XTERRA Oak Mountain Amateur Preview
As we count the days until XTERRA Oak Mountain, it’s impossible not to feel that heady mix of excitement and anticipation for the first championship race of the season. It’s finally spring, we’re getting faster, and those trails at Oak Mountain!
“There is something special about going back to Oak Mountain to race,” said last year’s XTERRA Oak Mountain amateur women’s champ, Deanna McCurdy. “Even though it is one of the biggest races on the XTERRA Pan Am tour, I love the small town, grassroots feel of the race. The course itself is a true test to measure of how the body performs after months of winter training and how well it handles the heat and humidity of the Deep South. Each year the competitive field gets deeper and stronger at this race, which is both incredibly challenging and exciting.”
McCurdy is correct about her competition. While each age group has too much talent to predict the champs, we have no doubt there will be great racing on May 19.
In the 25-29 age group, look for Katarina Marks out in front. The XTERRA phenom is coming down from altitude and is in it to win it. She may be challenged by Amanda Bayer, who is likely to be out of the water before some of the elite men. She is coming off a win at XTERRA Jersey Devil and can shred with the best of them on the bike. At the XTERRA World Championship in Maui, Bayer was fifth in a competitive cohort that included 2018 XTERRA Uruguay champ, Carolina Nieva, Marks, and Pauline Aigon from France.
“Next up, XTERRA Oak Mountain!” said Bayer after her win at XTERRA Jersey Devil last weekend. “Jersey Devil was a good test of fitness but we didn't have to contend with the heat, the distance, or some of the bike course features that you get in Alabama. I'm hoping that having a little more experience, a little more course familiarity after racing there last year, and hopefully - after a hard winter of training - a little more fitness will help me do well. Can't wait to see how it goes!”
Heather Wilson, who won her 25-29 age group at XTERRA Renegade in 2017 and finished third in her division at the XTERRA National Championship last year (Kat Marks was second) is also likely to impress on the Alabama trails.
In the women’s 30-34 age group, Stephanie Brunnemann is back, and like Bayer, her biggest competition has turned pro. However, San Diego-based Melanie Willard may be putting the hurt on in this division. She finished seventh overall at XTERRA Costa Rica and looks to be ready for business in Alabama.
Look for Sian Crespo in the 35-39 division to take off on the bike. Last year, at the XTERRA National Championship in Utah, Crespo rode five minutes faster than Courtney Kaup, who won that division. She also has some wheels on the run, so if she’s been working on her swim, then she may be one to watch.
The women’s 40-44 division is stacked with talent and will be a tough battle for those three podium spots. Deanna McCurdy is using XTERRA Oak Mountain as her first race of the season and would surprise no one by winning the amateur title at XTERRA Oak Mountain for the second year in a row. The 2017 Ms. XTERRA was third in her age group in Maui last year behind Heather Pady and Tanya Sharp from New Zealand. It’s hard to imagine anyone beating McCurdy on the run, and she is just as fierce on the bike. Last year, she won her age group in Utah, at XTERRA Oak Mountain, XTERRA Indian Peaks, and XTERRA Gator Terra.
Courtney Kaup is moving up to the 40-44 age group, which probably elicited a few sighs of relief from the 35-39ers. In 2017, Kaup was best in class at XTERRA Gator Terra, XTERRA Beaver Creek, and the XTERRA Pan Am Championship. In Maui, she was second only to Kristy Jennings – now a pro - who finished two minutes ahead of her. This year, she has been focusing on her bike handling and anaerobic conditioning, so expect her to be fearless on the course.
“You can learn from everything,” said Kaup. “Let me learn and I can be better. And I always want to do better. It’s a vision of life and sports is part of life. Can I push harder? Can I get up earlier? Can I handle more discomfort so I can get to the top of that hill faster?”
Angie DeFilipppi is also a force to be reckoned with in the 40-44 division. Last year she won her age group at XTERRA French River and XTERRA Jersey Devil and was third at last year’s XTERRA Oak Mountain to amateur champ Deanna McCurdy and Kathy Waite.
In the 45-49 division, Heather Pady is traveling to Alabama from Canada and might be like the Polar Express on the trails. She has won XTERRA Mine Over Matter and XTERRA Parry Sound multiple times, and she loves the heat and humidity of Alabama. Additionally, she is a strong runner and well-suited to the twists and turns of the trails. She is one of the few who can beat McCurdy, which she did at the XTERRA World Championship last year by less than a minute. In the end, it could come down to a footrace between these two speedy athletes.
“I’ve never been to Oak Mountain,” said Pady. “I am so used to training by effort that I’m not worried about the change in temperature from Canada. I know I can adapt and I’m excited to race. That’s why I do this – because I love it."
Margo Pitts (50-54), who already won both of the races she entered in the XTERRA Southeast series this year, is also a pro at handling with what the course at Oak Mountain will dish out. She recently won XTERRA Myrtle Beach and XTERRA Fort Yargo and has been training intensely since Maui last October.
