This weekend marked my first XTerra triathlon. This is really quite amusing to me when I think about it, because I am primarily a trail runner, I’ll take mountain biking over road biking any day of the week and I would rather swim in the ocean vs. the pool. Yet it has taken me over 10 years to get around to doing an off-road triathlon. I am apparently a slow learner.
This race was held at Kualoa Ranch, which is located on the Northeast shore of Oahu. The ranch was originally ground zero for beef cattle farming on Oahu, but that was years and years ago. These days, the primary income is tourists. And what do the tourists come for you ask? Why, they come to see the movie sets! Kualoa Ranch is host to almost every movie filmed in Hawaii. If you have ever watched the TV show “Lost”, or seen the movies “Jurassic Park”, “Tropic Thunder”, “Godzilla”, “50 First Dates”, and many others, then you have seen the scenery. Towering cliff walls, lush foliage. It’s a beautiful spot of paradise so when they open it up to off road racing events I try to fit them into my racing schedule. Many of the movie sets are still in place so it’s amusing to run past…say…a Mayan temple…in the middle of nowhere.
Since this was my first XTerra race I noted a lot of differences from a traditional road triathlon. The first item of note is that it started at 10AM. Now, that might not be a big deal to those of you on the mainland, because I understand a lot of races start later there, but here in Hawaii…everything starts early. Road races start at 1st light, like 0530-0600. 0700 is a late start. Even the Ocean swim races start no later than 0900. A lot of this has to do with the heat, while the other big part is the traffic and the road closures. So to have a race start at 1000 hours? I wasn’t quite sure what to do with all the extra time.
I slept in until 0600 (I would have gotten up at 0300 for a normal race), had breakfast, got in the car at 0700, did the hour drive to Kualoa Ranch (way out in the middle of nowhere on the North Shore of Oahu) and parked in the big grassy field next to the other hundred or so cars. Yeh, this was not a big race. I think there was about a 120 people doing the tri, and a few other doing just the swim or run portion. I wandered up to the registration area, picked up my packet; got body marked and chatted with some friends. There was a curious lack of direction at this race. There were maps of the course posted up, but no instructions pertaining to T1 and T2. I had seen some bike racks being set up at the entrance to the ranch, so that was obviously T1, but there was no mention of T2, or where the finish would be. No one seemed to know. Eventually I found a race official, and they confirmed that T1 and T2 were the same and the finish line would be up by the registration. They admitted they needed to put up some signs and shortly afterwards there were some announcements made over the PA system. Gotta love the laid back Hawaiian attitude toward things.
At about 0930 I rode my bike down to T1/T2 with the other athletes to set up my gear. Racks were unnumbered, so you dropped your bike wherever you wanted. I choose the rack with the least amount of duct tape on it (seriously, most were held up with crisscrossed loops of duct tape at the joints and I had suspicions that they were going to fold over when a few bikes got loaded onto them), dropped my shoes and towel and waited around for the race briefing. The briefing was short and to the point. The swim would be 2 laps around the buoys. The bike/run was on the jeep roads and single-track on the ranch grounds. We were strongly advised to give way to the ranch tour buses, let the ATV tours go by and told not to hassle the cows. I’m not sure why they needed to mention the last item but for some reason they felt it necessary. Makes me wonder…
The swim was right off the highway. Literally. The highway is 2 lanes wide in this section of the island and if you toss something out of your car window, it would land in the ocean. There is a very narrow strip of sand, and then you have the water. We crossed the road in one large group (they held traffic for us) and walked down to the sand. The first thing I noted was the swim was going to be rough. It was windy, with a lot of breakers rolling in. So tons of white water and–you guessed it—small white buoys. Yeh. Not the normal bright pink or red ones and no buoy that was bigger than about 2’ wide. Your basic invisible swim course when you’re in the ocean. I did a quick warm up swim to assess the visibility and it was as expected. Couldn’t see the buoys and couldn’t see the ocean floor because of the churned up conditions. It was going to be fun!
