Oh, what a Worlds it was!
Racers in the 2021 XTERRA World Championship overcame pandemic complexities, colossal surf, and ‘catastrophic’ weather conditions to take part in off-road triathlons’ greatest day at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua on December 5 in Maui.
We checked in with some of this year’s age group winners to see how their day's unfolded...
PART ONE – THE WOMEN’S AMATEUR RACE (Read Amateur Men’s Race Recap Here)
The women’s age group race was dominated by speedsters from the Czech Republic and Canada.
Three of the top four women were from Czech including the overall winner Katerina Jezkova (35-39), third-place finisher Hana Odlova (who won 25-29 title), and fourth-place finisher Barbora Stupkova (who won the 15-19 crown). And Vendulka Rysava was 2nd in the 15-19 race, 6th overall.
From Canada, Carolyn Guay placed second overall (30-34 Champ), and Christy Drever was fifth overall and second in the 30-34 division.
Liz Whiteley (2nd, 35-39) edged Julia Allred (3rd, 15-19) by seven seconds to finish as the top American in seventh place, and Lorenn Walker tied Barbara Peterson by picking up her eighth XTERRA World Championship (only Wendy Minor has more women’s titles with nine).
65-69 XTERRA World Champ: Lorenn Walker (Waialua, Oahu, Hawaii)
Lorenn won her first XTERRA World Title in the 40-44 division back in 1999, when there were no females even racing in the 45+ divisions, and on Sunday picked up her third straight title in the 65-69 division.
Walker is the director of Hawai’i Friends of Restorative Justice, and an Associate Professor of Practice, Public Policy Center at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.
She said what made this year’s win particularly special for her was sharing it with her granddaughter.
“Best thing about going to Maui this year was being with my 18-year-old granddaughter, Frankie. She did the 10K run and got 3rd in the 15-19 age group, and she also volunteered at the finish! She plays ultimate frisbee for Carleton College and now she wants to learn to MTB!”
60-64 XTERRA World Champ: Sharon McDowell-Larsen (Grand Junction, CO)
An exercise physiologist by trade, McDowell-Larsen put all that intel and 10 years of XTERRA experience to good work on Sunday to win her third World Championship. She won her first in 2015 and her second in the “mud year” of 2018.
“I was pretty nervous going in, wet roots and muddy conditions rank up there with snakes, lightening and crocodiles on my list of phobias because I’ve had some bad crashes on wet roots,” she said.
“I initially rode like a ninny and had to do some serious self-talk to get myself to relax and let it roll. The conversation went something like this…”you’re riding like an old lady. Wait, you are an old lady, well so what, that’s no excuse, just relax moron, you can do this”, interjected with some “bloody hell” and other expletives.
She ran into the first transition with Tammy Tabeek, a two-time Maui winner, and the two traded spots going up and down the West Maui mountains.
“I pushed it on the climbs to try to gain some time, then she passed me on the first single track downhill. She told me to get on her wheel and guided me through the next slick, muddy section which was really nice of her. I took the lead on the next climb, but was looking over my shoulder the rest of the ride as I know she is a better descender, especially on this stuff.”
As for what made this win particular special…
“Well, they are all special and epic in their own way. The uncertainty around COVID, the swell, and the flood and thunderstorm warnings made this year unique, no doubt about it. Given how bad the weather was later that day, I think we dodged a bullet for sure. Somebody was making sacrifices to the weather gods. Big thanks to XTERRA for having a plan A, B, and C in place. It felt flawless from an athlete perspective, but I’m sure there was a lot of churn going on behind the scenes given all the challenges. And, I want to add that the other athletes were all so encouraging and polite, which was great to experience. That is what XTERRA is all about.”
30-34 XTERRA World Champ: Carolyn Guay (Sutton, Canada)
Carolyn Guay came from a small town in northern Quebec and was always an active kid, trying many different sports, but mostly competitive team sports. It wasn’t until after she earned her master’s degree in physical therapy that she was introduced to cycling and got “totally hooked.”
“I started racing mountain bike cross-country races and XTERRA three years ago. I rapidly fell in love with the vibe of the race and XTERRA philosophy, and it awakened my thirst for competition and self-transcendence.”
In her second year off-road she qualified for Maui and finished 5th in her age group, and after the race told her boyfriend that next time she’d be on the podium.
Fast forward to last Sunday, and that’s exactly what happened, not only finishing second overall but winning the 30-34 division and almost the overall title too.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” said the full-time physiotherapist. “I am on an “emotional high” since last Sunday. Just came back home, where all family and friends gathered to welcome me back home. I was feeling like the local hero, and feel lucky to have all that support around me.”
On the day, Guay finished the first run about mid-pack, then started picking off the riders in front of her one-by-one.
“It was raining, and we were riding in awful mud conditions. At first, the mud was like peanut butter, sticking between the stud of the tires making the bike weigh a lot more. We were sliding and slipping on every corner, but it was so much fun! I must confess that I was pretty happy with those hard conditions because I have good technical skills, and we often ride in those slippery conditions when we ride our Fatbike in the snow during cold Quebec’s winter.”
Guay took the overall lead in the first 15k of bike, and increased it on the second lap.
“When I came in the transition zone to put on my running shoes, all the bike racks were empty, so I knew I was the lead woman, but I also knew that the women not so far behind me were faster runners. I was in the lead for 90% of the run but in the last uphill, 800m from the finish line, I saw Katerina coming behind me. I tried to stay with her, but my legs wouldn’t let me. She was stronger.”