XTERRA has no shortage of excellent women athletes, who will surely hold their own against each other and Mother Nature in next weekend’s race. Oak Mountain is a fickle course. The weather, rooty trails, unpredictable course conditions, and maybe even some beginner’s luck could enable a dark horse to sneak up onto that top step.
The men’s field at XTERRA Oak Mountain is just as talented as the women’s field, so expect to see elbows flying all the way into the chute as these athletes attempt to qualify for the XTERRA World Championship in Maui this October.
Last year’s overall amateur champ, Humberto Rivera, turned pro this year, so this race is open for anyone willing to go rogue enough to take the title. There are many athletes who fit this bill in the XTERRA Southeast region, including Marcus Barton, who might be part superhero. Last year, Barton was less than a minute behind Rivera. This year, Barton could again nab the 45-49 age-group title as it’s tough to stay on his wheel. And if it comes down to the final kick, Barton seems to always have another gear. However, this year, Barton will have XTERRA Pan American Champ Andy Lee there to test him. The firefighter from Texas prefers to fly under the radar, but he flies at mach speed. At Utah last year, he won his age group by almost five minutes. In the XTERRA races he enters in Texas, Lee is virtually unbeatable.
In the 50-54 age group, look for Mike Barro, who is determined to get to Maui. The XTERRA St. Louis race director is a former Division I runner and owns a bike store, so if anyone is going to beat him, they should try to do it on the swim. Ali Arasta, in the 55-60 age group, won his division at XTERRA Oak Mountain last year by 11 minutes, so expect more of the same this year.
In the 45-49 age group, Eric Snowberg is the five-time and reigning XTERRA Mountain Region Champion. Coming down from altitude in Golden, Colorado, he may have the advantage in Pelham if the humidity doesn’t affect his groove. Judging by his seventh place overall finish in XTERRA Costa Rica, it looks like he can handle a little heat.
In the 30-34 division, expect speed from Kevin Jett, fresh off his win at XTERRA Fort Yargo, where he finished less than a minute ahead of Barton. This will be his first year racing XTERRA Oak Mountain, but you can count on him to shake things up, although he will be the first to contradict that.
“I think I got lucky at Fort Yargo,” he said graciously. “The other guys were still recovering from XTERRA Myrtle Beach. I’m really looking forward to racing them again at Oak Mountain.”
Kansas City- based Michael Drackert is also in the 30-34 age group and he has been focused on getting to Maui for over a year. He’s been training and racing earlier than many athletes so he may already be in fighting shape even though it’s early in the season. On April 21st he drove down to Texas to race XTERRA ATX where he narrowly missed second place overall in a solid field that included that day’s champ, Andy Lee. Last year’s 30-34 age group champ, Brett Tack, is recovering from a knee injury, so this age group is up for grabs.
In the 35-39 age group, look for Dan Ballheimer to be out in front. Although this Missouri-based athlete will be at Oak Mountain for the first time, he’s been racing on XTERRA courses for years. Last year, he won his age group at XTERRA DINO, XTERRA Panther Creek, XTERRA Illinois Wilds, and XTERRA St. Louis.
One bump up, in the 40-44 age group, there is a fast pack that includes Garren Watkins, Mike Dorr, AJ Petrillo, Dave Dornaus, Yaro Middaugh, and Hans Ryham. Ryham has been focused on endurance this year, so he may not have the speed to catch Petrillo, Middaugh, or Dornaus, who barely edged out Mike Dorr for the age group win at XTERRA Oak Mountain last year.
Dorr then turned around and became the XTERRA Pan Am Champ at Utah in this age group after edging out Garren Watkins by two seconds.
“Garren is the dominant guy in our age group,” said Dorr last year. “No doubt about it.”
Middaugh always puts in consistent performances and is a strong runner and biker. He and Petrillo started the run together at XTERRA Fort Yargo, and Middaugh used his speed to nab third place behind Barton and Caleb Baity.
Petrillo hasn’t been training much as he’s focused on his family and 18-month old son. However, he surprised even himself at XTERRA Fort Yargo with his fourth-place finish overall on only five weeks of training. Petrillo also knows the course well – 2018 will be his eighth year racing at XTERRA Oak Mountain.
If you think you would love to hate Petrillo, good luck with that. It’s hard to find anyone who embodies the spirit of XTERRA more than he does. Like Barton, Petrillo wasn’t an athletic kid and didn’t run farther than a mile until his late twenties.
“I was never fast,” he said. “I was always picked last for gym class and told I couldn’t run. So that was in my head. What I love about triathlon is that the harder you work, the better you get. And I am able to outwork talent all day long. That’s why I love the sport. That, and of course the people who race XTERRA. The people are the best part.”
McCurdy (pictured below) agrees. In fact, it’s one of the reasons she is making the trip from her home in Colorado to the race in Alabama.
“What I love most though about getting to race at XTERRA Oak Mountain are the friends who will also be racing. Thoughts of the finish line reunion help get me through those final miles of the run when the sun is beating down and the body is fighting to keep moving forward. I cannot wait to hang out post race by the water’s edge and swap stories about life with our XTERRA family since the last time we were all together. And how much fun is that Willie Nelson concert going to be?”