Amateur athletes showed true character in epic battles of strength and will.
There are some races that test your speed and talent. There are other races that test your endurance and fitness. And then there are races that test your character. These are the races that question who you are when your back's up against the wall. When the weather is nasty, the conditions are maddening, and your bike gears are full of mud, it’s natural to wonder what made you want to sign up for something like this in the first place.
But the stories that come from this year’s muddy Maui course are not what you think. After all, this is XTERRA, and we pride ourselves on having the toughest, grittiest, and most generous athletes in the world. The stories that come from this year’s XTERRA World Championship include epic tales of perseverance, camaraderie, and love of the game.
In the elite race, Lesley Paterson wrote one word on each arm. One word was “patience” and the other was “fight.” The resounding opinion from all competitors was that these two traits were absolutely imperative at this year’s race. But this year’s age-groupers took these words even further and decided to not only have patience with the course and themselves but to give each other a leg up along the way.
In terms of who got to the finish line first, this year’s XTERRA World Championship showcased the European athletes, who routinely train in wet and muddy conditions. Also clear was that the future of the sport is in good hands with a slew of promising young athletes who demonstrated their potential to be future elites. The Czech Republic’s Karl Dusek - the fastest amateur of the day - is only 22. Which brings us to the next thing that was obvious this year - the Czech Republic has a lot of XTERRA fans.
“The Czech Republic has always had great athletes,” said Nico Lebrun, Director, XTERRA Europe and 2005 XTERRA World Champ. “They are tough. I remember racing there 15 years ago and having to fight hard. They have also had great ambassadors and role models such as Helena Erbenova and Michal Pilousek.”
Karl Dusek was seventh overall at XTERRA Switzerland and ninth overall at XTERRA Czech Republic, so next year, he may be joining the ranks of Pilousek and Erbanova and racing with the elites.
Another promising youth is Spain’s Sergio Baxter who won the 15-19 age group for the men. After the race, he admitted that becoming a professional athlete has been a dream of his for most of his life. While he was covered with as much mud as anyone else, his smile was radiant. Germany’s Timo Spitzhorn was second and XTERRA Pan Am Champ Robbie Day was third and the fastest American amateur.
While Dusek won the men’s 20-24 category, last year’s 20-24 age group champ, Ondrej Petr, finished second. Matthias Gourgues was third and Anders Johnson finished a very impressive fourth. The race at Maui was only Johnson's fifth triathlon ever, and given that he was the first amateur at the XTERRA Pan Am Championship in September, he is clearly another young athlete to watch.
In the next age group up, France claimed the top three steps on the podium with Loic Doubey, Charly Sibile, and Christopher Dupre.
"Loic is a very talented mountain biker," added LeBrun. "He also likes the mud. He did very well at XTERRA Switzerland in '16, Maui in '16, and this year as well."
Sibile prefers the mountain bike out of all three disciplines. He lives in the Jura Mountains where he gets plenty of practice riding through technical terrain.
“I like muddy conditions,” he said. “The swim in Maui wasn’t my best. The big waves complicated it for me, but I was very happy with my race.”
Reunion Island’s Mathieu Desserprit claimed the top step in the 30-34 age group and was followed by France’s Adrien Dransart and Spain’s Bernardo Herrada, who finished just seconds apart.
“I am very happy to have the title in this category,” said Desserprit. “This was my first year at Worlds and it ended in the most beautiful way. I still have trouble telling myself I’m the world champion.”
He explained that he knew from the start that this would be a race of patience.
“It was not necessary to panic,” he explained. “Keeping a positive attitude was essential to not lose energy unnecessarily or get upset. It was a great sporting adventure, which required begin mentally and physically strong to reach the finish line. I hope to be adventurous again in 2019.”
Michael Drackert, from the U.S., finished 14th in his first XTERRA Worlds. It took him almost two years to get to Maui and he clearly made the most of his time on the course.
Chile’s Francisco Gonzalez continued his streak and defended his title from last year. 2018 has been a good year for Gonzalez, who was the top amateur this year at XTERRA Beaver Creek and won his age group at the XTERRA Pan Am Championship and at XTERRA Chile. Gonzalez was followed by Poland’s Larry Zebatka and Switzerland’s Peter Gerber.
Tim Helms from California finished 13th. Like many amateurs, he trains because he can, not because he has to.
“I have three kids and work beyond full-time as a small animal veterinarian,” said Helms. “I coach my kids’ baseball and soccer teams, take them to local mountain bike races in the summer, and we ski in the winter. I train for XTERRA when I can.”
