Karl Stover is searching for the perfect race.
“XTERRA isn’t just about a desire to suffer,” he says. “It’s more like you’re looking for something. You’re looking for that perfect thing. I’m not a super spiritual guy, but in this respect I am. When I’m racing, I’m looking for that enlightened effort.”
While many think of an “enlightened effort” as a sense of ease, grace, or absence of pain, this isn’t Stover’s definition.
“We can have an easy day where we just rip the cranks off the bike and win, but we don’t gain a whole lot from that. You get more from that good hurt, where you really have to put the effort in, but your capacity and effort are endless and your form is spot on.”
Stover admits that his goal for the perfect race is a bit of a conundrum.
“That’s the metaphysical experience of sport,” he says. “You’re searching for perfection but you’re never going to get it. But that’s the quest, right? That’s why we are all out there.”
In addition to being a thinker, Stover is also a self-described “data guy.” He knows who has done what on the course and how well they’ve done it. Perhaps this comes from his early days as a stand out high school swimmer in southern Illinois. Unfortunately, punitive coaching styles and too many hours in the water led to burnout at a young age. But before he stopped swimming, he had already begun mountain biking.
“I started mountain biking in 1990, but there weren’t any shocks then, which is why I’m beat to crap now. I don’t know how those knuckleheads handle single speeds.”
Unlike many XTERRA athletes, who first attempted triathlons on the roads, Stover hit the dirt in his inaugural multisport effort, back in 2012 at XTERRA Scales Lake, in Boonville, Indiana.
“I never felt so bad in a race so quickly,” remembers Stover. “And I had Chris Scott on my feet. He followed me for about 700 meters and then, as we came around the bend, he swam away from me. I thought to myself, oh no, that’s not happening.”
Chris Scott was one of XTERRA’s top amateur athletes about 5 years ago. Out of the 30 plus XTERRAs Scott entered, he won 20 of them. Regardless of how good Scott was, Stover wasn’t having it. After his first XTERRA, he got back into the pool and began training for real. Scott became something of a benchmark for Stover.
"I honestly never saw a way to beat Chris, but my goal was to get closer each time," he said.
Since then, Stover has been to the XTERRA World Championship in Maui three times. This year alone he was the overall champ at XTERRA Illinois Wilds, and XTERRA St. Louis. He finished fourth in his age group at XTERRA Oak Mountain and third at XTERRA Dino North.
“So while I hated that first race at Scales Lake, I also really enjoyed it,” remembers Stover. “That’s kind of the life of an athlete, right? Racing isn’t about winning. It’s about the experience.”
Part of the experience that keeps bringing Stover back to XTERRA are the people.
“I really like the XTERRA crowd,” says Stover. “I’ve never met a group of people so selfless in their resolve, meaning that I’m kind of in awe of the spirit of the sport. I know it’s hokey, but I’ve never seen so many people truly pumped on how well someone else did that day too, right? I’ve got a handful of friends in XTERRA that constantly ask, ‘How did you do?’ And if I did poorly, they’re like, aw, man, and they are truly bummed. I don’t know Brad Scholtz super well, but - I’m not kidding you - that guy hugged me as he came by me at XTERRA Dino North when I was bent over coughing and asked me if I was ok.”
Now Stover considers Scholtz a friend.
The other thing that keeps Stover on the dirt is the quest.
“I’m serious when I say I’m still seeking the perfect race,” he says again. “And that’s not about the win.”
Stover remembers a training day when he was out in the woods, on the Ozark Trail.
“’I’ve ridden coast to coast and the Ozark Trail is one of the great trail systems in this country,” says Stover. “On one ride, we stopped on the middle fork section and my friend was just shaking his head and I said, ‘What’s up with you?’ He said ‘I’m just in this place where I’ll never understand how some people don’t get to experience this.’”
The one thing that Stover doesn’t tolerate on the dirt - or any place else - is excuses.
“I don’t care if you get a flat tire, stub your toe or you’re puking. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, the results are what they are.”
Stover has had his share of bad luck for sure, but he refuses to capitalize on it. He has been hit by a car while on his bike more than once and has knee damage because of it.
“I don’t love that part of the sport,” he says about his swollen knees. “But I’m not going to complain about it and detract from someone else’s experience. I’m big on execution and if I didn’t do what I had planned, I’m not making excuses for that.”
This year, he is headed to Maui for the XTERRA World Championship in October, and no matter what the condition his knees are in, you can count on him giving 100 percent.
“I don’t see myself as just a triathlete or a cyclist or a swimmer. I just see myself as an athlete. I’ve been down that road of trying to identify myself with a sport. I’ve been down the road where I’m just a swimmer. I’ve been down the road where I’m just a mountain biker or a road biker. Now I’m just having fun. I truly enjoy the process. Every single part of it.”