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Josiah Middaugh and Shonny Vanlandingham lived up to their reputations as great climbers in the thin air of the Rockies by winning the XTERRA Mountain Championship on a beautiful blue sky day at Beaver Creek Resort in Avon, Colo.
For Middaugh, the third time is a charm. After two years of finishing third in his backyard (he lives just a couple miles away from the course) he thrilled an incredibly supportive local community by crossing the finish line 19 seconds ahead of runner-up Seth Wealing with a course-record time of 2:12:05.
“I’m certainly thankful that I was finally able to take this race,” said Middaugh to the appreciative crowd gathered for the awards ceremony. “I’ve had a little bit of a monkey on my back these last couple years not being able to pull this one off on my home course.”
The day started with Wealing first out of the 66-degree Nottingham Lake water in 16:53, a full 30-seconds ahead of a pack of swimmers that included Branden Rakita, Patrick Valentine, Brad Zoller, and Tim Reed.
Middaugh exited the swim about one minute, 40-seconds behind Wealing and quickly started his assault on the mountain that has made him a local legend. In the next five miles and 2,000-feet of climbing to where the course tops-out at 9,400-feet elevation Middaugh passed Jason Michalak, Reed, Zoller, Valentine, Rakita, and finally Wealing.
At the 10-mile mark he had roughly 30 seconds on Wealing, with Rakita and Nico Lebrun (who was third at XTERRA France last week and was 1:40 behind Middaugh coming out of the water) riding together in third and fourth. Brian Smith, who was the last male pro out of the swim (nearly five minutes behind Wealing), was amazingly in fifth place and just a few minutes back by mile 10.
At the bike-to-run transition Middaugh had about 45-seconds on Wealing, and Lebrun and Smith were close in tow. With four of the fastest trail runners on the planet all within a minute of each other by the two-mile mark on the run, after 500-feet of climbing, it was as exciting a race as the series has seen all season.
“Nico was 10 seconds ahead of me, and Seth was 10 seconds ahead of him, and Josiah was 20 seconds ahead of him and it was like that for 10-15 minutes of the run,” said Smith, who had the fastest bike (1:13:22) and run (36:08) splits on the day. “I caught Nico about a third of the way through and was hoping I could catch Seth and move into second but I was already red-lining at that point.”
At the finish line in front of a big crowd at the plush Beaver Creek Resort Middaugh crossed in 2:12:05, Wealing came in at 2:12:24, and Smith finished in 2:12:46 – just 41 seconds separating the top three.
Lebrun held on for fourth, with Rakita in fifth and Zoller (who lives across the street from the lake where the race started) in sixth for the second race in a row. Michalak, last year’s XTERRA amateur national champ, had his best race as a pro in 7th. Newcomer to the sport Tim Reed placed 8th, with Cody Waite in 9th, and former XTERRA pro now racing as an amateur Ryan Ignatz rounding out the top 10.
Shonny Vanlandingham, at 42-years-old and with a torn ligament in her thumb, is still unbeatable in the mountains having won this race for the third consecutive year today.
Last month at the XTERRA East Championship in Richmond, Virginia Vanlandingham caught her thumb in one of the shallow rocky sections of the swim and it ripped her ulnar collateral ligament in half (she won that race anyway). Her doctor’s advice was to let it heal, but it didn’t heal quickly and despite a special brace for the swim and the bike, was quite painful to race with.
“Melanie was so strong early in the season winning three of the first four races she put me in a position by Richmond where I knew I had to win the rest of the races if I was going to defend my Pro Series crown so that was the goal,” explained Vanlandingham. “I kind of just played mind tricks on myself to let the pain in the thumb motivate me to go faster.”
It worked. Vanlandingham, the most successful mountain biker in NORBA history, had the fastest bike split by far, a 1:22:43, and the best run to boot, a 42:52.
“It’s a lot of fun here because I’m racing with my strengths and laughing with the guys when we’re going down the switchbacks, it’s just a blast,” said the reigning XTERRA World Champion who will embark on a four-week, four-country XTERRA championship swing from Mexico to Czech to Germany to Japan in August.
The all-impressive side story belongs to Melanie McQuaid, who hadn’t planned to race here today but changed her mind after realizing if she didn’t, she would jeopardize her shot at winning the XTERRA U.S. Pro Series crown. If she could just finish fourth or better here today, it would set-up a winner take all showdown between her and “Shonny V” at Nationals. She finished second, and upset some super fast Colorado girls in the process. Tomorrow (Sunday, July 17) she’ll tow the start line at the Ironman 70.3 Vineman in hopes of securing her qualification into 70.3 Worlds.
“Ya know, this would be my favorite all-time course if it was at sea level,” smiled McQuaid as she picked up her bag and rushed to catch a flight out of Denver to California. “This is a big confidence booster heading into Utah, because it’s not as high as here and I felt good today.”
Now, the hype is on. McQuaid leads the Pro Series by 10 points so if she wins the USA Championship race, she’ll also win the pro series. Of course, if Vanlandingham wins in Utah, she’ll end up in a tie with McQuaid but win the tie-breaker which is head-to-head at the last race. There are other scenarios but the variables are too great to consider here.
“I’m super impressed with what Melanie did today. It’s great for the sport, for the spectators and the fans, and for anyone who loves a good showdown,” said Vanlandingham. “And, I haven’t won in Utah yet. I think I’ve won at all the venues but there, so that’s the one I need to get.”
Not to be overshadowed by the McQuaid vs. Vanlandingham scenario was a brilliant performance by Kelley Cullen who finished third in just her second XTERRA championship race (she was fourth at the West Champs back in April).
Sara Tarkington was able to hold off the pain on the run to finish fourth, with Emma Garrard in fifth (on the same day her dad won his division at the XTERRA Hammerman off-road tri in Alaska).
Tamara Donelson from Edwards, CO was amazing, placing 6th overall among women while Dr. Luisa Bryce finished sixth and Christine Jeffrey (who was second overall out of the swim right behind Wealing) in seventh.