Helms competed in the XTERRA World Championship in 2012 but was held up by a broken chain until a fellow competitor (a Kiwi!) gave him his master link. In 2016, he raced again in Maui and learned a thing or two about the mud. This year, he enlisted the help of his college teammate and former pro triathlete Justin Hurd. He trained hard, arrived on Maui early, and remembered all the early lessons.
“Race day proved difficult, but really, it was just a game of surviving the course,” said Helms. “I told myself to stay steady, stay consistent, don’t waste energy, and don’t get discouraged. My goal was to be in the top 100 before the run and I was 95. What a fun and challenging race!”
Despite the fact that at times, getting the bike up the next hill seemed as daunting as making it to the finish line, the age-groupers kept the faith and stayed the course. In the 40-44 age group, men just like Helms refused to give up until that lei was around their necks. They were led by France’s Romaric Delapine, the Czech Republic’s Pavel Jindra, and Argentina’s Martin Bravo.
In the 45-49 division, Denmark’s Eskild Ebbesen had about eight minutes on the rest of his division. France’s Frederic Loree and Austria’s Alois Innerhofer were next, about six minutes apart. Canada’s Joel Lutz, who was 13th, was grateful that he is a strong open water swimmer. Yet, like many in the North American West, he hadn’t had the opportunity to train for the mud.
“As for staying positive, I told myself that the hardest part of the process was over,” said Lutz. “My training was behind me and I was grateful to be healthy and strong as I toed the line at the start and looked out at those huge waves. All I had to do when the cannon went off was to enjoy the experience with no pressure. Whatever happened, happened and kudos to all those athletes who finished in front of me.”
Canada claimed the 50-54 age group title with Calvin Zaryski from Calgary leading the charge. Impressively, Zaryski was the top North American amateur of the day. Australia’s Simon Manson was next, followed by Italy’s Claudio Luccardini. Sergio Baxter’s dad, Graham, finished seventh, despite a bad crash earlier in the week, and Americans Mike Barro and John Stehmeier made the top ten.
Barro was fourth in 2010, when the race was held at the previous course in Makena, Maui.
“I’m faster now than I was then, but the competition is much stronger now,” said Barro, who is the race director of XTERRA St. Louis. “I have never experienced waves like those today. The pool at Gold’s Gym doesn’t prepare you for that. Three minutes into the swim I had a moment. And I had to collect my self and remind myself not to lose this race before it even started. I had to remind myself to carry on. And that’s what everyone did. We kept on pushing and we got through it.”
In the 55-59 division, New Zealand’s Gregory Ball won the XTERRA age group world championship for the third year in a row. Unlike last year, Ball had a more relaxed training year full of what he calls, “coffee shop rides.”
“I wanted to defend my title but given the different year I’ve had I wasn’t sure how I would compare,” said Ball. “But I’m always excited to line up on race day and finish off my training strongly. I love the challenging course on Maui and the variable nature of the weather.”
Ball was followed into the finish chute by France’s Eric Lichtfouse and Italy’s Pio Moro. Benny Smith’s dad, Dan Smith finished ninth, just two minutes in front of XTERRA Pan Am Champ, Karl Edgerton. Bruce Wilson - whose daughter Heather finished seventh in the 25-29 division - was 16th.
“Yep, it was a tough day at the office,” said Wilson after the race.
Edgerton kept his enthusiasm high.
“Falling definitely knocks your willpower,” he admitted. “You can be destroyed by it. Or you can think, hey, it’s not a big deal, just get back up and keep going. Other people are falling too. You can’t let it break your spirit. You have to keep that spirit alive for the whole race.”
In the 60-64 division, Ned Daily from the U.S. finished about 30 seconds in front of fellow countryman, Cliff Millemann. New Zealand’s Nathan Livingstone was third. Tom Monica, who did the tough “Double,” meaning that he raced in Kona two weeks before XTERRA Worlds, finished 12th.
In the 65-69 category, New Zealand’s Allen Caird won while Australia’s Robert Rhodes and France’s Alain Gaudefroy put in strong performances.
Hawaii Island resident Bruce Wacker led the 70-74 division, followed by Italy’s Andrea Latrofa and Laurence Goddard of the U.S.
In the physically challenged division, these athletes proved that perhaps the new name of the category should be “superhuman.” France’s Michel Ganon finished the course with one hand, America’s “One-Arm” Willie was next, followed by Hawaiian teenager Jerone Samari, who has cerebral palsy. Spain’s Pepe Candon, who lost his sight in a bomb explosion did the race with his guide and a tandem mountain bike and finished fourth.
“We suffered a lot,” admitted Candon. “It was an amazing race. It was so hard and you put your body to the limit. When your mind is that tired and your body is that tired, the only thing to think is, ‘You can finish!’ To cross the finish line is the most intense experience you can live. XTERRA Warriors are crazy people.”