That's all talk, of course, as I am definitely in good shape NOW, but I haven't done any RACING to confirm that. I love racing. Period. I wouldn't train if I didn't race. Competition drives me and I imagine it drives many triathletes and athletes in general. It's part of what makes sport so fun; that inherent desire to constantly improve and better oneself. By this time last year (in 2013) I had already raced 5 times, including 2 half ironmans...
I have really grown to love and appreciate trail riding this year. I had a mountain bike last year as well but I did not use it or embrace it quite as much as I have in 2014. Luckily for me, there are triathlons that are off-road. Yay! I would get to kill several birds with one stone (or for those that don't like analogies such as that, I would get to accomplish multiple goals at once)!
1) Have fun
2) Race something different
3) Work on skills in areas I am lacking
4) Make myself better
6) Did I mention racing?
Mr Behme had suggested XTERRA Tsali a couple of months ago and in spite of some initial concern over my well-being with regard to trail running (I don't have a good history of running on trails; in fact I have almost no history of running on trails due to my fragile little baby ankles) I signed up along with Sebastian.
Sebastian was able to provide a great deal of advice and help as he has done XTERRA before (and done it very well, having won XTERRA Whitewater last year) and this was something completely new to me (and I think Behme as well). Tsali is a humongous trail system about an hour west of Asheville and is one of the most popular trail riding spots in NC (and in the general region). The trails are often described as "fast," "flowy" and "fun" so it sounded like a good one for me to do as my first off-road triathlon attempt.
I had designs on trying to win, as I knew my fitness was good. I figured it would be my lack of experience and technical ability on the bike and/or run that slowed me down. But the main competition I knew of would be Sebastian and I expected the big German to know my plan (swim hard and try and be out of sight for run and bike) and have something up his sleeve to counter that!
|Packed up and ready to leave|
The three of us drove up to Tsali on Saturday morning and got in one loop of the bike course (semi-technical flat for 15-20 minutes than a lot of climbing and some rollers, basically), a little jog and a brief swim in the lake. It's great with XTERRA to be able to get a look at the bike course as going into the race blind would really slow you down. It's not like road triathlons where you can just blaze away and know that nothing scary is going to happen (like rolling down a tree-lined slope into the lake 100 feet below you) if you take a bad line through a turn...
|A great spot for dinner at the NOC|
|Nothing to see here, just two dudes sharing a bed|
We woke up early Sunday morning and headed over to the race site, laying out our gear for the different transitions (swim to run, run to bike) of XTERRA Tsali. Everyone started gathering down at the lake where the swim start would be and the start proved to be very informal:
Announcer to group of athletes (some of whom were in water most of whom were waiting on the boat ramp): "Everybody ready?"
Raises air horn
Pretty simple and quite different than road triathlon...
The race did not use timing chips so I'm not really sure whether the "transitions" were included, but the swim was supposed to be 750 (it was probably more like 600 meters), run was 4.5 and bike was 10.6.
Swim - 8:07 (1st)
I was lined up on the "right" and had a pretty straight shot to the first buoy. The swim was a simple triangle and the first leg would be the longest. I took it out fairly hard but tried to stay smooth as I wanted to be able to maintain the pace. Someone over on the left was also going at a pretty quick clip and I knew Binny would be hot on my heels as he and I had been treading water together at the start.
The first buoy came pretty quickly and I made the left turn and took a glance over my shoulder to see that I had some nice separation from the chasers. XTERRA athletes definitely, in general, seem to be weaker swimmers (compared to their bike and run legs) which is definitely a nice reprieve from racing pro road triathletes, who apparently have no weaknesses.
The second leg of the triangle was quick and at the turn I took another glance and saw that my gap had grown a bit so I made my way smoothly to the swim exit. We had all set up a little transition area with towel, shoes, and run number (I also gave myself the option of socks for the run but ended up going without) laid in a chosen spot.
I exited the water and put on my shoes and grabbed my run number before heading onto the trail and the 1/2 mile climb straight up!
|The swim exit and start of the run up the trail|
Run - 29:30 (2nd)
I had seen two swimmers within about 50 yards of me as I exited the swim so I knew I needed to run smooth and fast to maintain my gap. The climb up to the main trail was pretty difficult and in hindsight I almost wish I had walked it as by the time I reached the top and gotten onto the trail my calves were on fire!
