Earlier this week USA Triathlon announced the 2013 Off-Road Triathletes of the Year, “honoring athletes for outstanding performances on challenging courses featuring an open water swim, mountain bike and a trail run.”
Josiah Middaugh and Emma Garrard were named the Elite winners, Matthew Balzer and Hannah Rae Finchamp took amateur honors, and Cole Bunn and Liz Gruber received honorable mention.
It’s the first-time USAT - the National Governing Body for triathlon in the United States - has recognized XTERRA’s finest.
In the press release issued by USAT (read it here) Steve Sutherland, chair of the USA Triathlon Age Group Committee Athlete of the Year Subcommittee, said that "Off-road triathlon is one of our fastest-growing areas of multisport. As you might imagine, it attracts some highly competitive athletes. We are very pleased to honor the best of those competitors as our Off-Road Triathletes of the Year."
The release continued to say that “The off-road triathlon discipline continues to gain popularity, with the International Triathlon Union officially recognizing the format as a world championship event in 2011.”
Of note, the 2014 XTERRA East Championship in Richmond, Virginia (June 15) will serve as the USAT Off-Road Championship race and XTERRA Germany in Zittau (August 16) will double as the ITU Cross Tri World Championships.
The Off-Road Athletes of the Year were selected by USA Triathlon’s Age Group Committee. Here’s a look at the top three candidates in each category the committee had to choose from…
Josiah Middaugh (Vail, CO) - Won XTERRA West, Southeast, and Mountain Championships. Became the first American to win the XTERRA U.S. Pro Series since 2006, was 2nd at Nationals (top American) and 4th at Worlds (top American for 6th time).
Branden Rakita (Colorado Springs, CO) - Posted a career-best 2nd place finish at the Mountain Champs. For the season he placed 3rd at the XTERRA West Championship, 6th at the Southeast Champs, 9th at the East Champs, 11th at XTERRA France, 2nd at the XTERRA Mountain Championship, was 9th at the USA Champs, finished 3rd in XTERRA U.S. Pro Series, and placed 22nd (4th American) at XTERRA Worlds.
Ryan Ignatz (Boulder, CO) - Had a career-best runner-up performance at the East Champs. On the year he placed fourth at the XTERRA West Champs, 2nd at the East Champs, 5th at the Mountain Champs, 10th at the USA Champs, finished 4th in the XTERRA U.S. Pro Series, and was 16th (2nd American) at XTERRA Worlds. Making his season more impressive, he works full time as a bike fitter at Colorado Multisport and is also a fit instructor for Retul.
Emma Garrard (Park City, UT) - Less than a year after giving birth to her first child in December 2012 Emma posted a career-best fifth place finish (and first American) at XTERRA Worlds, which followed her career-best fourth-place finish at the XTERRA USA Championship where she was also the top American. Emma got consistently faster in 2013, going from a 7th place finish at the West Champs, to a 6th at the Southeast Champs, then a 5th at the Mountain Champs before breaking out in Utah and Maui.
Shonny Vanlandingham (Durango, CO) - Shonny worked her way back to the sharp end of the pro field in 2013 having fully recovered from knee injuries that plagued her last year. At 44-years-old Vanlandingham captured the XTERRA Brazil and Mountain Championships and the XTERRA USA National Championship title for the fifth time in six years (the honor is bestowed upon the top American finishers in the final XTERRA U.S. Pro Series Standings). On the year Shonny finished 3rd at the XTERRA South Africa Championship, won XTERRA Brazil, placed 3rd at XTERRA South Africa, 3rd at the West Champs, 4th at the SE Champs, and 2nd at the East Champs before capturing the XTERRA Mountain Championship for the fourth time in five years. She placed 2nd at the XTERRA Mexico Championship in August, and was 9th at the USA Championship. She finished 2nd in the Pro Series, and 8th (2nd American) at XTERRA Worlds where she posted the fastest bike split for the fifth time in her career.
