. I had frozen 4 of them overnight so that they wouldn't melt right away. It was perfectly defrosted, and I ate my candy bar as I climbed the hill and my mental state improved. I got to a point where I could finally get back on the bike and finish the climb while riding.
Finally the junction came into view. I saw up ahead there was a guy with the same colored number plate as me (black numbers for the championship course, green for sport) and he was talking to the volunteers. He hadn't done the climb yet, and decided he was going to call it a day. They told him to take the turn which would send him back to the transition area. I don't think he knew how technical this section of trail was going to be.
Thankfully I had already ridden this section, so I knew a little bit more about what was coming up. This section started with a steep, slippery downhill that would lead into the jungle tunnel. I made it down the steep downhill and into the jungle where a tunnel was cut through the trees. I came up on another racer who was lifting his bike over a thick tree root. He was a sport racer, and saw my numberplate and said with an accent "Oh, championship. I will move." I told him, "No, that's ok, I need to pick my bike up anyways." We were in a section that I knew I would have to hike. We climbed up a short, steep uphill and at the top I got back on and flew down the hill. This is when the wild ride really started. No more climbing, just descending through the twisted jungle and the Fire Swamp. I was having to shove my bike one way and my body the other to get through some of the sections. I also realized how much I grab the seat with my inner thighs when standing to move the bike around. My seat and legs were drenched, and I was sliding all over the place and couldn't grip the bike as well. Overall I rode this section much better than the pre-ride, and got out onto the dirt section of Navy Hill road.
What followed was a lot of fast descending on the dirt road. I had to be careful, because this is where the run course and bike course merged for a short while, and the fast pros were already on this section of the run course. Thank goodness for disc brakes, because even with all that mud I could still slow down and stop. Once I reached the fork where the runners turned off I was able to let it fly. I flew down past the smelly toxic waste shack and onto the paved private road. This was the last climb and thankfully it was on pavemet. I climbed up the road, passed the goat house, and flew down the last steep descent in the jungle to the house with the loose dogs. Today the dogs were nowhere to be found. I got onto the rough driveway, and passed another sport racer. I could tell she was a new rider and was riding out of control on this descent, so I moved way over to the right as I passed by. I hit the pavement and was so happy to be on the last paved downhill. I turned at the bottom of the hill and rode up the road for a short distance before making the last turn towards the American Memorial Park. I rolled through a large puddle, still there from all the rain, and rolled into the transition area, officially done with the bike course and still in one piece.
Done with the bike and still alive!
As I switched from bike gear to run gear in transition, I noticed the pros were already done. Oh well. I took my bike shoes off and gave my feet a squeeze to get rid of some of the water. I put on my damp running shoes, switched to my running hydration pack, and headed out to start the insane trail run.
The start of the run course.
The run course started in the park, so I was able to run for a bit. But as soon as I turned and started the trail in the jungle, the running ended. The trail run was even more steep than the bike, and the trail was less worn in. There were a lot of tree branches and logs to jump over, and then the climb up the steep hill began. Back in the park I had put a pair of old road bike gloves on. Turns out I needed them pretty early. The hill was so steep I was down on all fours reaching for rocks and tree trunks to grab onto to pull myself up. As I pulled up I could see marks in the mud where people had slipped and fallen. This continued forever. I would hike, come to a hillside, and pull myself up by rocks and trees. There was no "running" for me in the jungle.
The course climbed and climbed and climbed. And since I was hiking I was moving a lot slower. Thankfully I had my water with me, so I didn't have to worry about where the aid stations were. I was just following red arrows in the jungle. In one section I came to a hillside with a wall coming out of the hill. The arrow pointed at the other side of the wall. I didn't see any trail along the fence, and as I looked over the wall I could see a red arrow in the distance. So I climbed over the concrete wall into a fenced area with huge water tanks. I have no clue where I was, but this appeared to be the water supply for the fancier homes higher up. I ran across an open field, then back out of the fenced area and up a road.
I decided I would run the roads since I would have to hike the trails in the jungle. Unfortunately, the road sections were few. They just connected the jungle sections. I climbed through the jungle, grabbing onto bamboo for support on the steep hills. I was by myself in the middle of nowhere. The good thing was the aid stations had people writing down racer numbers, so at least there was some record of where I was on the course. I just wondered when I was going to reach the junction at Navy Hill road.
