Hey guys, Lisa here! I wanted to share my first dirty triathlon experience with you, AKA Xterra triathlon (or off-road tri). Over the May 20-21st weekend I competed in Xterra Oak Mountain, at Oak Mountain State Park just south of Birmingham, Alabama. When you think of Alabama, you probably don’t think of a rad mountain bike scene, however, I was so surprised and impressed with the trails in Oak Mountain State Park. From flowy single-track descents, to ‘Blood Rock’, to some nice fire road climbing to overlooks over the lush park, I was very impressed!
I got to the race a handful of days early so I could ride the entire mountain bike course. Arguably, this is probably more important in off-road triathlon vs. road triathlon because the courses are a wee bit more technical ;)! Mother Nature decided to add a little fun to our trip and had it pour rain every day while we were there, haha! My boyfriend, Steve, and I stayed with our favorite Kiwi triathlete, Samantha Kingsford and Sam Osborne. As they are multiple-time Xterra champions, they were able to help so much with my influx of questions from what tire pressure to ride, when to use my dropper post and lockouts, and clothing choices… (we will revisit this topic later)! Steve and I rode the full course on Wednesday, and at the beginning, I was VERY uncomfortable. It was raining, there were wet roots, twisty turns, and everything was just wet! We don’t get to ride wet trails in Colorado because it tears our trails apart, but the Alabama dirt is different and we were allowed to ride when it was pouring. So, I had to learn on the fly and had a couple of ‘oh shit’ slippery moments over a few of the roots, but thankfully kept myself upright.
There is a section on the course called ‘Blood Rock’. It’s basically this downhill, rock garden section maybe 20 meters long. Because of the rain, wet rock, and a lack of confidence, I decided early that I would be walking this part of the course on race day. As Samantha said, “It’s going to take less time to walk it than if you eat it and have to put all your shit back together”. I thought this was sound advice for the off-road newbie! Steve and I finished up pre-riding the course and then went for a little jog to check out the run course. After a couple more days of scouting the course, trying to stay dry, and chatting about equipment choices it was finally race day!
Race morning rolled around, the elite athletes had an amazing start time of 8:30 am (reason #1 why Xterra is sweet)! We showed up to transition around 6:45 am to set up our things. Another awesome thing about Xterra is that the atmosphere was super chill (compared to on-road tri events). Don’t get me wrong, we still have a bunch of type-A triathletes here, but there was something calmer about the morning being extra ‘in nature’!
This was my first open water swim race (triathlon) since shoulder surgery so I had zero expectations on my performance there. This was also my first mountain bike and trail running race too, so headed into this race I was fully in the mentality of learning as much as I can, staying rubber-side down, and having a blast!
We started the race and I was immediately reminded how hard we get out in the swim (yes, even in Xterra) and how much I dislike when people hit me in the swim (just need to suck that up more haha)! I have a very sub-par swim and get out of the water in 7th place, make my way to the bike, and am running with the bike out of transition when a nice spectator yells ‘Your swim skin!’! Thank you, nice spectator man. I indeed did still have my swim skin on, oops! I lay my bike down, run back to my transition, and take my swim skin off. Then I’m off on the bike!
The trails were a bit damp during the race, thankfully not raining, and I quickly caught up to one of the pro men racing. Essentially for the next hour and forty-five minutes, we were together, sometimes changing who takes the lead. The bike leg was SO MUCH FUN, and also so very mentally exhausting! It required so much focus. “Watch of for that tree”, “Sharpe turn coming up, slow down”, “Hit the roots square”, “Oh F$*% I almost fell”! I had passed one girl early on the bike and another girl who had a flat, so I was sitting in 6th place and headed into T2.
Here’s where I learned my lesson to never listen to the Kiwis, Sam and Sam, about clothing choice. They very nonchalantly said they don’t wear socks on the run during Xterra. I mean, that kinda made sense to me at the time. It was ‘just’ a 10k run. So, I took their advice and headed out onto the damp, trail run with no socks. 6.2 miles of beautiful, winding trails later, I crossed the finish line in 6th place with some feet that looked like I had been walking on hot coals (funny and painful)!
The race was awesome, hard, and so very different from any road triathlon I’ve ever done! I am not used to people putting so much time into me on the bike leg! I’ve got my work cut out for me on my mountain bike shred skills! The cool part about Oak Mountain was that it was part of the new Xterra World Cup series and with that came a Short Track Triathlon race on Sunday! So I got a two-for-one race weekend!
After doing my best to rest up after the full distance triathlon on Sunday, patch up blisters (poorly), and wash my muddy bike, I was ready-ish for the all-out 2 lap 400m swim, 3 lap 7.5k bike, and 2 lap 3k run! Xterra is doing its best to spread the word on how cool, off-road triathlon is and one of the ways they’re doing that is by broadcasting the Short Track race live!
My boyfriend, Steve, also played Blister Doctor as we tried to super glue and tape up my feet prior to the start of the short track race. We didn’t succeed and the tape was falling off in the warm-up swim, which I proceeded to just rip off, which in turn just tore the blisters bigger and had them start bleeding all over again. This was not so fun, but the race was starting in 5 minutes so we were out of options and it was time to just suck it up and do my best!
The gun went off and I got out great! I was 2nd headed into the first turn buoy, then I started to fade a bit, but ended up getting out of the water in 3rd place! I had a pretty slow T1 but got onto the bike in a nice little pack. However, as I mentioned before, these ladies can shred a bit better than me, so I lost quite a bit of time on the technical bike portions, putting me in 8th heading onto the 3k run. OMG, I put on my running shoes and I wanted to stop! Each step was so very painful on my blisters and running on trails, and off-camber surfaces weren’t doing me any favors! Lap 1 of the run was all about trying to tune out my feet. Somehow, by lap two, I found a groove and my feet weren’t bothering me much. I was able to start ‘competing’ and I caught two girls before the finish putting me in 6th place again!
Coming away from the weekend, I had so much to reflect on. I learned a lot, including the importance of wearing socks during trail races, I shook off the cobwebs from my first triathlon post hip and shoulder surgery, and most importantly I had a blast! I ended the weekend with some awesome memories and a 9th-place Xterra World Cup ranking after my first race! I will definitely keep dipping my toes into the dirty side of tri, and I can’t recommend this race enough!