50-54 XTERRA World Champ: Teresa Harrison (Red Deer, Canada)
For Teresa Harrison, just getting to the start line was a win.
“New Year’s Eve, Dec 31, 2016, I had a tragic toboggan accident,” she explained. ‘”There was a 1.5” hole blown in my large intestine from impact, and surgeons had to remove about a foot of bowel, starting from the cecum, to repair/remove the damaged tissue. I was in hospital for 8 days and lost 25 lbs, and I lost so much muscle over the next 2 months my legs became skinny. It took me until 2019 to get my power back to where it was pre-accident and then the pandemic hit and there were no races. I was hungry to compete and wanted to get back to XTERRA and Podium.”
And get this, Teresa came into Maui off a tibial stress fracture.
“The most I ran six weeks prior to race day was four run workouts of 1min on/off up to a maximum of nine intervals, in the week before arriving to Maui. This was also the very first Duathlon I’ve ever done!”
45-49 XTERRA World Champ: Shelley Peachell (Rossland, Canada)
Shelley’s XTERRA experience, in her words (because they are soooo fun to read):
It was the kind of day I wanted to rush home and write a story about because there were so many incredible moments. Waking up to the crashing surf on the beach set the tone for an adventurous day! But what you probably don't know is that I love adventure, and the worse the course conditions got, the more I thrived!
Some of my most memorable moments were reaching T2 to find my transition area submerged in water, having to dump the water out of my running shoes before putting them on. Another was my husband and friends standing in the rain for hours to cheer me on, that meant the world to me.
I love when the conditions are rough as it highlights an athlete's skill and fitness. I was third after T1 and then took the lead after the first lap on the bike. My husband called out that I had a 15 second lead and then said, 'so how bad do you want it?'. My mantra became, 'I want this so bad!'.
Vanessa, from France, was with me on the entire climb of the second bike lap but I was able to gain a 3-minute lead on the technical descent to T2. She made up some time on the run but I was able to hold her off for the win. She is an amazing competitor and pushed me to be my very best on the day.
Being new to XTERRA and racing athletes that are the best in the sport was so very special. It was an honor to stand at the start line with them. I started racing mountain bikes when I was 46-years-old and discovered I was pretty good at it. In 2020, I decided to start running and swimming with the help of a coach and give XTERRA a try. Becoming an athlete later in life is pretty special, it's never too late to go fast!
This was only my third off-road triathlon ever, having done XTERRA Conquer the Crater in August 2021 and XTERRA Victoria in September 2021. I qualified for Maui at both those events and although I trained very hard all year, I approached the World Championships as a race where I could learn amongst the best. I learned that if you believe, you can be the best of the best! I also learned that the timing chip goes on the left ankle, having put it on the right for my previous two XTERRAs #xterrarookie.
Before the race I joked with my husband that if I became a World Champion I would get a tattoo that symbolizes the sport of XTERRA in some way, I guess you will have to check in next year to find out if I kept my word! 😂
55-59 XTERRA World Champ: Cherie Touchette (Bend, OR)
Cherie Touchette is an XTERRA original.
She did her first event in 1998, finished second at the XTERRA World Championship 20 years ago in 2001, and was a staple on the American circuit for many years.
And long-after her pro racing days were gone, her love for Maui and off-road racing lived on.
“Wish I could come every year,” she exclaimed. “This was my eight time here, but seventh finish, because the fourth year here I went rubber side up and ended up with three broken ribs on my back and a punctured lung.”
2021 was much better!
“It was an awesome day! Any day in Maui that I keep the rubber side down is good because I have a habit of going upside down. This year, I lead from start to finish, it was very hard as usual, but very happy for the good result and this one was extra special because I got to share it with my twin boys and husband.”
40-44 XTERRA World Champ: Holly Wright (Steamboat Springs, Colorado)
Holly Wright is on cloud nine.
“I honestly never thought that coming in first at the World Championship was possible, I still can’t believe it,” she said. “I would not have been able to do this without the support of my family, the incredible XTERRA Crew and the awesome spectators. I kept thanking everyone along the course, the feeling of gratitude fueling me to the end.”
Wright has been racing XTERRA since 2015, and remembers the 2018 “mud year” in Maui very well.
“I finished fourth in my age group that year, but it was brutal,” she exclaimed.
This year, Wright pre-rode the course on Thursday before the race, and it was perfect.
“It was dry and tacky, and I was elated! I love all the work that was put into the new bike course, it was fast and flowy! But then when it started to rain on Friday I became very anxious, really not wanting a repeat of 2018. Plus, I’m a strong swimmer, so when the swim was cancelled I also started to worry.”
All that worrying seemed to have worked out for Wright, who took the lead on the bike and never looked back.
“I decided to run the first run as hard as I could, not hold anything back, and not save my legs for later in the race. I could see that I was leading my age group as I got on my bike. I felt strong on the climb, but then the rain really started to pour down. I had a couple of crashes during the second half of my first bike loop. My riding slowed down as I was afraid to have another crash and hit myself, or my bike! Cathy Yndstead passed me around that time, as did a few male racers, and I almost started to feel like I wasn’t even breathing heavy. I told myself, ‘This is worlds Holly, if you want to do well, you need to kick it into high gear.’ I passed Cathy, and on the second bike loop I continued to push it as hard as I could. As the rained poured down the course became wetter, which actually made it easier to ride. I felt more comfortable on the twisty turns, and flying into transition I knew I was leading my age group…I just had to keep it.”