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Hairy Rocks and Jungle Heat – XTERRA East Championship

Richmond definitely lives up to the “most unique terrain” statements floating around.  Hairy rocks, hand-over-hand climbs, hopping from boulder to boulder and some real kooky spectators dressed up in some wild costumes.  This makes it one of the most fun races on the circuit, but combined with the typical heat, it also makes it one of the toughest.  This brings me to a conversation that I seem to be having more and more.  “Why do you do it?” is usually part of this conversation.

“You don’t get paid for it?”

“Are there prizes?”

These are couple of the typical questions that are asked by someone completely puzzled by the concept of training for weeks and weeks, around work schedules, around family events, and all the other things that are typically vying for your time to compete in a race where you don’t get “something” in return.

“Only the pros get paid if they do good enough,” is usually my answer to one of the questions.  Then I have to go into how the majority of the racers are not pro and are competing with other racers within their division or age group.  With XTERRA, you get points based upon your placement within your division.  These points are used within a season-long points series (more on XTERRA’s site) and at the regional races, you’re also competing for slots to the World Championship in Hawaii.  But outside of these slots and points, why does the typical “age grouper” do it?  We’ll get back to that in a bit.  In the meantime, let’s take a look at one age-grouper’s race at the XTERRA East Championship.

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First off.  Richmond is a funky town.  Not like 70’s disco kind of funky, but funky as in you never know what you’ll see.  Like this ingenious contraption.  It’s a bumper on the back of a bike rack.  When in position, it gives the person following the visual of a car bumper.  Not sure how well it works, but it looks cool.

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Or cool, funky bikes.  Thanks to whoever owns it.  I couldn’t resist the photo op.  I promise I was gentle.

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Like the other regional championship races, the field of racers was broken up into start waves. This spreads folks out so we’re not all hitting the bike course at the same time and generally makes the race a little more manageable.  One thing that was different with this year’s race in Richmond was the HUGE time gap between the pro wave and the age-grouper waves.  With  almost an hour gap, the pros were given the chance to complete the two-lap mountain bike course with very little traffic other than the pros, allowing them to race to the best of their ability.  For the rest of us, it allowed us to watch the pro swim before our race started.  Watching the pros was a blast and even allowed us to see a few tactics to use.

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I’ve done my share of races across the good ole U.S. of A. and even a few outside of the country.  In my experience, the XTERRA East Championship swim is like no other. First, it’s a river swim. Ok. Nothing special there. Other races have river swims.  This one, however has you zig-zagging across the James River.  The current is very strong in some areas and almost completely slack in others.  It’s one of the few swims that also involves running (completely legal) given the shallow nature of some parts of the river.  If you’re not careful, you’ll even find yourself beached on a boulder or two, usually covered in the thick, hairy, dense vegetation akin to Velcro.

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One good thing is that the James River swim is that with all the boulders and other obstacles, it’ll help prepare me for my ÖTILLÖ race in September.  ;-)

After a challenging, fun swim, and a short jaunt to transition, quickly donning the helmet and shoes, it was time for two laps of a 10ish mile, sweet single track mountain bike trail.  As an age-grouper, you’re typically wondering what position you’re in compared to your competitors within your division.  Unlike the pros, you’re worried about a much smaller subset of racers.  Yeah, you might also be concerned about your overall placement among the amateur crowd, but for the vast majority of us, especially in the larger events such as the regional races, you’re more concerned with the folks in your division.  Since they put your division on your calf, you gawk at every person you pass (or get passed by), spying the number on their calf to see if they’re friend or foe.  Granted, everyone in the XTERRA realm of racers has a great attitude, but if someone in your group passes you, the tendency is to pick up the pace a little as the competitive side kicks in.  If it is someone in another division, you’re usually a little more willing to just let them go, but maybe with some words of encouragement.  Funny how that little ink on your calf can have such a profound effect.

I didn’t scout out the competition beforehand, so I had no idea who was racked where in transition.  That meant going onto the bike course, I had no idea what place I was in.  My race would be simple: race as fast as I could and catch as many people possible.  Forget the timing on a watch, forget the placement, just go.  That’s what I did.

The bike course is a blast to ride.  There’s fast, flowy sections and even some very technical spots, mostly with man-made stuff.  Some of the highlights:

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Stairway to Heaven

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Technical creek crossings

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Me descending to the tunnels (photo: Pax Talosi)

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Plenty of kooky spectators in costume

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usually in the most technical/tough areas

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wearing all kinds of stuff and being loud as heck

But don’t take my word for it, check out this highlight reel.

The first lap was fun, keeping racers in sight and passing some of the faster swimmers. but towards the end of the first lap, I found myself alone.  These are always the tough parts of the race because without the stimulation of other racers, your mind begins to wander.  Sometimes you think about work.  “What do I have to do on Monday?”  Other times, you think about life.  “Wonder how my Dad is doing.”  Other times, you find yourself settling into a training pace, not a race pace.  Still other times, you may start playing mind games with yourself about how hot you are, did your training go well, are you really prepared, what placement are you and more.  In all situations, it usually means your mind isn’t REALLY on your race.  About half-way through the second lap of the bike, Ali Arasta caught up to me and snapped me out of the funk I was beginning to get myself into by yelling up to me through the switchback trails and trees. “Come on, Marcus.” he yelled.  “Is that Ali?” I yelled back, not getting a good look at him through the trees but recognizing his voice. Ali is in another division, so we weren’t competing with each other.  Well.  We were, for overall spots, but again, it sort of takes a back burner. After he got up to me, he hopped up front with some words of wisdom and encouragement.  I hopped on his tail and we rode out the rest of the bike within sight of each other.

