It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever watched Kieran McPherson sprint into the finish chute, that one of his first loves was running.
“I grew up outdoors in Matamata, New Zealand,” says McPherson, who won the XTERRA Pan American Tour title this season. “Back home, my parents had a contracting company and I always enjoyed being outside and running around. As a kid, I did a bit of running with the local harriers. They went on two-hour running adventures through the countryside, and that was good fun."
Triathlon was a natural extension of his athletic talents, and during college – where he put in 100-mile running weeks just for fun - McPherson moved to the Gold Coast in Australia to train with teammate and current coach, Will O’Connor. Yet, despite the fact that he was getting serious about racing, he always managed to maintain a sense of perspective as well as a sense of humor.
“One night we were watching the news and they were talking about how much good food supermarkets just throw out in their dumpsters,” said McPherson, who didn’t yet have a sponsor. “Things like loaves of bread and canned goods that hadn’t even expired yet. They were saying that they should give the food to pig farms or homeless people. That gave us a great idea. But we enjoyed dumpster diving as much for the entertainment value as for the food.”
Eventually, McPherson and his training buddies were caught by security and had to put an end to their new “sport.” In the sport of triathlon, however, not many could catch McPherson.
“Then, in my last year of under-23 racing, my coach at the time suggested I finish the season with an off-road triathlon,” explained McPherson. “So I signed up for XTERRA Rotorua and borrowed a mountain bike. Before that race, I hadn’t ridden a mountain bike that much. Well, actually, I hadn’t ridden a mountain bike at all.”
Despite the lack of off-road experience, McPherson finished seventh overall in his first XTERRA. A week later he competed at the XTERRA Asia-Pacific Championship and finished ninth among elite men. His new sponsor, RAD Roller, had a house in Colorado, so McPherson came to Evergreen on holiday and raced at the XTERRA National Championship in Utah, where he again finished ninth.
“It was all just good fun at the time,” says McPherson. “But the following year I decided to focus exclusively on XTERRA to see what I could do.”
In 2016, he came on strong at the end of the regular season with a 3rd place showing at XTERRA Dominican Republic and a second-place finish at XTERRA Mexico. Those scores helped boost him to fifth in the final XTERRA Pan Am Tour standings, but it could've been better. At the Pan Am Champs in Utah he was forced to pull out of the race with a mechanical, and in Maui he had trouble with his bike again and ended up finishing 23rd.
In 2017, McPherson finished third overall on the Pan Am Tour, and despite an amazing year, he decided to skip the XTERRA World Championship race in Maui because he was expecting something even better than a world title – his first child. His daughter Paisley was born that December and McPherson didn’t want to miss a moment.
Although he wasn’t getting much sleep as a new father and he had to spend six months working for his parents’ contracting business in order to earn enough money to race XTERRA the following season, McPherson hit his training hard, focusing specifically on his mountain biking technique. In 2018, the goal was to win the XTERRA Pan American Tour.
“My first year of XTERRA I really noticed that the athletes who were strong on the bike and consistent on the run were always near the front of the pack. This past year I’ve really targeted my bike and worked on that. My runs have always been really strong but I’ve never been able to use it because I got off the bike well down and was always playing catch up. This year, I didn’t worry about my run or swim. I just focused on my bike.”
His strategy proved effective. Out of the 11 races he did in 2018, he had the fastest run split in six of them, including XTERRA Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Oak Mountain, and the Dominican Republic. At XTERRA Quebec, he was only 10 seconds off the top run split. At XTERRA Argentina, which he won, he also had the fastest split on the bike. In fact, in many of his races, his position in the bike standings was remarkably consistent with his overall finish. Additionally, the only athletes who bested him on two wheels are some of the fastest in the sport – Josiah Middaugh, Karsten Madsen, Brian Smith, and Brad Weiss.
McPherson considers his performance at XTERRA Mexico in 2018 as a game-changer thus far in his career.
“Mexico was the first race that the bike really clicked for me,” he says. “In the past, I’ve had an OK swim and then always wondered on the bike if I should just go or stay back and wait for Josiah and try to ride with him to the front. Because of racing with Josiah on the XTERRA Pan Am Tour, I’ve always known he’s going to come from down in the swim to ride through to the front of the race. But at XTERRA Mexico, I decided to put everything into the bike and attack right away."
In that race on August 4th, McPherson exited the water with Francisco “Paco” Serrano and together, the two reeled in the lead pack. They were riding so strong that Middaugh didn’t catch up until the final three kilometers. As a result, Middaugh and McPherson entered transition together, but McPherson had some trouble with his shoes which cost him about 15 seconds – which remained the difference between first and second place. 2:25:04 to 2:25:22.
McPherson contrasts this to his race in Victoria, which was his first win over Middaugh.
“In Mexico, I rode as hard as I could and didn’t have much for the run, whereas at XTERRA Victoria, I was more conservative on the bike, but ran faster than Josiah."
At XTERRA Victoria, McPherson and Josiah rode the first bike lap together, but McPherson was more conservative on the downhills because of a big crash on the same course in 2017.
“I tried to attack on the uphills, but Josiah was too strong for me.”
However, McPherson turned on the jets during the run and ran about two and a half minutes faster than Middaugh to clinch the win.
Clearly, McPherson is learning about himself as much as he is learning about XTERRA. However, at only 26 years of age, he has plenty of time to figure out both his pace and his place – which steadily inches up each race and each year.
This year, McPherson will skip the XTERRA World Championship in Maui, because he is wise enough to know his body has been spent by the 11 races in nine countries across the Americas he traveled to. For now, he is sorting out his green card, taking a much-deserved break, and spending lots of time with Paisley, who will turn one in December.
But don’t let this time off fool you. When he gets back to full-on training mode, he'll work hard for five to six hours a day, seven days a week.
“But it’s all good fun,” he says. “I enjoy it. I wouldn’t be getting out there every day if that wasn’t the case.”