Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My First Xterra

I raced my first Xterra off-road triathlon on August 20 at Wildlife Prairie State Park, near Peoria, Illinois. This event would feature an 800 meter swim, 10 mile mountain bike, and 4 mile trail run. I had really fallen off the training wagon since my last race, 5 weeks prior, as kids' activities like football practice and school had demanded my time. Since that last race, I had done only about an hour and a half each of run and swim training. I had pre-ridden most of the race bike course, but had otherwise managed only 2 or 3 mountain bike outings. It didn't matter - I was doing this race entirely for the fun of it and had no ambitions of a high finish.

Xterra has its own culture that is unique and a little different from mainstream road triathlon. There are certainly some athletes that regularly compete in both Xterra and road events, but many are fully devoted to Xterra. In the parking lot, I counted license plates from Tennessee, Michigan, and New York - at a race that had only 63 individual participants. The New York athlete came in a SUV pulling a trailer that was decorated with signs and other memorabilia from past Xterra races.

Road triathlons usually have much larger fields in the Midwest and a significant share of casual participants. I think it is much less common for the casual athlete to dip a toe into Xterra. I was impressed by a very small cadre who took on the sometimes rocky and steep mountain bike course on "Wal-Mart bikes" with no front suspension. However, the vast majority were skilled mountain bikers with equipment to match. A common pre-race exchange in the transition area would go something like this...

"Hey Jim, how's it going?"
"Great, how are you?"
"Super. Are you doing the WHOLE thing?"

In most cases, I think Jim was an experienced mountain bike racer who, to the surprise of his friend, was attempting to swim without drowning and run without pulling a hamstring. It was a new experience for me to race where the bike would be a distinct weakness.

The Swim

The swim was in a reclaimed mining pit, deep with steep edges and surprisingly clear. There was no beach and not enough shallow water for a standing start. It thus became my first race with a deep water start, where everyone treaded water for a few minutes before the gun. A couple volunteers served as pullers on the shore to get everyone quickly and safely up the steep bank upon exit. I thought my swim went OK, but my time of over 16 minutes easily made it the worst of the year, which was not surprising given my limited swim training of late. Still, I entered transition virtually tied with 15th place, which put me in the top 25%. The top swimmer was 12:41 (1:35 per 100 meters). By comparison, I swam a 1:38 pace over 1000 meters in my best swim of the season. In a road tri, I would have expected at least a couple swimmers in the 10-minute range. Was the distance a little longer than advertised or were the ex-collegiate swimming stars intimidated by Xterra?


I dropped 5 more positions in the first transition, as I struggled with the unfamiliarity of Xterra. I put on a hydration backpack and gloves, both of which are unnecessary on the road but essential on the trail, for me anyway. Some more skilled and experienced riders were able to put gloves on as they pedaled away.

The Bike

In a road tri, the bike is by far my best event. I am almost always in the top 10% in the split, and often better at smaller races. Here, I was a strong swimmer (relatively speaking) who would become fodder on the trail. The steady-state effort required for road time-trailing is a good fit for my slow-twitch muscle physiology. Mountain biking is much more technical, especially on the singletrack that made up 80% of this course. Skill in handling the bike through narrow trails, around hairpin turns, and down steep descents with minimal braking is more important than fitness. And the fitness that is required depends less on steady-state power and endurance, and more on explosive power to accelerate quickly out of corners and up short, steep hills. I've owned a mountain bike for several years, but have used it only for fun and cross-training for skiing. I typically get out only a few times each year, mostly in the fall after my summer tri and road cycling season has wound down. I probably have logged about 300-400 miles, lifetime, on the mountain bike.

I tried to push a little harder than my skills would allow at the start of the first 5-mile lap and struck a tree within the first half mile or so. It occurred in a tight squeeze between two trees (or possibly two trunks of the same tree that were bisected by the trail.) The passage was perhaps 50% wider than my handlebars and I made the mistake of looking at the tree instead of the space between. The bike usually follows where the eyes track, and I clipped the right trunk with my handlebar and shoulder. My left hip scraped the other trunk and my left leg became pinned between the frame and twisted handlebars as I squirted through the other side. I lost a few more positions by the time I had extracted myself and replaced my dropped chain. I remounted with bruises and scrapes on four separate areas of my body, but it didn't hurt too badly until after the race. I took that section a little slower on the second lap, kept my eyes fixed on the trail, and made it through without incident.

I was passed by a total of 10 riders on the bike, but managed to pass 4 others, for a net loss of 6 positions. The 10 that passed included one chick and reality-TV star Ryan Sutter, winner of The Bachelorette several seasons ago. He's one of Jennifer's favorites and apparently one of the few that it still married. Big deal. Dude can ride a mountain bike, though.


The second transition was also tough, mostly because of the unfamiliarity. Bike gloves are not only hard to put on wet hands; removing them from sweaty, muddy hands is also a chore. I actually stood in transition and removed 1.5 gloves before I realized that I should be doing that as I ran. I even have pockets in my tri suit. Doh! Despite the dawdling, I didn't lose any positions in T2. After the experience on the bike, I was surprised there were still people behind me. I started the run near the middle of the pack, in 27th place.

The Run

The run, which is normally my weakness, became an opportunity to reclaim lost ground. The upside of my slow bike, limited more by technical skills than fitness, was that I hit the run relatively fresh. The course was mostly off-road, on the park's hiking trails. I felt pretty good and kept a steady tempo throughout the run. The splits look bad, but the course definitely got harder with each mile. The last mile, by far the slowest, featured a treacherous, rocky descent followed by a long climb on a paved road. I managed to pass 3 runners who had passed me on the bike (including the chick) and finished 24th, several positions above the middle of the pack. It felt pretty good for a first effort. I could have easily trimmed 2-3 minutes off my transitions and moved up a couple spots overall. My age group was really tough and I placed 8th of 13.

Results Summary

SplitTime, PacePlace Overall/Age Group
Swim:16:07, 2:01/100m16th/3rd
Bike (GPS profile):1:17:21, 7.91 mph32nd/9th
Run (GPS profile):32:14, 8:04/mile14th/4th

Here is another summary of my splits and how my position changed through the race, and here are the full results.

Xterra won't become the focus of my training, but this event fit nicely as a just-for-fun race after my July peak road tri. I will definitely plan to do it again next year if my schedule allows.


Ragfield said...

Way to run :)

Scott said...

I survived, in a field that wasn't too stacked with runners. Hope you can make it next year, Rob. I'll drop a spot then. :-)