Surviving the XTERRA in Maui
Hot is the first word that comes to mind when describing the XTERRA World Championship in Maui last weekend. Yeah, I’m sure you don’t feel sorry for me having to go to Maui to race. But I’m telling you it wasn’t your average beach vacation.
When I was packing my bags I wasn’t thinking about laying on the beach or snorkeling; I was imagining crashing on a downhill and my body being spewed across jagged lava rock. I wondered how I was going to handle the high temperatures and humidity on a course with little shade. It was hard to imagine a race being “too hot” when temperatures in Tahoe were plummeting, but I packed my bags sans warm-ups or a wet suit.
Why am I doing this again? Oh yeah, I get to go to Maui.
I was told it was an accomplishment to finish the race, especially with no blood. In fact, 44 racers did not finish the race this year, the majority because of injury or exhaustion.
Both the bike and running course had more climbing than Tahoe ” where the XTERRA National Championship was held on Oct. 2 ” and on rougher terrain. The 32-kilometer race had more than 3,000 feet of climbing. Although the race was at sea level, usually creating faster times, the heat and grueling terrain made competitors’ times much slower than in Tahoe.
In the words of the first-place finisher, Hamish Carter, the 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist in triathlon, “It’s honestly the hardest, meanest course ever. The rocks and hills won’t go away.”
It was my first time racing without a wet suit, and I was glad. I love swimming in the ocean and the buoyancy of the salt water beat being confined to a wet suit. The water was relatively calm the morning of the race as 500-plus racers waited on the shoreline for the gun to go off.
No one could hear the announcers at the pre-race briefing, so the start surprised a lot of the racers. Like usual, the start was a scramble to get around the first buoy. I was immediately annoyed by other competitors swimming on top of me.
A current drifted many of the racers to the left of the buoy, creating a jam to get around it. Swimmers were treading water because it was so congested. I was so far on the inside of the buoy it seemed like I would never get around it. Rather than waiting I decided to swim underneath the competitors and around the rope. When I came up another racer grabbed the back of the suit, pushing me down again. I don’t know if this was intentional but it was enough for me to yell obscenities.
By the time I started the second lap I was hot. Considering I was in water I knew this was bad sign and that I was only going to get hotter. By this time the race had thinned out and I noticed I was swimming beside one of the top women pros, Renata Bucher. I knew if I stayed with her coming out of the water I would get on the TV cameras that usually cut after the top pros go by.
We came out of the water together and I was soon left behind gagging from the salt water I didn’t know I drank during the swim. My nausea subsided during the transition and I headed out on my bike.
Unexpectedly pleased with my swim, I headed out on the bike with optimism, even though I was unfamiliar with the course up the side of Haleakala, a 10,000-foot volcano. Riding on loose lava rock was tough and caused my bike to slip everywhere. I heard the views were great but I was too busy looking at the rocks in front of me to notice.
I noticed the heat right away on the bike; some sections it felt like a sauna. I used a water bottle to cool off and was constantly drinking from a Camelbak filled with Gatorade. The trails were wide, so passing people was not too much trouble. I caught up with Incline racer Jim Kaplan, who passed me in transition, and we went back and forth throughout the bike ride. I would catch him on the climbs and he would pass me on the downhills. I think we were pushing each other.
I came off my bike a few times, mostly because I could not ride around other competitors walking up the steep hills. Some of the hills seemed to go on forever, and I lost track of time and mileage ” hence the name “Heartbreak Hill.” I was actually surprised when I reached the top of the course and headed down “The Plunge.”
There was always someone of the side of the trail fixing a flat or some kind of mechanical problem. On top of jagged rocks there was a lot of thorns on the trail creating punctures. I was praying I would not get a flat or crash. I was already bruised up from a minor crash while training two days prior. Completing the bike ride without either was incredible lucky.
Two of the top pro women, Jamie Whitmore and Candy Angle, did not finish due to crashes. Pro racers Dominic Gillen, Francisco Serrano, Mike Vine, Chris Legh and Carter ” the overall winner ” all got at least one flat during the race. I even passed several people carrying their bikes to the finish.
I felt strong at the end of the bike mostly because the last five miles were downhill. I was excited for the run because it is usually my strength. I was a little concerned because I was nursing a recent knee injury and hadn’t run in the last week.
Heading out on the run course, I realized I had forgotten my visor as the sun beat down. The start of the run is usually a tricky adjustment, but dealing with the heat and three miles of uphill from the start really took its toll. I was moving slowly and dying for a drink. I passed several people who had stopped due to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. I later heard stories of people ‘wandering’ off the course because they were so out of it.
I usually don’t get passed in the run, but this time was different. After a couple of feeds and ice water thrown on my head, I started to recover a bit. I soon had a downhill where I managed to catch a few runners. The course then led onto a beach where we had to run in deep sand for about a mile.
Next we ran through the “Spooky Forest,” where I had to duck under and jump over trees. We then headed onto another beach; this time I had to run over lava rock on top of deep sand. Now with less than a mile to go, I looked at my watch and knew I would make it in under four hours.
I crossed the finish line in a time of 3:46:20, finishing 31st among women and fifth in my age group ” 25-29.
Making my way over to the medical tent later to ice my knee, I saw lines of athletes hooked up to IV’s and covered in cold towels, or getting wounds wrapped. It was a scene similar to what you would see after a battle.
The race definitely lived up to its reputation of being beautiful and grueling. I got to spend the next couple days having a well-earned, “normal” Hawaii vacation, surfing and hanging out at the beach.
Unlike other vacationers, getting there was a little tougher.
Emma Garrard is a photographer for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.