The gun went off; we sprinted down the beach, around the flag, and into the water. It was at this point that I started to really appreciate the smaller number of racers. I’m used to Ironman races, where there are 2000 people and the swims are like piranha feedings and it’s more like a full contact ultimate fighting match than a swim. However, for this swim, while there was the usual jostling going on in the first 30 seconds--it thinned out amazingly fast. I suspect the conditions had a bit to do with it also because it was by no means a smooth swim. It was a 2 loop rectangular course, so we swam along the shoreline in the breaker line, around the buoy directly into the oncoming swells, around the next buoy (which gave the waves a chance to slap you on the other side of your face), and then back to the beach with a following sea. And interestingly, in spite of all my initial fears, I had no trouble seeing the buoys. I just sighted off the crest of each wave and was easily able to see the next buoy in line. The 2nd loop was much like the first, but with less people. Sadly…I did not lap anyone, but then, neither did I get lapped. Silver lining. I have no real idea of my placing on the swim as there were no timing chips and the final results did not score each leg of the race individually. My overall place in the race was 25th and since I lost a few spots (more than a few, actually) on the bike I’m guessing I came out of the water 12th or 13th. My time was 18:38 but I have no idea where that time was recorded at. It could have been when I entered T1, exited T1 or somewhere in between. But all in all, the swim was amazingly fun—if you were used to open ocean swimming. If you were primarily a pool swimmer you would not have enjoyed it.
T1 was long. Not long as in far away, but long as in—I spent a long time there. It was a hundred feet from the beach, right across the road, but the ground was covered in that wonderful small sharp gravel. So I did the “ouch ouch” dance across the road. I’m used to grass or outdoor carpeting lining the way but nope…none of that here. I also made a bad choice in towel size. I brought a small sized towel to wipe sand off my feet, but I had planned on sitting on the ground to do that. I changed that plan up because I did not want to embed all that gravel in my ass and then sit on a bike for 12 miles. So I balanced on each leg (badly), toweled off the sand, put on a sock and managed to get the shoe on. I never wear socks with my road biking shoes, but my mountain bike shoes fit differently and rub my feet raw if I go sockless. I had forgotten how hard it was to get dry socks onto wet feet. Not an easy task! I also wear biking gloves when I mountain bike. I never wear them road biking but I find them a nice addition for mountain biking to save your hands when you whack bushes and trees and on the occasional crash. (Not that I ever crash of course) Again, putting gloves on over wet hands is a time consuming chore. I have no idea of my overall T1 time but I saw quite a few people come in behind me on the swim and exit T1 well ahead of me. Not a big deal since this was not a big competitive event for me but if I ever want to “race” an XTerra I know what I need to work on.
Now, the bike ride was interesting. And by that I mean…it could have been better. Or it could have sucked less. Something like that. I had somewhat of an idea of what to expect on the course, having run sections of it on other races and having looked at the course profile, but long story short…it was much harder than I had anticipated. I basically got my ass handed to me on the bike course. See, here’s a little lesson. If you want to be good at something, you have to practice this thing called specificity. Want to be a good swimmer? Get in the pool. Fast road runner? Hit the track. Good marathon runner? Put in the road mileage. Be a good Mountain Biker? Mountain Bike!! Now, I’m a decent biker, and I used to do a lot of mountain biking. But in the past 18 months, I’ve been training specifically for road triathlons so I only get on the mountain bike once a month or so, if I’m lucky. And being a decent road biker means crap all when you’re in a mountain bike race. Here’s an interesting tidbit. A good friend of mine (Steve V) was doing this race also. Steve lives on the North shore, right across from some awesome MTB trails and he mountain bikes 3-4 days a week. I used to bike with him a lot and while he is a much better technical biker, I am stronger. I can kill him on hills and flats but he would just drop me on the twisty narrow trails and the downhills. Our strengths and weaknesses cancel each other out so we’re fairly evenly matched. So on this race, with an advertised 550’ of elevation gain, I was anticipating holding my own for a while and then figured he would catch me near the end of the bike course. What really happened was….I got out of the water 4 minutes ahead of him, and he then preceded to finish the bike course 10 minutes ahead of me. That’s right. Do the math. He wiped the course with me.
