It’s safe to say Will Kelsay grew up living the XTERRA lifestyle. When he was a toddler, his dad destroyed four or five strollers taking his sons “off-road.”
“He used to put my brother and I in the stroller and pretend the stroller was an off-road vehicle,” said Kelsay, 37. “We loved it. He pushed us on dirt trails and off ramps. Sometimes he didn’t even need ramps. Sometimes just the curb would do.”
Growing up in Oregon City (which Kelsay proudly explained is the town at the end of the Oregon Trail video game), Kelsay spent weekends backpacking, camping, fishing, and traveling with his family. His dad – a mechanical engineer and motorcycle enthusiast – bought mini-motorcycles for Kelsay and his brother, which they rode everywhere.
“My brother and I were terrors to our mom,” remembers Kelsay. “If I had any hesitation about doing anything crazy, my brother would step in and say, ‘I’ll do it.’ Some days, my mom would make us breakfast and then kick us out and lock the door and say she didn’t want to see us until lunch. We went crawdad fishing, splashed in creeks, rode bikes, and climbed trees. When you combine all these things, it’s easy to look back and say, ‘I totally see how I got into XTERRA.’”
Kelsay’s entry into triathlon followed just as naturally. After turning down cross-country scholarships at NCAA Division III schools in order to attempt to walk on at CU Boulder, Kelsay was taking a big chance. Although he impressed the cross-country coach, the triathlon team was more intriguing to him. His first race was the Wildflower Triathlon in California, and Kelsay was hooked.
Even more than the swim, bike, run of the sport, Kelsay became interested in the mental fortitude that made it all possible, and he hasn’t lost that sense of curiosity. In the span of a few minutes, Kelsay can talk about the brain chemistry underlying the “runner’s high,” why Wim Hoff’s breathing exercises enable athletes to excel under adverse conditions, and how music affects physiology.
In fact, it’s this wholehearted interest in the mental, emotional, and physical aspects of triathlon that makes Kelsay such a natural ambassador for the sport. In addition to competing in the XTERRA World Championship eight times (on the Makena course) and nine times in Utah, Kelsay has been an announcer and has helped direct and produce races, like XTERRA Portland.
Now, he’s adding a new feather to his bike helmet. He and three-time XTERRA World Champ Lesley Paterson are launching a new podcast, which will debut in May 2019.
“Lesley and her husband Simon (a sports psychologist) are on another level, but we abide by the same philosophy when it comes to sport and we are going to really explore that in our podcast,” said Kelsay, who then cautioned listeners against expecting this podcast to be just about swim, bike, run.
“We are going to dive a lot deeper than what is your favorite post-race meal,” he explained. “This podcast is going to be totally XTERRA. We are going to look at what’s happening in the brain when you are having a peak performance, how music affects training, and dive deeply into the psychology of success. This podcast is going to really explore what makes our sport unique. Rather than just share information, we are going to be telling stories that give listeners insight into XTERRA and the Live More lifestyle.”
It’s hard to imagine doing anything with Lesley Paterson that could be construed as boring. The “Scottish Rocket” grew up playing rugby, modeling and acting, and just finished writing a screenplay with Marshall. In 2017, the couple published, The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion and they coach athletes worldwide through Braveheart Coaching. Her athletes adore her as much for her enthusiasm, sense of humor, and tendency to say exactly what she is thinking, as much as her expertise.
While Kelsay loves to train, compete, and travel, he is looking forward to sharing what he loves over the podways.
“Triathlon brings me joy,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I guess I never really grew up. I loved being active as a kid and kept doing it after graduating college. Yeah, I get it that my job is that I play all the time. But it truly makes me happy and if I have to live by the seat of my pants to make it happen, so be it.”
But don’t let that huge grin and positive attitude trick you into thinking it’s all been sunshine for Will Kelsay. There have been times that even the smile has taken some significant effort.
At 7:52 in the morning on August 23, 2013, Will Kelsay was on a ride in Boulder when he was hit by a truck. In addition to multiple fractures, Kelsay struggled afterwards with PTSD and depression, which had affected him before.
“I think depression is one of those things that if you have it, you don’t talk about it a lot,” said Kelsay. He agrees that while physical activity and getting out in nature is helpful, depression is a far more complicated beast.
