XTERRA Couch to Trail - Things NOT to Do in Utah

Sep. 11, 2018

As a 5-time XTERRA age group World Champ, Mimi Stockton makes it look easy most of the time. However, the reason she is so good is because she didn’t give up when things were hard. The 2010 XTERRA National Championship was one of those races. It was so bad that Mimi didn’t return to Utah until this year. Now, she is back to show the course who’s boss.

Below, she shares her 2010 experience and breaks it into what to do and what not to do when racing the XTERRA Pan Am Championship.

It may have been 8 years ago, but I remember it all vividly.  There I was, an XTERRA newbie, with my sights set on racing XTERRA Nationals maybe even winning my age group. I arrived two and a half days before the race with my mom. For those that don’t know, I live on the shores of Lake Michigan, where the elevation is a whopping 630 feet—a far cry from the 6,391 foot base elevation of Snowbasin.  At the time I didn’t understand or fully appreciate what it meant to race at altitude, where the terrain is rocky and the waters are cold. But boy did I learn quickly.

For all the racers that call the mountains home (you know, those who can rightly bask in their high red blood cell count glory), you can probably skip this article because most of it doesn’t pertain to you. But for those of us that reside at or near sea level, here are some tips on what to do and what not to do in Utah so that you actually have a decent chance of enjoying the race and doing well.

But back to 2010. Two days before the race, I decided to bike the whole bike course and run the whole run course.  “I’ll take the day off before the race, so today I can kill it,” was my thinking.

Well, all that biking and running basically destroyed me not only physically but mentally as well. Yes, acclimatization starts as soon as you arrive at altitude, but the gains are quite small, for the first several days and may even be negated by the dehydration and fatigue you will probably experience. I couldn’t understand why it felt like I was working so hard yet going so slowly, all the while gasping for air. It was by far the greatest drubbing I’ve ever been on the receiving end of during a workout. I could tell that my legs were doing fine, but there just didn’t seem to be enough oxygen, and after 4-plus hours of riding and running I felt like collapsing.

I woke up the next morning with an insane headache and a very sore body. Not only was I feeling the altitude but my body was revolting from all the climbing I had done the day before. What had I been thinking? I I felt deflated that my fitness wasn’t where I thought it was, but now I know that it probably wasn’t my fitness, it was the altitude that was making me slower.  I have read that at 4,000 feet of elevation, it is estimated that an individual performing a task greater than three hours will be approximately 3 percent  slower if acclimated to the altitude and 6 percent slower for those not acclimated to altitude. For a 4 hour race at sea level, this corresponds to times of 4:07 and 4:14 at 4,000 feet respectively. 

Things Not To Do:  

  • Bike and run both courses in one day, especially not two days before the race. In fact, knowing what I know now, if you are going to be arriving two days or less before race day, I would not recommend even doing the full bike or run course. Instead, take it easy, do some easy spinning, and include a few fast starts or walk part of the run course. Save your legs for the race.

Things To Do:  

  • Arrive as early as possible. But for most of us it is not realistic to arrive a week before the race, and that’s OK. You can still have a great race if you arrive even a day before. All you need to do is create a new mountain standard. Don’t make the mistake of going into a high-altitude race with a pace or finish time in mind.  If you do, you will spend most of the race stressed about trying to keep a certain pace and your mind will go off course when you look down at your watch and see that your pace is slower.  You need a different approach!  Shoot for your personal best race at altitude, a new standard for high altitude races – and a reference for what you can do at this elevation, with this race's elements and terrain.  

Disaster #1 

Race morning was sunny and beautiful. The headache was gone and my quads, while still sore, were not screaming at me with each step so I decided to race. I told myself I’d do the best I could given the conditions and that next year I’d know better! I got down to Pineview Reservoir and was mesmerized at the steam coming off the lake and out of my mouth.  It was cold!  The thought of getting into that water was daunting.  And so I didn’t. I didn’t even feel it, not even with my toes.

The gun went off and I dove into the water. Immediately I started hyperventilating (which may also have been due to my too-tight wetsuit). The cold water hit me like a Mack truck barreling down the highway and the only thing I could safely do was float on my back. For the first ten minutes of the race, each time I tried to put my face back into the water, I couldn’t breathe.  You know how there’s always someone hanging on a kayak? Well this time it was me. And this was not fun.

