XTERRA Athlete Profile : Will Ross
Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska
Occupation: Bike Mechanic, Professional Triathlete
Racing Division: Elite Men
Credentials: Raced XTERRA since 2007. Finished 5th in the final XTERRA Pan Am Tour elite men’s standings in 2019 with three top 5 finishes. Is a 9-time XTERRA Hammerman Champion.
Will Ross is perhaps the friendliest human being you’ll ever meet. Quick with a smile and a positive vibe, the Alaskan XTERRA great has been a staple on the North American off-road triathlon circuit for 15 years.
When he was just 16-years-old Will was diagnosed with Juvenile onset Rheumatoid Arthritis, which may have been a blessing in disguise. Because he was encouraged not to do high-impact sports, he took to the pool to stay in shape for skiing (he won the Alaska State Biathlon Title as a 17yo). Once he found the water, one thing led to another and he ended up joining the swim team, met his girlfriend (now wife), and found his way to triathlon and XTERRA.
We caught up with Will this week to talk about life in Alaska, wild animals, his XTERRA journey, and how he juggles a full-time job with professional racing. On the way, we came away with great tips on how to set-up your bike for Oak Mountain and why you shouldn’t ride through a field of plants called “Devil’s Club” (unless you’re being chased by a Moose).
QnA, from April 27, 2021
XTERRA: First off, Happy early birthday, 32 this Saturday, eh!? That’s prime age for XTERRA don’t you think?
Will Ross: Thanks! Yup, early 30s might be prime age for XTERRA but I'm hoping I have quite a bit of time left. I was a super late bloomer, so I'm hoping I peak late as well.
XT: Lets go back in time, how did you end up a triathlete in Alaska? Shouldn't you be a skier or an Iditarod racer or something?
WR: Growing up, my parents let me try everything like soccer, baseball, basketball, hockey, running, biking, but I eventually settled on xc skiing. Skiers are big believers in cross training, so mountain biking and mountain running were a big part of our summer training. Then when I was 16, I was diagnosed with Juvenile Onset Rheumatoid Arthritis and had to give up all impact sports for a while. So to stay in shape for skiing, I joined my high school swim team. That was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I made some really good friends that I'm still close with today, gained the skill of swimming which was my missing link when it came to triathlon, and later on, I met my wife at a masters swim club!
XT: So when was your first XTERRA? What do you remember from that race, and was your family into triathlon too?
WR: My first XTERRA was the local XTERRA Hammerman in Anchorage when I was 18. I remember watching it one year thinking "This sport is made for me, I want to do this," and when I finally got to race it, I pulled off the run of my life to take the lead in the last half mile and win! From there I was hooked on the XTERRA off road style of racing. My family was always into skiing and mountain biking, but never triathlon. They were always 100% supportive of me being into XTERRA though!
XT: And since then, you won Hammerman 9x?
WR: Phew! Yeah, I think I've raced it 11 times and won 9 of them. The Hammerman still goes on, it's no longer an XTERRA branded race, but this year will be its 20th edition!
XT: We’ve heard so many stories about Hammerman through the years, mainly about all the wild animals’ you guys see on the course. Do tell…
WR: Oh man, bears, moose, eagles, a family of ptarmigan, a dead whale corpse stinking up the mountain bike course, animals can make the race interesting, that's for sure! One year, I came around a corner on one of the fastest downhills on the bike course and there was a momma moose with two calves. Moose might look dumb and friendly, but really, they're dumb, protective, and erratic. I was able to come to a stop without hitting them, but the mom charged me into the woods off the trail which was full of Alaska's worst plant called Devil's Club. Not wanting to lose my lead in the race, I bushwhacked my bike through the thick and thorny Devils club and merged back on the course, lead intact, covered head to toe in thorns and cuts.
Pictured L-R: Will, Andy Duenow, Angela Diberardino, Andrea Kettler, and Fred West
XT: Tell me about the Alaska crew or racers you have coming to XTERRA Oak Mountain next weekend, who you got? Do you all stay together?
