Thursday, June 18, 2015

Learning the Cliches: XTERRA East Championships

Triathlon version: "My fitness is there, training's been good, I'm just going to give it my best shot and race hard." Coach Mace and I pretty much had this talk over beer (ok, cider in my case) and (boneless) wings at Buffalo Wild Wings after Armed Forces last weekend.

So, I finished last at the XTERRA East Championships this past weekend. I wasn't totally surprised by the result, nor am I embarrassed by it. Given my outlook on my new elite* racing career, this was the perfect race to debut because it was so low-key, my expectations wouldn't have even been that high racing as an age grouper, and mountain biking and trail running are just so much fun even when you're in dead last place. I'll elaborate more on the decision to take the elite license in another post at some point.

*I prefer the term "elite" to "professional" for two reasons:
1) It's actually the term used by USA Triathlon and the International Triathlon Union, aligning with Olympic sports as a whole. In triathlon terms, "pro" is really more of a slang-type term, but is also how race organizers refer to the elite field. Instead, "elite" often means "elite amateur" or something like that. Those athletes are not elite license holders, but just fast age groupers who want to race for the overall amateur title and are removed from typical age group awards. Any time in the last few years where that category has been offered, I have raced in it.
2) "Professional" implies, at least in my eyes, certain things about income, occupation, primary focus, and so on. At least for the foreseeable future, I will not be putting my primary focus on racing triathlon. Most likely, I won't be making any money from it either.

