Hans Ryham on XTERRA Cameron Park

Jun. 11, 2018

Hans Ryham from Houston, Texas was the first overall finisher at XTERRA Cameron Park/USAT Off-Road Nationals on Saturday, June 9th, in Waco, Texas. An amateur until just after XTERRA Oak Mountain on May 19th, where he earned his USAT Elite License, Hans is a beloved member of the XTERRA Tribe.

In 2017, he was the XTERRA South Central Regional Champ in the 35-39 age group and he finished 13th in the 35-39 age group at the 2017 XTERRA World Championship in Maui. At XTERRA Oak Mountain, Ryham was the second overall amateur behind XTERRA ace, Andy Lee. 

We recently caught up with Hans and he provided a vivid account of his experience at XTERRA Cameron Park. If you have ever wondered what an XTERRA race is like, look no further than Hans' race recap detailing both the grit and the glory inherent in all XTERRA races. 

Standing on the banks of the Brazos River waiting for the National Anthem, the XTERRA Cameron Park race brief, and the ritual waddle into the water I am impressed by a few things. First, the climb out of the water is steep. Second, the Texas sun (even at eight in the morning) is blinding hot, and third, I realize that the current today will be tricky. The Brazos is hard to read because the still water, pigmented like discarded watercolors, does not reveal any sign of movement other than ripples from porpoising turtles. And those guys are big.

On a typical day, the river probably flows at a modest one to two knots. Today, a steady breeze is blowing upstream, creating enough fetch and current to matter as well. Other competitors are going through their swim drill motions, I'm trying to find shade cast by the slender start flags or the one oak within earshot of the race director, without luck. My goggles fog and I deliberately keep my swim cap in my hands to avoid overheating. There's grumbling that the swim looks long, and people standing on the river bank try to peer around the long bend to the north-cast buoy.

We are all in silent denial about the fact that the two-loop run will take in Jacob's Ladder twice. Alissa Magrum's reminder that trained competitors are not immune to the risks of drowning is sobering and I appreciate her passionate work at Colin's Hope, a non-profit dedicated to the prevention of drowning. I give the inside of my goggles a final lick and fall into the penguin parade with a purple-hazed veil. I remember another Brazos river trick - when you finish, swim as close to the river bank as you can before finding your legs. The river bottom is dominated by soft sucking grey mud that only gives way to hard-packed sand in the final feet.  

With 15 seconds to go, our disciplined crew has lined up nicely and I bob my way to the front and begin counting down in my head. The start is free of fighting or thrashing and I am able to take my line from the outside point to the first-turn buoy by the bridge. I've got clear water ahead of me and I sight by using the river bank as a lane marker. I am reminded that the last time I swam here there were racers mid-river who also made good progress, and sure enough, I make out two swimmers who are, at that point, 25 yards ahead. I dart over to the inside to find some legs and maintain the distance as we contort ourselves around the first turn.

Now the long stretch into the current to the single upstream buoy begins. I'm not making any progress on the two in front, despite putting in some surges. I wait for the midpoint indicators - a small orange buoy and the start and exit flags - but there are no sign of them. I only see the two yellow heads in front of me. I make out the second large course marker and the fact that the leaders are swimming to the right of it. I thought there was only one buoy, so what do they see that I don't? I trust my sighting and press inward and am relieved when I see their course corrections, but also realize I've lost more ground. Today the wind and fetch make the final leg a lot slower and the final 500 yards are labored. I swim to the left of the final buoy to avoid the submerged logs as the race director had cautioned and still fall short as I'm mired in mud. 

Third out of the water, I pull my bike gloves out of my shorts and use the long shuttle run to get those on, grateful that my fingers find their homes in soaking gloves a lot easier than in dry ones. No amount of training is ever sufficient for the aerobic torture of T1. Thirty seconds and I'm out, which is a personal best. I can stomach one gummy block that's skewered to my handlebars, and the rest of the time I'm eating air as I'm trying to climb the park road that leads to the single-track trailhead.

