Julie Baker, a 39-year-old out of Sonora, California, was asked how it feels to be considered one of the favorites to win the elite women’s race at Saturday’s XTERRA Pan America Championship.
“Wait, I’m one of the favorites??” was her reply.
While it may come as a surprise to Baker, it’s no surprise at all to those who follow the sport nor the women who have raced against her.
Baker won the 30-34 XTERRA National Championship on this course in 2013 and last year finished fourth overall as the top age grouper. A month later she won the amateur XTERRA World Championship and this year, in her elite debut at XTERRA Beaver Creek, she won by nearly two minutes over Pan Am Pro Series leader Suzie Snyder.
Her strength is in the swim. A collegiate water polo star, Baker swam more than one-minute faster than Snyder at Beaver Creek and to put that in perspective, Snyder swam four-minutes faster than the rest of the field at XTERRA Oak Mountain back in May.
“Swimming is definitely my strength so I will try and get some time there,” said Baker. “I keep hoping for someone who is a fast swimmer (but not too fast) so I can draft in the swim.”
It’s unlikely that will happen, unless XTERRA newcomer Amanda Felder fills that role, and what that means is the first women out of the water and on to the bike will be wearing a rather plain looking blue racing kit, in stark contrast to the colorful logo-strewn jerseys of her fellow elites.
“No sponsors yet, so yes, the tri suit is still blue and pristine,” she exclaimed.
Attribute the lack of sponsors to her focus on another profession in the dirt, that of a soil scientist. The Stanford grad has been working on a soil survey of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks for the last couple of years.
“We have one more year of field work scheduled and then a lot of database and manuscript work,” explained Baker, who admits the full-time work has led to some unorthodox training methods.
“I haven't really had a training plan. Basically my strategy has been to train hard when I'm home, and not worry about it when we're out working. Sometimes if there's a good hike at work a couple of the guys and I will race each other up the hill, with packs and tools and all. I like to think of all those rocks and steps with weight on your back as strength training. I also try to do some running when we're out in the backcountry but the footing is usually pretty bad so it's hard to go fast.”
The rugged course here in Utah has a similar profile to that of XTERRA Beaver Creek – in terms of altitude and amount of climbing – which bodes well for Baker.
“I like this course a lot and it's similar in style to Beaver Creek, so it was encouraging to have a strong bike there. I think I was so excited to be in the lead there that I kept pushing a little too much on the bike and then was more tired than I wanted to be for the run. I've done a lot more bike to run work this summer, but I think I'm still learning how to train so I hope to keep improving,” she said.
Holding off the rest of the field on the bike and run will be no easy task for Baker, as several of her competitors had breakout seasons in 2016.
Among them is the Kiwi Lizzie Orchard, who was fifth at XTERRA Worlds last year and won the XTERRA Asia-Pacific Championship race in Australia this year. Her strength is on the run and if she is in striking distance at the bike-to-run transition, it could spell trouble for whomever is in front of her.
Then there is Snyder, just a year removed from crushing her pelvis in a pre-ride accident in Mexico, who has four Pan Am Tour wins to her credit this season.
“I'm feeling good, maybe not 100% since I've been nursing a back issue for the past few weeks, but at least the pelvis is 100% and that chapter is behind me. It's been a really long road (which I'm still on) to regain the running fitness I lost due to that injury, but I do think that my swim and bike are stronger than ever and I'm only going to get stronger from now until Worlds.”
Last year’s race here in Utah was a painful one for Snyder, who was still suffering from injures at the time and in the unenviable position of having to finish the race in order to secure her No. 2 spot in the Pro Series.
“I have not erased last year's memory of this race, I think about it a lot. I actually swam well, and rode fairly well considering I'd been off the bike for the previous six weeks and had to walk 99% of the run. I can't believe I actually ran some of that first climb with a broken pelvis, but Kara (LaPoint) was right in front of me and I felt like if I could run with her and give her some encouragement and support for a little while, that maybe it would help her finish out the day strong...and that was well worth any pain and discomfort I was feeling at the time.”
