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Stuart Marais and Flora Duffy took home the titles at the 12th annual TOTALSPORTS XTERRA South Africa Championship in front of a packed house at the magnificent Grabouw Country Club on Sunday. Both Marais and Duffy grinded out convincing wins to claim the lions’ share of the new and improved R249,000 prize purse, but the day’s story lines ran much deeper.
Read the recap from XTERRA below:
The drama started early with a magical African sunrise lighting up the skyline in bright orange and yellow coupled with word that four-time XTERRA world champion Conrad “the Caveman” Stoltz had pulled from the line-up due to a nasty cold. With defending champion Dan Hugo also on the sidelines, missing his first showcase event since retiring in the off-season, the race was without not only the two biggest XTERRA stars in South Africa but perhaps the two biggest forces in off-road triathlon over the last decade.
In their place Mother Nature—the constant in all of XTERRA—showed up in full strength as if to express her displeasure with Stoltz and Hugo for not racing. An unseasonable cold front complete with blustery winds rolled in overnight and dropped the water temps in the small lake by more than two degrees, turning a non-wetsuit swim into a wetsuit optional affair and sending unprepared elites scrambling to find some rubber to swim in.
Eventual winner Stuart Marias was the most notable of those affected but was saved by his mate Niel Swanepoel.
“In the buildup to the event I didn’t know it would be a wetsuit event and didn’t even pack my wetsuit in so when they announced it would be a wetsuit swim I was caught very off-guard. Fortunately my mate, who finished second in his age-group today, relinquished his suit just so he could put me on the front foot today,” explained an appreciative Marais to the crowd at the awards. Marias took full advantage and exited the water just 30 seconds or so behind the leaders then took off like a man possessed passing Bradley Weiss, Roger Serrano and Theo Blignaut in the first 5K of the bike and built an insurmountable lead from there that was never truly challenged.
“Stuart was just one-notch up,” said Weiss, the winner of the XTERRA Philippines Championship earlier this month who came in second on Sunday. “He was in control the whole day, and he still had a few gears left that he could turn on for the run if he needed.”
In the three previous SA Championship races Marais had finished second twice (last year and 2012) and fourth in 2013. He said winning it all and joining a cast of local legends like Stoltz, Hugo and Richard Murray is unforgettable.
“I spent a lot of time out here on this course getting to know every little rock and turn and bit of sand and I suppose that makes the difference between winning and losing. I did my homework and the plan worked out pretty good,” said Marais.
It also seems Marais fits the prototype of the “built tough” South African to the tee…
“I like to think of myself as a tough folk, I grew up on a farm in Eastern Cape and we were dairy farmers, citrus farmers, and always playing in the mud whether it was on bikes or running barefoot. That’s our vibe and that’s what XTERRA is all about. It’s a lifestyle event where the hard guy usually wins and I thought I was a bit harder than everybody else today maybe.”
Roger Serrano rode brilliantly all day to finish third, and also pulled off a classy move by sharing his bike bottle with Weiss on the course after Weiss lost his on the route. Blignaut turned it on during the run and nearly caught Serrano at the finish, placing fourth just 15 seconds back.
Of note, Stoltz was on-hand cheering for his fellow countrymen and women and the visiting international elites he graciously hosted in the week leading up to the race. Hugo, still in top shape, did the swim as part of a relay team then rode around on course in great support of his extended racing family. And, the early morning chill burned off into bright sunshine and an absolute stunning day in Grabouw.
Reigning XTERRA World Champion Flora Duffy was simply unstoppable. She led everybody—men included—out of the water then rode and ran seamlessly to take the tape in 10th place overall with nearly 20 minutes to spare.
“Everything seemed to work out today. It’s a very technical, challenging bike course so my biggest fear was flatting or having a mechanical so I was concentrating on keeping it smooth in the single track,” said Duffy, who has won nine of the 10 XTERRA Championships she has raced in since capturing the SA title last February.
“Fabulous day, this is my favorite XTERRA on the circuit. It’s the best organized, the biggest, it’s just amazing and I’m so glad I could come here and defend my title. Last year this race kind of kicked off my year that culminated in winning Maui so to come back here as a world champion was very special.”
Runner-up Mari Rabie, Olympian and XTERRA SA Champion in 2005 and 2010, also had a very special day but for much different reasons.
“I had myocarditis chronic heart disease for seven months and I got cleared three weeks ago now, so just happy to be back racing and I haven’t ridden technical in more than a year so my main aim was just to stay on the bike.” said Rabie, who was third at XTERRA Worlds in 2012. “It was a tough couple months, you know, when a doctor tells you that you can’t do what you want to do because you might die. I think you appreciate this so much more when it’s taken away from you.”
Rabie said her projected window to heal was six months to two years, and she did it in just seven months. Now she’ll chase the Rio Olympics dream before getting back into the dirt.
“If I don’t get it I’ll swap over to XTERRA to race. I’m naturally better suited to this type of racing, and definitely after Rio I’ll be racing XTERRA,” said Rabie, who puts into perspective the huge appeal the sport has in South Africa.
“It has grown exponentially. You rock up at a race like this and see people who you went to school with and everyone who is in sport at all has been bitten by this XTERRA bug. My Dad’s racing and he’s 63, my brother was part of a team, my uncle was part of a team, everyone is just so involved. It’s grown massively and this is one of THE multisport events in South Africa right now. We love being outdoors and love endurance sports.”
Carina Wasle, a two-time SA Champ (2009 and 2011), said she didn’t have her best day but still managed to finish third overall. Wasle has made South Africa her perennial training grounds at this time of year.
“I stay here for six weeks from mid-January to early March,” said Wasle. “It’s a great place for training and to get ready for the season. I love this race. The people here put so much into it. You can see they love what they do.”
Indeed, the love for XTERRA amongst the organizers and crew is very apparent, and the attention to detail is remarkable all the way down to the hot-shower trailer they roll into the remote event. Through word-of-mouth XTERRA South Africa has quickly turned in to a must-do event for every XTERRA racer. The arena for it is perfect with epic, memorable trails and a well-rounded challenge. “If you put all the best parts of the bike courses from Europe together into one you’d still come up short to this course,” said well-traveled elite Jim Thijs from Belgium. “Twenty-years of racing around the world and this is by far, hands down, the greatest course and event I’ve been a part of,” added Jan Pyott from Switzerland.
2015 TOTALSPORTS XTERRA Grabouw South African Championship
Grabouw Country Club, South Africa – Feb. 22, 2015
1.5K swim, 27K mountain bike, 12.5K trail run
1. Stuart Marais 2:32:47
2. Bradley Weiss 2:35:42
3. Roger Serrano 2:37:20
4. Theo Blignaut 2:37:35
5. Antoine Van Heerden 2:38:34
1. Flora Duffy 2:45:27
2. Mari Rabie 3:04:06
3. Carina Wasle 3:06:38
4. Nicolette Griffioen 3:08:22
5. Sandra Koblmueller 3:08:43