WR: There's a good group of six Alaskan's coming down to Oak Mountain and we will all be staying in a house together. For the guys, it's Andy Duenow, Jason Lamoreaux, and myself. And for the ladies, it's Teresa Ulrich, Angela DiBerardino, and my wife Andrea Kettler. We have all known and trained each other for years, so it's going to be a good group!
XT: What was COVID like in Alaska? You looked pretty busy throughout?
WR: Alaska is massive, so it was always possible to be able to train outdoors without being around too many people. I'm really grateful for that. I would have lost my mind training exclusively indoors, so hats off to anyone that had to go through that! Most of the race directors up here worked really hard with the local authorities to find a way to still hold events and do so in a way that everyone felt safe. In our long and dark winter, it was especially helpful to have events to train for and stay motivated for.
XT: Think you turned pro in 2011, what was that like?
WR: Yeah, my first pro race was the XTERRA in Waco, Texas in 2011. I don't think there could be a course more suited to my style of racing. I came in with zero expectations, but it was a great confidence boost to have a decent result in my first pro race.
XT: Any idea how many XTERRA races you’ve done since that first one when you were 18?
WR: I haven't kept track of how many races I've done, but XTERRA has taken me all over the country and to three continents so far and seeing the world is one of the things that I love the most about XTERRA.
XT: What was your best, most satisfying race?
WR: My best finish would have to be 3rd at the 2019 XTERRA Quebec. It was the first race in a long time where it didn't seem like anything major went wrong. I was able to charge from start to finish and for the most part, my body did what I told it to do and what I trained it to do, so that was incredibly satisfying.
XT: Favorite international XTERRA?
WR: I really like the Canadian races like XTERRA Victoria and XTERRA Quebec! Even though they're in another country from Alaska, the landscape, courses, and vibe of Canada is so close to home, so I come into the races really relaxed. The technical Canadian courses also really suit my skillset!
XT: You do all kinds of things, you race, coach, mechanic, product stuff…what takes up most of your time?
WR: Being a bike mechanic definitely takes up the most time, but that's my job so that's how it should be. I haven't been coaching or working on any product development projects recently, but I do love both of those things and they're both especially rewarding.
XT: As a bike mechanic, how would you advise people to set up their bikes/tires for Oak Mountain?
WR: Tires are the easiest thing that you can swap out to make your bike perform well in different conditions. For Oak Mountain, I usually choose to have a fast all-around tread pattern on my bike such as the Maxxis Ikon or Bontrager XR2 because the course is mostly fast and buffed out, but there are also wet spots and blood rock where you will want a little more traction. I also always travel with a set of mud tires just in case. I still have PTSD from all the mud in Maui in 2016 and 2018 so I will always be prepared for that. The other thing that has become a critical part of my bike is a dropper seatpost. It's not necessary for most of the Oak Mountain course, but it certainly gives me more confidence charging through the blood rock section and the following downhill sections.
Bonus Video: Will’s recon pre-ride at Oak Mountain in 2018.
XT: I saw that bike review you did last year, got mad views? Thought of doing more of those?
WR: I haven't really thought about doing more of those. Typically, I try to give product feedback directly to the brand that I'm working with rather than be a public critic of things. In the case of the Trek Supercaliber, it was this new and unique bike that had tons of media hype and marketing around it, but there was very little information out there about how it actually performed. I was just trying to provide some public information about it from the view of a racer rather than a magazine review guy that would never consider riding an XC bike.
XT: And the Alaskan Triathlete, Episode 1 was awesome. Was there an episode 2?
WR: Oh geez, you saw that?!? I wanted to continue with the series to show off what an amazing place Alaska is to live and train for XTERRA. Unfortunately, work really picked up last summer with the bike boom, and my case of plantar fasciitis was beginning to become unbearable. So I just didn't have the necessary time to give to it and I was injured and not able to do the cool Alaska things that I wanted to show off. It'll happen eventually once I get my plantar fasciitis sorted out and I can go play in the mountains again.
