The Nutty Story of How XTERRA Got Its Start

XTERRA is synonymous with off-road tri. Here’s the nutty story of how the 21-year-old series got its start, then sent thousands of triathletes to the trails, launching life-long love affairs with dirt.

More than two decades ago, triathlon changed forever when the internationally acclaimed sport of “cross-tri” was born.

We know it as the XTERRA off-road triathlon series now, but when intrepid event production company Team Unlimited organized the world’s first off-road triathlon in Maui in 1996, it was called AquaTerra. At the time, mountain biking, trail running and triathlon were all booming, yet no one had yet thought to combine them in one setting.

But, truth be told, the way it originated was a bit of a fluke.

“We had put on mountain bike races for years at Kualoa Ranch (on Oahu) and in 1995 after one of our races, a bunch of pros had just finished a very muddy cross-country race and rode down to the ocean to clean themselves and their bikes off,” recalls Dave Nicholas, co-founder and managing director of the XTERRA Triathlon Series. “One of the guys on our crew, Jerry Pupillo, said to me, ‘Hey boss, they’re down there swimming around. We could put on one of those Ironman things, but instead of road bikes we could do it on mountain bikes.’ And that was the genesis of it all.”

Mark Allen interviewing Jimmy Riccitello after the first race in 1996.

Although the inaugural race a year later only had 123 participants, the made-for-TV race (It really was made for TV to promote the island of Maui.) attracted a deep field of the world’s best triathletes and mountain bikers, including Mike Pigg, Ned Overend, Michellie Jones, Scott Tinley, Shari Cain and Mike Kloser.

“We started researching triathlon and how it worked, and developed the cross-tri rules,” Nicholas says. “We talked to Scott Tinley, Mark Allen, Mike Pigg and a lot of other big names to see what they thought, and they all agreed that triathlons were won by runners who could get through the swim and bike well enough.”

Team Unlimited looked at various triathlons and broke down the percentages of the three sports and found that most races were composed of about 12–15 percent swimming, 50 percent biking and 35–38 percent running.

“Because we were close to mountain bikers, we wanted to level the playing field a bit more, so we switched that up to make it so it was about 15 percent swimming, 60 percent or more on the mountain bike, only 25 percent on the run, and it has remained that way ever since,” Nicholas says. “It was a great mix, and it worked right from the get-go.”

That’s how the standard distance of an XTERRA championship race came to be roughly a 1.5K swim, 30K mountain bike and 10K trail run. (Because they’re held on trails, no two courses are ever alike, or even the same exact distances.) Perhaps most importantly, Team Unlimited, led by the affable Nicholas and his band of merry pranksters, infused the races with copious amounts of the “aloha spirit.” The races were intense and spirited, but they were a stark contrast to the uber-serious tone at Ironman and Olympic-distance triathlons of the mid-1990s.

Jimmy Riccitello dominated the inaugural AquaTerra race in October 1996, winning by more than three minutes over triathlon great Pigg and mountain biking legend Overend, who “sank in the water” but made up huge ground on the bike and did well enough on the run. “Man this race is a bitch, but it’s the true spirit of triathlon,” Riccitello said after he won. “The athlete against the course.”

Michellie Jones, a two-time ITU world champion triathlete in 1992–1993, was the first woman out of the water, but that lead didn’t last long. She was picked off on the mountain bike by Shari Cain, a four-time U.S. national championship cyclist, whose expertise on the mountain bike earned her a seven-minute lead over Jones by the time she hit T2. But Jones did not give up easily, and she chipped away at Cain’s lead and pulled alongside her only 800 meters from the finish. The two ran together across Wailea Beach, and in the final steps of the race Jones inched away to take the first ever XTERRA World Championship by only 12 seconds.

“We had two great races right off the bat,” Nicholas says. “I don’t know if it was lucky or we did everything right. It was probably luck, but it took off from there.”

That first race was set on Maui at Wailea-Makena, but it soon expanded to the mainland. Now there are more than 100 XTERRA triathlons in 33 countries, including 50 XTERRA American Tour Races in 30 states. The series has attracted dozens of Olympians and Ironman champions through the years, including Flora Duffy, Conrad Stoltz, Javier Gomez, Eneko Llanos, Peter Reid and Tim DeBoom.

This year’s XTERRA USA Championship will be held Sept. 16 at Snowbasin Resort in Ogden, Utah, while the XTERRA World Championship is slated for Oct. 29 in Kapalua on the northwest coast of Maui.

XTERRA has become a thriving global brand, but it’s the essence of that first race in Maui that is still its calling card.