The run and bike courses basically wind around the peninsula we were on so they would climb for a bit then descend down into a "cove" and then climb back out, so there were some opportunities to look behind and check for any chasers. For quite awhile I did not see any and I was happy about that. I did not feel as though I was running particularly "fast" as I am pretty timid on trails. Luckily, there were only a few parts of this run that would be considered "technical" to any degree (some may even argue that statement, but that is my view) but there was a LOT of climbing and descending. I am only good at one of those!
About half-way through the run I saw someone across the "cove" coming towards me FAST. It took him another couple of minutes but eventually he came up to me and passed me on a downhill like I was standing STILL. I haven't been smoked on the run in a long time (unless you count any pro race) quite like Charlie (only knew the name post-race) smoked me. He was relatively quickly out of sight but I was hoping that he was a great trail-runner and that maybe I could make some time back up again on the bike.
As I was running the trail around and behind transition I could hear cheers as (I assume) Charlie got to his bike and made his way back out onto the trails.
I arrived at my bike, put on socks, helmet and mountain bike shoes and headed back out onto the trails.
Bike - 48:33 (6th, maybe?)
The first 10-15 minutes of this trail loop are pretty uneventful. There is nothing very hard but you are going fast as I assume you are rolling downhill. The vegetation, however, is pretty close (as in, your bars are wider than the leaves) and I regretted not putting on gloves within the first 5 minutes, if only just for protection against the slapping of leaves and such.
There are a couple of spots on this loop that are actually stunning. Somewhere around 15-20 minutes in you come up on this big rock and you can see clear across the entire lake to your left (no trees blocking your view as the trail runs right along the edge) and it is truly gorgeous. The mountain lake is clear, the air is clear and it is just so different than anything IN the city.
|Setting up the bikes, transition 2 in the background|
But quickly you must climb, and the next 20+ minutes of the course are basically spent climbing then descending a bit then climbing again back up higher. Eventually we reached the last segment, which was a rolling fire road that was actually pretty fun. I thought at various points, that I could hear bike-like sounds both ahead of me and behind me but I never saw anybody else the entire ride. I knew the gaps were relatively small but in trails someone could be 10 seconds behind you and you'd never hear or see them. Very, very different than road triathlons. Makes it a bit scarier!
I came back to the loop behind and around transition and crossed the finish line, knowing I was in second. I was a bit surprised to have been so roundly beaten up on the run (seriously, maybe I shouldn't be surprised but it's been a long time since I've been beaten so soundly on the run...I can't get over it! It was a great experience actually, ha!) and I chatted with the winner for a bit, who is from Guam. Binny finished shortly thereafter and Behme arrived with nary a scar on him. None of us crashed, and all of us had a good time.
I was, admittedly, a bit sad to come in 2nd. I shouldn't be, given that it was my first off-road triathlon but nonetheless, the fact remains. The athlete that came in first has actually been racing XTERRA as a pro this year (mostly overseas where he lives) so definitely a great amount of experience in those legs.
OA - 1:26:09 (2nd)
I have to say: XTERRA is a LOT of fun. The atmosphere is VERY different than road triathlons. At least, based on this one singular event I have done, anyway... People generally seem to be a lot more laid back and the atmosphere is a LOT less tense.
|Awards, appreciated by all and attended by...basically all.|
The awards given out were pretty great and it seemed like basically everybody "got" something (due in no small part to the relatively small number of racers at ~100).
From a physiological standpoint, this was definitely different than my road triathlon experience. The swim was basically the same, but I am a lot faster relative to the competition than on the road (that part is nice). The bike is basically 100% "on" or "off." There is no "steady" output like on the roads. The run is similar to the road but it is WAY more up and down. The organizers are not trying - at all - to make the course more "manageable." Their goal basically seems to make it suck as much as possible. In a good way. The technical aspect of trail running and riding is something that just takes experience. My fitness is far ahead of my actual abilities, which is a refreshing change!
I was actually glad this was a swim to run to bike as I think that is "easier" than the traditional SBR. Running out of the swim isn't really that bad, but I bet running trails after biking trails is pretty tough. Heavy leg syndrome, anybody??
All in all, it was a great weekend. We had a great time traveling and racing and it seemed like everybody that raced this weekend (Raleigh 70.3, Lake Hickory, Tomahawk) had a good race. While I was a bit sad to not race Tomahawk again this year I had a good time missing out on it. Let someone else have the glory every once in a while!
(he said, sarcastically)