XT: Who do you have for sponsors this year?
WR: The Trek Store of Anchorage is my main sponsor. It's a great local bike shop that employs me as well as sponsors me. The owner and staff are really understanding and supportive of my racing and what I bring to the table as an experienced mechanic. The Trek Store also employs Andy Duenow who has podiumed in Maui a few times as well as 2010 XTERRA Warrior Award Winner Taylor Seavey. The Trek Store of Anchorage might be the most XTERRA represented bike shop out there! I'm also on the BlueSeventy Racing Team. BlueSeventy makes some of the nicest wetsuits out there, but what really drew me to the brand was their Thermal Reaction Wetsuit and their thermal swimming accessories like gloves, booties, and caps. I rarely race with any of that thermal gear, but I wouldn't be able to train in Alaskan open water without it. In the winter, I'm on the 45NRTH Racing Team. 45NRTH specializes in winter cycling products such as winter cycling boots, winter cycling clothing, and my favorite which are their fat bike tires. These are all things that make Alaskan winters way more fun and more comfortable.
XT: Was 2019 your breakout year, you had a great season and finished 5th in the Pan Am Tour?
WR: 2019 was my first year working for and sponsored by The Trek Store of Anchorage, so it was my first year that I was actually able to get to enough races to be competitive in the XTERRA Pan American Series. I was especially proud of my performances at XTERRA Chile and XTERRA Quebec that year and overall it was my best year to date, but I know that my best is still to come.
XT: What’s the goal for Oak Mtn next Saturday?
WR: I'm coming into Oak Mountain with zero expectations. I've been dealing with plantar fasciitis for two full years now and in the process of treating and diagnosing that, my podiatrist Dr. Jetter has also found that my tarsal tunnel nerve is getting pinched causing excessive foot pain. I haven't been able to perform a quality running training session in about two years. So I guess my goal is to finish without my wife having to push me in a wheelchair through the airport on the way home!
XT: Bigger picture then, what’s the goal for 2021?
WR: The biggest goal for 2021 is to get my feet fixed. I will most likely be having surgery to release the plantar fascia and also release the tarsal tunnel nerve as soon as I get home from Oak Mountain.
XT: What’s it like being the fastest Alaskan XTERRA racer of all-time? And when was the last time Andy could say he was the fastest? Like, was there a passing of the torch?
WR: Ha, I better not be the fastest Alaskan XTERRA racer of all-time! There are so many talented and tough kids up here that all have similar upbringings to me. They all do mountain running races and mountain bike races in the summer while training for nordic ski racing in the winter. Most of them tend to gravitate towards the ski racing once they decide the direction that they want to go, but I'm really hoping that more follow in my footsteps and take on XTERRA. To answer the passing of the torch question, Andy and I laughed about this at work yesterday, and he said that the torch was passed the moment I first signed up for XTERRA Hammerman in 2007.
XT: You’re awesome on those fat bikes in the snow and so is Josiah Middaugh. You’ve seen him do both winter and summer racing, so is Josiah fiercer as a fat tire biker in the winter or XTERRA triathlete in the Rockies in the summer?
WR: Josiah is great at both, but I would definitely say he is more of a force in the high altitude XTERRAs in the summer. Josiah is a great biker, but I think he is an even better runner, especially at altitude.
XT: If you had to pick a season, summer or winter – what would it be?
WR: Summer 100%! Nothing beats an Alaskan summer. The 24 hours of daylight takes some getting used to, but man, you can sure pack a lot of fun into one day!
XT: What keeps you racing XTERRA all these years?
WR: Everything that I like to do is more or less perfect training for XTERRA. Swimming, mountain biking, and trail or mountain running is what I would be doing anyway, whether there was a sport like XTERRA or not. I'm really stoked that XTERRA is a sport and I'll keep training for it and racing as long as I'm able!