Xterra worlds: Hell in Paradise
I went to one of the most beautiful places on the planet, to thoroughly torture myself, and I would do it again. Probably.. Maybe..
Once settled in the west side of Maui, after skirting around the east side of the Island and the road to Hana, it was time to get to work. I had my hopes set on getting some good, course outlay fundamentals. When I found my way to the entrance of the course I saw the bike washing station. “Oh that is a nice convenience” I said to myself as I pondered if I would be utilizing it or not. Working my way up the short section of paved path before the single track I started to notice the other riders finishers their practice laps. One after the other I started to notice a glaring trend. They were all matching. They weren’t riding for the same brand.. or team, but there was an eerily unifying presence. The riders and their bikes all wore the same mocha make up. The same mocha make up my steed and I would be wearing sooner than I realized.
A weeks worth of wet weather and newly cut trails had lead to single track so muddy it was near impossible to navigate while remaining on the bike and retaining traction. After going down once and nearly crashing much more than once, I started to get nervous.
This is not what I was prepared for
In Utah, my local trails don't get to muddy. First of all it doesn’t rain often (desert) and when it does, my local trail is so hard pack that mud doesn't really present itself. As for the areas that can get gooey, it is considered bad form (insert Captain Hook voice) in the local mountain bike community to ride them wet, as it destroys the trail and it is actually an illegal, ticket-able offense. Needless to say, I don't ride mud.
The ride was intermingled with walking, clearing the front fork, rear frame stays, keeping rear mech clean enough to prevent riding a single speed, and scooping goop off sidewalls. A foreshadowing of the race. After the 9 mile ride which took me an unholy amount of time, I stopped off at the bike wash, which I now realized was not a convenience but and absolute necessity.
I felt like I had qualified for a world championship event, for a race type I have never competed in. Thankfully I wasn’t the only worry wart in the bunch. Mud tires sold out 5 days before the event and the pro’s weren’t even unanimously decided how to tackle the terrain. General consensus said skinnier tires are better. I had 2.25s with me and realized it’s going to be a crap shoot either way so might as well “run what I brung”.
I was feeling better on foot while not pushing my bike, I should have packed my more aggressive Salomon’s in retrospect but again, it was going to be rough no matter what. I snuck in a few training runs both on the road and on the course with some interval work at goal race paces in-between exploring what the island had to offer.
My swimming practice was spot on as I spent a few beach days body surfing and boogie boarding, and learning the waves was more beneficial than I had anticipated (and I never regret boogie boarding). Yes, I got in some actual swimming as well.
6:30 alarm. Another reason I love Xterra and off road events. No 4 am wake up calls. I had packed the previous night so all I had to do was slide into my kit and bike on over the Ritz, just shy of two miles from where I was staying. I pestered the mechanics on site for a spot of lube as all the washing had left my bike squeaky clean with an emphasis on squeaky. I found my way to my designated rack and laid my gear out next to a competitor I recognized from the Italian restaurant the night before. High five fellow food eating friend. Now let’s get serious.
I had spent the previous beach days of my race-cation in search of some big surf and legitimate barrels. Unfortunately, this is where I found them-The swim start of what would lead to be the toughest Xterra for me to date and the hairiest race conditions Maui has seen. The ominous waves who’s pounding was rivaled only by that of my steadily climbing heart rate were setting the scene for an intense day. I love waves. I told myself again and again. This is fun for me. I did a couple beach starts for practice, but after getting hit pretty hard by one of the waves I decided to save the fun for the race.
9am. Cannon one fires and the pro’s take to the water. Too in my head now to pay any further attention to my surroundings, the five minute countdown begins. This is always the fastest five minutes of my life, every time.
3.. 2.. 1.
Cannon Two fires.
My swim plan.. stay right, far right. Far enough that the only beating I have to worry about is coming from the ocean, and not a mob of bodies colliding into me as the surf breaks. This works out well, as I had previously learned the current sweeps left. It takes a mix of jumping, diving, and swimming over the top of the surf to get out to calmer waters. I swam straight and ended up right in line with the first buoy in the M style swim. I might have added some distance starting far right but for me it was worth it. I slowly made my way up the field a little at a time making smooth steady passes but not finding a solid draft opportunity. A downfall of my swim plan I accept. 750 yards in and it’s back onto the beach. Rounding the flags for the second run/dive into the breaking waves.
