Sunday, October 31, 2010

XTERRA World Championships Race Report

I feel that if you have the opportunity to race in the biggest race of your sport, you should do so. When I roadraced motorcycles, I qualified for the Race of Champions my amateur year. It meant driving from our home in Tucson, AZ to Daytona Beach, but it was an awesome time. From XTERRA Saipan in March I got a qualifying slot to the XTERRA World Championships in Maui, which weren't held until this past weekend. So that meant continuing on with training so that I could attend this huge race. This would mean I went through 1 full year of triathlon training, by far my longest stretch.

XTERRA is a very cool group of people. At the World Championships, everyone is glad you are there, and everyone is there to have fun. No one really cares what you are ranked, how you got there, or how fast you are. It is the last XTERRA tri of the season, and something to enjoy. I went into this race with a very different mindset. Let's face it, I wasn't going to win the World Championships. Neither were 548 other people there. I was in a beautiful place, and there to celebrate and enjoy the culmination of an entire season. This was, after all, my 5th XTERRA race of the year.

Race morning I got to transition early, and by early I mean 7 AM. The race didn't start until 9 AM. I love this about XTERRA. No getting up in the dark to eat breakfast to be ready to hit the water for a 7 AM start. I think this is the mountain bike influence on the race, since many were partying the night before. I set up my area, and headed to bodymarking where I was stamped with the official number stamps. I love the big races that have the number stamps, and not some kid scrawling your race number on with a sharpie. Once I had my area set up I wandered around, checking out the race. There were TV crews everywhere. They had retrofitted golf carts with camera gear, had cameras on stands on the beach, had camera divers deployed in the water, cameras on boats, cameras on the helicopter flying overhead, and cameras just about everywhere else. It was like a Universal Studios sound stage. I had to make do with my Android phone and point and shoot camera. I handed the phone over to Zac for the day, so that he could keep friends and family updated at home on facebook.

While waiting, I wandered over to the race announcer's station. There were 3 announcers covering the race, and I wanted to talk to one announcer in particular. I don't know her name, but she's the woman announcer with short, black, spiky hair. She had done the announcing for XTERRA nationals, and the western regional cup race. I went up and thanked her and told her that I wasn't a fast racer, and really appreciated that she was there at the finish line announcing all the way up to the last racer crossing the finish line. Many races break down the finish line before people have finished racing, and many are left with a sad ghost town of what used to be the finish area. But XTERRA keeps the finish line open until the last racer has finished, and this announcer stays and announces their name, even if the only people hearing the announcing are the family at the finish line and the race workers and volunteers.

At 8:30 AM the opening ceremonies started on the beach, with Reverend Alalani Hill leading the traditional Hawaiian blessing ceremony. The XTERRA racers joined together in a giant circle with arms around each other while she spoke. She is an amazing speaker, and as we stood together with our arms around complete strangers from different countries, many were moved to tears with her words. The gentleman who was standing next to me in the huddle was sniffling, so I patted his shoulder. At the conclusion, we all lined up on the beach and Rev. Hill brushed each racer with tree leaves. As I passed by I touched her arm to say thanks for her kind wishes and felt an extra bush of tree leaves across the back of my neck.

At 9 AM the starting cannon went off and everyone ran into the water. I let the majority of the mass go ahead and walked in until about knee deep and started swimming. Thankfully the seas were calm that day. All of my practice swims in the ocean were in preparation for this day. The sun was out and there were a few small clouds in the sky. As I swam I could see a few small fish and coral below us. I still ended up in the mass of people, and tried to draft where I could and moved around the crooked swimmers where I could. The week before the race I had fallen in a running race, causing roadrash on my right side and injuring my shoulder. I could tell the shoulder was still tight when I swam, but it loosened up about halfway through the first lap. I was smacked in the back of the head once, and had my hands brush a few racers, but other than that it wasn't too bad. After the first buoy we had to make a 90 degree turn, which is where most of the contact happened. At this point I was also a bit freaked out for a second at what I saw below. At first I thought it was a giant orange fish, but on a second look it turned out to be a diver zooming around underwater holding on to an orange propulsion system.

I came out of the water on my first lap and saw 16 minutes and change. Not bad for my first lap! We had a short run on the beach, then headed back in for the second lap. The second lap had much less density of people, and I thought it was cool that I was swimming up with people that were wearing speed suits. By the middle of the second lap I was done with being in the ocean and wanted to get out. The only way out was to keep swimming. I resisted pulling up and breaststroking and forced my head down in freestyle. I finally touched the beach and stood up and made my way to transition. 34 minutes for the swim, and I was happy with that.

I got to transition and spent my time getting the sand off my feet. Usually I fly through transition in 1-2 minutes, but I figured it was more important to get the sand and grass off my feet before stuffing them in my shoes. I also wanted to get my gloves on to protect the roadrash on my right palm. While in transition I could hear the announcer talking about some of the racers. The Japanese racers were gathering at one end of the transition area, waiting for each other so that they could go out on the bike course together. I thought that was really cool. I grabbed my bike and ran up the hill, and gave the volunteer a high five as I ran. Rev. Hill was right behind him with her tree leaves, and yelled "Keep it going!" so I gave her a high five as well. At the top of the hill we were allowed to mount our bikes, and the bike course began.

We only had a short section of road before getting on a dirt road, then riding over to Makena ranch. The entire bike course is on private property, and no one is allowed to ride it until race day. Without a pre-ride, myself and a couple hundred other racers would have to figure out the course as we rode. All I knew was the shape of the course from the map, which was no help, and the snippets of video I had seen on XTERRA.TV of people crashing on the downhill. The course was on the west end of the island, which was very dry and had not received much rain. The trails were covered with rocks and a layer of fluffy loam. But unlike the jungles of Saipan, I was experienced in riding over loose rocks.

The first part of the course was mostly doubletrack, and a ton of uphills. On the first few hills, people were jumping off and walking. But not me. I was bound and determined to ride as many uphills as I could. I cleaned the first few, then got into a few where I only had to walk a few steps at the top after I had spun out in the loose dirt. Then we came to the first downhill. The trail was not very well traveled, and was covered in lava rock scree. I passed a girl from Japan who was riding with a guy. Just as I was looking for a way around him, he crashed, and I had no where to go but off to the side. I had a small tip over trying to avoid him, but got back on and continued down the hill. I kept the weight over the back, stayed off the front brake, and lightly guided the front end down until I was safely at the bottom. That would be the only downhill for quite awhile.

Somewhere on the course is a hill called "Heartbreak Hill," but I honestly can't tell you which one because they all look the same and there are a billion of them. We would climb a rocky hill, then the course would level out for a short bit, and then climb another rocky hill. The only good thing was that I wasn't by myself and there were still plenty of riders around me. So I would climb, and then get off when I couldn't climb anymore. The gumption that I had on the early hills to cleam the climbs was slowly waning. I started to look to the ocean to take in the view, but I was absoloutely covered in sweat and frying in the heat. It was 95 degrees and humid, and I had never drank so much on a course in my life. My shorts and Camelbak were encrusted with salt. We had 3 aid stations on the bike course, and I made it to the first one with half a Camelbak and an empty water bottle. I threw my bottle away and got a fresh water bottle and continued on.

More climbing. My legs were now killing me and it was getting harder and harder to turn over the pedals. I talked with the riders around me. One guy was named Jerry, and he had taken the time to put on leg armor in transition for the long downhill. I was now sighing and groaning on the climbs, and was running out of gas. My Snicker bars weren't even helping at this point. I stayed in my little group of riders until at the top of a climb, where the course made a sharp turn. The downhill! Jerry stopped to put on elbow guards, and the guy in front of me was hesatant to start the downhill. I threw my bike gears out of the well-oiled Granny gear, and started the awesome downhill. The guys behind me said they were being chivalrous and letting me go first. ;)

The downhill was made up of lava rock, some of it in large sheets fixed in place, and much of it loose scree. Even though the trail pointed down, it still takes strength to ride these things fast. But I didn't care. I own the downhill. Fortunately the downhill was doubletrack, so I had plenty of lines to choose from. There is a speed you have to reach where your wheels are no longer down in the rocks, but instead start to float over the rocks. I hit that speed and then some, which is called Mach Stupid. At this speed there was no way I would be able to stop suddenly for any reason, but it didn't matter because there was a ton of visibility on the trail, we were all travelling the same direction, and no one was around me. Well, that is until I started catching and passing other riders. Some were timidly picking lines, stuck in the rocks. I came flying down with a loud "On your left!" I passed about 5 people on this long section of trail. The last one was a girl who was trying to make her way down the last few yards of trail and crashed right in front of the camera crew. If they were filming, the next scene was her sitting on the right side of the trail as I hauled down the left, cleaning the section. All of the videos of the course show people crashing all over the place on the downhill. But I had cleaned it! And I reached a maximum speed of 28.8 mph on that loose, rocky downhill.

The next section of trail was yet another uphill climb. I was so sick of climbing! The XTERRA helicopter flew overhead. "No worries folks, I'm still out here, climbing and taking my bike for a walk" I thought to myself. I started the next downhill, which was much shorter. But things got a bit weird at the bottom of the hill. On the XTERRA courses, blue arrows mark the bike course, and red arrows mark the run course. The last blue arrow I saw pointed to the right at the bottom of the hill. But when I tried to turn right there was a race crew there. One of the crew guys had just shut the gate to the Jeep road, which was the next section of the bike course. The gate was even marked with a "Mile 16" marker. What was going on?

"Which way do I go?" I asked.
"Go straight down there" the guy in the XTERRA staff shirt said.

But "straight down there" pointed me to the dirt road, which had runners on the run course coming up from the opposite direction. I was confused, but as racers we are always supposed to do what the course officials tell us.

Now, at this point in the race my brain has been baked, and I started becoming paranoid. There was one single time cutoff to worry about at this race, and it was that we had to be out of T2 by 1 PM. That was it. My head started spinning. Was there another cutoff that I wasn't aware of? How could there be? I'm one of those people that reads the Race Bible cover to cover and knows all the rules. Maybe they felt at this point in the race I had no hope of making the 1 PM cutoff? But I wasn't a straggler, and I was still out there with plenty of people! As I rode down the road, runners going in the opposite direction were looking at me strangley, because I was not on the bike course. The other riders that I had passed on the downhill had also caught up by now, so I followed them. Here we were, biking in the opposite direction on the run course. No blue arrows anywhere.

As I rode, the thoughts continued. Have I been pulled from the race? Am I even still racing? Did they divert me and everyone else off the course to hand us our DNFs and tell us to clean up our transition areas? I've been down this mental road before in 2007, when I was racing the minutes on the clock trying to get back to the transition area in 30 mph winds at Ironman Arizona, only to miss the cutoff by 6 minutes. But this time I did not care. I started to mentally come to terms and prepare if they were going to cut me from the race. I was not giving back all the clothing I purchased the day before with "2010 XTERRA World Championship Maui" emblazoned on it. I was going to keep it. And maybe this meant I wasn't going to have to run the 7 miles of the run course.

As I rode past Run Aid Station #2 with Jerry and another guy, two other bike riders came up from the opposite direction. "There are no blue arrows down there" they said. Well, duh, there hasn't been a blue arrow for awhile folks. We stopped and they rode to the aid station and asked where we should go. Other bike riders appeared and joined our group. I was in a group of about 10 people wondering where to go, so I felt a little better being in such a large group of confused people. I looked at my watch. 12:40 PM. We had exactly 20 minutes to get this figured out, get back to transition, change into our run gear, and get clocked out of T2 if we were, in fact, still in this race. One of the riders asked the volunteer at the aid station, and she radioed to the race headquarters. "This is Run Aid Station 2 and I have bike riders wondering where to go" she said. They radioed back and told us to continue up the road and turn left. Once again, always do what the race course volunteers and officials said.

We continued up the dirt road and turned left. To our right just outside of the turn an XTERRA course official guy came flying up in a golf cart. "The front of the group of bikers just came through here!" he frantically radioed back. What the heck was going on?!? We were now on the last stretch of dirt road that was the beginning of the run course. We continued, and turned onto the paved road that led back to the race site. As I made the turn there, a volunteer was quickly writing down and calling out all of our race numbers. "Great, she's writing down the DNF list" I thought. Why else would they be recording our numbers?

I followed the other riders, and we rode the final stretch on the grass golf course towards transition. The crowd of spectators was still there cheering, yelling "Great job!" but they didn't know. They didn't know that I was probably heading towards a transition area to only have my bike grabbed by an official and told I couldn't continue. I tried not to get upset. "Always keep going until you're told to stop. You don't stop racing until you see the red or checkered flag" I told myself.

I rolled up to the transition area and was pointed to the rack of bikes. No one was there to pull me from the course. Were we still racing? I ran to my spot, threw down my bike gear, got my run gear on, and headed out. Zac was on the edge of the transition area and cheering.

"I don't even know if I'm still racing" I said as I walked by.
"Just keep going. I heard there was something messed up on the course" he replied.

So I headed out of transition, with my official T2 time being clocked before 1 PM. As I ran out, a bunch of other bikers were still coming in, so I was far from last. I came to the realization that I now had to run 7 more miles to be finished. The first part of the course on pavement wasn't bad, but then we turned and headed up the dirt hill that I had just ridden down. My legs were completely shot. I tried to run, but just couldn't get the legs to go. So I decided to walk on the uphills and "run" on the downhills. I had to try to save some energy to get through the next 7 miles.

I trotted where I could, but the course climbed and climbed. It was all dirt Jeep road, until we finally made a turn onto a downhill. The downhill was not much of a road or a trail, and was covered with loose, fist-sized rocks. No matter where you stepped, your foot was landing on a loose rock. It was painful, even with trail running shoes on. I was trying not to fall and make last week's injuries worse. I had pulled on road bike gloves to protect my roadrashed palm in case I did fall.

I ate a few Sport Beans, and stopped at all of the aid stations for water. Even though they had water, I still carried two bottles on my Fuel Belt with me, so that I would always have water and I could slowly sip it. I was already sunburned, since I was in a rush to get out of T2 and didn't bother to re-apply sunscreen. There were a few clouds out that blocked some of the sun, and I think that saved me and allowed me to keep moving on the run course.

After the rocky hell, the next bit of fun was Big Beach. It's the longest beach on Maui, and we had to run it. There were a few flags on the beach, but the XTERRA officials had told us at the pre-race meeting that we were allowed to run anywhere parallel to the markers. I decided to take the path of least resistance and run on the hard-pack that forms right by the water line. The only tough part was that the beach wasn't closed for this race (why would's only the World Championships) so I was dodging boogie boarders and people running in and out of the ocean. It was bizarre. Here were a ton of people enjoying their vacation or weekend on the beach, and I was running right through the middle of them, trying to finish a tough race course. I was covered in salt, sweat, and dirt. They were slathering on suntan oil and lounging on beach blankets. Oh, and they had sodas and snacks. Snacks that were not some horribly engineered robot race food with a lukewarm water chaser. I would have hated the beach people, except once in awhile some of them would cheer. I think it was only because I had a number on. Otherwise I would have looked very similar to the crazy beach bum people that wander the beach. And probably smelled the same.

I finished the beach run and turned onto a trail. Just before the aid station I found a log and sat down and dumped 40 pounds of dirt out of my shoes. Sand is just awful, and beach sand is the worst, and I can tell you from my countless trail runs that sand in shoes just makes for bashed up toes. There was no way I was going to run 20 more minutes with shoes full of sand. I pulled my shoes back on, and hit the aid station. This aid station was awesome because they had ice, and I gladly took a cup. I popped a cube in my mouth, filled my hat and put the ice on my head, and kept going. "One more mile!" they yelled. I learned a long time ago never to trust distances claimed by aid station people.

The next section of trail was called the "Spooky Forest" which was a bunch of scraggly trees with no leaves, twisting through the trail. I had to duck under and climb over logs. At least I didn't have a ravine to lower myself down via rope like Saipan. This was cake compared to that. But the forest section wasn't very long, and I quickly found myself back on another stupid beach with more stupid sand. This sand was more coarse and black because there were huge lava rocks at the water's edge. I had to slowly climb the boulder field of black lava rock. When lava rock gets wet, it gets insanely slippery. I was glad to have my gloves on, because at some points I was climbing on all fours as the water splashed over the rocks. To my right, a golf course finally appeared. This meant I was close to the finish!

As I walked over the rocks I ate about 3 more Sport Beans. On the 4th bean my stomach turned sour, and I spit the half-chewed 4th bean out. Stomach does not want Sport Beans! I sipped some water. Ugh. I also learned at Iroman Arizona not to force down stuff that makes you nauseous, because the stomach WILL revolt and have a Going out of Business sale without your consent. I thought for sure I was going to loose it. But I was so close to the finish! So I walked and drank more water. I also REALLY wanted to take my shoes off again. The sand from the black beach had made it's way into my shoes and made my size 8.5 shoes feel like size 5. I looked at my watch. If I hurried I could get under the 6 hour mark. No time to take off the shoes.

