Monday, June 10, 2013

Playing in the dirt!

Who's ready for Xterra? This guy!
This past weekend was the first time that I took my three sport passion off the tarmac. I had been interested in Xterra racing for some time, but my last experience with mountain biking, about 10 years ago, left me with a deathly fear of single track trails. Couple that with my hip fracture last year from an on-road (where I'm quite comfortable) wipe out and I thought it would be best to leave that box unchecked. Fast forward to this past winter when I was getting back to training and found a killer deal on last year's model of a hard tail 29'er. Here we go!

I looked on the Xterra website and found Xterra East Fork just outside Cincinnati, Ohio. The race was scheduled for June 9th. Now we had a deadline for me to become a competent off road cyclist. Sounds like plenty of time, I know, but I had a few other things going on. First thing was to rehab myself back to the point where I could compete and take on a full time training schedule. Then I had to tackle a January iron distance event. Finally, I went to Puerto Rico to secure a slot to the 2013 Ironman World Championship 70.3.

Once all those tasks were complete, it was time to sprinkle in some trail work. My first scheduled mountain bike ride was going to be three leisurely hours of rolling through the woods near Alum Creek Reservoir. Fifteen minutes in, I sent myself over the handlebars for a classic face plant into the dirt. This resulted in my face being stitched from the base of my nose to my upper lip... oops. Did I mention that I was on the "beginner" trail?! The tiny bit of confidence I had was now at a new record low.
I did manage to get back on the horse in the weeks leading up to East Fork, but only a handful of times and never made it off the bunny slope. To say that I was terrified of the Xterra bike course was a drastic understatement.

Race weekend:

Kim, Jet and I headed down to Bethel, Ohio on Saturday afternoon. I had done a quick 20 minute pre race run before leaving home and still had a 30 minute pre race bike to accomplish. I wanted to do it on the race course in order to either calm my nerves or reinforce my visions of pushing my bike through miles of single track. When we arrived at packet pickup, I was quickly told that due to recent rains, the bike course had been changed from the advertised 12 miles to 14 miles. That may not seem like much, but for me, that was an extra eternity! The course was now a double loop lollipop with the loops being the single track and the stem being a park road that lead from transition to the trail head and back.

After getting my packet, I grabbed my bike and set off to attempt one loop of the course. I told Kim that I would hopefully be back close to 30 minutes, but not to worry if it took a bit longer. I showed back up over an hour later. I had survived the pre ride with only a couple drops of blood to show for it, but I had dismounted for more obstacles than I'd care to admit.
If you've heard that off road triathletes are a lot more laid back than their asphalt loving brethren, you heard right. This race didn't start until 9 AM! Transition didn't even open until 7 and when I asked when transition would close, I was basically told that they would kick folks out when racers were coming into T1. Haha! I am not a morning person, so this was just fine with me!

All set up in transition
We woke up at a little before 6 AM and I began my pre race, kamikaze grooming process. We arrived at the park around 7:30 and I began setting up, carefully observing those around me to make sure I didn't stick out like the roadie that I am. I noticed that I was one of few to not have a Camelbak hanging near my bike and I can now see how that would have been handy. Oh well, not a big deal. Water temperature was announced as 70*F and I debated on whether to wear my wetsuit for the relatively short 1000m swim (more on this in a moment). After I was set up, Kim and I wandered down to the beach and I remarked that for a two loop, 1000m swim, the turn buoys looked far apart. I dismissed this because I always feel like an open water course looks far when you see it laid out.

The swim was a time trial start with a swimmer going in the water every four seconds or so. Seriously, it was sort of up to you to run across the timing mat whenever you felt ready - laid back. You were supposed to self seed yourself according to swim ability, but no formal system existed. Normally I would have jumped in line around number 10 or so to give myself a chance to catch some fast feet and hit the bike with good riders... not this time. I placed myself square in the middle of the field with the thought process that each person who got out of the swim ahead of me would be one less person who I would have to let pass on the trails. I began my swim leisurely with no real sense of urgency, but wanted to work on controlling my breathing and focusing on some mechanics that Rich has had me working on lately. I felt good in the water with the extra buoyancy from my DeSoto wetsuit I decided to throw on and I realized that I was passing a good number of folks. When I exited the water after my second lap, I realized that my watch read more than ten minutes beyond what I expected for a 1000m swim. I then looked at the distance and it read nearly 1.1 miles... Over 1700 meters! Someone really dropped the ball on that one!

Into transition 1 and I was in no huge rush because I knew that I was going to put on socks, my mountain bike shoes, gloves... basically have a picnic.

Headed onto the bike, I was definitely nervous. I focused on keeping relaxed as I could feel the tension building in my hands and arms. I made sure I kept my hand covering the rear brake lever, but I avoided the front brake like the plague following my face's introduction to Mother Earth a month or so earlier. As expected, I was quickly passed by far superior mountain bikers, but I told myself that my goal was to survive this ride, not race it. When I would hear someone coming up, I would yell out "Let me know when you want to go around, you won't hurt my feelings!" or "I have no pride, pass whenever you'd like!" I did find myself riding through a number of areas where I had dismounted the day before and that made me happy. I walked my bike both times we went across a pretty technical river crossing, but I don't think it really cost me much time. Seeing how I was limited much more by my lack of technical skills than my cardiovascular fitness, I was able to carry on quite a few lovely conversations with riders in front of and behind me. I had a couple folks respond with something similar to "I'm gonna stay here and rest for a second" when I gave my usual greeting as they rode up behind me... aaaand there goes my pride. In the end, I finished the 14 miles in 1:36, much quicker than I anticipated given the hour it took me to complete one lap on Saturday. In comparison, the quickest riders completed the same course in around 1:13.

Given the weight that was lifted off my shoulders as I headed back to T2, they could have told me to run a marathon and I wouldn't have flinched. I was invincible now! Or so I thought...

I threw on my running shoes and grabbed some sunglasses before heading onto the 6'ish mile run. I hadn't previewed the run, but in my mind it would be a hard packed dirt trail or maybe some gravel. I couldn't have been more wrong. This was a straight up single track, hilly, gulley filled, creek crossing, waist high grass, log jumping obstacle course! In the beginning I tried to keep out of the mud to cut down on excess weight on my shoes. That lasted about a quarter mile until I got into an ankle deep mud swamp. I had an epic fail in footwear selection. I had grabbed my Pearl Izumi E Motion tri shoes because they have a fairly thick sole, they're easy to don, and fairly light weight. The problem was that they have no traction. Each time I stepped in a mud hole they acted more like water skis than running shoes. Even still, I pushed through the run course and passed more than a dozen other racers and thought "I let you guys show off on the bike, now it's my turn!" I came screaming down the final hill into the finish and was very happy to be done. That run was brutal!

Overall, I'm really happy with how my first Xterra race went. I ended up 3rd in my age group and 19th overall. Looking at the results, I swam and ran faster than most of the top 5 guys, but
they smoked me on the bike. I guess that is precisely what separates Xterra from road racing! I am not ready to become a hardcore, tree hugging triathlete, but I wouldn't mind racing in the shade of a tree canopy a few more times!


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