Melanie McQuaid is off-road royalty. She was the first elite – male or female – to win three XTERRA World Championship titles (2003, 2005, 2006), she has collected more than 30 XTERRA championship titles since her first win at Half Moon Bay in 2002 and is the reigning and two-time ITU Cross Tri World Champ.
The tough-as-nails Canadian racergirl has spent the past several years focusing on road tris, and won six IM 70.3 distance championships along the way, but is excited to get back to her XTERRA roots in 2018. McQuaid turns 45 this year but is showing no signs of slowing down. We recently caught up with the champ and got down to brass tacks about how to be your best, race in your forties, and why sometimes, it’s great to lose.
Q. What do you love about the dirt?
A. Racing in the dirt gives you a connection to nature. I have so much gratitude for the places I’ve travelled and all the cool trails I have been on because of racing XTERRA. I can look at pictures of the beautiful Flume Trail in Tahoe and say I have been there.
The other thing I love about the dirt is it rewards a truly all-around triathlete as drafting is not a significant factor. I also think the attitude in XTERRA is more laid back, creating a friendly, inclusive, and welcoming community. No other discipline in triathlon has got this right the way XTERRA has.
Q. You have talked about the importance in accessing the state of “flow” when you are racing off-road. How can athletes train themselves to relax into optimal performance?
A. It is crucial to do whatever you can do to be faster, more relaxed, and more focused in each moment to maximize your strength while you are racing.
Off-road, technical racing makes focus a lot more important as the stakes are higher when you don’t pay attention – for example, you crash! So, the courses demand your attention more than a road event might. It does take practice to harness your mind to stay on task. One huge thing you can do is to discipline yourself to train in uncomfortable situations where you will face all of those thoughts that can distract you from “flow” (this hurts, I hate this kind of interval, I am not good at this, I wish the weather was better…) so that on race day you are prepared to be a warrior no matter what comes your way.
Q. You were mountain biking before many women even knew about the sport. What has it been like to be a leader, role model, and pioneer?
A. The Canadian National mountain bike team has been the best in the world for 20 years, so I had female Olympic medalists to look up to when I started mountain biking. The standard in cross-country racing for Canada is incredible on the women’s side starting with Alison Sydor, moving to Catherine Pendrel and Emily Batty, and now our new rising star Haley Smith. The women eclipsed the success of our men’s team so really, we never felt it was a men’s sport.
All kidding aside, the problem was the unequal prize money and the fewer jobs available to women – which continues to this day. You had to wait for someone to retire to get a job, so it was hard to be a female pro, and I’m not sure this has changed much. That is not ideal, and a lot of the development fell on our National team program. I owe all my professional success in triathlon to development through the national team program in Canada, both the mountain bike and the road team. And going forward, it’s important that more races follow XTERRA’s model of awarding equal prize money to male and female champs.
Q. You are honest about the fact that you don’t always win. How do you handle losses without losing confidence? What has second place taught you that first place can’t?
A. Sometimes when you are winning it is harder to see the flaws in your performances. When you are second you get the huge motivation of almost winning but also have a scale to measure the areas in which you can improve.
The challenge in coming second is not to mentally settle into “your place” and instead continue to believe you can take the top step. Once I won my first race, I went on to win a lot more. To maintain confidence, athletes need to first have an unwavering belief in themselves. If that is in place, success will follow when given enough time.
Q. What are the benefits to racing – and living – in your forties?
A. It’s true that you get wiser. For example, I wish I had made the Olympic team in mountain biking, but it’s clear to me now, that not making the team led me to a pretty awesome professional career I may have never pursued. Additionally, my mistakes in my own training have led me to be a good coach because I know where I went wrong, and I make sure my MelRad Multisport athletes train smarter than I did.
Q. What advice can you give women over 40 who want to be competitive and fit?
A. First, you have to weight train. Second, get a coach that can iron our your technical flaws. You can’t ignore those any more. Finally, stop thinking that your age means you have to get slower.
Learn more from the champ at melrad.com.