Flashback to 2013: I was coming into amazing form, probably the best since I quit racing half a decade earlier. Luck seemed to be on my side at that year’s Xterra East Champs in Richmond, when huge amounts of rain saw the swim cancelled and the even turned into a duathlon. Coming into the bike, I was top 30 and wasted little time riding myself well into the top 10. Then as I was finishing lap 1 I felt my rear tire softening fast. SHITDAWG! But I wasn’t too worried. I had the all the tools need, or at least I thought. I failed to inspect my seat pack, so I was divested to find that the pack had come apart in the wet conditions and my inflator was gone. I saw my chances of a top 10 and winning my age group disappear, but but another competitor gave me his inflator, which allowed me to still finish 29th overall, and 3rd in AG, along with qualifying me for Worlds.
Fast forward to 2014: As I worked to finish my PhD and travel to presentations, I felt like my chances at a second shot in Richmond were unraveling. A broken bike before the Southeast Championship and then a gnarly crash, left me physically and mentally battered. So it seemed only fitting that a terrible respiratory infection would finally knock me out of the race. I raced just once more in 2014, and after our adoption fell through in August, I wanted to get as far away from 2014 as fast as possible!
2015 Better days: As an athlete you need to accept the valleys that cross your path. 2014 was a bad year for us, and with a new job and new places to train, I was able to set things right. I returned to rehab to help improve my shoulder and hip, and made the most of living apart from my wife by balancing my job and training, but not exceeding what my training reality is now; i.e., I had more time to train, but stuck with the realistic 8 hr schedule.
The spring proved to be a series of peaks and valleys, but I was unwilling topical my XTerra East results in the hands of chance. The swim is my weakest link, but the James River is by no means just a swim. Water levels, currents, hidden obstacles, running (yup, you actually get out and run in parts), all break the rhythm of a strong swimmer. Moreover, I wanted to have a game plan and be able to execute because a good swim would mean few people to pass on the bike. So I pushed some of my local friends to swim the course, and I swam once or twice myself in lieu of more swim workouts. Let’s face it, I would gain any magic speed 4 weeks before the race! Better to have good technique and skill swimming the course.
As I noted in my earlier post on tapering for this race, I really tried to take it easier the week before. Nonetheless, some days I felt good, others not so much. I also suffer from restless leg syndrome, which seemed to be terrible the week of the race. To make matters worse, I need last minute bike work, and my pre-ride on Saturday was a disaster, crashing once and ruining two other sections. This was on top of the stress of knowing I had to be up early Monday to have my wisdom teeth extracted. Needless to say, my nerves were really frayed. My inability to cope with stress has often ruined many races back when I was racing on the road, and the anxiety still creeps back. So I decided to have a chat with the new Hour Record Holder, Bradley Wiggins.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we call up one of our favorite athletes?
No, I don’t know Wiggo. However, you can learn a lot about the mind of an athlete by listening to the athlete. I decided to take a nap and listen to an BBC interview from last year where Wiggins talks about the mental game and how he copes with the pressure. I found this immensely helpful. Straight away, I decide to sleep a bit later and go to transition later, tired of fighting for the best spot. I woke up, had a nice breakfast and rode to the course (Awesome living 10 min away). Once transition was set-up I hung out with my wife some then did my pre-swim.
Know the race like you know yourself
I don’t put a lot of stock in home field advantage (not surprisingly, neither does the research). Nor does riding my local trails give me a distinct advantage on race day when matched with equally or superiorly skilled riders. Frankly, if you’ve raced a MTB course a few times, you’re likely to do fine without a pre-ride. Case in point, Josiah Middaugh crushed the MTB on Sunday without pre-riding the course. However, knowing the James River is an advantage. Pre-swimming the entire course, to know the currents and obstacles that year is essential. For me, being a poor swimmer, it did a lot to boost my confidence and it paid off Sunday, because the water had dropped a lot in just the two days since I swam last. As I warm-up up very easy, I noted that the current didn’t impact my line to the first buoy. That meant I could start very low and out of traffic.
When the gun went off I hammered the first 200 yards, knowing I’d get a break at buoy 1. As I rounded buoy 1 and headed to the sandbar I was surrounded by a complete melee. I felt like I was out of my game plan a bit but still swimming well. As I ran along the bar to buoy 2, I was still in good position, so I kept a steady stroke to buoy 3. Here things got tricky, because the low water meant we were skimming along the tops of large rocks. It can hard to focus on the swim and you tend to want to stand up. However, as I approached Buoy 3 I noticed I was still in the scrum, which was a good sign, because I wasn’t loosing much ground. Once you round Buoy 3 you have to push hard into the the Belle Island shore because the eddy currents merging. Hitting the shallows, I stood up and saw my buddy John, a much stronger swimmer, just exiting the water. I knew this had to be a good swim!
Once on Belle, you have to run a short 100 m trail before heading back into the water near the Lee Bridge, marked with the remnants of the bridge pylon’s destroyed as the Confederates fled Richmond in 1865 (150 years ago!). This is often the most technically and tactically demanding part of the course. The current is swiftest here and the pylons create pockets of slow water that literally jolt you as you enter them. The key to the swim unless your wicked strong, is to swim high and sweep right (shown on the map). Until this year, I never took the time to practice this. While I swam lower than I wanted, I still hit Buoy 4 and then rounded Buoy 5 before the final push into shore!
