ALOHA and Happy Holidays! I hope everyone had a fantastic Thanksgiving. By now I trust most readers know the result of the recently concluded XTERRA Trail World Championships. In this entry I'll give my race recap as well as sharing the typical behind the scene tidbits. Alright then, ready? Great, grab your surfboard, board shorts and let's paddle out into this tale.
This year I decided to make the trip to the "Aloha State", a much shorter one than last year. I traveled alone, leaving my super supportive wife, Molly Mandje, back in Colorado. With a pending honeymoon to plan, she's got to be frugal with her vacation time. Unlike last year, I stayed far away from the touristy hustle and bustle that is Waikiki. Instead, my good friend and eventual XTERRA Trail World Champ Women's winner, Polina Babkina, set me up with a place to stay in Haleiwa. There I had the pleasure of staying with a friend of hers, Shannon White and her family. They've got a beautiful home about a quarter mile from the world famous Sunset Beach.
Arriving to my host family's home, I was immediately greeted by Scott and his awesome wife Kathi. They quickly made me feel at home and within 10 minutes of arriving I was already down at the beach with Kathi walking her two dogs. We quickly got to know each other. Within an hour of my arrival, you would've thought Kathi and I had known each other for years. Scott and Kathi have three amazing kids. There's Shannon, a mermaid-like surfer and runner (who's equally graceful riding a wave as she is navigating a technical trail) and her two brothers. Brent, the oldest, is an avid surfer and a talented graphic designer. Murray, the youngest, is a hulking high school senior and state record holder in the bench press.
The next day I woke up early for a run at nearby Pupukea State Park Reserve with Shannon. It turned out to be a bit longer of a run (100 minutes) than I had planned, but I thoroughly enjoyed exploring (aka getting lost) some new trails. The run allowed Shannon and I a chance to get to know each other better. We spoke of our love of the ocean, surfing and of course running
The run served as a good chance for me to shake the travel out of my legs. I felt good and super light - gotta love sea level - on the various hill climbs. I also welcomed the heat and humidity (90%), despite feeling like I was "swimming" through most of my run, as I would tell Shannon time after time.
The day before the race I drove about an hour into Waikiki. Once I arrived at the XTERRA Expo, I quickly made my way to registration. There I was greeted by the familiar and always smiling faces of XTERRA President Janet Clark and Series Manager Emily McIlvaine. I always seek these two ladies out when I get to an XTERRA event. They and the entire XTERRA staff have been immensely helpful and welcoming to me over the past year.
Once I collected my race packet, I had the pleasure of catching up with the super XTERRA couple James and Nozomi Wade. I first met them back in May at the XTERRA Southeast Champs in Alabama. It's always a pleasure to chat with them at the races and expos as their enthusiasm and love of the sport is nothing short of contagious. After that, I headed to greet good mate and defending Co-Champion: Joe Gray. Over the past year we've kept in close contact, speaking several times a week, thus forming a great friendship. We greeted each other, posed for a few pictures, spoke about the pending race, wished each other luck and that was it. I jumped back in the car and headed back to the North Shore.
Sunday, November 24th. The day had finally arrived. A year of different XTERRA events across the country, thousands of miles in training, an endless summer of weddings and a historic Colorado Flood had delivered me here. Shannon and I made the 30 minute drive to the race's breathtaking venue: Kualoa Ranch. It has served as the location for shows and movies like "Lost" and "Jurassic Park" amongst many others and today it would serve as XTerra battle ground.
The story lines were drawn long before we set foot on Oahu. The top contenders included defending "Co-Champion" Joe Gray, who'd be looking for a decisive win and NOT a tie. XTERRA Favorite Max King, who had never lost an XTERRA World Championship he entered. He'd be looking to retake the crown after missing last year's race due to the birth of his daughter. Then you had the (on paper) red hot favorite and rookie Patrick Smyth. Despite his rookie tag, Patrick came in as the reigning XTERRA National Champ held two months prior, where he had defeated both Gray and King.
That left myself and several others to see if we could spoil the party. I felt confident in my training and secure that I had prepared as best as realistically possible in the weeks leading up to the competition. I wasn't nervous, instead I was simply curious and eager to find out how my body would respond. After a short warm up and some strides, I headed to the start line. There, I was greeted by Gray. We exchanged a few pleasantries before crouching down to wait for the cannon blast. Delving into our own pre-race world, we fixed our eyes forward waiting to unleash hell.
