Going global with XTERRA
Experiencing the challenges and excitement of racing abroad
Last month I had my first opportunity to compete in a triathlon in a different country. XTERRAs are held in all kinds of exotic locations like Guam, Brazil, Saipan ... and Wales.
Guess which one I chose?
Yep. Racing in the rain. Wales won out easily over a tropical paradise — the country known for its sheep, castles, scenic coastlines, singers like Tom Jones, rugby and, unfortunately, car thefts and suicides.
Why, you might ask? Three weeks later, I’m still not entirely sure.
But it had a lot to do with the fact my entire family is from the UK, and going back there to race gave me a chance to visit them and have some supporters at the race — all of whom attending their first triathlon.
XTERRA UK took place in Vale of Neath in South Wales on June 21 — summer solstice. But, you guessed it, in Wales where it rains approximately 200 days a year, we were pretty much guaranteed not to see the sun.
The first challenge of racing overseas is planning the trip, getting the best airfare and choosing an airline that will take your bike and not charge you more than it’s worth to get it there. And then hope said airline actually delivers — about a fifty-fifty chance.
I arrived in the UK on Tuesday before the race and miraculously got my bike at the same time.
Three other XTERRA racers, Conrad Stoltz, Amber Monforte and Dan Hugo, who caught a plane from the East Coast, had a nightmare of a trip and did not get their bikes until the day before the race.
Getting around Wales
I drove over from England with my brother, Ross, who has lived most his life in the UK and now makes his home on Jersey (as in “old” Jersey, as in the cows).
I let him do all the driving as the combination of driving on the left on roads narrower than our bike lanes scares me. And if you think Truckee has too many roundabouts ...
Most people speak English in Wales (it’s hard to tell sometimes) but town names are mostly in Welsh, which uses mostly “ys,” “ws” and “rs,” and seldom uses vowels. This makes getting directions difficult.
For example, the longest town name in the world is in Wales:
The race was held in an old mining town aptly named Resolven — at least I could say that.
Two days before the race you would have no idea there was a world-class triathlon happening in the quaint town, and neither did its inhabitants. The best directions we had to the course were to take a right by my house, and just past the burger van.
What’s more, the weather had been clear for two days before the race, which guaranteed rain for the event itself.
Saturday morning, the race started at two small man-made lakes.
The water was clean and cold — around 58 degrees. After an in-water mass start in the larger of two lakes, we got out and ran across a land bridge dividing the two lakes and into the smaller of the two.
The little lake was at least 5 degrees cooler. It was supposed to be a one-mile swim altogether but was more like 1,200 meters, based on times. But the swim would be the only short leg in the race.
Although it was raining, the air temp wasn’t too bad — around 65 degrees.
The dry clothes I put on after the swim soon got soaked as we headed onto the 36-kilometer bike course with some 4,000 feet of climbing. The first eight miles were mostly uphill on fire road with nine sections of singletrack breaking up the climb.
About 2,000 up the climb, the course went past a Celtic shelter onto more singletrack on the edge of a cliff, hence the name “Riding High and On the Edge.” I think I even saw a few appropriate free-roaming sheep.
The trails were part of the Afan Forest Park trail system, which was precisely constructed with a lot of drainage so the course wasn’t very muddy. But it did have a lot of abrasive gravel that eats up brake pads faster than Kobayashi eats hot dogs.
It was so wet I could not wear sunglasses. Instead I had to squint but still got little bits of dirt flicked into my eyes from the ride.
Because the park had put so much time into constructing the trails, they also constructed gates every 800 meters or so to stop dirt bikes from destroying them.
To get through the gates, each rider had to get off his bike, lift it up vertically, push it through the gate, and while doing that, turn the handlebars so they, too, fit through. Tricky. There’s an art to getting through these gates, and by the 20th one, I was pretty good.
Unlike the XTERRA East Championships in Richmond, Va., the weekend prior, the age-groupers I raced with seemed polite and mellow.
I had one guy behind me for about eight miles.
“Just let me know when you want to pass,” I said.
“Oh no, I’m fine — I’ll just be your shadow.”
I couldn’t tell if he wanted to pass but was too polite to ask or if he actually wanted to draft off of me. A mile later I asked again.
“Are you sure you don’t want to get by?”
The rest of the course was a blast. There was singletrack through dense woods, which made me feel like I was in Lord of the Rings, as well as short climbs and switchbacks and lots of loose rocky sections, including one part through the remains of a rockslide that claimed many flats, including top pro Dan Hugo.
Soon it was more descent on natural singletrack, which were basically rocky creeks because of the rain. The trail was steep and I was using all the breaks I had. I thought I was not slowing down because of grade, but I later discovered it was because I had no brake pads left.
At each turn we were cheered on by volunteers who, instead of saying the American race-fillers, “good job” or “you’re doing awesome,” simply said, “well done!” or “brilliant!” in proper British accents.
Luckily, the bike course was almost done and I headed into a rugby pitch to the bike-run transition.
By this time I was caked head to toe in mud as I rode by my family, which had been waiting in the rain for more than two hours but still cheering and were not afraid to correct the announcer’s pronunciation of my name in transition.
“Look at the state of her,” I heard my brother say after I went by.
The run course was longer than the traditional 10K. It felt like 10 miles because of the 2,000 feet of elevation gain.
Wales is arguably one of the hardest runs in XTERRA.
The first challenge was running through a river where the water went up to my thighs and straight up a hill so steep a rope was hanging there for racers to use on the way up.
The course continued to go up and up and up. Another roped uphill was so steep I was crawling — using my hands to pull myself up the loose, muddy slope.
A seemingly never-ending series of hills finally arrived at the top of the course, and I started my descent.
I thought I was home-free, downhill all the way back to finish, until the course took a sharp right and uphill again.
I was by myself and screamed a few obscenities, making me feel better. I kept it going up to the second summit. On the way back down there were some knee-jarring descents equally as steep and difficult to run down as up.
Out of the woods and onto trail, we ran back to the rugby pitch toward the finish. I could see fellow pro racer Amber Monforte sprawled out like a muddy starfish laying on the wet grass.
“That was harder than Maui,” she said, not moving.
I placed seventh with a time of 3:40:09 in a truly international field of Brits, Germans, Australians, Finns, Czechs and Dutch. But best of all, racing in Wales opened my eyes to a whole world or races and opened my family’s eyes to a sport they had never even heard of — which is perhaps as good as an island paradise.
The women’s race was won by XTERRA World Champion Julie Dibens of the UK with a time of 3:20:06, and the men’s race was won by Nico Lebrun of France with a time of 2:47:41.
For complete results go to www.xterraplanet.com.
Emma Garrard is a photographer at the Sierra Sun. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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