Fifteen minutes into the swim I finally calmed down enough to resume freestyle, but I was exhausted and still had another 1300 meters to go. Somehow I managed to muster the strength and fortitude to get through the swim, but I crawled out of the reservoir mentally and physically defeated. I saw my mom standing there with a worried look on her face and I felt like crying. But dammit, I’m not a quitter, so I told her I was “just fine” and stumbled into T1 ready to tackle the bike.  

Things Not To Do

  • Lie to your mother. 
  • Stand on the edge of the reservoir and think about how cold the water is.

Things To Do:  

  • Tell your mother the truth.  
  • Get in the water and warm up before the race. As cold as it is, it is quite helpful to gradually get your face and body used to the temperature.  
  • Make sure your wetsuit fits

Disaster #2

I left T1 feeling pretty shaky. I was still recovering from the disaster that was the swim, but soon I got into a rhythm on the bike. Yes, it was hard to breathe, but I was handling the climbs, making good progress, and even passing some people. Even though I had already ridden the course, I didn’t remember much of it because I was solely focused on trying to suck in as much air as possible. I didn’t remember how rocky and loose the terrain was on the descents, and coming from the Midwest, I was not used to this.

I also quickly realized I didn’t have the right tires or the right tire pressure. On the first big descent I was trying to keep up with several guys and we were flying!  And then the hairpin turn came out of nowhere, I quickly slammed on the brakes and the rest is a blur. I flew off the handlebars and my torso landed on boulder. There was a searing pain in my left rib cage and could hardly breathe. I tried getting up but the pain was so severe that I had to sit there for what felt like days (in real time, this was probably ten minutes.) Oh, and I got to watch everyone pass me by me too. 

Eventually, I got back on my bike only because the thought of walking 10 plus miles was not pleasant. I was wincing in pain the whole way back, meaning my time on the bike was over three hours.

When I finally arrived into T2 my mother once again looked very worried. I didn’t tell her that I thought I broke some ribs (I broke two) because I knew she’d never allow me to run.  I simply told her I had a little crash, I was “fine” and that I’d see her at the finish line.

Things Not To Do

  • Lie to your mother.  
  • Disrespect the terrain.  
  • Follow what others, who are perhaps more skilled than you, are doing.  

Things To Do

  • Tell your mother the truth.  
  • Respect the terrain.  
  • Make sure you have the right tires and tire pressure before the race. If you don’t have a chance to pre-ride the course, make sure you get some intel from others who have and who have knowledge about the terrain, the ascents, descents and any other technical aspects of the course you should know about before the race.    

Disaster #3

In T2,  I was in so much pain that I forgot to grab my gels and drink some water. Off I went. It was slow going but I was mad determined to finish this race.  The descending was supposed to be the fun part but with broken ribs, each downhill step I took sent scorching pain through my chest. With about two miles to go, I was completely dehydrated and barely running.

I took my eyes off the rocky trail for a brief moment to look up at the sky. Maybe I was looking for some divine intervention to carry me to the finish. I don’t remember.  What I do remember is tripping on a rock and falling hard.  And then there was blood.  And more pain.

My right wrist took the brunt of the fall and I ended up spraining it. At this point, all I could do was laugh. The race couldn’t get much worse. More than 4  and a half hours after diving into that cold reservoir, I finally crossed the finish line.

I saw my mom, who at this point looked very, very worried, and told her we needed to pay a visit to the medical tent. I then swore up and down that I would never, NEVER EVER do this race again.  I was done with Utah and done with racing at altitude.

Things Not To Do

  • Forget to take in enough fluids and leave your nutrition in transition.  
  • Take your eye off the trail and look up at the sky. 
  • Say never. 

Things To Do

  • Try again
  • Don’t give up

This year, I will enjoy a few more days of high altitude living prior to the race this year. I will jump in that reservoir to practice, more than once.  I will ride the bike course, but I will take it easy and remember those hairpin turns. I will walk the run course. I will race by feel and effort and I will tune into each breath I take and adjust accordingly. I will eat well and boost my hydration (okay there might be a beer or two to go along with all that water but life is short).

It took me awhile to muster up the courage to come back to Utah but here I am. Not only am I back, I’m ready for redemption. I’ve learned a lot over the past eight years and I’m confident this year will not be a repeat of 2010.

I might, however, still take a moment to look at the scenery and the sky because this course is just too breathtakingly beautiful not to. But I will not lie to my mother.

The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA. Check out their upcoming training camp in Scottsdale, Arizona set for April 26-29 at https://nextlevelendurance.net/camps or email them at info [at] nextlevelendurance.net ().

Couch to Trail