By Pamela Hunt
Last year, the XTERRA World Championship in Maui was the first time I watched elite XTERRA athletes race. It was also the first time I had a job other than writing. My assignment was to stand outside T1 and record the bike plate numbers of the first five men and women out of transition for the live twitter updates. How hard could that be?
Like the rookie I am, I stood right by the "Bike Out" sign and before I knew it, six sets of tires passed by me in a blur.
What just happened? I wondered right before I told myself, You had ONE job.
As I stood there, pen still in the air, a voice said, “You can look over my shoulder.” It was a teenage girl, bent over what looked like a receipt from the grocery store. “I’m the timer,” she said.
She was the timer?
“You got all those numbers?” I asked. “In order?”
“Yep,” she said without taking her eyes off the bikes buzzing past us.
Later I found out this girl was Staci Lovell, the daughter of Jim Lovell, who times XTERRA’s championship races. Staci, now 15, has been coming to XTERRA events since she was an infant. Her dad remembers taking her to Maui and XTERRA Beaver Creek before she was old enough to talk.
At six years of age, Staci stood at T1 and recorded the Bike Out times. At 13, she was Jim’s most reliable timer out on the course.
“I’ve been going to XTERRAs since I was five months old and I’ve never missed one,” said Staci. “XTERRA is part of my family and it’s always been important to me. It’s the people I love most. Everyone is working hard and everyone is really grateful. I’ve never had anyone be rude or disrespectful to me when I was timing an XTERRA."
"I feel like the luckiest dad," said Jim Lovell. "The world is a huge place and to be able to show that to Staci is a parent's dream. When you travel as a kid and learn that people speak different languages and look different and practice different religions, you learn to be a lot more tolerant. I think the world would be a better place if we could travel as kids."
School is also important to Staci. She attends Kealakehe High School near Kona where she has straight A’s. “I try not to miss school,” says Staci, “But for XTERRA, I always make up the work or do it ahead of time.”
Perhaps it’s not a surprise then that Staci has the XTERRA bug as well.
“Last year at the XTERRA World Championship in Maui, I watched Allison Moore and GL Brown cross the finish line and was so inspired,” said Staci.
Brown, 74, was the second to last finisher and completed the race over seven and a half hours after he started.
“I am friends with the pros and have friends that compete but watching the two of them finish was pretty cool and made me want to race too,” said Staci.
In early July of this year, Staci sat up in bed and knew that it was time. She lives near Kona and couldn’t let the first annual XTERRA Hawaii Island pass her by. “It was 9:30 at night and I ran into my dad’s room and said, ‘Are we timing’ XTERRA Hawaii Island? He said we were and I said, ‘Is there any way I’m allowed to race it?’”
The next morning, Jim and Staci went to the local pool.
“He told me to swim 18 laps because that’s half a mile. That day I couldn’t even do one lap without stopping. But I kept trying and wouldn’t let myself stop until the race.”
The next stop was their local bike shop where Jim bought Staci her first mountain bike. On the following two weekends, both Staci and Jim went out to help build the bike course for XTERRA Hawaii Island with about 20 other people. One of the people Staci met was Wendy Minor, one of XTERRA's top athletes and many-time XTERRA World Champ in her age group. At 73, Wendy has been racing XTERRA since 1997, and this year, she will be one of the oldest competitors at this year's XTERRA World Championship. She readily took Staci under her wing. "
After working on the course, Jim suggested Staci ride with me," said Wendy. "He told me it was her fourth time ever on a mountain bike and I thought, Oh wow. But it was clear to me that Staci is a natural. She just has a knack for it. I tell her to do something and she does it."
The two began swimming together as well.
"I told her I was doing a 1.2-mile ocean swim and Staci asked if she could join me," said Wendy. "She had only ever swum half a mile and it was in the pool. I told her she needed to get out of the pool and into the ocean and she asked me if we could take breaks. I just had to laugh. I told her, sure, we can take breaks in the ocean and tread water and chit-chat. And that's what happened. We swam from the Kona pier and stopped and chatted and saw dolphins. That seemed to relax her a bit. And once she did the 1.2-mile ocean swim, she knew she could do an XTERRA."
XTERRA Hawaii Island took place on August 26th despite threats from Hurricane Lane. The day was hot and humid and Staci was nervous.“
Walking around T1 and T2 was a little terrifying,” she admitted. “I was processing the fact that I was actually competing in an XTERRA, which is something I’ve been dreaming about for so long. When they announced that the race would start in five minutes, my hands started shaking.”
To calm her nerves, Staci thought of the text her friend had sent her the night before. Her friend’s name was Mauricio Mendez.
“He sent me a text that said he was thinking about me and he knew I could do it. He told me that whenever it gets hard, I should remember that I’m doing this because it’s XTERRA and it’s going to be great.”
Another friend who texted Staci was Kalei Waiwaiole, one of XTERRA’s announcers and the voice of the XTERRA Pan Am Championship.“
Kalei is my auntie and has known me before I was born,” said Staci. “She wrote, ‘I know you’ve got this,’ and that calmed me down. All my fears just floated away.”
While Staci was worried about the swim, she considered it a success because she was only kicked twice and only one side of her goggles cracked, not both. On the bike, she fell and sprained her wrist, but that was still her favorite leg of the race.
“I loved that it was such a challenge,” she said. “It’s not like a road race where you look at asphalt for an hour. Instead, you’re on the trails and it’s amazing.”
While many beginners would be scared away by crashes and kicks, the difficulties have only inspired Staci. She just added clipless pedals to her bike, is running on the sand to train for the end of the race at the XTERRA World Championship, and she’s been biking up a 3400-foot mountain every other day. “
Obviously if I’m falling, I need more training. I need to learn how to fall better.”
Luckily, Staci has an amazing training partner in Wendy Minor, who is still coaching Staci.
"I told her that to train for XTERRA Worlds, she just needs to ride up something steep like Kaloko," said Wendy, who was referring to Kaloko Drive, which is a 7-mile long zigzag road with a 20 percent grade that ends in the middle of a cloud forest.
"Staci just went out and did it," she said. "I came home to a Facebook post that said, 'Thanks for the tip, Wendy. I rode up Kaloko today.' Her enthusiasm has excited me.'"
Last year, Minor was ready for the XTERRA World Championship, until a fluke crisis forced her to sit out. In early October, Minor had a small cut on her shin, but thought nothing of it and attended a paddle-out for a friend who had recently passed away. Twenty-four hours later, Wendy had a fever and an infection that required surgery and 25 staples in her knee. She needed to be on IV antibiotics for three weeks and had to sit out last year's XTERRA World Championship.
Staci’s goal for this year's race in Maui is modest. “I just want to have fun and cross the line.”
Wendy's goal is similar. "My recovery went well. I've been cycling like crazy and I'm hoping to put the whole package together again. Meeting Staci has been like frosting on the cake. Together we are going to be the bookends at the XTERRA World Championship. She is the youngest female and I am the oldest."
Staci, however, doesn't think in these terms. To her, everyone is an equal player, regardless of age. And while she is excited to see the XTERRA World Championship from an athlete’s perspective rather than the crew’s, Staci hasn’t forgotten the second reason she will be traveling to Maui. “
Yeah,” she said. “I’m still helping my dad that weekend. I’ll be timing the XTERRA Kapalua Trail Run on Saturday.”
Photos courtesy David O. Baldwin Photography