I wandered down the jungle to an encampment down below. The arrows pointed around the camp, which had an old metal bed with rusted bedsprings and a bunch of other metal debris rusting in the jungle. Thankfully the next arrow had us going around the area instead of through it. But it meant more climbing. I pulled out another Snickers bar, but the sun had been out for a few hours now and it was melted. I didn't care and ate it like a Gu. Chocolate was chocolate.
Just when I felt like the jungle would never end, I climbed up a hill and came to a house and a road that paralleled the house. Turns out it was someone's driveway and the owner was out with his family watching for racers. "Another runner is coming!" he would yell, and the wife and kids would wave. I waved back, trying to smile but at this point it was tough. This did lead me to Navy Hill road though. I jogged down the downhill and it was painful. I swear it felt like my muscles were coming detached from my body as I ran. Going downhill was becoming just as painfull as going uphill.
I reached the turnoff of Navy Hill Road, which started the next section of trail. From the map in my head I knew I had one more section of trail to go before hitting the road near Sugar King park. This last section saved the most grueling for last. The trail was all downhill, but very rocky. Not only were the rocks slick from being wet, they were also covered in wet moss. This was "The Ravine." The start of the ravine was like being in a rocky wash, but then it got steeper and rockier. Water had caused steep drop offs to be formed, so the only way down was to put your hands on rocks on either side and lower your body down and hopefully find stable footing. This is how it was for a long time. Hike in the rocks and trees, and then lower yourself down a drop off. Shouldn't I be wearing a helmet for this?
After awhile, I heard someone else come up behind me. It was another racer, and she was from Japan. We came to the most famous part of the trail, the tunnels. The tunnels were dug during WWII and are still there today, and of course the race course took us right through them. As we entered it was dark, and there was a fork. One fork led to a dark section straight ahead, while the other led down some stone steps to a lighted area. No arrows, so we guessed we were supposed to follow the lights. We got to the room in the cave and followed the flashlights to another turn that led outside. At this point two volunteers were stationed, because the end of the tunnel led to a steep drop off a cliff about 8 feet tall. The volunteer at the top said we could either take the rope down or try to scramble on some rocks in the cliff face on the right, while the volunteer at the bottom was stationed to keep us from plunging into the ravine below. I grabbed the rope and cautiously climbed down, and at the bottom let the other lady go ahead since she was running a bit faster.
The ravine continued on, and the drop-offs got steeper. I was having to lower myself to an intermediate rock and gain another hand hold before moving to the next lower section. At one point the drop off was so high there was a rope to help us get down. After this there was more of the wash-like running in rocks with jungle walls on either side. A few other racers caught up to me, and I was just happy to know that others were still out there with me. I didn't care that they were passing me, it was just good to know I wasn't alone in the middle of the jungle.
I had to cross the ravine floor and get to the other side, which required crossing a very large, slick rock. I knew it looked slippery, but was hoping my footing would hold. As soon as my right foot came down on the rock it shot out from under me and I was flattened on my ass on the rock. Well, guess that didn't work. (After the race I was talking to a local, and he did the exact same thing. We probably both fell on the same rock). At least the rock was slick, so I didn't get scratched up or anything from the fall. Oh, that was another thing. The people passing me on the run were all bandaged up from the bike. I saw bandaged elbows and knees everywhere. Apparently they had enough time in T2 to stop for First Aid.
I hiked along the rocky ravine, and finally heard voices up ahead. The arrows pointed us up a steep bank, and once I climbed up it I was on a dirt road and at the next aid station. I was finally done with the jungle! I grabbed a fresh cup of water and started running. I was running not only because I could, but because I wanted to run away from the jungle! I was so sick of hiking through the jungle at that point. I ran down the road and through the Sugar King park. Volunteers were still out, so at least the race hadn't packed up while I was tripping around in the jungle. There were even cops still manning the intersection when I ran through. I later learned that the Chief of Police was in this race, so the cops did a good job because their boss was out there.
I reached the final aid station and started the run down the beach. "You are so close! Just 10 more minutes!" the volunteers yelled. I knew better than that. I knew it was going to be a lot longer than that based on where I was on the beach. There was a guy in a red shirt in the race running up ahead, so my goal was to not loose sight of him and to keep running. I had been running ever since I got out of the jungle, and I wanted to run all the way to the finish. But the beach was ROASTING at this point. The light sand reflected the light and heat so I felt like I was baking in a solar oven. I slogged along the beach and saw the red shirt guy get tangled in some local's fishing line. I made sure to run around the back of the fisherman as I passed. The temperature was in the mid 80s at this point, and the humidity crazy high. I wasn't sure if I was going to make it, but I knew the finish was just after the beach run.
I finally saw the last section of beach. The managers of XTERRA World Tour were there, taking pics and cheering, and I waved as I ran by. I made the final turn and the race director was there pointing the way. I was back on the grass at this point, running up the same chute from the swim finish.The final leg of the run.
I made the last turn in the grass and there were still people there to cheer, and the finish line was straight ahead. I even got to cross the official XTERRA Saipan finish line tape!
Crossing the tape at the line.
As you can see from the pic, I finished in 5:31:06, and there were still others out there. As soon as I crossed the line, wet towels were thrown over my neck and I was whisked away to the first aid area where there were lounge chairs setup. I wasn't even that injured, just a skinned knee, but it was hard to tell from all the mud on my legs. I think the only time I've been muddier was the Muddy Buddy race. The volunteers brought over towels and cleaned my legs off, then the medical assistants cleaned my skinned knee up. I found out later they were nursing students, and eager to practice. So that worked out well because there were a lot of people to practice on.
After I was toweled down and cleaned up I walked to transition to get my disaster of a mountain bike and race gear. I had stashed in the car a lunch box with chocolate milk on ice, and I had Zac run and get that for me. I took my muddy shoes off, sat down in the grass, and enjoyed my chocolate milk.Mmmmm...chocolate milk. The perfect post-race drink.
I picked up my gear, and got my awesome finisher's shirt and hat. I think it's appropriate the shirt says "finisher" on it, because everyone certainly is happy to have finished this race! We then headed back to the hotel where I washed 10 lbs of mud off myself, Zac washed 20 lbs of mud off my bike, and I got some much-needed food and took a quick nap. That evening we went to the awards ceremony, and I got my medal and a slot to the XTERRA World Championships on Maui in October!
Kahuna Dave (managing director of XTERRA World Tour), me, and Bill the XTERRA Saipan race director.
I will definitely be taking this once in a lifetime opportunity and doing the XTERRA World Championship race in October.
Overall, this was one of the gnarliest XTERRA courses I've done. The trail run was by far the most technical course I've seen for an XTERRA. The race is more like an adventure race than a triathlon. You've got to be pretty secure with pushing your personal safety envelope in this race, as it does go through some shanty towns of Saipan, and you are in the middle of the jungle, often alone. But the adventure was well worth it. This was a race that I really didn't care about my pace or finish time, just finishing a really tough course. I had one little crash on the bike, and it turns out some of the locals crashed far more times than I did. And it was very cool to race in such a unique location. By the way, Saipan is considered to be in the western region of the XTERRA American Tour, so I also earned points in my region for this race. Win all around!
I think I will make it a goal to do a different XTERRA race each year. I'd love to do one of the European XTERRAs like XTERRA Germany someday, so we shall see. In the meantime, I've got this little race in October to plan for. :)
Special thanks to:
- My husband Zac for keeping everything together while I was training for this race, and coming along on this trip. Oh, and the airline miles he built up from work. :)
- Mom & Dad for support and taking care of our dogs while we were gone during the race.
- Scott Blanchard for his awesome coaching help and never telling me I was insane for wanting to do this. I would have never finished this race without his help.
- All my training buddies: Zac, Liane, Shari, Johnny, Ryan, and everyone else I swam, biked, and ran with while getting ready for this race. You helped make the miles go by so much quicker!
- The Tucson Tri Girls & friends for all your support and cheering along the way. I proudly wore my purple in a race where I was one of 6 people representing the mainland USA. :)