Dan Ballheimer isn’t your typical XTERRA athlete. He didn’t grow up running cross-country or swimming on a club team or tearing it up on a BMX. In fact, the one time that he borrowed his brother’s mountain bike to chase a few friends down a trail, he ended up breaking is collar bone and wrecking the bike.
“I said I’d never ever do that again,” said Ballheimer, 38.
But then, a few years later, Ballheimer, who grew up playing hockey, felt bored with life and with his routine at the gym.
“My wife sparked something in me,” Ballheimer admitted. “She said, if you’re bored, then try something different. Somehow, that led me to XTERRA.”
Ballheimer doesn’t remember where he first learned about XTERRA but he remembers his first impression.
“I never swam other than jumping in a lake and I had never biked except for that terrible incident, but when I learned about XTERRA, I thought, ‘Oh, I would love to do that.’”
Luckily for Ballheimer, the training came naturally to him. Although he had said “never again” to the bike, he somehow got back on. And swimming – which usually involves an awkward learning curve – didn’t seem that difficult.
“That’s not to say I’m a natural at any of this,” says Ballheimer with his typical modesty. “I’ve always had a coach and I know there’s room for improvement. There is vast room for improvement.”
Ballheimer’s coach is SherriAnne Little of Next Level Endurance, who contributes to the XTERRA Couch to Trail articles.
“Dan is an amazing, dedicated, focused, and balanced individual,” said Little. “He made great strides as an athlete in 2017 and at the end of the season, he declared to me that he wanted to qualify for Worlds in 2018. We had a few conversations about training and strategy and he simply decided it was time to do the work.”
Because he lives in Eureka, Missouri, much of Ballheimer’s work is indoors in the winter.
“I spend a lot of my winter training on the treadmill and at the gym. I don’t even have a road bike trainer so I do a lot of my workouts on the stationary bike. I ride the heck out of that thing.”
Ballheimer’s first race was supposed to be XTERRA Eureka Springs in 2015, but at the last minute it was canceled because of flooding.
“That was lucky for me,” said Ballheimer, “Because I did XTERRA DINO North for my first race, which was more beginner-friendly. But even then, that first race was terrifying. During the swim I got logjammed, and then I went too hard and panicked and couldn’t breathe. During the bike I settled in, but it was still exciting and terrifying. And honestly, it’s still like this. There’s still a point in each race where I’m like, why am I doing this? This hurts. But as soon as I’m done, I say, ‘That was awesome and I can’t wait to race again.’”
Ballheimer admits that it’s his competitive nature that keeps him coming back to race.
“I’m quite a competitive person. That’s how I’ve always been. I just like the competition and camaraderie of going at it with all these guys and gals.”
Other XTERRA Midwest athletes are thrilled to have Ballheimer out on the course.
“Dan is the best type of competitor,” said fellow XTERRA Midwest athlete, Michael Drackert. “He roots for you and you want to root for him. If you have a good race, Dan is the first person to congratulate you. And when Dan flies pass you on the bike, you cheer him on. I never feel like I'm racing against Dan. I feel like I get the opportunity to race with Dan. That's what a real competitor should be.”
This year, at XTERRA Oak Mountain, Ballheimer surprised himself by winning his age group and qualifying for the XTERRA World Championship in Maui. However, Ballheimer was the only athlete who was surprised by his success.
“He focused on the quality of his workouts and made big strides,” said Little. “Going into Oak Mountain I knew he was going to have a great day. It was just a matter of putting all the hard work and grind behind him and letting it shine. It has been fun coaching him and watching him attain a goal he has wanted for some time. “
“The first year, I just did XTERRA to get my feet wet and see what I thought of the sport,” says Ballheimer. 'I just dabbled in 2016 too. But then, after that, I said, ‘You know what, I want to give it a hard push and see what happens if I train my butt off.' I just wanted to see what I could accomplish as an athlete.”
It’s clear that Ballheimer has a ton of potential and that he is just beginning to hit his stride. While he’s looking forward to the rest of the XTERRA season - specifically XTERRA DINO Southern Indiana, XTERRA St. Louis, and the XTERRA World Championship - he also realizes that at 38, he’s entering into one of the most competitive age groups.
“Mike Drackert and I were talking and we know as we get older and age up, we are going to have to elevate our game because these guys keep getting better and better and faster and faster. But we are outdoor people and we love the challenges. That’s what I love about XTERRA. Everyone can show up with a game face on and race hard and put it all on the line. But when it’s over, it’s high fives and hugs and having a beer with your buddy you just beat who beat you in the last race. That’s what makes it so awesome.”