2006 Southeast Championship
PELHAM, AL - A pair of Canadians - Brent McMahon and Melanie McQuaid - took home top honors at the inaugural Nissan Xterra Southeast Championship on a beautiful sunny day with temperatures in the mid-90's at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham, Alabama.
The new course in Shelby County, located in the Southernmost part of the Appalachian Chain, was praised by competitors as being one of the most fun, fast, scenic and difficult on the XTERRA schedule.
It all started in warm 76-degree water at Double Oak Lake for a non-wetsuit swim comprised of two 750-meter laps separated by a short beach shuffle in-between. As usual, McMahon led the swim from start to finish, clocked a time of 16:27, and was the first racer out on the bike.
Seth Wealing came out of the water about 25 seconds later, followed by Andrew Noble then Conrad Stoltz - a full minute-thirty behind McMahon. It turned out the top four swimmers would be the top four finishers in the same order - McMahon, Wealing, Noble, Stoltz - although there was plenty of chasing, crashing, passing, mechanicals, and all-out racing in between. Should also note that Bruce Gennari and Craig Evans - amateurs from Tennessee - had the second and third best swim times.
When he got on the acclaimed Oak Mountain "red trail" mountain bike course McMahon was on a mission to put as much space as possible between himself and the rest of the field - particularly the hard-charging Stoltz. Perhaps in this haste, the 25-year-old Olympian found himself in the dirt and momentarily in second place.
"I clipped my handlebar on a tree and got the good ol' karate-flick off my bike," joked McMahon.
At which point Evans, the reigning 25-29 XTERRA national champ, took the lead. Albeit a brief moment in front as the Canadian quickly regained the top spot, it's rare that an age grouper ever holds a lead on the bike - especially with a stacked pro field like the one out there today.
The real threat, however, was lurking in the pine-studded ridges and lush green forest behind them. Conrad "the Caveman" Stoltz has made a reputation for himself as a fearless and fast mountain biker on any terrain with a specialty towards technical stuff like this.
"I'm a marked man," said McMahon. "He (Conrad) chases hard to get me and I'm just trying to hold him off as long as I can. He's just so powerful and such a strong athlete and so determined that unless I'm going to have a miraculous, phenomenal bike he's going to catch me. My job is to make that as late as possible and I rode well today so he didn't catch me until the top of the climb before the last bit of descending about 40 minutes into it."
The trail starts at about 500 feet elevation, twists, turns, and rolls through the forest for seven miles then begins a gradual 700-foot climb to the summit. The descent is a fast, wild ride highlighted by the notorious "blood rock" section - a series of tricky to maneuver, uneven and jagged rocks.
Stoltz, now with the lead and on a similar mission to put as much time on the fast runners as possible, carried that section like he owned it to the delight of a few dozen spectators that hiked into the area to watch the action unfold. His downhill prowess led to the best bike split of the day (1:03:23) and allowed him to head out onto the run 1:30 ahead of McMahon.
It wasn't enough. Stoltz had made a last-minute decision (as in four days ago) to test-out his recently injured achilles' in an effort to remain in the hunt for his fifth XTERRA U.S. Pro Series title.
"I could fake it on the flats but on the climbs I was really suffering. My injuries are fine, I couldn't feel anything, and tomorrow morning if I wake up and my achilles are still fine I'll be really happy," said the two-time XTERRA World Champ. "The hills killed me. I ran the first one but all the others I walked."
Meanwhile McMahon was hopping around the course like a rabbit behind him and it didn't take long before he took the lead for good.
"It's good to have Conrad back. I hope his Achilles' will heal up soon so he can start getting some running down, because I want to race Conrad at full-tilt. When you're competitive you don't count the ones (wins) when you beat somebody that's not 100 percent," said McMahon.
Wealing really turned it on in the run with the fastest split of the day at 36:16. He passed Stoltz and was thinking about finishing first. He came up just 47 seconds short but still picked up his second consecutive runner-up performance and holds a solid second-place rank in the series.
Andrew Noble caught Stoltz on the very last downhill with the finish line in sight and out-sprinted him for third - his best XTERRA performance in years. The 1996 duathlon world champ is about to turn 41, and he looks as fit as anyone at the race site.
"It's a good result, my best result in a while and now I'll try to do better," said Noble. "I had a rough bike, twisting and twirling and going off course all the way so I was just glad to get off the bike and get running. But then with the heat and the hills the run turned into a matter of survival."