BOOM! The cannon echoed through the valley and with that, we were off to test ourselves! I say "ourselves" because even though we're ultimately measured and judged by our finishing position relative to our fellow competitors, the true battle -in my opinion - particularly in trail races is between you and the course.
I kept that in mind for weeks and months during my training. Knowing full well that I couldn't focus on any one person, racing can be far too unpredictable for that. On any given day anything is possible. Instead, I poured my energy both in training and during the race into my own efforts. I was up against a great field, but I was also up against myself both in the "here and now" and the 2012 version of me.
I had worked hard on the mental aspect of racing this year. Staying positive during bad patches, calling upon the training I had done to get to this point and remembering that no matter how tough a particular hill or mountain is, there's always an end to it, if you just keep going. It was a good thing I had honed my mental skill, because it didn't take long for the aforementioned top 3 lads to separate themselves from the rest of us.
Although I had anticipated a quick start, it seemed these guys were out to race a 5K. Within the span of half a mile they were completely gone! It was a tough pill to swallow and frankly a bit too early for my liking. I decided not to chase them as I had intended on finishing the race and figured if I let hubris lead me up to them, well I'd most likely be looking for an ambulance ride back to the finish.
Looking around I felt there were far too many people ahead of me and around me. That's one problem with training (and alone at that), you go from being completely solo or with very few people to suddenly there's a herd of guys, each as eager and driven as you are. I quickly told myself to be patient, that the course and pace would sort them out. It takes a great deal of confidence coupled with a bit of a gambler's streak to let people go early on. Looking around, I reached the first mile somewhere between 7th and 9th place. It definitely wasn't where I wanted to be, but there was only a certain level of recklessness that I was willing to indulge in.
I knew that there was a beast of a climb around mile 9 that would last for about 2 kilometers. Between miles 3 and 7, the racing Gods decided to gift me with a savage cramp in my lower right back. It came on like a sniper's bullet and I immediately felt its effect. Suddenly my momentum was halted. At that point I was in 7th place, but still had 8th and 9th right on my heels. I did my best not to look back, but I could tell they were quickly gaining ground. In a matter of minutes my thoughts went from "Oh yeah, here we go... I'm gonna roll up to those guys in front", to "OMFG, am I going to be able to finish!?". Leandro Santillan, who I had done a bit of battle with last year -and ultimately beat- was first to strike and I knew he'd be looking for revenge.
All I wanted to do more than anything, was insert my right thumb in my lower back and massage some much needed relief into it. Instead I gritted my teeth and attempted to deliver oxygen to the area. I didn't want to let Santillan or the other bloke behind him know that I was physically hurting in anyway. I figured the fact that my pace had drastically slowed served as enough of a sign. Like sharks to blood, they crept closer and closer. With my confidence waning and frustration rising, I decided that I'd trained too hard to simply drop out. Santillan eventually went around me near the 6 mile mark. Within 30 seconds he'd put a 20 - 30 meter gap on with the course's hillier sections still ahead.
I knew from last year that I had more speed than him on the flatter sections and thus told myself to keep him within striking distance. I was now sitting in 7th place but even that wasn't 100% secured as 8th place was also gaining ground on me. "TRUST IN YOUR TRAINING, TRUST IN YOUR TRAINING...", I repeated over and over to myself. I needed to use as much mental strength during this painful stretch as I could muster. I wasn't physically drained (yet) and thus this portion became a battle of the mind over the body.
FINALLY, some relief! We finally got to a point where I felt that Santillan wasn't getting away from me and instead the gap was now shrinking. On top of that, the pain had finally subsided to a manageable state, allowing me to start making progress. At this point we were over half way done with the race and I knew the BIG climb still awaited us. Those that had respected it would hopefully reap some reward, while those who hadn't would hopefully be humbled.
Around mile 8 or so, I overtook Santilla and made a hard push to create some distance. I wanted to put him away and give him absolutely zero hope of catching me again. It was a bit of a gamble because (1) I wasn't sure I was 100% out of the woods as far as my lower back went and (2) we were starting to climb, so it wasn't a given that - despite my preparation - I'd be able to sustain such a hard push. "Oh well!" I said to myself, "You're all in now, so let's go!" I stopped worrying about what might be happening behind me and started dreaming of catching the runners ahead of me. I wasn't sure what was going on with the top three and wondered if one of them would blow up and come tumbling back through the field. Shortly before the 9th mile, I spotted a slowing Chris Gomez from Flagstaff, Arizona. He had gone out quite hard early on and was now clearly feeling the hills. I decided to go after and catch him before the big climb to come.