I'm hesitant and indecisive and uncoordinated, resulting in a crash no more than a quarter mile in. The handlebars clipped a tree, common for our narrow, Texas courses, often claiming skin from the shoulders of riders. The race photographer yells, "Man down," and within seconds a rider in pursuit is over and through. I collect my yard sale of bottles and press on. Cameron Park's trails are a dizzying blur of switchbacks, trail and park road crossings, punchy ups, and off-camber downs with fishhook tails. Two long ledgy limestone climbs reduce all racers to crawling or walking. We are slow enough to enjoy a conversation if anyone has the breath but no one does.

A mile in, I pass one of the ace swimmers but am still behind two, having been passed post-crash. The dust is thick and loose and chastises me while I come into a few corners too hot. Hang Ten has me dismounting and running both times. Thee are enough roots to bounce my rear wheel which subsequently spins out with that familiar zip. I finally have someone in my sights at the end of the first lap, called "The Ranch". The rider also has an "R", for relay, on his calf, which is a relief. It's a good, experienced wheel to follow, with good flow and nice line selection. I'm starting to feel recovered but am reminded that I need to exercise some urgency. A pass is in order, and by the time we start the river trail I'm dropping down the cassette to take advantage of few miles of open high-speed trails.

The hairpin turn around the aid station signals the start of lap two. The rise of the road provides a good vantage of the river trail below and the riders who may be in pursuit. Nate Youngs is on my six and clearly closing. We ride in tandem for the entire second lap, sharing the lead, which I give up with more clumsy riding, while he asserts with skill and strength. The two water bottles of frozen drink that I put on the bike as late as possible are now warm and gritty with dust. Cameron Park does not afford many opportunities to drink, so I use the last stretch of the river trail to take in as much fluid as possible. Nate's led the charge for the last 25 minutes or so with a nice pace into transition. 

Hans Ryham

I spend 45 seconds in T2 and leave my glasses on the ground, dislodged by my tossed helmet and confusion in collecting my number belt. Leave them, I tell myself. I'll survive. Jacobs Ladder comes too quickly. After a cold drink, the trail takes a left turn to face a set of 88 hidden steps that scale a 100 foot-high cliff. The first few steps are modest and might even be taken two at a time. The remaining rungs come in 15-inch servings that batter the shins and demand certainty in one's stride. I'm glad there's a hand rail because the effort requires my entire body as I'm trying to push my upper body up off of one knee to help the other hand reach out and grab a hold of the next step or anything that's a little higher. I feel as if the steps are pushing me backwards, and lean forward and into the slope as much as I can.

Hot at the top, and into the sun now, I've made 30 feet on Nate but am not sure how the remainder of the run will unfold. One person is ahead and he's a strong runner. A short trail puts us back on to the park road climb that leads to the trail head once more. I shorten my stride and increase the pace thinking I might make a move to pass on the climb. We are locked in step and the same 100 feet separates us. The running trail takes on the same character as the bike leg, where racers in pursuit or being pursued appear like ghosts in the corners of my eyes. The runner ahead never seems far away and again, the meetings and decisions come down to the river trail.

I'm alone by the time I get to the second ascent of the ladder. This is not a cyclocross race, and the people lining the steps are fans and supporters. They cheer but do not heckle. What enters my mind at this point is to be on the look out for Andy Lee and Kyle Grieser. XTERRA Cameron Park is my first race with Kyle this year, but Andy passed me within the first mile of XTERRA Oak Mountain's second lap. Without a watch, I'm not monitoring my pace or physiological parameters and I know I can either take advantage of the position I have and work as hard as I feel I can or be conservative and match a pace if challenged. I push but feel uneasy about the quiet and loneliness. I am looking forward to the fact that the remainder of the run is downhill, figuratively and somewhat literally.

This feeling continues. During the final mile, I'm sure of my position and resigned to what I thought was second place. The race announcer is talking, I follow the trail, and take a right at the cones across the street and through the arch. It still has the finishers' tape strung across the line. I'm in disbelief. Does this mean I am first? And then I put that thought out of my mind. I still have work to do. I have visualized this so many times in my mind, so I know what to do and I continue on.

Photo courtesy Herve Oregas.