XTERRA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: Paying homage to a trustworthy race-mate
Palm trees, sea turtles and sandy beaches filled with Brazilian men in Speedos were not enough to calm my nerves on the days leading up to the XTERRA World Championships.
There was one thing standing between me and the finish of the year’s biggest race …
XTERRA athletes know even with a brand-new $10K ride, anything can happen on the bike portion of world championships ” flats, bad crashes, random mechanical failures.
My bike, on the other hand, has been around the block (rather, globe) one too many times with both me and former owner, pro mountain biker and Truckee resident Katerina Nash.
Mountain bikes, or at least those owned by racers, age in dog years.
Incline’s Gene Murrieta, the man who introduced me to XTERRA three years ago, remarked this past summer that my bike may one day spontaneously combust like a drummer from Spinal Tap.
“Sometimes,” he said, “when a bike’s as old as yours, traveled so many miles ” raced so many races ” they just completely blow up on the course ….
“Boom. Then ” gone.”
OK, so Gene was kidding. But, after more times in the shop than on the trails this year, I just knew for sure that the bike would pick Maui as its final resting place. Bike explosion or no, the royal blue Santa Cruz Blur and I would share one more race.
But let me back up.
The public’s biggest misconception about professional triathletes is they’re guaranteed good equipment. Wrong. I speak for a number of pros who envy age-group athletes pushing around $6,000 carbon bikes most of the couch-surfin’, ramen-eating pros can’t afford.
Many, like myself, hold onto old equipment for one more season hoping that the thousands of hours training might pay off with a sponsorship … next year.
Next thing you know, it’s 2008 and your bike is neon pink and green and, were it a child, now old enough to drive.
Six hundred XTERRA pros and top age-groupers from 30 states and more than 20 countries lined up on the white-sand shores of Maluaka Beach in front of the Maui Prince hotel on a sunny, late-October Sunday morning.
I lined up for the traditional Hawaiian blessing before the start ” thinking it was my bike that could use the extra mojo.
The pro field was especially stacked this year, and included more than a handful of Ironman champions, pro mountain bikers and folks fresh off the plane from Beijing.
My chances of finishing in the top 10 were slim, but I hoped to better my previous year’s time by 10 minutes ” an improvement that would overshadow my place.
The starting gun went off and athletes headed toward the first buoy. I took a line some were avoiding because of shallow rocks and was able to swim through unscathed.
I came out of the water in 23 minutes, by far my fastest swim split of the year on a course many suspected was shorter than the purported 1,500 meters.
As I headed out of transition on the bike, the rolling green leading to the hills above crowded with racers. Feeling somewhat lethargic, I got passed by a handful of pro women ” unable to keep up but pedaling hard not to lose sight of them.
The course is on private property and cannot be pre-ridden, which is nice because it favors no one.
Although it was my third time riding the course, I, by no means, have the fire roads memorized (they say you often forget your most traumatic experiences anyway).
That’s why the 19 miles on loose, fist-size lava rocks with around 3,000 feet of climbing seems like a new kind of pain every year.
As my group approached the first series of hills, riding up them wasn’t an option as a wall of people dismounted and started pushing their bikes in front of me.
Blue bike still intact, I got off early and marched in line.
Once back on, I kicked in my strategy for Maui ” to push a bigger gear on the hills, rather than spinning up them in a low gear like I do in Tahoe.
This seemed to work and by the third hill, I started to catch the women who passed me earlier.
As the climb continued, those blow-drier breezes kicked in, but I squeezed water over my head to cool off ” and kept going. So did my bike, to my surprise.
Then I encountered something I never expected to see during a race. As we cut across the hillside on the Jeep road, I saw a herd of cows charging toward the athletes.
This, I thought, would be my destiny ” trampled by wild cows after my bike explodes. I closed my eyes, gripped my handlebars and kept cranking …
After another series of climbs, I managed to catch a few more pro women, including Lesley Patterson and Marion Summerer ” a pair of athletes about my age who seem to always be in my sights (though Lesley, who recently traded in her ’92 Cannondale for a new ride, has gotten a leg up of late).
As I gathered strength for the last hill and the “plunge” portion, my bike was riding well. Just one more gradual uphill and no mechanical failure to speak off. No massive explosion.
Now, transition in sight, I passed Incline’s Ross McMahan changing his flat, knowing my blue bike was giving its all to hold together into transition.
As I started to clip out, my right foot wouldn’t come out of the pedal.
No matter what I did, it wouldn’t budge. My blue bike was literally holding on to me for dear life. It knew, as I did, this was the end of our last ride ” and now, it didn’t want to let me go.
After a little bit of maneuvering, I loosened my shoe enough for my foot to come out (a trick many pros make look easy), racked my bike and gave it one final farewell before heading out on the hilly, woodsy, beachy 11K.
I finished with a time of 3:21:06, placing 13th and shaving 13 minutes off my previous year’s time. It was a close women’s race ” a minute faster would have put me in the top 10. Two seconds would’ve put me ahead of Olympian Fabiola Corona.
After hugs and congratulations from racers, friends and family, I headed back to transition and cleaned off my blue bike one last time.
Later that week, relaxing on the secluded shores of Hana, I packed ‘er away, for the last time.
It was a good rest earned.
As for next year? I’ll make sure I have a new bike … and a year’s supply of ramen.
Emma Garrard is a photographer at the Sierra Sun she can be reached at email@example.com.
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