With about a mile and half left in the bike, I spotted one of my competing age-groupers, Jim Fisher, and asked for a pass.  He politely obliged and I continued booking it down the trail to transition.  The heat was beginning to hit and you could really tell once we broke out of the woods into the open sun.  My mind switched over to transition and the run, knowing that with us being so close together, it was going to boil down to who could do the best on the upcoming 6 mile run.

I managed to not only beat Jim out of transition, but I also managed to pass Ali.  I didn’t know it until we hit the floodwall.

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As I climbed the steps to the floodwall, I gave a quick glance back and saw Ali behind me.  I continued running down the floodwall and over to the “Mayan Ruins” which is basically a set of rickety, railroad ties loosely buried in the side of a civil-war era railroad embankment.  Rock climbers use the wall for practice and if you look at the photo, you can see someone standing at the bottom to give you a sense of scale.

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This thing is steep. Straight. Up.  At 2 miles into the run, spent in the open sun, on a 100 degree day, this is the last thing you want to climb with dehydrated crampy legs.  But, as an age-grouper, with your competition behind you, stopping is not an option.  As you can see from the photo, I’m at the top, Ali behind me and Jim (my competition) chasing us up the stairs.

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(photo: Swichio)

Ali and I would continue the run together, leap-frogging each other from time to time, but generally staying together.  Lots of chit-chatting at times, words of encouragement and at other times, said nothing as we just commiserated our suffering in silence.

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We approached the dryway, a section of the James River you can cross on foot when the water level is low, knowing that we were over half-way there.  We crossed as quickly as we could without busting our butts, from time-to-time jumping from boulder to boulder (as you can see from some other runners).

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(photo: Swichio)

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By the time we hit the pedestrian bridge, Ali had begun to pull away from me a bit and finished strong.  I held onto my spot for a win.  :-)

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So back to the question of “Why do you do it?”  Is it for fame?  Glory?  Naw.  For me, it’s about a lot more.  Don’t get me wrong.  Managing to get on the podium sure is nice, but it’s a fringe benefit. For me, it’s about the family.  I’ve been racing XTERRA for 8 years now and during that short timeframe I have met people near and far that I now consider part of my family.  Yes, there’s other reasons I race, primarily as a carrot for me to keep in good physical fitness shape, but it’s the family that keeps me coming back to XTERRA.

Ali really got me through this one.  He encouraged me throughout the race in one way or another.  His heart is gold and has a great outlook, even when the going gets tough. He was just as concerned about my race as he was his own.

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I didn’t even tell you about the countless hours I got to spend with new comers and returners leading up to the race.  Returner?  Yep, Margo Pitts took a hiatus from XTERRA for a couple of years and focused on road triathlons.  Then she came to her senses.  Paul Hoyle is a new-comer.  Already a successful Ironman athlete, he decided to give XTERRAs a try (Richmond was his first) and is already claiming he’s hooked.  Lookout folks.  He’ll be a formidable athlete.  These two were a riot to hang out with leading up to the race and kept me in stitches.

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I can have a beer with these folks (and many, many more not mentioned here) and talk about just anything, then get out there on race day and have some good, clean, fun competition.  Afterwards, we can tell each other our stories and joke about all the fun stuff that happened during the race.  No pretentiousness.  No big egos.  No elitist attitudes.  I challenge you to find that elsewhere.  Paul found that out.  We had conversations in person and via text about it.  He closed out our last conversation with, “The race, encouragement and general vibe this past weekend was awesome. Great experience.”  My response?  “That’s just XTERRA.  No matter how hard you try, you can’t explain it to someone. It just has to be experienced.”  Paul responded with a single word. “Truth”.

After the race, I hung out with fellow ÖTILLÖ racers, Misty Becerra and Sara McLarty.  These two clowns dragged me screaming and kicking to eat pizza, ice cream and cup cakes.  What terrible influences they are.

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To summarize, I’ve done obstacle races, road triathlons, you name it.  There’s nothing like XTERRA and Paul found that out. Will I do other types of racing?  Sure, but XTERRA is my home.  It could be yours too.

And of course, there’s ALWAYS shenanigans:

Race: XTERRA East Championship
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Date: Jun 14, 2015
Distances: 1350m Swim / 20 mile mountain bike / 6 mile trail run
Result: 1st in Division, 9th Amateur
Full Results
Products used: GU Roctane and GU Brew, Inov-8 X-Talon 190, Schwalbe Racing Ralph and Thunderburt Tires, Cobb DRT SHC Saddle, ESI Grips, Crank Brothers Candy 11 Pedals, First Endurance Multi-V, Hawk Racing bearings, American Classic MTB Race wheels.

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One Response

  1. Great post, you and Ali flew across Dry Side, I was the marshal with the paper hat in the pic above.

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