Amateur women were magnificent in the Maui mud.
The women who showed up and raced the 2018 XTERRA World Championship were brave, strong, and refused to be discouraged. For Nikki Balderson, from the United States, the 2018 XTERRA World Championship was her first XTERRA Worlds, which capped off her first year competing in XTERRA. She had high hopes for the final race of the season, but Balderson, a military spouse, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, went to bed on Saturday night feeling frustrated.
“I kept asking myself what I was going to focus on in the swim and how I was going to manage the bike and run,” she said. “But everything I thought and wrote down was negative.”
She decided to sleep on it and woke up with a different perspective.
“I realized that we were all going to have setbacks today,” said Balderson of her thoughts the following morning. “It was inevitable. Things were not going to go the way we planned. But I figured I couldn’t do much about that. The only thing I could control was how I responded to the day. I just couldn’t measure success the way I thought I would, but I knew I had to stay positive and just move forward.”
Before the race, Balderson headed out to the beach and watched the waves.
“What a gorgeous day,” she said. “I realized, I’m on Maui. I’m with some of the fittest people in the world. I get to go on this amazing adventure.”
Then, Balderson took it one step further.
“I headed up to transition to set up my mat and wondered what would happen if I could not just focus on me but be a light for someone else. Throwing positive energy out there is never a bad thing. I decided that since I couldn’t measure my success the way I planned, I would measure my success on how uplifting I could be.”
While in the transition area, she ran into fellow 40-44 age grouper, Lindsay Jackson.
“Honestly, I woke up not wanting to race,” said Jackson about her mental state on race day morning. “That was incredibly unsettling to me because I’ve never felt that way. Ever. I was trying to stay positive, but I was failing. Then I ran into Nikki and she told me that her goal was to be a light for everyone else and that really resonated with me. It gave me a reason to start.”
On the swim, Jackson stayed steady. On the bike, she joked with other athletes as they pushed their bikes uphill and cheered them on as they passed her on the downhills.
“Honestly, the bike course was a test of who could keep their sense of humor,” she said. “I’m so glad I ran into Nikki. Without her words of encouragement, I don’t know that I would have even started the race.”
Jackson and Balderson weren’t just good sportswomen out on the course. Their mental toughness resulted in strong performances, and they finished 30 seconds apart – fifth and sixth respectively – in the tough 40-44 age group. The scene after the race was full of stories like this, demonstrating that adversity can reveal incredible strength, character, and even speed.
As in the men’s race, the European women demonstrated that they are equally skilled at handling what is thrown at them – even if it’s more Maui mud. The fastest female amateur – Jindriska Zemanova - hails from the Czech Republic. A skilled and technical mountain biker, Zemanova finished sixth overall at XTERRA Czech Republic and 14th overall at the XTERRA European Championship in Germany where she won her 35-39 age group at both races.
Like all the amateurs, Zemanova has a full life. She works from 8am until 3pm and then picks up her son from kindergarten. She trains in the evenings, and on weekends, she tries to fit in longer bike rides. As a junior, Zemanova was on the Czech National Team for triathlon and mountain biking.
“I can say I have good driving technique on the bike,” joked Zemanova after the race. “The main task of the day was to keep both power and a calm head. Swimming was the hardest part for me because of the waves, but on the bike, I was totally concentrated. It was a victory to survive the swim, so on the bike, I was quiet and positive. Honestly, I like long, hard races. It is just for me, so I didn’t have a problem on the bike course. Because of my background, I managed the technical sections without problems and I stayed strong on the run. It was just my lucky day.”
In the 15-19 category, Portuguese athlete Pauline Vie won by almost an hour and defended the title she earned last year. Although she is only 19, Vie finished fourth in her country’s Duathlon National Championship in July, marking her as another potential elite. She was followed by France’s Lola Chane, the sister of professional athlete Max Chane, who finished eighth overall in the men’s race. While Lola hasn’t gotten serious about competing yet, she clearly shows that she has the talent that seems to run in the Chane family. Fellow countrywoman Emeline Tanet rounded out the top three on the podium.
In the 20-24 division, France’s Alizee Paties took the top step, followed by the Czech Republic’s Jana Brantlova and France’s Marine Echevin.
“This was my first time swimming in the ocean,” said Paties, who is in business school in Marseille. “Before racing, I said to myself, ‘No stress. You trained for this race. Just enjoy all these moments because you are in Hawaii and this is just crazy.’”
Paties is a mountain biker who got the XTERRA bug in 2017, but didn’t compete in her first XTERRA until this year.
“During the race, I kept positive all the time because it was so fun and amazing to compete in Hawaii. I told myself to do whatever it takes because I knew I was here because of my capabilities and determination. You might take me for a madwoman, but I love the mud. I’m from Burgundy, so I’m used to it.”
In the 25-29 division, France dominated with Gaelle Leduc, Gwenaelle Houot, and Clemence Dede claiming all three steps on the podium.
In the 30-34 age group, Maria Aguayo claimed the title, followed by Denmark’s Janni Spangsberg and Canada’s Christy Drever.