First things first: I would have never made this venture into triathlon without my first real foray into endurance sports as a high school cross country runner. It seemed fitting to use this bag as my transition bag for the race.
With that explanation out of the way, I was still going to race like a race. This wasn't a joy ride by any stretch. I wanted to swim in the main bunch or better, then ride the best I've ever ridden the James River trails, then have a respectable run and not melt. Most importantly, I wanted to enjoy my time, which is again part of why I chose an off-road triathlon as my first elite race.
I would have liked to preview the course a bit more than I did because it *seems* like it's close, but 2 hours each way means it is an all-day affair to go ride in Richmond. I've tried this year not to let triathlon completely take over my weekends, especially when the weather is nice. Combining that healthier outlook on not allowing a hobby to consume my life with my primary focus on Armed Forces, a draft-legal road tri, I only made it up to Richmond one or two times. Oh well.
Meredith and my parents were there to support me in this wonderful little endeavor, which was really great to have all of them, and I'm endlessly thankful for their support, standing around in Richmond for several hours in temperatures approaching 100 degrees.
So the swim started, with a small field of only 12 of us, it was pretty tame. The current had me going all over the place, but eventually I settled in with Karsten Madsen. I did what I could to avoid swimming into the occasional boulder, and part of me wishes I had bridged up after the shuffle across Belle Isle, but I didn't have it in me at the time. With the afterward knowledge, I realize that Branden Rakita put in a huge dig afterward, so that makes sense why Karsten and I lost his feet.
Awkwardly steep, soft river bottom made exiting the water a bit tricky. Photo credit to Mom, of course.
It was a pretty long run for T1. Karsten and I both had on the awesome Champion System ITU suits, both in some pretty spectacular color schemes at that. Photo credit here to Barry Raltston
Into transition and the first part of the bike just felt a bit clunky to me. I don't have tri-friendly mountain bike shoes, so I did a little home remedy to make them a little bit better. I have a pair with two Velcro straps and one buckle/ratchet, so I removed the third one and put Velcro there instead. This sort of home remedy thing is fairly common in XTERRA, where sometimes triathlon-specific equipment does the job, sometimes mountain bike equipment does the job, but sometimes you need the in-between. Unfortunately, I missed the boat on the no longer in production Specialized Trivent Terras that pretty much the entire male elite field had. While I struggled with my home remedy shoes, Karsten took off on the first paved section of road, and I failed to jump on the wheel of Josiah Middaugh and Olly Shaw as they passed me early as well.
Glue the strip into the place of the buckle
and the strap. Voila!
Step 1: Remove the buckle. This
one happened to have a small screw
Loctite/super glue of some sort, and in my case I used the picture-hanging strips.
Once I entered the trails, I realized my course previews hadn't prepared me for riding the trails at the sky-high heart rate I normally have at the beginning of any triathlon bike leg, so I found myself scrubbing tons of speed, slamming on the brakes. Eventually I calmed down, but not before the guys behind me out of the water passed me. I totally wimped out on the Forest Hill stream crossing, much to the dismay of the hecklers at the race. For the rest of the first lap and first part of the second lap, it was a lonely ride save the hecklers at the rock slab late on Buttermilk and the Stairway to Heaven on North Bank. The second lap, I made it across the stream crossing and hit the rock slab in its entirety, with healthy encouragement from the hecklers. Around that time, Suzie Snyder caught up to me as I bungled a smaller stream crossing switchback. I was able to stay with her for the rest of the ride, just making sure not to interfere with the front of the women's race. At one point, we passed Olly, walking his bike back in after a mechanical. Suzie and I entered T2 together, but I took off quickly on the run with Meredith telling me I was a mere 1:30 back to 10th. I had no idea who 10th was or how good of a runner he was, but thought just maybe there was a chance I could run him down. It turns out it was Ben Collins, who ended up running 4 minutes faster than me. So that wasn't going to happen.
(This is actually leaving T1) Eyes looking toward the exit, body weight shifted, not bad. But it looks like my hips are pointed towards the outside of the turn. Whoops! Photo credit to Barry Ralston
I started off the run feeling pretty good for the first mile that's mostly paved and flat. Shortly after the first mile, I hit the first set of stairs, which took a bit out of me, but I recovered, picking the pace back up along the flood wall. Then I turned down towards the Mayan Ruins, which just wrecked me. I tried to keep it calm and fluid going up the Mayan Ruins, but there was no saving me once I reached the top of there. At that point, I was just trying to survive, as I knew I still had 4 miles to go. I got back onto the trails and park service road, where at that point I was tired enough that any technical trail sections or downhill stairs were frightening because I had no control. I hit the Dry Way crossing of the James and was pretty much lost, though I imagine most people feel that way. In hindsight, I should have scoped that out better, as it would have probably cut off as much as 30 seconds.
After the Dry Way, I struggled up the hills on Belle Isle, finally taking it home across the footbridge and onto the paved road for the finish. I knew I wasn't going to pull any time back, but I was in it for a little bit of pride, just trying to have a reasonable run split. I had among the slowest elite run splits, but I was ok with how it went, all things considered. I certainly could have stood to do some more hill work prior to this, including running stairs or even some of the more technical trails in First Landing State Park (which do exist! I didn't believe it until I started running them!), as the flood wall and Mayan Ruins really just put me in a hole I could never get out of.

So hot. Donezo. Photo credit to Mom

All I wanted to do was sit down in the misting tent. It was great.
So I was fairly pleased, despite finishing last. I didn't feel completely out of place, though I certainly have a lot of work to do if I want to race XTERRA at the elite level. Even in the swim, which should have been my strength, I had some serious room to improve. I don't think I'm going to be able to fit in another XTERRA race this year, but I'm definitely coming back for a couple next year.

Jesse Peters Photo Gallery
Strava for Run
Strava for MTB ride

Really, check that Jesse Peters gallery out. He got some amazing shots of the race, below are two of the better ones of me. I really like the one that captures the party atmosphere of the rock slab.

Backlight: XTERRA East Champs 2015 &emdash;
Working a rough little steep. Photo Credit: Jesse Peters/Backlight Photography

Backlight: XTERRA East Champs 2015 &emdash;
Party Rock! I've done probably 50 unique races, and I've never seen anything like this. It's even better than it was when I last raced here 4 years ago. Photo Credit: Jesse Peters/Backlight Photography

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