It's a different story for Snyder this year as she can claim the inaugural XTERRA Pan Am Pro Series title with an 11th place finish or better.
“Without Mimi racing (Myriam Guillot-Boisset, who is second in the Pan Am Pro Series) the Tour title win is achievable with much less pressure. It doesn't change the fact that I still want to win the race outright, but not worrying about the Tour title allows me to stay relaxed and focused on the process of having my own best race. Of course, Mimi would not have been the only threat for the race win; Julie Baker, Lizzie Orchard, Kara LaPoint, Maia Ignatz and Liz Gruber are all strong, capable women who may very well challenge me for it.”
As for her strategy on race day, Snyder said “my personal mantra has always been "race your own race." It helps me stay focused and in the moment, and not think about who I'm chasing, who might be coming from behind or how much the effort hurts. I feel like I have fun when I'm relaxed and make fewer mistakes, which translates into a faster performance. Overall, I'm just really excited to be leading the Pan Am Tour coming into the Championship, after not knowing if I'd even be able to participate in the Tour this year when the season started. I'm grateful for my health and ability to race and owe my entire support network of family, friends and sponsors a tremendous amount of thanks and gratitude.”
Maia Ignatz had the best showing of her career earlier this season when she finished 2nd behind Snyder at XTERRA Oak Mountain. She is ranked 3rd in the Pan Am Pro Series and is the top returning pro in this year’s field. Saturday’s race is big for both her and Kara LaPoint, currently ranked fourth in the series, as those two battle for the second spot in the final standings. The payout for 2nd is $6,000, 3rd is $3,600. Ignatz is 11 points ahead of LaPoint heading into Saturday’s race.
“I’m feeling really good heading in to Utah, and I’m super excited to race,” said LaPoint. “After such a busy season with a ton of travel, I’ve been home since XTERRA Dominican Republic and it’s been so nice to be able to be in one place and really put in a solid training block. I did have a pretty hard crash last week that injured my knee, so I haven’t been able to do much running yet and it’s still pretty sore, but I’m hopeful that with another week to recover it will be good to go by race day. No big secret tactical strategies…just push hard, be bold, keep believing, stay positive, don’t back down, race with heart and courage, have fun, and finish knowing I left it ALL on the course.”
That would be a good mindset for everybody, including the other women in contention which include three-time XTERRA Brazil Champion Sabrina Gobbo from Sao Paulo, Katharine Carter from Canada, and rookie pro Liz “MacGruber” Gruber – who finished fifth overall here last year and has three age group national titles from Utah in her trophy room.
Follow the women’s elite race on twitter @xterraoffroad starting at 9am MST.
Bib #/Rank – Name, Age, Hometown
51/1 - Suzie Snyder - 34 - Reno, Nevada
53/3 - Maia Ignatz - 36 - Boulder, Colorado
54/4 - Kara LaPoint - 29 - Truckee, California
55/5 - Sabrina Gobbo - 39 - Sao Paulo, Brazil
56/7 - Katharine Carter - 29 - Vancouver, BC, Canada
57/8 - Debby Sullivan - 35 - Stafford, Virginia
58/9 - Caroline Colonna - 52 - Taos, New Mexico
59/10 - Rebecca Blatt - 36, Lakewood, Colorado
60/12 - Sarah Graves - 39 - Ballantine, Montana
61/13 - Julie Baker - 40, Sonora, California
62/17 - Liz Gruber - 27, Colorado Springs, Colorado
63/28 - Lisa Leonard - 28 - Aberdeenshire, Scotland
64/36 - Amanda Felder – 34, Del Mar, California
65/NR - Lizzie Orchard - 31 - Auckland, New Zealand
66/NR - Annie Bergen - Kelowna, B.C., Canada