“I think it keeps growing because of what it is, a unique and authentic event that’s a lot of fun,” says 2015 XTERRA world champion Josiah Middaugh, who lives and trains near Vail, Colo. “For me, it’s more about that sense of adventure, and you get a lot better taste of that racing XTERRA. Plus, there is quite a bit of camaraderie among the racers, and people are coming at it from different backgrounds—from mountain biking and trail running, triathlon and other sports too.”

Tales from the XTERRA Campfire

From those who know the series best

Photo: Carel de Plessis

Co-founder Dave Nicholas on XTERRA’s expansion to the mainland
“After the first race, John Cobb, an online bike dealer from Louisiana, told me we had to take this to the mainland, and he knew the perfect place: a new park in Ruston, La., that had a world-class trail builder. Cobb put up $5,000, and the XTERRA America Tour was created, but he made us eat crawfish and hush puppies.”

“XTERRA would have never started if Tom Kiely had not found out that Maui was looking for a TV event. We had done a ton of TV work with our races, and we’d seen the Ironman shows on TV, and frankly, we didn’t think they were very compelling. He came back and told me our crazy idea of a triathlon on mountain bikes was going to happen on Maui. It had to be in Wailea-Makena, so go over there and make it work.”

“Yeah, the course on Maui is still number one. Because I’m so blessed to go to so many races, I always hear things like, ‘This course is so tough; it’s tougher than Maui,’ because people challenge themselves. We have a lot of hard courses around the world, but to this day, nothing beats Maui.”

Co-founder Tom Kiely on inventing the name
It’s well documented that the first-ever XTERRA was the world championship in Maui in 1996, but that race wasn’t actually called XTERRA—it was AquaTerra. Turned out, however, that AquaTerra was trademarked by a kayak company in South Carolina, and they wanted some big dollars if Team Unlimited wanted to keep using the name. Instead of dishing out cash to make the kayak company famous, Kiely came up with XTERRA.

“I wanted something that could mean many things to many people, so there would be room for expansion,” Kiely says. “The X is a numerical term which means ‘unknown’ and ‘terra’ is Latin for land or territory, thus it loosely meant ‘unknown territory.’”

Kiely also had the foresight to register the name in all major product categories including automobile. It was just weeks later when Nissan—after months and $1 million worth of market research on what to name their new SUV—decided on XTERRA and called him up to secure the rights.

From there, Team Unlimited kept XTERRA, and Nissan got the license to the name for its new SUV in exchange for a sponsorship deal that lasted nine years and spurred the growth of XTERRA triathlons.

From the Pros

“After 12 years on the ITU circuit and the Olympics I became a bit punch drunk of the super strict ITU rules and regulations. Getting my speedsuit zipper sewed shut 7 centimeters from the top an hour before the start of the Athens Olympics pretty much put the nail in the coffin for me. In contrast, at my first XTERRA, Kahuna Dave [Dave Nicholas] did the pre-race briefing with a beer in each hand, cracked jokes and the rules basically boiled down to: ‘Follow the route, be cool to others and have fun.’ I knew I found my new place.”
—Conrad Stoltz (South Africa), four-time XTERRA world champion

“In 2006, I shattered my kneecap at the race in Pelham, Ala., and had it screwed back together. I’ve had five knee surgeries, and a few of those were related to that injury. There’s always a story to tell at the end of the race, but most of the falls you can get back up from and laugh about it. Everyone has a few battle wounds to show for it.”
—Josiah Middaugh  (USA), 2015 XTERRA world champion

“Racing on technical trails through bamboo forests, high in the mountains of Japan was incredibly surreal. The run in Saipan took you deep into a jungle and through caves for a 10K experience like no other. I’ve been high up in the mountains of Montana where the scenery looked like something out of a movie and remember thinking to myself, ‘How many people ever see something like this in their life!?’ I have had countless pre-rides with athletes from across the globe, and we laughed just as much as we pedaled on most occasions. Those pre-rides and runs are memories I cherish greatly. My trip around the USA in 2007 (12 races, 12 weeks, 12,000+ miles) taught me so many life lessons that I remember fondly. The fact that I have made two laps of the earth—one going east, one going west—all through racing puts a smile on my face.”
—Will Kelsay (USA), multiple XTERRA winner

“I loved competing on the old course on Maui. It was a fast, level track, and you could ride it pretty fast, but you didn’t want to fall because if you did, that lava rock would tear you right up. That was kind of the challenge—going all out but avoiding a crash at all costs.”
—Shonny Vanlandingham (USA), 2010 XTERRA world champion and four-time U.S. national champion mountain biker