Eventually I came to the base of the final climb around mile 9 and passed Gomez. I figured since Gomez came from an even higher elevation than I did, that he'd maybe have something left in the tank. Not wanting to leave it to chance, I pushed and willed myself up the 2 kilometer long climb. I quickly created a gap and felt better about it. I stole quick glances back around each switchback to chart my progress. There's no doubt that I was hurting and wondered if he could tell. At the same time I knew that I had to push hard now and not save anything for the flatter sections that would eventually deliver us to the long awaited finish line. I kept repeating, "You ran up Mount Sanitas, you ran up Mount Sanitas...".
The climb lasted longer than I thought it should. It seemed like a cruel and unrelenting joke. Once again I used more mantras and self talk. I kept thinking, "If you're hurting, they're hurting, keep pushing, you don't know who else might be in front of you...". Alas, I reached the top of the climb. I had created a big gap that, as a result, meant I wouldn't have to worry about the guys behind anymore. I now focused on throwing my legs that had turned into giant pieces of lifeless wood down the mountain. The terrain became technical and narrow. I was careening down a virtual rainforest slip and slide. More than once I slipped and caught myself at the last minute. I knew I couldn't step off the gas as there were still guys somewhere ahead of me.
I took a hard tumble at the bottom of one such switchback and bounced back up so fast, that I had to double check if I still had my bib number and wedding ring on. Adrenaline didn't allow me to dwell on the pain. Instead I drove and drove my oxygen deprived and high humidity stricken body toward the finish line. Finally I got within sight of the finish line. Half a mile out I knew there wouldn't be anyone else to catch. I was running out of real estate and there wasn't anyone else in sight. Still, I didn't allow myself to back off the pace. I finished just as hard as I would've had I been trying to out kick someone.
I must have driven myself a bit too hard in the closing stages, because I don't remember crossing the finish line, only hearing XTERRA extraordinaire announcer Kalei Waiwaiole addressing the crowd and myself while inquiring whether I needed medical attention or not. I picked myself up as best as I could. I was greeted and aided at the finish line by Boulder based friend: Pam Simich. Brian Metzler, her husband and my long time friend was out there racing as well and the family had made a holiday out of the trip. .
I soon found out that I had finished in 5th place while running around 2.5 mins faster than in 2012. I was pleased with the effort as I couldn't had done any better on the day. I tip my hat... I mean headband to the four lads ahead of me, particularly the top 3 who ran under the previous course record! Well-done fellas!
Staggering to the medical tent, I bumped into race winner Patrick Smyth. We congratulated each other and talked about our experiences, falls and the general beauty of the venue. Being a competitor I couldn't help feel a little disappointed at not being more competitive with the top 3 guys. I couldn't help wondering "what if my back hadn't tightened up..." That's racing for ya, often times a cruel but beautiful and unpredictable mistress. I quickly reminded myself that I had done the very best I could have done on that particular day and under those conditions. I had improved both my time and place from the previous year and that - on that day - was good enough.
The atmosphere around the awards ceremony was a bit more laid back and jovial than before the race (not surprising). There I got to catch up with several of the other competitors on both the men's and women's side. This is usually where the true camaraderie of the trail community shows itself. Both elite and age group athletes alike converge, congratulate and share their race experience with one another. It's here where over this past year, I've been privileged to make some long lasting friendships and connections.
Eventually they called the men's podium (top 5) and we headed up one by one. We once again greeted, congratulated each other and posed for photos. We were called up again for a larger group shot with the women's top 5 finishers. Afterward, I made my way around to a few of the different members of the XTERRA family to thank them for once again hosting such a top class event and allowing me to be a part of it. As usual, the last person I sought to bid farewell to was Janet Clark.
With that, I headed to the car for the short drive back to the North Shore. With the race venue in my rearview mirror and the pacific ocean to my right, I begun to turn my thoughts towards 2014 where I'll be even hungrier and more motivated than before. For that I thank my opponents, both those ahead of me and those giving chase behind me. They all help elevate my performance more than they'll ever know. Before I could let my mind wander any further, I remembered that I had a bit over 24 hours left in Hawaii. I desperately wanted to make sure I spent as much of it in the ocean. The race was over, the beach beckoned, and this time I would allow myself to answer its call...