With the racing world on pause as the planet continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, Triathlete is dipping back into the archives and revisit some of the biggest, most inspiring, and somewhat under-the-radar events in triathlon. Today we’re looking at the first XTERRA triathlon.
A choppy ocean swim. A rugged, dusty, single-track, white-knuckle-inducing bike course. A twisting, turning run over sandy shores speckled with boulders.
This was so not your average triathlon.
In November 1996, the world was introduced to a new format of the sport: XTERRA off-road triathlon. Legend has it that the idea for XTERRA came as somewhat of a whim to race founders, who had already established several widely-broadcast sporting events based in Hawaii, including the Hawaiian Mountain Tour, the first-ever mountain bike stage race. The story goes that it was after one of those Tours at Kualoa Ranch on Oahu that the race directors spotted the bikers taking post-race rides down to the beach and taking a dip in the ocean to cool off. A lightbulb went off: What about a mountain bike triathlon?
The inaugural event, then known as Aquaterra, welcomed some 120 competitors to the shores of Oahu for a roughly 1.5-kilometer swim, a 30K mountain bike, and a 10K trail run. With a Fox Sports crew covering the race, the world was able to follow traditional triathletes like Jimmy Riccitello and Michellie Jones go head-to-head with biking champs like Ned Overend and Shari Kain. To go along with the no-holds-barred vibe, there was a mass start with both elites and age-groupers charging into the ocean chop together. (In the end, Riccitello and Jones wound up outlasting the cycling specialists.)
Triathlon is tough enough with the bike and run on smooth asphalt. Toss in stomach-flipping descents, hairpin turns, and sandy and rocky terrain, the race became less about fitness and more about fearlessness–and staying upright. But whether it was the breathtaking backdrop of the Hawaiian coastline or the intrigue of a different kind of challenge, there was something so magnetic about this type of triathlon. And, despite the grueling nature of the race, it quickly caught on: By the turn of the century, XTERRA had picked up a major sponsor in Nissan (until 2015, the company licensed the name from the triathlon series for their own SUV) and was well on its way to becoming a global brand that it is today, with competitions on five continents, and 50,000 competitors hailing from 50 states and more than 50 countries worldwide.
In 1996, no one could have predicted just how popular this type of triathlon would become. Just like no one could have predicted that the 25th-anniversary celebration of the world championship event would have to be postponed due to a global pandemic. But, true to the XTERRA athlete’s resilient nature, the race will go on–on October 31, 2021, in Maui. