Sunday, September 26, 2004

2004 Xterra USA Championship

The 2004 Xterra USA Championship was help on September 26th, 2004 in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The USA Championship is an invite only race for people that participated in the point series races throughout the country. I was lucky enough to qualify (5th in the mid atlantic) and get an opportunity to race against the top professional and amateurs off-road triathletes in the country. The distances are a 1 mile swim, 22 miles mountain bike, and a 6 mile trail run.

Getting there...
Stacey and I were staying in Tahoe Vista, CA a few miles away from Incline Village, NV, where the race would take place, in a dive that would serve as homebase for the next few days. I got there on the Thursday before the race to take in some sights and relax from the stressful traveling scene. Maybe it is just me but traveling sucks more and more...luckily the destinations are better and better ;-). Thankfully my bike made it through ok, others, like Tucker, had their bikes lost. Stacey was the absolute best, she helped me out with everything imaginable and made this entire trip incredible.

For those who have not been out to this part of the country, it is INSANELY gorgeous. So beautiful, in fact, it makes me wonder why the hell I live in a place such as Washington DC. I quickly realize that there is probably not much of a market for my skills and resign myself (currently) to only visiting places like this.

Friday morning I put my bike together and head down to the race site to register and try to get in either a bike or a swim. I'm kind of intimidated at the altitude (6500+) and the feet (2000+) of vertical climbing on the bike, so I figure it is best to risk tiring my legs a bit and taking a preride just to get the jitters out. I also wanted to have a chance to take some pictures of what is supposed to be one of the most scenic mountain bike trails in the country, the Flume Trail. I tag along with a few guys from Colorado. One turns out to be Jimmy Archer, a professional Xterra dude, and a top US racer. Him and his friends were real cool guys and waited up for me at various points. I felt like the country boy that gets to see the New York City skyline for the first time in a movie...except the exact opposite. The whole ride I cannot believe how lucky I am to be out here...

Not wanting to waste my legs trying to keep up with these guys, I take it real slow. Stopping to take a bunch of pictures also helps quite a bit.

The ride is gorgeous, and it is a good thing I checked it out early. If I had tried to take in the sights during the race I would have plummeted a few thousand feet off the edge, the trail was that narrow, but it was also that beautiful. I took me about 2:50 to do the whole 21 miles and I stopped a ton. This gave some confidence that I could finish the race with a reasonable bike split. I was hoping for somewhere around 2:00->2:15

Saturday morning began wonderfully. I slept in and my legs did not feel tried at all...well besides the complete lack of oxygen in the air. I headed down the the lake to preswim a lap. I put on my full wetsuit and go into the water and HOLY CRAP!!!!!! is it cold. 54 degrees to be exact. Since I will be swimming it early in the morning and it will only be colder I figure I need to suck it up and get a lap in, so I just dive under the water and go for it. Luckily I was entirely numb by the first buoy. I would guess that I was in 60 feet of water, and I could see the bottom clear as day. The water was incredibly crystal clear and a deep deep deeeeeeeeep blue. Entirely gorgeous and it did not taste like crap either. The only thing I remember after finishing the lap is that I'm dizzy as hell...I guess the lack of oxygen will do that to you. I'd better get used to it.

Later that day, Stacey and I went to Squaw Valley and ate lunch at High Camp on top of the mountain with IN-CRED-I-BLE views. After this we headed down to Emerald Bay [see picture below] for more visual insanity (thanks Satter). The evening ended with a dinner at a local Italian joint...yeah go figure, the eye-talian getting his pasta on....oh well.....just like a cop eating a donut eh?

Race Day
The morning came, and I had another good nights sleep. Looks like a few races may have been all I needed to get the jitters out and treat these days like just another day training. Like every morning so far it was COLD AS HELL!!!! I mean real cold, like lower 40s cold...and I had to swim in a freezing lake. This face says it all. Oh yeah, did I mention it was friggin cold? Anyway, time to suck it up...I did not travel all this way and work this hard since January to be a little baby because of some weather.

In case anyone forgot, the water was cold. However, since the air temperature was so cold the water actually felt much warmer than days past. After a good warm up, I put on my wetsuit and headed down to the water. I can not believe I am actually here and the race is about to cool.

The Big Kahuna does a pre race announcement and there is nothing left but to wait for the ceremonial cannon to set us off into the unknown of ourselves both mentally and physically. This is a seriously big event, helicopters with cameras hover above, jetskis and divers with cameras, every professional that considers xterra a day at the office...this is it...AND I'm here. I'm trying not to be overwhelmed because as I figure I have upwards of 4 hours (my goal) of tough work ahead of me. BOOM!!!! goes the cannon and off we go...

I hop into the water near the back of the pack, not wanting to get trampled, and keeping in mind that this is a collection of the best swimmers in the sport. Water is cold and it takes your breath away...and the thing about racing at altitude (did I mention it was 6500 feet above sea level) is that once you lose your breath it is hard to catch it again. Anyway, I battle through the swim, the Febbraro (TM) swim seems to be a thing of the past..thankfully. I'm still slow as shit, but that is fine by me. I keep a steady pace and make my first lap in 15 minutes...exactly where I wanted to be. Blow a kiss to Stacey (while dizzy and wobbling) and hop back in the water, right next to Tucker (who took great pictures). I'm numb and the water is crystal clear and I just focus on strokes and getting good breaths and before I know it is over...except that the entire crowd is gone. Yup, at the end of the pack again. 233 of 272 out of the water. Time of 36:52. Roughly where I expected, but not as good as I had hoped.

I get back to transition and hop on my bike with a lot of time to make up. I want to finish in the top half of the race and in under 4 hours so I had better make good time on the bike. Not two miles out of T1 and I realize I made one of the biggest mistakes in the book. I have 2+ hours of hard mountain biking ahead of me and I forgot to bring any hint of food with energy bars, no GU...nothing except the water on my back and a bottle of gatorade...oh well I'd better make it last because no one has any spares for sure.

We get to the trail and here comes the first climb..all 1600 vertical feet of it for the next 40 minutes. The trails are made entirely of sand, and that only makes it harder. I pick my way through the crowds, past the amazing tutu, and try to stay aerobic and save my legs. I'm leaning heavy on the gatorade for calories because the last thing I can afford to do is bonk on the top of this mountain.

Eventually the climb is over and we are rewarded with the gorgeous Flume Trail from earlier. The only problem is that there is NO opportunity to pass people and I am stuck behind some people I'd rather not be. Eventually I get past them, carefully, and need to plummet to my demise. The beauty quickly ends past Marlette Lake with another long set of climbs...these are shorter but more steep and painful as you are already toast from the first climb.

I finally get to the top and let out a yell that I can only credit to my simian ancestors (monkey strong), now for an incredible downhill. I boom down the descent with confidence (from my preride) and I pass a ton of people that are falling on the sandy turns and switchbacks that break your rhythm. I turn a corner and get the most incredible view of Lake Tahoe as the sun is shining off it and I stopped racing for a second and took in the view and remembered, again, how lucky I felt to be here. This is pretty much as good as it gets, if you like doing what I do. As good as it gets.

I come booking down off the mountain and into T2. All I can think of is getting something to eat. my stomach has been growling for 45 minutes and I rack my bike and tear into 2 GUs (Surprisingly Mmmmmm). I throw on my running gear and head out onto what is sure to be a torturous run. A quick glance at my watch shows that I finished in 2:15, 138/272 and @ 2:50 overall, as long as I don't blow it on the run I can beat my goal of 4 hours.

I head out in search of my legs, and find them surprisingly fast. I'm in pretty bad shape though. I'm on the verge of cramping and I feel like I'm just stumbling forward perpetually, but somehow I keep passing people. Everyone is in pain, you can see it written on all of our faces.

Thankfully the run course is pretty flat. There are logs and boulders to jump, a few bridges to cross and some short steep hills but flat....and have a long time to think when you are out there. You get so far beyond the fact that your legs hurt, or that you head feel as if it is engulfed in flames....and it really cuts to the essence of your being. You are exhausted and looking for something to keep you going and it is times like this, that I feel, define who you are.

There is every opportunity to make an excuse and slow down, these is every chance to walk when you can still run (unless you are honestly hurt), but if you are lucky you don't let any of those things enter your mind. You try to fill your thoughts and you mind wanders. I think about how lucky I am to have friends and family that have supported me and my sometimes idiotic quests. My mind wanders further to those that I wish were with me, most notably my cousin Lisa that lost a long hard battle with cancer. All of these people and all of these experiences power me in times like this. Each step I take is a piece of them, because I could not be here if it were not for them. Success, much like racing, is the journey, not a destination. The race is just a (sometimes painful) celebration of all things leading up to it, and I would not trade any of what I have done in the past year.

These thoughts that consumed me, have also powered me, and when I look up the finish line is right in front of me. I don't quite know what I did on the way there, but I was jumping and cheering and must have looked incredibly spastic. I have not wanted to cross a finish line so much in my life and it was just as incredible as I imagined it would be nearly a year ago.

I ran a 49:50 10k (81/272) for a finish time of 3:42:07 and 140/272 overall and I could not be any happier.

The post race party was also a blast.

Who knows if I'll be here next year, but I sure hope so. (with more time to take in the sights)

My season is now officially over and I'm looking forward to some relaxation before I refocus for next year. All year I have written these almost compulsively, not sure why I was doing it, or if anyone really cares. But in thinking, I actually do have a reason. If 2 years can take me from nearly a pack a day smoker with a terrible habit of sitting on the couch, drinking beer, watching TV, and packing on the pounds like it was my job, to racing in an invite-only national championship race, I think you can get out there and do something you've only dreamed of as well.

Go get it.