“I’m so happy and proud to be an XTERRA World Champ in this hard race,” said Aguayo. “Getting out of the ocean, I had to swim backward to watch the waves, and on the bike course, I had to stop a lot to remove the mud. But even so, my feeling now is still incredible.”
While Jindriska Zemanova dominated the 35-39 division, Courtney Hill, from the United States was second. Hill, who surprised everyone in Utah at the XTERRA Pan America Championship demonstrated on Maui that she is no one-hit wonder. We look forward to seeing more from Hill next season, when we will know better than to be surprised by her technical skills and unflappable demeanor. France’s Lelia Le Coquet was third, and Sian Turner Crespo, from the U.S. was fourth.
In the 35-39 age group, Colorado’s Stephanie Wurtz was sixth, Hawaii’s Laurel Dudly was seventh, Alaska’s Andrea Kettler was eighth, Tennessee’s Sue Finney was 12th, 2018 Ms. XTERRA, Kristen Wade was 14th, and Arizona’s Shawna Glazier was 15th. This depth of field truly showcases the strength of the U.S. women to be able to roll in the dirt. With advocates for today’s youth like Turner Crespo, we can expect more great things from these athletes next season and in the years to come.
In the 40-44 division, three-time top amateur at the XTERRA Pan Am Championship, Deanna McCurdy, claimed her first XTERRA World Champ title. As always, McCurdy fought hard and dug deep – literally sometimes. She and France’s Alexandra Borrelly Lebrun – who eventually finished second in this age group - stayed together through the race.
“Alexandra and I kept playing leapfrog on the bike and she entered transition first,” said McCurdy. “Once on the run, I passed her on the first climb and it started to feel like I was in a real race. I felt stronger in each passing mile. I caught another 20-year old guy and another athlete from Mexico. The Mexican athlete said, ‘Come on. Stay with her. She will get us to the finish.’ I couldn’t help but smile outwardly then. He was right. I was going to get them to the finish - at a faster pace than either of them wanted. I lost them at the final water stop before the road climb and descent to the beach. From then on I was pushing the pace, counting down the minutes until I would see the beach, hear Kalei’s voice, and cross the finish line.”
Lebrun races in Europe where she routinely deals with tough conditions. In the seven XTERRAs she did on this year’s XTERRA European circuit, she was on the podium for six of them, yet her performance on Maui still surprised her.
“I was surprised about my result but very happy," she said. "I was not in my best shape, but the muddy condition was fitting for me."
Lebrun finished less than five minutes behind McCurdy while California’s Kathryn Lockwood finished third. Colorado’s Holly Wright was fourth, and Oregon’s Lindsay Jackson and Nikki Balderson were fifth and sixth.
In the next category up, it was all about the Canadians. Calgary’s Sheri Foster nudged out Mono’s Heather Pady, who was second last year in the 40-44 age group to New Zealand’s Tanya Sharp.
“It was an incredibly epic day of perseverance for me,” said Foster, who was also an XTERRA age-group World Champ in 2009.
Portugal’s Susana Pontes was third while Germany’s Tine Vogt finished ninth just two weeks after racing in Kona.
In the 50-55 race, Germany’s Rita Haerteis stole defending champ Catherine Gances XTERRA World Champ title. Both are incredibly strong European athletes. Gance won XTERRA France this year while Haerteis won XTERRA Denmark, Germany, and Italy. Brazil’s Luisa Saft was third.
The Americans were back in the 55-59 age group with Sharon McDowell-Larsen coming in just three minutes in front of Tammy Tabeek. Canada’s Susan Moote was third.
“Tough conditions always make for memorable races and this race certainly fit the bill,” said McDowell-Larsen. “Before the race I remember thinking two things. The first was, man, those waves are big. And the second was that this was going to be a race of patience. At that time though, I didn’t realize just how much patience would be required.”
McDowell-Larsen had a good swim despite getting somersaulted a few times, but once she hit the mud on her bike, she knew it was going to be a long day. Mud is rare on her Colorado trails and like all the athletes in the race, she had to find the rhythm between riding, scraping mud and putting the chain back on.
“After about my fifth stop to scrape off mud, I had to mentally resign myself to the fact that maybe this wasn’t going to be my year. I was just in survive-to-the-finish mode. I was getting passed a lot with no idea how I was doing, so I just kept trudging along. I did get a laugh when an Italian guy crashed in front of me a couple of times and started spewing Italian. I am guessing he wasn’t singing praises to the Virgin Mary.”
McDowell-Larsen and Tabeek played cat and mouse on the bike, and on the run, McDowell-Larsen found another gear.
In the 60-64 division, last year’s runner up, the United States’ Barbara Peterson took the win while Kathy Grauer (U.S.) and Marion Young from Canada were second and third. In the 65-69 division, Hawaii’s Lorenn Walker and Utah’s Jo Garuccio finished first and second.
While we highlight the winners in each category, every athlete who began the race deserves to be commended for their bravery and perseverance. Sharon McDowell-Larsen summed the day up perfectly.
“Mostly I was glad to have survived intact. Just making it to the finish was a victory in and of itself! So congrats to all.”