My Xterra racing has been limited this year due to injury during the NZ race followed by two other planned events being cancelled. One due to a Terror alert, not to mention the town in Germany almost literally being washed away a few days prior to the planned race.
Training leading up to the race had been solid and with a surprise invite to race the Tour of Southland, which happens just over a week after Xterra. It meant some different training was required with several local road races - which certainly opened the mind and body up to the pain of racing! Arriving in Maui is always nice especially given the cold snap NZ had been experiencing. The only issue is staying in race mode when the vast majority of people are fully in relax mode, Elina included. We met a few of the Kiwi contingent on the plane on the way over; NZ age groupers have an amazing record at this race and everyone was itching to get out on course.
The course is only open on the race day so prior practise is limited to a small loop on the bike which is rather benign in comparison to much of the course but certainly still seems to destroy a fair amount of bike tyres. Race day dawned as usual over here, clear and warm with the promise of a hot day to come. The start is relatively leisurely given the race starts at 9am, which suits my predisposition for rising later than those who are used to swimming in early morning swim squads. I was relatively early this year and managed to get a good spot on the rack and with an hour and a half to go I had nothing to do but twiddle the thumbs and wait until it was time to start a bit of a warm up. Race start and I was able to get away from the beach well this year.
Last year I'd tried to go right behind the best swimmers and ended up almost breast stroking half the first leg as I got swamped by swimmers from all sides. This year I went out wide and found clear water. By the time I joined the pack I was able to slot in behind a group swimming at a challenging but sustainable level for me. Round the first buoy someone decided to unzip my swim skin. I'm hoping they were the same person I was then able to get a good push off with the feet, I am learning it doesn't pay to be gentle in the swim! Back onto the beach for the end of lap one and I was able to zip the back of my suit up on the run and the remainder of the swim was spent making sure I didn't lose the feet in front. Into transition and I knew I'd swum much better than last year but there seemed to be far more people in front of me. I didn't have a great transition as nothing seemed to want to go on smoothly, gloves shoes etc but finally I was on the go and soon shooting past people on the way to first climbs. I seemed to be moving through the field reasonably well; I could see Nico Lebrun's distinctive green race suit just up ahead and given he'd been second last year figured I was slowly working my way into a good position.
I was gradually catching up but the numerous short steep climbs mixed into the constant grade of the climb kept catching me out. I just didn't seem to ride them very well this year, resulting in quite a few short runs to the top pushing the bike. I certainly wasn't the only one but unfortunately I was just short of getting onto Nico's wheel when we arrived at the first downhill and he had vanished by the time I was back onto the next climb. I was still moving past people steadily and I was certainly able to ride the downhill's a lot better having gloves so my hands weren't constantly threatening to slip off like 2009. Finally to the top of Ned's climb and it was mainly downhill to the run. I was right on the edge of control from the outset and I have to admit I'd forgotten how rough it gets. I was constantly bottoming out the travel on my fork, 80mm was definitely good for the climbing but I was finding its limitations on the downhill for sure. Not far from the bottom of the rougher section on the ‘plunge' I got a bit off line, corrected, just about got it back then hit a bigger bit of lava rock. My hands were shunted off the handle bars with the impact and I ended up doing a superman dive over the handle bars and onto the abrasive rocks in one of the quickest parts of the downhill. It was like slow motion and I definitely knew it was going to hurt. I was extremely fortunate that the rider right behind me was able to avoid me or it could have been twice as bad. The gloves had taken a big part of the fall and now had no palms but I was able to get up and back on the go without losing more than a few seconds, my favourite Rudy Sunglasses and plenty of skin! I did lose a few more seconds on the final few corners of the plunge as I was still in systems check mode to see if I'd broken anything on myself - or the bike.
You have to love the adrenaline when something like that happens; I'd very little pain and was quickly back into the swing of things although a little more timid at the prospect of parting company with my bike again. The rest of the ride I was able to keep pushing forward and got off the bike in a group of 3 covering 9th to 11th places. I had a great transition in contrast to the first and was able to quickly put time on the other two chasers. Up ahead I could see two more athletes just under a minute up the road and set my sights on pulling them in. The legs were feeling good and by now the crash was a distant memory. The first half of the run is probably the hottest part of the course and the legs start to feel the effort of the climb and bike combined. I was catching the two runners slowly and they had now split. I thought the downhill and final sections of the run would be good for me and so it proved as it didn't take long on the descent to pick the first of the runners off. By the time I hit the big beach for the ½ mile of soft sand I had closed the gap to 7th overall to about 15 seconds and I could now also see another runner up towards the end of the beach. I headed down to the surf line for the harder sand although it was still pretty soft in places. I didn't seem to have made a lot of inroads into the gap as we headed off the beach but then all of a sudden in the twisty forest section it closed up really quickly and as we hit the final mile I got past and up to 7th. I dared not look back as I crossed the final beach and across the rocks. I was sure that it was going to end in a sprint to the line but as I headed up the grass to the finish I couldn't hear anyone right behind so was able to relax a touch as I ran up the finish shoot. I'd also almost caught last year's winner Eneko Ilanos, and put in one of the quickest run times for the second year in a row. It was another great learning experience and I know there are plenty of refinements still to make in order to maximise my day on the Maui course. Full suspension will be a must have in the future, but I'd improved on things from the previous year. This year the quality of the field was also a lot stronger. Winner Conrad Stoltz from South Africa was on a different planet that day but I'd made it to within 5 minutes of second and am confident I know where to find that time and hopefully more. The race is truly one of attrition with at least six of the top professionals having issues with mechanicals or multiple flat tyres which just shows you have to have a certain amount of luck to get through in one piece. It was great to see most of them making it through to the finish even though there hopes of a top finish were gone. So another great experience at Xterra loaded away in the memory banks. It's now just a few short days R&R then back to NZ and almost straight onto Tour of Southland. Hopefully the gravel rash heals quickly. Thanks to all the Kiwis over here who were so supportive and congrats to you all on some great results.