Outcome: Managed to keep my swim cap and goggles in place. Also, the most enjoyable open water swim I’ve done.
Out of the water, up a sand ramp, and weaving through a fair amount of racers I find my way to my bike, gear up quickly and head out. I was rocking a new nutrition set up for the ride. knowing how winding the course is, and that I still am somewhat new when it comes to mountain bike racing, (also the fact that my water bottle nozzle was sure to be covered in mud) I decided to make a change. I found a blader that fit inside my Salomon run pack, and filled it with my nutrition of choice (f2c). The nozzle connected via magnet and was easily placed on my vest and couldn't have worked out better. Unfortunately that's about the only thing that worked out well.
Plan B was announced for the bike ride at 7am. Meaning 3 miles of sloshy slick single track was replaced by a mile of paved cart path. This allowed the masses to thin out before the converging of the mud walkers really set in. I thought it would be an easy mile. How wrong I was. Brutally steep and just a taste of the pain to come.
After what seemed like an eternal mud hike with new friends the most scenic part of the course presented itself as rideable. A tall ridge with a steep drop on either side of the trail. If you watch any videos or highlight footage from races past, this ridge will be featured.
The bike ride went on and on, with mood swings as up and down as the trail. I descended outside of my comfort zone and outside of my skill level. Feeling confident at moments that someone else was riding my bike downhill cause it sure as hell wasn’t my slow ass. On the uphills I was painfully aware that it was indeed myself pedaling up the at times 20% grades (according to Strava). It was moments of pushing my hardtail up steep climbs that I started to get in my head. Thoughts like “I can’t run after this” started to enter my mind, and that's dangerous.
Roughly 18 brutal miles went by, from barely keeping the bike upright, to hike-a-bike with friends it was time to be done. I had successfully kept the bike in working order despite a now loose saddle, and very loose rear derailleur that took some coaxing to keep from damning me to one gear. Others didn’t make it out so lucky.
Outcome: Only ran into one tree.
I made it 100 yards past transition before the feeling of defeat started creeping in. My legs didn't actually feel terrible, but by the time I got off the bike I was 3 1/2 hours into the race. I was exhausted mentally. It was a hard look at the training mirror and what was reflected back to me was precisely what I earned. Races leading to this point have all been 2 hours or less, and my training had lacked long days in the saddle and race specific bricks that would prepare me for a 4 1/2 hour day. 2 miles of walking and jogging along the mud with breaks at rest stops, I was miserable. Parts of the trail were so slick you had to grab a tree every now and then to stay on the trail or to make a turn.
I was getting wrecked, by myself, the course, and countless athletes. At mile 3 I remembered that I didn't come to Hawaii to feel miserable and sorry for myself. I came to Hawaii for a challenge and to have fun.
I love racing. I really do, but I love having fun more. So I resolved to stop feeling sorry for myself, getting my ass kicked, and to have fun and get my ass kicked instead. At this point the run also turned downhill. I shared the last 3 miles with a 25-29 yr old from Austria. We took turns leading the way, running the downhill and walking the climbs.
The last 500m before the finish chute was running along the beach. I don’t know who is in charge of mapping out the courses for these events, but they are undeniably sadistic. I managed to run this entire stretch fueled only by the threat of shame that would consume me by walking the finish with plenty of spectators still hanging around.
Outcome: I survived with a smile. (on the inside)
It was a tough race. I came with what I had, and did what I could. A generic and simple statement but with a deeper, personal understanding for me. You can’t achieve the results without doing the research and proper prep, something I know and teach but the reminder that this race provided has given me more direction for the future. In the end, for a land locked boy playing on the world stage I am happy with my outcome. My hats off to every competitor who raced that day from the first pro to the last age grouper across the line. Everyone who finished worked for it, and hard.