What’s interesting—to me, anyway—is that this is in no way the hardest bike ride I have ever done. We used to ride regularly up at Peacock Flats, with 2-3000’ of elevation change over 30+ miles. And that was an easy day. But back then I was trained for it. Not so much for this ride. 500+ feet of elevation does not SOUND like a lot, and if you’re doing a road triathlon, it’s pretty easy. Road biking is all about keeping a steady cadence going. Hit a hill? Drop the gears, pedal smoothly. Hit the flats? Up the gears, pedal smoothly. Going downhill? Pedal/coast. See a pattern here? Rarely does your ass get out of the seat and rarely do you burn any matches on hills. But mountain biking is like doing sprints, because when you hit the hills, it’s not smooth easy going. It’s either a slick grassy slope, a rooty, rocky ridge or a gravel covered road. You’re crawling up the hill, applying careful power to the pedals, trying not to spin out. It’s as much technical skill as it is power. It is, in a word, exhausting. And I was just not trained properly for it. I burned out my leg muscles pretty early on, and could not sustain forward motion on some of the later hills. When that happens, it’s “hike a bike” time. Steve passed me somewhere in the 1st half of the race (not sure exactly where, as there were no mileage markers) and I mentally gave up after that. I was in granny gear, struggling up a hill and he rode past me like I was standing still. (We hates him, we hates him). I struggled through the rest of the course, without getting much of a chance to rest. See, the other part of mountain biking is…the downhill’s. You’re either good at them, or you’re not. There is no in-between. Going downhill SEEMS simple, but in reality it’s a very technical skill. There are rocks, roots, divots, gaping holes and dips, gravel and numerous other hazards to contend with. In short, it’s not a restful “let go of the brakes and let gravity rule” type of situation. Not for me, anyway. Some people can certainly bomb the downhills, but I am not one of them. I watched more than one biker pass me at 90 miles an hour on a downhill. At one point I remember carefully navigating down a gravel covered jeep road, trying not to slide while eyeing up the sharp turn at the bottom, and someone went by me at high speed. The guy unclipped his inside foot from his pedal on the way down, extended it to the side and did a 3 point slide right around the turn in a cloud of dust. I was impressed. But not enough to attempt it myself. I was very happy to see the end of the bike course and I wish there had been some mileage markers along the way (seriously Mr. Race Director, how hard would that have been?) so I could pace a little better. My time was 1:23 for the 20K bike course. (I DID see some cows along the way. They were the big black beef cattle cows. They looked very imposing and at no time was I tempted to “hassle” them. )
T2 was very quick and uneventful. Rack bike, swap shoes, take off helmet and trot off down (actually, up) the road. The run course was essentially a shortened version of the bike course. Same hills, same single track. The only difference was that it was much easier for me. I was hot, tired and thirsty but that was a case of “been there, done that”. Nothing new there. As I stated earlier, I am primarily a trail runner so this was familiar ground to me. The hills that seemed so insurmountable on the bike were easy to jog/power hike up and the flat sections were fast and easy. I had been anticipating a slow run, as I have been nursing an Achilles injury, but everything felt fine so the miles went by fairly quickly. I should point out that I was amazed at how thirsty I was. I realized that I had only taken in about 6 (yes, six!) ounces of water on the entire bike ride. Yeh, 90 minutes of sustained effort in the heat and I was silly enough not to take in any fluids. If the bike course had been longer I would have been in serious trouble. They were handing out 20oz bottles of Gatorade on the run course and I grabbed one at each aid station and ran with it. I finished 3 bottles (!) on the 10K course and was still thirsty at the finish. Just goes to show no matter how much training or racing you do, you can still do foolish things. I ended up finishing the run in 1:02 for a 10:06 pace. Not too bad for a trail run with a lot of hills and single track. I made up a lot of time on Steve V, and ended up about 3 minutes behind him. I really can’t take a lot of credit for that as he had not been doing a lot running because of a broken toe. Generally we’re pretty evenly matched on the run.
It was blazing hot at the finish but I made use of the shower (hose attached to a shower head. Wonderful idea, that…) before the line got long. Walking around dripping wet cooled me down pretty quickly. I grabbed some food--they had burgers, hot dogs, salad and the usual complement of salty carbs—and polished off some more electrolyte drinks. All in all, it was a fun day and I will definitely do another one of these events. The race was much smaller than a typical IM event, much cheaper and in general, just more fun overall. I got a medal (pretty small, cheesy one actually but…whatever), a dri-fit T-shirt (covered with ads, so I’m unlikely to wear it) and…that’s it. Not much swag, but that seems to be the norm these days. It was well staffed and there were many volunteers and I think the money went to charity.