I trotted along the trail and finally saw Zac near the little gazebo base we had taken our pictures at the day before. He was still waiting for me and snapping pictures. "Do you want your flag?" he asked. "Sure" I said. He would have no problem beating me to the finish line. I had one small wall I had to get over before the final stretch, and didn't have the energy to hop over it. I grabbed the top of the wall and slowly stepped over it like I was 80 years old. I took my Arizona flag from Zac and started jogging the last part of the course. It's funny because the trail goes behind the beach restrooms before the final 2 turns to the finisher's chute. Hey, it's the World Championships afterall. So the next time you use a restroom near a trail, for all you know it could be right by a World Championship course for some insane race.

I had to dodge a few spectators but finally made it to the finisher's chute. It was a row of flags from different countries and US states. There were still spectators cheering, so I unfolded my AZ flag and ran with it over my head up the finisher's chute. Everyone was cheering, and I crossed the finish line at 5:54:54, just under the 6 hour mark! I heard my favorite announcer gal announce my name and say "She's a Tri Girl from Tucson!" which was really cool. There were still television cameras there at the finish line (yes, even that late in the game). I think they got a shot of me with my tongue out or something. I had a flower lei draped over my neck, and was handed my official finisher's medal, which says "Survivor XTERRA World Championships." How appropriate.

All I wanted to do at the finish line was finally take my shoes off! I found an empty chair and dumped out my shoes and socks. My toes were dyed black from the lava sand and I had no clue what state my toenails were in. I talked to a few other racers around me and watched as the other racers came in. Meanwhile, Zac posted on Facebook that I had officially finished the race. I slowly walked barefoot back to the transition area, and sat down to clean up my spot. I had no energy to stand. I had stashed a small insulated lunch box in my transition bag with 2 small cartons of chocolate milk on ice. So I sat in my disheveled transition area with no shoes on and my race gear scattered everywhere, sipping my chocolate milk. I looked around and others cleaning up their spaces were sitting in the grass as well. No one had the energy to stand. As I slowly picked up my area, I talked with the other racers that I had seen out on the course. Many asked if I would be back to Maui next year or in the future, but I said I wanted to travel and do some of the other XTERRA races abroad first.

And what was the big confusion on the bike course? After the race I heard there had been a major crash on the course, so we were diverted away from the area. So it turned out I wasn't being pulled from the course or anything. They were taking our numbers down to keep track of who was being diverted and to keep an account of us, since we couldn't continue on the regular course. So no matter what, always do what the race officials tell you, even if it's confusing. After I got some food and rest, it all made much more sense. ;)

Even though the race was incredibly tough, the XTERRA World Championships were still a lot of fun to participate in. The XTERRA community is still pretty small compared to other triathlon events, and I like that. I hope they are able to keep the vibe going as things change throughout the years. This race made me want to continue to do XTERRA triathlons, and after seeing the highlights video I definitely want to do some of the European races. I'm not sure if I'll ever make it back to Maui, which is why I took this race as a "once in a lifetime opportunity" and enjoyed it while I was there.

So what is next? A BREAK. This was an entire year of training and I am mentally tired and want to get back to my willy nilly training. I'll still bike and run (and sometimes swim, heh) but I need a mental break from following a set plan. There's a lot of new stuff I want to try next year, like downhill mountain bike racing, bikepacking, and getting back into riding my bike into work once in awhile. I tend to do this in waves, with one "on" year of focused training, followed by an "off" year of doing whatever whenever. So I'm definitely looking forward to some "off" time!

Photos from the race are here in my album on Facebook.

HUGE thanks to everyone that helped over this past year:

Zac - Husband, race sherpa, photographer, laundry helper, and the one who says "I think you should do it" when I question if something is stupid/crazy, even after I said I would do it.

Coach Scott Blanchard from Pyramid Coaching - He set the plan that helped me get here, helped keep me from melting down, from overtraining, and never said I was crazy when I wanted to reach the 2 goals of Saipan and the World Championships. A good coach is such a huge help!

Mom & Dad - For endless support and cheering. They are huge fans of the blog. ;)

Training Partners - For everyone that helped in my year of swimming, biking, and running to get here. My friends from the Tucson Tri Girls allowed me to tag along on bike rides. And Ryan "The Boulder" for our weekly runs where he would run with me no matter how crazy the workout was, including hill repeats on A Mountain or running Saguaro East in the dark.

Readers of The Blog - Friends from Beginner,, friends & family members, and everyone else that puts up with waiting for me to make an update or write a race report. Thanks! :)