“During a bout of depression, it’s rough,” Kelsay admits. “But I think the key for me is that it hasn’t ever been a defining feature. I got hit by that truck and broke a whole bunch of bones and had whiplash and nerve damage. But I recovered and moved forward. To me, depression is the same. I have to be aware of it but it’s not a defining characteristic. It’s like sport. You get injured, you get better, and you keep going. You move on.”
For Kelsay, “moving forward” is synonymous with pushing himself to his physical limits. He often trains with Paterson, who is also his new coach. In 2017, when Kelsay was looking for a new coach, he wanted someone with solid XTERRA experience, a female - to avoid a conflict of interest on race day - and someone whose coaching style, strategy, and philosophy meshed with his own. After Paterson won the XTERRA Pan Am Championship in 2017, Kelsay talked with her and Marshall, and it was quickly apparent that he had found his dream team. Kelsay is honest that Paterson often pushes him farther than he would go on his own, but he finds freedom in that liminal space, beyond pain.
“Freedom brings me joy,” he said. “I love feeling free. Whether it’s running on a treadmill cranked to 15 percent incline and drooling on myself, or flying over a rocky trail at full tilt, I feel like I’m ‘playing’ and want to see how far I can push myself.
Kelsay attributes this attitude to his father, who taught him how to problem-solve on the fly. “Once my dad took me fishing. We had traveled down this long, bumpy, dirt road for like 20 miles to get to the lake. When we got out, we saw that the tailgate was down, and our cooler of food was gone. The sun was going down and we had nothing but fishing poles. My dad said to me, ‘All right, let’s just put one foot in front of the other. Let’s catch some fish and make a fire, and in the morning, we will pick berries for breakfast.’ He was always great at identifying the problem and then figuring out how to solve it.”
While Kelsay’s background is mechanical engineering like his father, he has done a variety of jobs to enable his “Live More” lifestyle.
“I seem to make it work,” he said, “Although my parents sometimes wonder. I’ve had 10 or 15 different jobs ranging from a writer, a coach, a physiology lab tech. I’ve coached track and field, vaulters, swimmers, and strength and conditioning. I’ve been a personal trainer and a pro athlete, an event announcer, and a bike mechanic. I do it while it’s fun and then when things change, I move on.”
In addition to creating and launching their new podcast, both elites kicked off their 2019 XTERRA season with XTERRA Greece at the end of April and will follow that up with XTERRA Oak Mountain on May 18th in Alabama. Although Kelsay has been racing XTERRA since 2003 and traveled quite literally around the world doing races, he still hasn’t competed on all the courses, but he’s working on it. He says when he plans his season, the experience matters just as much as the race itself.
Kelsay is one of the longest-running elite athletes on the XTERRA circuit, but rather than talking about where he finished or what step he landed on the podium, he talks about the courses, the adventures, and hanging out with his fellow Tribe members.
“Josiah Middaugh and I were trying to figure out who has been racing longer on the XTERRA pro scene,” said Kelsay. XTERRA Keystone was a favorite of both as well as one of their first races. “There’s no other bike course like that where you go straight up and then straight down. And XTERRA Richmond? To be on a course like that in the middle of a city? That river crossing on the run course completely represents the way I live my life. There was no set trail and it was all about, how am I going to get from here to there? No idea.”
He also remembers almost chasing down four-time XTERRA World Champ, Conrad “The Caveman” Stoltz at XTERRA Japan in 2011.
“That year, the course felt like it had been designed for me,” said Kelsay. “During the race, I thought Conrad was putting on a show and letting me catch him. Post-race, he said, ‘You were insane out there. I saw you coming and no matter how hard I went, you kept gaining on me.’ That race gave me a lot of confidence.”
“I just love the adventure the XTERRA lifestyle provides,” said Kelsay. “I love getting to learn about new cultures, waking up and seeing signs in another language, or going into a shop and pointing at a food I’ve never seen and saying, ‘I’ll try that.’”
Yet, he acknowledges that this lifestyle isn’t always easy. Or comfortable.
“Many of the best stories I have come from uncomfortable situations,” Kelsay admits, acknowledging that he hasn’t learned much the easy way. “I’ve learned to roll with the punches and how to get comfortable being uncomfortable, which is a lot of what XTERRA is about, whether you are on a gnarly trail or getting stopped for having counterfeit money in Thailand.”
For more on that adventure, you’ll have to subscribe to the podcast.