As the pros fly into Ogden, Utah from all over the world to race at the XTERRA Pan Am Championship this Saturday, the XTERRA amateurs are hot on their heels. From 15-80, all age groups are represented by some of the country's best athletes. For some, this will be the first time - or the only time this year - they will race against each other. For others, this is the culmination of a long series of racing head to head. Regional champs, partners, best friends, and long-time rivals will toe the starting line to see who is the fastest in the country. And because it's XTERRA, after the race, competitors turn back into good friends.
In the 15-19 category, some of these amateurs will literally be on the heels of the pros. Two-time and reigning 15-19 XTERRA Western Regional Champ, Dylan Gong will be bringing his A-game. And you can expect nothing less from Kiwi Lewis Ryan. Last weekend Ryan won XTERRA Fruita, coming in ahead of pros Branden Rakita and Ian King.
"XTERRA Fruita was definitely a hard and fast battle between Branden and myself," said Ryan. "I’m keeping healthy and having a lot of fun so can’t wait to race in Ogden this weekend. I have my sights set on trying to defend my overall amateur title from last year as well as trying to finish in the top 10 pros. There’s no shortage of talent on that start line though so I’m sure it’ll be one hell of a race and I can’t wait!"
In the 20-24 age group, 2016 Pan Am Champ and 2017 Mountain Region Champ Nelson Hegg will be racing West Region Champ John Sarikas, who was the runner up at XTERRA Deuces Wild back in June. Last year, Hegg ran the Pan Am Championship in trainers, so it will be interesting to see what will happen when he puts his racing flats on.
In the 30-34 age group, Brett Tack, the top amateur at XTERRA Beaver Creek is headed to Utah from Boulder. Tack was the 30-34 age group champ at XTERRA Oak Mountain where Humberto Rivera (pictured above in grey hat) was the top amateur and the 25-29 age group champ. Both will be at the XTERRA Pan Am Championship. Last year Tack finished just behind 2016 Pan Am Champ Rife Hilgartner.
Hilgartner will be at the race on Saturday as well, representing the journeymen in the over 40 crowd. Also expect to see the 40-44 XTERRA Oak Mountain age group champ Michael Dorr, who will be competing against his coach Yaro Middaugh. Middaugh is coming to Utah from St. Augustine, Florida where his home was hit hard by Hurricane Irma.
This tough crew will be joined by Andy Lee from Texas and six-time XTERRA Regional Champ, Cliff Millemann from California. XTERRA Regional Champs Mike Judd and Ron Hill will be there as well.
For the first time, Johnny Davis, 64, will race in the same age group as one of his idols, Tom Monica. Monica was the 55-59 age group champ at XTERRA Beaver Creek last year, and in May, he was the 60-64 age group champ at XTERRA Oak Mountain.
On the women's side, in the 25-29 age bracket, last year's leaders - Heather Wilson, Shauna Nelson, and Rebecca Goldstein - will be back for Saturday's race.
You can also expect great things from another firefighter, Megan Riepma, who was second to Heather Zimchek-Dunn in last year's race. With Zimchek-Dunn turning pro, Riepma and Laura Coombs - who was third in the 30-34 division last year - will be tough competitors.
In the 35-39 age group, Southeast Region Champ Jess White might shake things up a bit for Kristen Wade, also a Southeast standout.
Early in the season, White was the XTERRA Blackwater Champ, but it was a hard-won race to the end with Heidi Gaertner, who will also be racing on Saturday. Last year, Gaertner finished 8th in the 40-44 age group at the XTERRA Pan Am Championship. White is a relative newcomer to XTERRA, transitioning from road races to the dirt.
"I did a few XTERRA races last year, and that was all it took," said White. "I’m hooked and love the atmosphere and fun of off-road racing.”
You can't count out Courtney Kaup either. The Vermont resident was the 35-39 age group champ at XTERRA Beaver Creek and the reigning 35-39 division World Champ.
Fan favorite Deanna McCurdy (pictured above) who was the 6th woman across the line, the overall amateur and 40-44 age group champ last year, is back. She's having another phenomenal year, winning her age group at XTERRA Oak Mountain, XTERRA Indian Peaks (where she was third to pro Jacqui Slack Allen and Whitney Barrett), and XTERRA Gator Terra. McCurdy was 4th at XTERRA Beaver Creek, just behind Jennifer Razee, who was runner up to McCurdy last year at the Pan Am Championship. Kathryn Lockwood, who was 5th in this age group last year, is another one to watch.
"I am excited to see how it goes out there and I'm feeling good going into Saturday's race," said McCurdy. "I love this brutal course."
If you want to see great racing, be on the lookout for reigning Pan Am Champs Laura Morris (45-49), Margo Pitts (50-54), Tammy Tabeek (55-59), Martha Buttner (60-64), and Libby Harrow (65-69).
The biggest mistake you could make is to underestimate Pitts (pictured above), a three-time Southeast Regional Champ. Last weekend, Pitts was the top female amateur at XTERRA Fruita, and has been training at altitude this summer.
Conditions will be chilly on Saturday and the air, as always, will be thin for those grueling climbs. After all, this is XTERRA, and these top athletes are ready.
"I do best under adverse circumstances," said McCurdy. "Last year, Maui was a great race in the mud, then the heat in Oak Mountain and the pouring thunderstorm conditions at Gator Terra. So I guess, bring on the cold rain!"