The legendary Phil Liggett was the voice of the 2004 XTERRA World Championship broadcast and he made a great race even better to watch with his unmistakable style and rhythm. The day itself belonged to Eneko Llanos and “J-Dawg” Jamie Whitmore and her bright red hair.
The course changed significantly in ’04 for the first time since its inception in 1996. There was a new transition area for both T1 and T2, a relentless up and down new section on the bike towards the end of the ride, and a calf-burning climb with an ankle twisting descent on the run.
“It was the hardest this race course has ever been. Straight from the swim, the run to transition went to a hard bike ride. It got really hard, really early and there was a lot of suffering going on out there,” said Melanie McQuaid after the race.
Indeed there was. Among the men’s favorites Olivier Marceau got a flat and crashed, Nicolas LeBrun got a flat, Conrad Stoltz broke a pedal, Sylvain Dodet ran out of energy fighting a bad back, Peter Reid crashed, and countless others did the same, bonked, or worse.
Except Eneko Llanos, who for the second straight year was solid all day. The defending champ posted the fifth fastest swim, second best bike and third strongest run of the day, and his winning time of 2:28:44 was a minute better than Marceau. When asked what was the key to victory Llanos responded by saying “all the race”, and then noted that Marceau’s flat towards the end of the bike also played a big part.
Marceau took the lead on the bike very early in the course and widened the gap as the race went along - it was his strategy. His climbing skills, the same that he showed to a worldwide audience at the Athens Olympics, were on display once again – although this time on a different bike and dirty trails.
“This race was my goal after Olympics and I knew I had to go hard on the bike because Eneko was such a good runner,” said Marceau. “I was trying to break away and it was working but bad luck I had this flat tire about 5k to go and finished with a flat.”
After leading for about 18 miles of the 20 mile course Marceau surrendered the lead to Llanos just a mile or so before T2. “I realized my tire was getting flatter and flatter and I crashed because of that so I stopped to try to fix it and it didn’t work. I knew it was the end of the bike and I thought it was not worth to change the tube so I kept going carefully with a flat tire and Eneko passed me,” explained Marceau. “I lost about 1 min. 40 seconds with that flat tire, but its part of the race. To win here you have to be a bit lucky and I wasn’t today. I’m happy with second place and Eneko deserved to win it.”
Marceau went out onto the run about 40 seconds back, and ran at the same clip as the speedy Llanos (who was 20th in Athens) to hold on to second place. On his tail was rising American star Josiah Middaugh. He came out of the water almost three minutes behind the leaders, got 30 seconds back on the 0.7 mile sprint to transition, then pedaled his way to the fastest bike split of the day, churning out the 32k in 1:27:12. It’s the fourth time in five championship races in 2004 that he had the best bike time.
Dominic Gillen had unquestionably the best XTERRA race of his career to finish in fourth. Retired from full-time professional racing – instead working a steady job and paying rent – Gillen used the fresh legs to his advantage. Justin Thomas finished in fifth despite grinding through a season of injuries. He was third here last year and sixth the year before.
In the previous two season’s Jamie Whitmore had won almost everything - three straight XTERRA U.S. Pro Points Series crowns, two XTERRA European Tour titles, she even became XTERRA’s all-time winningest athlete - but she’d never won Maui. The last two years in Maui she’d been favored coming in, and left the runner-up.
Now she’s got it all. Twenty-one career wins, 10 this year alone, and the grand daddy of them all – Worlds, but it didn’t come easy.
Melanie McQuaid came in with the belt, had the better swim (by about 30 seconds), and powered through the bike course in 1:45:09 – second only to Melissa Thomas’ incredible ride of 1:41:02.
“The first time I crashed, I was sweating it a little bit,” said Whitmore. “I was flying downhill and staying real loose but fell victim to the plunge and went down. I was riding through a whole bunch of really big rocks and my front wheel nailed one of them and threw me to the side. I fell on the derailleur side so I was worried about what I did to my bike, got a little flustered and the next thing I know I go down again. I don’t even know how it happened, but I flipped over the handle bars and face planted, or the bike hit me and shoved my face into the ground, I’m not sure - but it knocked me a little silly. So at that point, I was pretty hurt.”
Hurt, and thinking McQuaid is slipping away (which she was)...“When I started back up a bunch of guys kept encouraging me as they were riding by saying ‘keep going, keep going, you can do it’,” recounted Whitmore. “Then Melissa passed me and told me to hang in there. When she said that, I felt like I had to.”
Despite the nasty falls Whitmore had the fourth best bike time and went out on to the run less than three minutes behind McQuaid. She got a glimpse of her rival heading out onto the run while she headed into transition, and at that point knew she was in striking distance.
On the other side of the coin, McQuaid was having problems of her own. “Today I was going as hard as I could but I didn’t have that ‘I’m going to win today feeling’ and you know when you have it – you think you’re going to rip everyone’s legs off - and I wasn’t ripping legs off. My own legs wanted to leave me behind."
It wasn’t until the run that they did leave her, however. The new course has a lot of up and down, and turning an ankle at the top made it that more difficult for her to come down.
“Jamie had a great day and ran strong, she was turning it over on the downhill and I wasn’t. I couldn’t turn it over on the downhill. I was blowing going up the hill and coming down the hill, and because I wasn’t right I turned my ankle and was hurting on the downhill so I was losing time…all the way downhill,” said McQuaid.
A steep, rutted out loose rock section called Heartbreak Hill, about half-way through the 8.5k run course is where the lead changed hands. Jamie was at the top of the section when she saw McQuaid below.
“When I saw Melanie I knew I could win the race. All of a sudden whatever hurt, didn’t hurt anymore, and I just started charging as hard as I could to catch her.”
That she did, and even put on another three minutes making for a comfortable stroll down victory lane.
In what turned out to be a good equipment move, Melissa Thomas blistered the bike course with 29-inch wheels, "I was going so fast on the downhill it was unbelievable. That 29’er is so good on the rocks – climbing and descending. I really think my bike helped me a lot. For me to beat Jamie and Melanie, though, I’d have to run more and I hate to run. I like these events. Don’t mind swimming, love to bike, but I hate running.”
Danelle Kabush, who ran the 1500 in college, took advantage of that to pass Thomas in the last half-mile of the run to finish in third. It was just her second-ever XTERRA (along with the Canada Championship in August).
XTERRA Germany Champion Katrin Helmcke rounded out the podium in fifth and as with the men’s race, the women’s field encountered its fair share of heartbreak, punctuated by 2002 World Champ Candy Angle’s crash during the plunge that left her bruised and battered.
Canada’s Peter Reid, who placed second at the Ironman Championship in Kona the week before, placed 16th overall in Maui and won his fifth “Double” Award in seven years (including the last three). His combined time was 11:27:59 (8:43:40 in Kona and 2:44:19 in Maui). Another Canadian, Heather Fuhr, who placed 3rd at Ironman– won the women’s pro double in 13:18:17 (9:56:19 and 3:21:58).