Suzie Snyder (Fredericksburg, VA) - Placed second at the XTERRA West Championship, 5th at the Southeast Champs, 6th at the East Champs, 4th at the Mountain Champs, and 7th at the USA Champs. Finished 5th in the Pro Series, and was 10th (3rd American) at XTERRA Worlds.
Note: Lesley Paterson has lived in San Diego for nearly a decade now, but still, she’s a Scottish lass! If USAT were to consider her American, she’d be a ringer.
Best Amateur Men
Matt Balzer (Reno, NV) – Matt wasn’t just the fastest amateur in the 30-34 division at the USA Championship race, he was the fastest of all amateurs. Balzer, a former pro who know dedicates more time to his 5-month-old, 8-year-old, wife, and business than training, still managed to finished 12th overall and more than a minute in front of young gun Cole Bunn in Utah. Matt went on to finish third in his division at XTERRA Worlds.
Alex Modestou (Washington, D.C.) – The 27-year-old won an unprecedented seven races in 2013 and to make it even more impressive he captured the overall at five of those. Modestou won the amateur title at the XTERRA East Championship in June where he was 10th overall ahead of several pros, and in July he came from the East Coast to test himself in the thin air of the Rockies and placed 9th overall – top amateur – at the XTERRA Mountain Championship. He was not able to participate in the USA or World Championships due to illness.
Cole Bunn (Bettendorf, IA) – The 17-year-old won the overall at XTERRA Last Stand and Illinois Wild this year and was second amateur (13th overall) at the USA Championship behind only Matt Balzer. Amazingly, while Bunn was 4th in the 15-19 division at XTERRA Worlds, he was just 17 seconds shy of being America’s fastest amateur in Maui (that honor belongs to Jens Beck from Anchorage).
Best Amateur Women
Hannah Rae Finchamp (Altadena, CA) - The 17-year-old senior in high school (4.4 GPA) won her division at every race she entered and finished a remarkable sixth overall behind only the top five pro women at the XTERRA West Championship, was 9th overall ahead of several pros at the Mountain Championship in July, won the 15-19 XTERRA USA Championship for the third straight year, and was the top amateur woman at the World Championships for the second straight year with a time good for 11th overall.
Elizabeth “Liz” Gruber (Redding, CA) – The 23-year-old student at Loma Linda won the XTERRA USA Championship overall amateur women’s title and won her division at XTERRA Worlds for the second straight year (she was 5th amateur woman).
Anne Gonzales (Aspen, CO) – The 52-year-old won the national and world championships in her division and was the second amateur behind Finchamp at XTERRA Worlds.
Worthy of Consideration
There were three amateur men who won six races during the course of the XTERRA America Tour highlighted by 11-time South Central Region Champion Kyle Grieser from Marble Falls, Texas. Also of note, Marcus Barton won six-of-seven (and the USAT off-road Nationals) and George Mainas won six-of-eight.
For the women both Melanie Etherton and Cindi Toepel had perfect six win seasons, and Etherton won the overall at five of those (as well as the USA off-road Nationals). Not to be out done, Toepel won the overall at XTERRA Iron Creek this year, at the age of 62!
Reigning XTERRA 40-44 World Champ Mimi Stockton had a stellar season as well, winning the overall at all five races she entered, including a head-to-head showdown with Etherton at the Southeast Championship. She also won XTERRA Worlds for the second straight year.
Ron Hill won the 75-79 XTERRA World Title and was named the Warrior Award Winner in Maui having come back from a brutal crash the year before. Michael Hagan finished as the 9th amateur overall at the USA Championship (won the 50-55 division) with a time that would’ve been fast enough to win the 20-24, 40-44, and 45-49 division too. Tom Monica won his fourth XTERRA National Championship (55-59 division) and his fifth XTERRA World title. Lucia Colbert won the 55-59 division XTERRA USA and World titles for the second straight year. Craig Vogstberger won his third national championship in Utah and was 2nd in the PC division at Worlds, and John Royson won his first 60-64 USA Championship title and fourth XTERRA World Title.