Saipan By Spence
Brodie Gardner and Carina Wasle won the pro races at the XTERRA Saipan Championship on Saturday (read report here/watch highlight video here) but to get a real feel for the charm of the island and the camaraderie of the XTERRA Tribe we turn to the one-and-only David Spence.
“Disco Dave” had a memorable day in Saipan. He won the amateur title (not bad for a guy representing the 55-59 division) and finished 8th overall and now leads his division in the XTERRA Asia-Pacific Tour standings with two wins (Saipan and the Philippines) and one 2nd place finish (Japan).
On top of being a die-hard racer Spence is also the course designer and race director for XTERRA Malaysia, and is never at a loss for words.
Here is his story about Saipan…
The story of my race on the lovely Island of Saipan is a little (aka massively) different to Brodie Gardner’s the Pro Male winner. He arrived in the dead of night immediately before the race set up his bike and then with no sleep went out and smashed a course he’d never seen before to take the win.
If I’d have tried to do the same I would have probably seriously hurt myself from either falling asleep on the bike or falling off of it due to a lack of bike handling skills on the gnarly descents that would have come up too quickly for me to react to.
Fortunately for me I was blessed with Elsa Ng & Navin and Jaz Wathan who between them helped look after the “shop” and my dogs for me so that I could leave for Saipan on Thursday, 3 March.
That doesn’t mean I had over week to prepare though as from my current base in Ipoh, I went to Singapore, then Subic Bay & Manila for work opportunities. I then had a brief but pleasant overnight in Guam on Tuesday, 8 March where I stayed with Mark Cruz one of my XTERRA friends and his family. In this brief time Mark educated me on not only the fascinating naval military history that this area of the world has but also the status of the sport of triathlon in the area given his position as “El Presidente” of the Guam Triathlon Federation.
As a result though I did arrive on Saipan at 8am on Wednesday 9 March. This gave me a full 3 days to prepare for the race.
Mark suggested I contact Brad Ruszala one of his friends on Saipan. Brad could probably be Mayor of Saipan based on how well known he is. He certainly has the friendly and warm nature to charm the spots of a Leopard and it was a real pleasure to meet him.
He set me up at Bike Pro https://www.facebook.com/bikeprosaipan/?fref=ts where Romeo (the owner) and Ariel (the chief mechanic) set about lovingly rebuilding my bike that had been broken literally into little bits to try and avoid the charges of United for having the audacity to travel with a bike. Thanks guys your attention to detail and friendly service was really appreciated.
While Ariel was working his magic Brad took me to The Shack, a cool café that became my second home whilst on the Island in terms of honest simple wholesome food https://www.facebook.com/TheShackSaipan/?fref=ts
He also took me to “Swim the Tanks” an interesting swim just off of the beach at The Kanoa Resort (the race resort hotel) http://www.kanoaresort.com where you swim from 3 abandoned Sherman tanks that didn’t make to the beach when the US Marines invaded Saipan to reclaim it from the Japanese.
By then Ariel at Bike Pro had worked his magic and I spent the rest of the day checking out the bike course and catching up with Jim Lovell XTERRA’s ‘resident’ Race Timing guru over dinner.
Jim has timed all 15 of Saipan’s XTERRA’s and was a wealth of knowledge about not just the Island but also the race course too. Heck he had even help mark the run course this year, which is what I call really, going the XTERRA Mile!!
Thursday morning saw me spend most of it checking out the run course as closely as I had the bike course the previous day. After doing so I came to the conclusion that my goal for the race was to try and cover the entire course in under 3 hours and 45 minutes. This was 15 minutes slower than the goal I had set for XTERRA Philippines but I felt it was fully justified given the seriously more technical sections on the run and bike courses and the 3,300 feet of elevation making this was a much more challenging course.
That evening, I attended the mixer and race briefing, which was delightfully informal, and Eric, Kelly and Kaz the organizers treated me to a few beers before I politely called it a day.
Early on Friday morning my roommate for the rest of the trip James Sardea joined me. He was another friend from the Guam Triathlon Federation and whom I’d like to thank for his company and camaraderie as well as his very civilized sleeping habits versus mine!!! I’d also like to thank him for the setting up the best airport transit ever by organizing an impromptu beach picnic for my 8-hour layover in Guam on the way home J
That evening I joined Jim again for an early dinner on and having checked my bike into transition that evening he also kindly gave me a lift to the start line 1st thing on Saturday morning.
All of the above meant that, unlike Brodie, I arrived at the start line of the race not only well rested and refreshed for race day but as well informed as I could be so that I was ready to rock n’ roll…
The start of the race had been brought forward to 6:30am and after setting my bike up in pole position the night before, I was able to set up the rest of my gear and do the usual last minute checks and re-checking of equipment with time to spare.
After lots of mistakes and oversights in the past this mental checklist has now become embedded into my DNA and I was one of the last to leave transition for the short walk to the beach start but in good time for the start.
Like many of the world’s best XTERRA athletes I now know that the swim is always going to be probably my weakest discipline. As a result, not only do I accept this but I also accept like these guys and girls the need to work really very hard on the bike and run to try and compensate for this weakness.
As well finishing inside my target time of 3:45 I also wanted to finish as close as possible to Yuji Ono who I was tipping to take our age group (the 55-59 age group).
This might sound a bit defeatist but I’d remembered seeing his name in the results of last years’ World Championships where he had come 5th in the 50-54 age group versus my 19th position when I raced in that category as a ‘young’ 50-year-old. As a result, I was really grateful to be in the same race as him as a means of pushing me hopefully to new limits and to assess how much better I have become compared to the best in the world for my age group in the last 5 years.
The swim course was not set up until the morning of the race so known of us knew much about this. We did know it was low tide so I knew like everyone else that the start of the swim was going to be shallow for at least the 1st 50 meters.
As a result, my strategy was to run as hard and as far in the shallows as I could then and then “dolphin” as much as possible to get to the deep water as fast as possible. What I and I think every other racer had not anticipated though was that the water depth did not get much deeper than mid chest height and before we knew it we were all still “dolphining” as we approached the 1st buoy.
At this point, I realized that the strategy thus far e.g. the 1st 200 meters or so, had paid off as I was at the head of a small group that was almost drafting the Pro’s!!!
As we neared the buoy and the turn I started to ready myself psychologically for the faster swimmers to start passing me as the depth after the turn to the next buoy would surely prevent “dolphining” from continuing to be an option until we rounded the 2nd buoy, some 400 meters away, and turned for the beach again on the 750m triangular swim course.
That turned out to be mostly an unnecessary thought though as the water’s depth remained pretty consistent along this stretch of water too and, as the Pro’s (who I could still amazingly see!!) were only having to swim occasionally. As a result, I also only occasionally swam and, as a consequence, thanks to my “dolphining” technique clearly being stronger than my swim technique, I remained in the chase pack immediately behind the Pro’s.
This situation persisted on the turn back to the beach and in fact, given the rhythm that I was now getting into I had started to sense that I was in a smaller group of racers chasing the Pro’s and even nibbling away at the gap of the Pro racers in front of me. As a result, by the end of the second lap the last swimmer in the leading group ahead of me (turns out that was Carina Wasle, the eventual Ladies Champion) only exited onto the beach a little over 30 seconds ahead of me!!
As I ran into transition I remember glimpsing at the race clock and seeing 18 something minutes!!! Which I confess made me grin like a Cheshire Cat! After the race I spoke with others about the swim and some of them felt a bit cheated about the fact that the swim course was so shallow.
In fairness to the race course designers the low tide and new sand bar that had been created after last year’s massive Typhoon left them with little choice unless they’d started the race some 6 hours later at high tide. This probably would not have been acceptable to the local traffic cops nor to the racers who would have then been racing in the real heat of the day with what would have been a Midday start to catch the High Tide!
Despite these facts, I did have a degree of sympathy for their point of view but I also believe that in the same way that swimming is about adapting to an environment that you are not familiar or naturally designed for, so is racing. This was demonstrated admirably by the Pro’s and, whilst I know my, Ben Allen like, swim time of 17:58 was not indicative of my usual swim times, it was in the context of the conditions being the same for everyone, ethical, fair and correct.
So with that thought in my mind of no regrets and of making the most of this better than expected start I set to work on the bike after a steady rather than stunning transition split.
The opening 10 or so minutes of the bike course is on road and involves a serious but steady rather than steep ascent up what is known as Navy Hill.
After picking off a couple of other riders that had clearly had a faster transition than me on the first half of this hill another rider drew up alongside me and took a good look at me, as I did them.
He was a Japanese gentleman and after a little hesitancy asked me the obvious question in a rather stern and heavily accented way “Your Age Group?”
This was necessary as numbers were allocated randomly rather than by age groups for this race. I obliged with an honest and clear answer knowing what his response would be which came immediately back as “Me too” I then said “Nice to meet you Yuji san my name is Dave” J
Momentarily he was a little shocked then smiled and said “Nice to meet you too David san”. I then said “Have a great race Yuji san” and he replied with a respectful “You too”.
After that exchange a bond had definitely been created but so to had the terms for our duel as a proverbial couple of gloves had been thrown down on that road and we had both picked them up and accepted the challenge to race each other.
The race was now most definitely “On, On” as my hashing Mates like to say.
We completed the road climb side by side for most of the way but by the time we crested and were preparing to turn into the trails I had assumed the position I’d keep for most of the next 15 kilometers namely sucking Yuji’s back wheel and benefiting from any drafting opportunities and, most importantly, his exceptional bike handling and decision making skills in terms of the lines he selected J
As a result, I don’t mind admitting Yuji san helped me ride the 1st half of the bike course better and faster than I had envisaged I would.
For much of this time I knew I was on the edge of my limits and I suspect that Yuji san did too. The reason I suspected this was that he kept inviting me to take the lead (as I would have done had I been in his shoes) and other than on two occasions when I could, I kept declining.
Amusingly, he even challenged me to chase down a rider who was in front of us saying that “I think you can do it”. I knew that I could too but I also knew it would elevate my heart rate and compromise my race. I responded with words rather than action by saying with as cheeky a grin as I could muster “I think you can do it too” ;-)
Just before we arrived at the start of the final ascent up to the peak of Mount Tapochau he stepped up a gear and got out of the saddle as he did on most climbs and did just as I had challenged him to do by catching and passing the rider ahead of us. He did this with consummate ease and it took him into about a 200 meters lead on me by the time I summited the steepest section of the climb which is affectionately known as “The Bitch”.
He continued to slowly and steadily edged away from me and as I started the final climb to the summit of Mount Tapochau I was also caught and passed by Ryan Snow from Guam who was riding very strongly.
As he passed the thought crossed my mind to try and grab his wheel to help me get back on Yuji’s wheel. I knew that was not going to happen today though as Ryan was too strong and I’d risk “puncturing” myself rather than the bike on the run or even before then.
So, instead, I’m pleased to report that ‘Mr. Sensible‘ stayed on the racecourse rather ‘Mr. Madman’ and I continued to spin with a heart rate that was as controlled and calm as my head and at a pace that I knew I was able to sustain.
After summiting Mount Tapochau Yuji, Ryan and the other riders ahead of me turns out this was Charlie Sendin & Furuya Toshiyuki by this stage were out of view and gone over and down a section of trail that is aptly named the “Sound of Music”. It’s named so because the winds and grasses here replicate the famous hillside where Julie Andrews blasted out her rendition of the hills are live with the “Sound of Music” J
At this point ‘Mr. Madman’ made a brief reappearance by injecting the thought in to my head that perhaps I should try to catch them now on the descent. Thankfully, a very assertive ‘Mr. Sensible’, who articulated these cautionary words… “Don’t be Firkin Stupid Spencie! Race your race and stick to plan!” silenced his nonsense. The plan being, to race clean and smooth and not to smash or crash so that I could not push the pedal to the floor on the run.
As a consequence, not being that experienced at serious technical downhill I’m pleased to report that I executed this plan perfectly riding everything smoothly but as fast as someone with my limited skill and experience could do so that I stayed within myself and most importantly on my bike. That was until one of the last sections before T2 where the off-road section switched to smooth wet asphalt and where the final water station was located.
Deciding intuitively to take a cold bottle of water to help keep my core temperature under control I touched my brakes to slow down to make a pick up from the water station volunteer but as I was still making the tight turn that transitioned on to the slick wet asphalt the next thing I knew was that both wheels and frame had disappeared from under me and I was skidding down the road on my belly with my hands and knees acting as the wheels on the longboard that was my body.
After about 5-10 meters I came to a halt and thankfully with only superficial wounds and after taking the water bottle that I needed I was instantly back on the bike and on my way into T2.
On reaching T2 which again was steady rather than stunning, I realized that with a bike split of 1:53:32 comfortably under my target time of 2 hours I knew now what I knew at the start of the race. Namely, that for me, breaking 3:45 was going to come down to the run!
Before I left my bike the wonderful Jim Lovell came over to offer me words of encouragement and what I’d hoped would be an estimated time between me and Yuji san.
Instead, as well as telling me how great I was doing (I didn’t really understand this at that time in terms of how well I was going relative to the rest of the field) that I was actually leading my age group!!
As I ran out of T2 I told him to double check that, as I knew that Yuji (whose number I had forgotten) was ahead of me. My last words were that I was off to try and run him down and by the time I got over the line needless to say that Jim had tracked him down in his system and corrected that minor oversight so that once again he could deliver yet another brilliant set of faultless race results.
Back on the run course I started about my work which meant settling in to a rhythm that would settle my elevated heart rate which, as always, had spiked as I went through and left transition. This was in response to the encouragement of the crowds and the announcer. I have to say here that this support was really awesome and very much appreciated especially the smooth and slick race commentary and welcoming words delivered by none other than Brad Ruszala, who it turns out was also the race announcer for the event and a darn fine one he was too.
As a result, of this I exited T2 at pace and soon after the water station I realized that my heart rate was way too high. Thankfully by the time I came alongside the Marina this was under control again and I got my 1st glimpse of a runner ahead of me.
As I turned towards the road crossing to enter the 1st section of technical single track trail this gap had visibly closed and now with my heart rate under control I was ready start closing the gap further. Inside this first technical section I quickly caught and passed this runner, which turned out to be Furuya Toshiyuki, and to my delight I could now hear another runner or runners up ahead.
As I exited this first section of trail onto some interim road surface these runners came into view and were none other than Yuji san and Ryan in that order. Given that Yuji san was closest to me and heard me exit the trail he cast what looked like to me a rather worried look J
It was too early though to make a decisive break away so as with the bike ride ‘Mr. Madman’ stayed on his best behavior while ‘Mr. Sensible’ assessed Yuji san and his running skills and his state of well-being.
After patiently observing him for a kilometer or so I’d established that he was as fast as me on the non-technical downhill sections but he was not comfortable in technical stuff and he wasn’t as good a climber when running as he was on the bike.
With these observations I decided that my strategy would have to use the technical climbs to attack. Fortunately for me a steep section of trail was coming up and I decided that this would be where I’d attack and I would then push really hard all the way to the technical ravine section so that I could get into this first.
As we turned off of the 1st section of the course that was shared with the bike course I moved past Yuji san and Ryan so that I could enter the single track section that begins with a steep scramble ahead of them both.
I was on the limit myself but I was pleased that hills are one of the things I love to train on and this paid off as I definitely found another couple of gears over both Yuji san and Ryan and I lost the sounds of their footsteps pretty quickly up this hill.
Simon Cross, a way better and more experienced racer than myself, once told me never to look behind in these situations. When I asked him why, he told me because it’s a sign of weakness and only helps inspire confidence in the person you have overtaken. As I continued up that hill his words echoed in my head and instead of looking over my shoulder I simply pressed the pedal harder.
Along the way I caught and passed Charlie too and it wasn’t until I reached the water station where I had skidded down the road earlier on the bike that I slowed to douse myself in water to cool myself down that I took the opportunity to take a quick glimpse back up the road/trail which was, pleasingly empty and quiet.
As a result, I continued to the final steep section of road and set about pressing the advantage I now had home by running this and reminding myself as I entered the final and hardest section of technical trail that included the infamous ravine and cave to maintain and use my momentum through this section to finish the job.
The message I was now telling myself was that if Yuji san, or for that matter anyone else who was going to pass me before the finish line, was that they would really have to earn that right.
As I exited the ravine I knew I had run/scrambled it as well as not only I could have but that this was probably as well as any other age grouper could too.
With just really myself to beat me now I found the best pace I could down the road to the beach that would maintain the advantage that those steep and technical sections had given me.
I don’t mind confessing that as I have done on a number occasions in hard training sessions I used the memory of Tiger one of my dogs who sadly died on Boxing Day last year to help me do this.
Tiger was a real runner and loved to race me up and down the trails where I am fortunate enough to train. The thought of his spirit really fires up my running legs and he did not let me down on Saturday as he and I descended towards and along the beach.
As a result, I maintained a stiff pace. The photographs of me at this point will confirm this as well, as I was now beginning to hurt a lot and my turbo diesel engine was starting to show signs of overheating too J
Thankfully though, the finishing line and Brad’s friendly and welcoming voice was soon in earshot and then in sight and I crossed the finish line in 3:26:07 just under 2.5 minutes slower than XTERRA Philippines which, given the seriously more technical nature of this course and the amount of elevation it had, I’ll take any day of the week.
The bonus was that as I crossed the line I still felt strong and, dare I say it, had I needed it, I still had something in the tank too deal with an “emergency”.
The icing on the cake was crossing the line ahead of rather than coming in closely behind Yuji san as well as being the first age grouper home overall and therefore the Amateur Champion for the event.
These last two facts have not yet really sunk until this morning when I heard that I have been selected to represent Team GB in my age group at the ITU Cross World Championships.
This was been my primary goal for the 1st half of 2016. The goal now is to step up the training and aim to finish as high as possible for this event and the XTERRA World Championships in Maui this year. This means being inside the top 5 but ideally being on one of the steps of the podium. Yuji san was 6 minutes and 28 seconds away from doing that in Maui last year so tomorrow this next leg of the journey begins in earnest as I now have a new plan to make me better and stronger J
In closing I’d like to thank the quality team that helped put this event on. People like Eric, Kelly & Kaz at Pivot who organized it. People like Bobbi Grizzard and the team of trail repairers and architects that she inspired to help her prepare the bike and run courses. People like Yuji, Ryan and Charlie that pushed me on to surpass my expectations on the day and all of the other passionate people that came to volunteer and participate in this beautiful but brutal event. Their energy and contribution was invaluable in making it truly a quality experience for me.
I’m aiming on being back next year as a result and am hoping to be better for it just as I am this year. See you soon Saipan and hopefully will see the age group winners and you Yuji san sooner at XTERRA Malaysia in May.
Finally, whilst I don’t have any sponsors to thank I really would like to thank all the people that have supported me and believed in me to help me get to Saipan and perform as I have done. This includes people like my amazing Mother, my beautiful daughters Tabitha and Sorcha and the rest of my family. It also includes others who have become part of my family through our shared passions, values and beliefs. People like Elsa, Navin, Simon, Rob, Andrew and Dale and many other friends who have all helped to inspire, motivate and educate me to be the best I can be. Your contributions and thoughts have never gone unnoticed and make a huge difference and I want to end this post by expressing my gratitude to you all for these efforts and gifts that you’ve given me.
Onwards and upwards now to the new summits of Haleakala on Maui & The Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, Australia.
Over n Out for now. D J
Check out Dave’s new blog for more pics and future stories at http://trihardrustman.blogspot.my/2016/03/XTERRASaipan.RaceReport.Chapter1.html