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Tomorrow’s Xterra U.S. Pro Series opener at Lake Las Vegas Resort in Henderson, Nev. will include off-road triathlon’s top names, with all eyes on the Conrad Stoltz-Josiah Middaugh rivalry in the men’s field (the two typically finish within seconds here), and three Xterra world champions—Lesley Paterson, Shonny Vanlandingham and Melanie McQuaid—vying for the women’s title.
“There is little doubt that Lesley Paterson has stamped her mark on Xterra,” says Xterra managing director Dave Nicholas. “Now a two-time world champ and an amazing 3rd overall in the Philippines surely must make her the favorite going into the year. The men have been all about Conrad versus Josiah, and for Vegas I don’t see an obvious change.”
We caught up with Paterson and Middaugh in lead up to tomorrow’s race to talk about rivalries, balancing tri with a full life, and the “poetic” allure of off-road triathlon.
Julia Polloreno: So, what do you guys think about the Vegas course—what makes it good or bad for you specifically?
Josiah Middaugh: I like it as an early season course because it’s a good fitness course—it’s less technical and a lot of steep climbing. I think there’s around 3,000 feet of climbing but nothing very sustained. A lot of one-minute, two-minute climbs. There’s not 100 turns per lap—there’s some wide-open stuff.
Lesley Paterson: Yeah, you can really crank down and get in a rhythm. The hardest thing about Xterra is coming out of the water—you can be a bit disoriented—and then coming straight onto the trail. I always find in the first mile I’m overshooting corners and it can be really tough. There is a little bit of road between the swim and the trail on this course, so that’s nice. It’s super sandy and doesn’t look technical until you’re in it.
JM: We say it’s not technical, but it’s actually a different kind of technical. To me, it means it’s a little more open and more jeep road stuff, but also some really gnarly sections and a sandy creek bed and rocks. A lot of the sand has been washed away and it’s almost like marbles. If you lock up your front wheel you can go down really fast.
LP: Everything is technical because you’re always going to be pushing the limit of how hard you can go on it. Even if it is an open track, it can be rocky, sandy, have some tough turns and if you’re really going for it—how hard can you go?
JP: Xterra courses are known for being brutal—they’re designed to be very challenging. How do you mentally approach—and dose your effort—on a really difficult course that you know is just going to hurt?
LP: It’s just getting your body in the right shape to be able to cope with the intensity. You need a lot of strength, whether it’s hill repeats or strength work in the gym. I think Josiah and I know how much we can push. Each course, we know how long it will take us roughly so you can know how to dose that effort. And then it depends on your competitors and who you’re around and a little bit of tactics—are you going to make a break or whatever it might be. The more experienced you are as an athlete, the more you know where your red line is. You know how many times you can cross it and bring yourself back again.
JM: The way this terrain is laid out, it’s a series of hard efforts, hard intervals. For our two-lap mountain bike course it might be 20, 25 hard 1-2 minute efforts. It’s a lot different than an Olympic-distance road triathlon where it might be a time trial intensity threshold for so long. We’re going to go deeply anaerobic on some climbs. [This race distance] is not long enough where we need to conserve energy here to use it later—use it now. We’ll bike as hard as we can and see what we’ve got on the run.
JP: In terms of the competition, Josiah, a lot is being made of your rivalry with Conrad. How much are you thinking about that and targeting him going into the race? Lesley, you were third overall recently in the Philippines and a lot of times you finish right up there with the top men—are you thinking about the overall race or just focused on the women’s race?
JM: I think I’ll key off Lesley tomorrow [laughing]. Conrad and I are really good friends, but it is true that I want to know how far down I am to him when I come out of the water. He’s definitely the person that I key off. If I can catch him on the bike then I know I’m okay or if I can get within a minute and a half or two minutes of him getting off the bike then…I have confidence in my run. But I know he’s been running a lot more. He comes into this race with a lot of fitness coming off of summer [in his native South Africa] and he’s been racing a lot so he’ll be really fit, really sharp.
LP: The biggest mistake you can make as an athlete is underestimating anyone. I’m always going to be taking into consideration all of the girls, the splits and where I am in the race. I’m just going to go as hard as I can and pick off as many people as I can, whether they’re chicks or dudes. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy passing the dudes. I have a lot of respect for all these girls and you just never know so you need to always be on your game. And just get out there, have fun and enjoy being fit.
JP: I know you both have experience with road tris—Josiah, you’ve been to Kona and obviously Lesley most recently with your podium finish at Oceanside 70.3 a few weeks ago—what is the appeal of off-road triathlon to people that might not be familiar? What’s the allure compared to road tri?
LP: It’s creative and poetic. You are fighting the terrain and yourself more than the competitors. It’s about living more for yourself, not for anyone else. I had a bunch of athletes that I coach do the Renegade Xterra last weekend and they were just ecstatic. The people are friendlier, the feeling…they were just on top of the world. I think it’s everything triathlon used to be 15-20 years ago. Back to the environment, back to helping people out and really enjoying the experience.
JM: I agree, I think it’s more about a sense of adventure with Xterra, and there’s more of a feeling of camaraderie—with the racers and with the race organizers. It’s like a family reunion every time we meet. We know all the pros, all the race directors, volunteers, and a lot of the amateur racers have a good relationships with the pros. It’s a really good vibe. There’s a lot of sharing of ideas about equipment, training and skills, and I think since, like Lesley said, it’s a race more against the course, everyone’s got their strengths and weaknesses. Everyone is in it to get the most out of themselves.
JP: In terms of trying to perform well on race day and train with consistency in the context of a very full life—Josiah, you have three kids and you both work outside of training—do you have any pearls of wisdom you can offer to age-group athletes looking to get the most out of themselves on race day considering that they also have a very full life?
LP: I had a laugh with pro Craig Evans—we were both saying that when we come out to race for some pros it can be stressful and they can be uptight about it, but for us, we’re like, ‘Yay, couple days recovery and you get away from it all!’ I always tell my athletes that I have characters. I’m a certain character when I race and train and I’m another character when I’m with everyone else, like when I’m my business personality. It’s communicating with the people around you that a couple days before a race, ‘This is my character,’ or ‘This is what I need,’ and put that time aside. Sometimes it’s just enough to relax, get into your headspace and go for it.
JM: When you’re limited on time, I think you just have to train more scientifically. It’s doing the most with your time available, not seeing how many hours of training you can get in.
JP: Wait, didn’t I read that you eat in the shower?
JM: Ah yeah, sandwich in the shower! It’s just planning out every minute of the day, and not, ‘I’m going to go out and ride as long as I can today.’ It’s ‘I’m going to ride for an hour and a half and I’m going to warm up for 12 minutes and then 5×8 minutes at a certain wattage or whatever. For some people it make take some of the fun out of it, but it really is a good balance for me. I don’t get hung up on hours, and it’s more about quality over quantity. I relate well to a lot of other working people with families. It’s just doing the most with what you have.
LP: And being okay with it—not judging yourself next to everyone else.