I did everything right yesterday.
This is not something I can say every day. In fact, those of you keeping up with the rest of my life know that this year has been one where I have not done everything right. It is not that I have done things wrong, but not completely right.
Yesterday’s XTERRA event, however, was me doing everything right.
I arrived at transition around 6:45am. It was overcast but not cold. I was actually glad the sun had not come out yet, because I knew when it did, it would be a very warm day. The race start time was set for 8am, so I had plenty of time to organize my transition area and lay out my gear for the race. By 7:15am I was ready to go and even body marked. With nearly 45 minutes left before race start, I had plenty of time to visit the bathroom and find quiet time alone to focus on the event.
The course was not going to be easy. The lake already had a steady current moving east, which meant I would be fighting the current to swim straight at the first buoy and then swimming against the current after 300 yards to reach the second one. The last 250 yards would be easier because I would be swimming with the current back to shore. The total distance of the swim was about 750 meters.
I did not make time to preview the bike course, but the maps indicated that it was identical to previous years except that the initial climb was removed. The distance was published as being only 15k, it turned out be closer to 20k. The first 5 miles of the course was pure climbing. I remembered that some hills were easier than others, but that I had to walk most of the climbs two years ago. And while ascending is difficult, descending is dangerous. This course had fast descents, sudden sharp turns, and plenty of loose sand. One small miscalculation meant that you would be lying on the ground in seconds. Two years ago, I ended up walking down several descents because I simply didn’t know if I could control the bike.
The run course was new to me this year and would end up being a surprise. I was aware of the first climb but nothing else. It also turned out that the run was closer to 7k than 5k.
As with most of these events, the race began with a mass swim start. In this case, it meant that 300 of us were jumping into the lake at once and searching for a spot to call our own. I started off too far in the front which meant that I had faster swimmers fighting to get past me. I held my pace and focused on the first buoy, always conscious of the flailing arms and legs that might hit me in the face or knock my goggles off. I found my pace quickly and settled into a very comfortable swim. My arms were a little slow at first, but they found the blood they needed and we were on our way. The current was smooth and not as strong as it looked. I adjusted my breathing to match the flow and ebb of the water.
The left turn at the first buoy was effortless and the path to the second buoy was clear. I followed two other swimmers and used them to draft, reducing the effects of the current working against us. After the second buoy it was a fast swim to the shore. This time I used the currents to work with me and I picked up my pace to match the current.
Coming out of the water and into transition is always a slow process for me. My prescription goggles allow me to find my way to the bike, but since they do not correct my astigmatism, perspective is always a problem. As a result, I end up walking carefully to my bike so I don’t trip on anything. I pulled off my wetsuit, put on my headband, and strapped on my helmet. Gels went in my short pockets, Camelbak on my back, and after everything was clicked in, I put on my gloves. I was a bit surprised to find myself running out of transition. I normally walk.
The bike portion went much better than I expected. In fact, I was a little sad when I discovered that I was done with it so soon. I rode off strong up the first small climb. My quads were cramping a little so I took a few extra swigs of Gatorade and gently massaged them as I started going downhill. I knew that it was just temporary and it soon passed.
I was unprepared for the first sand trap so it caught me off guard. But I quickly dismounted and charged through it and the small climb before the main road. Once on the main road I started noticing that I was passing other riders. I wasn’t trying to pass them, it was just their pace was slower than mine. I was even passing riders on the climbs. During one small descent I drafted off two other riders since we were heading into a headwind. The main road was fun and fast, but I knew the main climbs were coming quickly.
A quick left turn led us up the mountain and suddenly a string slow moving mountain bikes being pushed appeared. Energy conservation was critical to me at this point, but I also knew that walking up steep hills while pushing a bike can tire your calves out very quickly. And I would need my calves for the run. However, after the first couple of climbs, I was faced with a wall and had to dismount. I was pleased to discover that I was not only rider walking.
The climbs were interspersed with short descents. I soon found my rhythm and was able to mount and dismount my bike without losing much speed on the ascents. After about an hour of this, I made it to the top and prepared for the descent.
I was fortunate to have another rider ahead of me. I trusted his line and followed his tracks as closely as I could. The descents were quick and I barely touched my brakes. I let the bike go as fast as it could. I hit loose sand a few times but did not fight the bike; I let the bike choose the path. Once out of the sand, I corrected the direction and blasted down another hill.
I can’t say I was scared or concerned about crashing, in fact, crashing never crossed my mind. I spent the last 4 months preparing for this moment and it was my moment. I felt connected to the bike in a way I never have before. The bike was a part of me, an extension. Every bump we hit we flowed over it. The turns were seamless. Gravity was my friend.
The course doubled back to transition crossing the same sand pit we started out with. This time I used the descent to pick up as much speed as I could and blasted through the sand. I tore through the final turns into transition and leaped off the bike at the dismount line. Once again, I found myself running into and out of transition. I had my running shoes on faster than I expected.
I held an even pace on the run, fully aware that every ascent would slow me to a walk. Some of the 30 or so riders I passed on the bike would eventually catch me. I was not bothered by it. The goal for this race was to master the bike course. The run would come next year. But in the meantime, I would stay strong and hold off as many of them as I could.
Once again, to my surprise, I was passing people again. It was very clear that some riders pushed themselves too hard on the bike and now found themselves with leg cramps. I know my limits, and even though I pushed right against the line during the bike, I never crossed them. I needed enough reserve to finish the run and go over my limits if I needed to.
There were several steep climbs on the run. It was one of those courses where you felt that you were constantly going uphill, even though you weren’t. I grabbed Gatorade Endurance at the three aid stations, just in case. The sun was out in full force by this point. I figured it had already been out for an hour, but I barely noticed it on the bike. But climbing up these desert hills, I became extremely aware of the sun and the heat.
After 8 climbs, we finally reached the summit and began the 1-mile descent to the finish line. At this point, the competitive blood in the racers behind me kicked in and I hard fast feet behind me. Part of me toyed with the idea of racing, but I wanted a strong finish, and I was not sure how much energy I would need to cover remaining the mile. So I held my pace, content with the fact that I was crossing the line at 02:38:42, well below my 3-hour goal.