As I got to my bike I was shocked to see my buddy John just getting ready to leave transition, and my other buddy Karl just getting to his bike; I’ve never finished closer than 2 min to either of these guys in any swim! I quickly transitioned out onto the bike; incidentally, I put my shoes on in T1 because I’m not convinced that its faster to do it on the bike. I ate a Honey Stinger bar and set out on course. As is typical after the swim, my legs felt terrible; just totally stuffed. This is something you need to live with, as your legs usually open up after 20 min and it doesn’t seem to be reflected in actual performance, as I’ll note below.
The MTB was solid. Being further up in the field, there are fewer racers to pass and the better guys are easier to pass. I left my mistakes from Saturday behind me and made steady progress by picking reasonable lines and making calculated efforts, dismounting only twice to make my way past two stuck riders. As lap 1 wound down this time, I was caught and passed by a rider. I don’t worry too much, because sometimes there are great riders who are worse swimmers than me, and most of the time its someone who ends up blowing up later. In this case, I knew Josh (Josh was the guy who saved my race in 2013) and I knew he’d crush me in the run anyway, so there was nothing to fret because he’s younger and not in my age group.
One of the things that sets the Richmond XTerra apart from the other races is its urban location, which features amazing trails in downtown Richmond. It always means that spectators are numerous, along with their wacky hijinks, of screams, horns, cow bells and costumes.
Heading into lap 2 I was sitting in 13th place, so if I wanted to break the top 10, I needed to find a few spots ahead. Fortunately, 11 and 12 were right up the road on the Lee Bridge, so I got aero and closed the gap quickly. As I learned coming up in the junior ranks, when you pass someone in a time trial, you need to destroy their morale and any thoughts they have of grabbing your wheel. The trick is you don’t want to blow up, so you accelerate into their slip stream and blast past them. In doing so, I passed Josh as well and he stuck on my through most of lap 2. I was starting to cramp, so I eased back a bit and rode my own pace, saving more for the run. Minus the bit of cramping, I still felt quite good, and not affected by the heat (thanks to my frozen CamelBak?). I finished out the last lap and headed into T2 with a comfortable gap behind and a couple more spots ahead.
The heat man, the heat!
I love the heat, but let me tell you, when it comes to the run on this XTerra nothing is worse than climbing the Mayan Ruins – so named for the series of railroad tie steps that traverse another one of those bridges destroyed by the Confederates, sun baking you as you scramble upward. I stuff my ice sock down my back and found a good rhythm quickly, but my left hamstring cramped, so I stopped stretched it and carried on, only to stop a mile later to do the same for the other leg. Fortunately, taking that time early on, saved me from further cramping later. By two miles in, I caught one more racer and climbed my way steadily to the top of the ruins, which offer a great vantage to see if anyone is closing in on you; all clear!
From here the course covers sidewalks, single track, steps and a seemingly endless gravel road, before turning back onto single track, then it gets interesting! Seriously, there is no other trail run I’ve done that covers what this course covers. I was still turning over a good cadence, but my heart rate definitely climbing and I was really feeling the heat by mile 4. Its here that I picked up 9th place, catching another local, Jim Fisher, just as we reached the dry bed rock hop. Here you can follow the cones or find your own way. I chose the cones, as Jim, 6 foot forever tall opted for hopping longer distances. In the end, I pulled him back in site, as we climbed out of the bed and head into the final set of trails.
The final mile is the easiest mentally, but the hardest physically. Once you climb to the top of Belle Isle (hey, weren’t we here for the swim?), the course traverses about a half mile of winding single track before dropping down to a gravel road and subsequently the foot bridge that crosses back over the James. Hitting that bridge is it, a half mile push to the finish on fast pavement. Yet, you’re exhausted and dodging pedestrians more interested in random sites off the bridge. With 9th place locked up, I was racing now for pure unadulterated pain and pleasure. With the sounds of the finish down the road, I threw down what I had left and hit the line in just over 2 hours and 49 min. Always with a thought on the numbers, I’ve been using these races to collect some pilot data for future research. I quickly took some blood lactate samples, much to the consternation of my wife, then headed to the food tent.
So with the 2015 XTerra East a wrap I can honestly say that I feel supremely satisfied with the work I put in and the end result. Some people think its all about the winning, while others say you just need to have fun. The fact is, everyone likes to win, but we can’t all win. What was so satisfying about this result is that I set the goal, implemented the plan, adjusted when need after good and bad results and at the end of the day put the best effort I could on the day.
9th place overall and 3rd in AG.
By the numbers:
Breakfast: 1 cup of oatmeal with 1 whole egg and 1/2 cp whole milk, brown sugar, maple syrup, almonds, 1 tsp beet powder plus 4 cups of coffee
1.5 L of Matcha Green Tea + Lemons Skratch Labs exercise hydration mix with 16 oz iced tea and 1 tsp of beet powder
1 Honey Stinger Blueberry Buzz bars plus 1 gel.
MTB (20 miles): 215 W (NP), 1409 W (max) @ 158 bpm AvHR; 1069 kJ
- 1709 ft climbing
- Only about 5% HR drift
Run (6.1): 7:48 min/mile @ 167 AvHR, Avg cadence of 172, and Avg stride length 1.18 m
You can find me on Garmin Connect as crharnish, or on Strava.
If you have you’re own stories or questions related to Xterra, email me.