In fifth place was Brian Smith, a noted pro mountain biker that caught everybody's attention in Temecula by posting the best bike split. Today his bike was just eight-seconds slower than Stoltz', and he had the fifth-best run to make up for being the 35th guy out of the water.
"It's pretty exciting. I've done Keystone twice, Tahoe before and Temecula this year and 10th has been my best finish, so 5th is pretty spectacular," said Smith. "This course was really technical with tight corners and lots of roots and rocks and stuff. I grew up in upstate New York so this is my home turf kind of thing and I put together a great bike. Once I got up in the front I wanted to stay there."
Ryan Ignatz also had a breakout day with the fourth-best run and fifth-fastest bike to place 6th - his best XTERRA result. Dominic Gillen (7th) was chasing for the lead through the blood rock section before mechanicals set him back. Brian Astell notched his first top ten finish.
On a sad note, Josiah Middaugh (third at Temecula and top American in the XTERRA Pro Series the last two years) cracked his kneecap in a training ride on the course Friday. He had surgery in Birmingham and will likely miss the remainder of the season.
THE WOMEN'S RACE
Melanie McQuaid and Jamie Whitmore have been trading victories since last year - Jamie won in Milwaukee, Mel won in Keystone, Jamie won in Tahoe, Mel won in Maui, and this year Jamie just won Temecula. So, on cue, Melanie wins this one. The two have finished 1-2 in 16 of the last 18 races they've both entered (Jamie up 9-7 but when Mel won Maui Jamie was third so you could consider it 9-8 during the stretch).
The constant is an absolutely magnificent level of performance for both of them. Today McQuaid won it on the bike - posting the fastest split at 1:13:42, despite mechanicals.
"I was going through a bumpy section early on in the bike and my cranks jammed, chain jammed and my derailleur was bent so I couldn't ride in the big ring," said McQuaid, noting that much of the flat section required the big ring. "So I stopped, got off, pulled my chain off and bent my derailleur back so I could at least keep it in the middle ring. The result was I was a little under-geared, and a bit slower in the last sections but I think that actually helped me save my legs a little bit."
Whitmore had a bike fiasco of her own to deal with.
"Two miles into the bike I went over some roots and sat down on my seat and snapped my seat post up so the nose of my seat was sticking completely in the air. I rode about a mile like that and it was too difficult because the nose of the seat kept poking me so I got off and slammed the nose down . so far down that now the nose was facing down. So, I just stood for the rest of the ride. I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to finish because if the seat part came off I would have been in trouble," said Whitmore.
Before the bike started Candy Angle came out of the water first with Janae Pritchett. Angle pushed the pace on the bike right away and held off McQuaid until the long climb around the midway point of the ride. Once McQuaid did catch and pass her, it turned into a lonely day.
"Candy was fast through the trees and I didn't pick her off until the climb," said McQuaid. "From then on no one was catching me so I was alone all day, even on the run ... just Mike Vine, he's the only person I really saw today."
Being alone isn't always easy.
"I think this was the hardest run ever because the bike took so much out of your legs. When we started doing the climbing on the run it was a furnace, it was so hot and it just incessant. The second half got really hard because everyone was running on tired legs and then it just kept getting steeper and steeper and steeper. There's maybe four major climbs on the run and each one got progressively worse." explained McQuaid.
Whitmore, in character, didn't give up and she finished just 22 seconds back after posting the fastest run of the day at 42:26.
"I had an awesome race," said Whitmore. "I think this is the best race venue ever. It mixed East Coast mountain biking with West Coast riding. Tight turns, roots and rocks are all East Coast style and on the backside it had a fast descent and a rock drop-off/rock garden area and that's totally West Coast. So it was a great mixture of both worlds, just a blast."
Angle had a great race and came really close to breaking into the top two, having come into the bike-to-run transition ahead of Whitmore and just 45 seconds or so off McQuaid's pace.
"I started the run in chase mode and ended it in survival mode," said Angle. "Still, I think this is an awesome course. It's a lot of fun out there both the bike and the run. It was a little warmer than I think we all wanted today, but a great place."
Danelle Kabush used the second-best run split to move from 7th to 4th for her best XTERRA finish since her 3rd place at the XTERRA World Championship two years ago.
Monique Sawicki took another step forward in her endurance mountain biking-to-XTERRA evolution by putting up the second-fastest bike and finishing 5th.
Note: Oak Mountain State Park is 15 miles south of Birmingham in the central section of the state. It's Alabama's largest park with nearly 10,000 acres of recreational wonderland. Amateur Craig Evans was 9th overall, faster than nine other pros. Some 300 athletes from 32 states made their way to Alabama for the inaugural event.
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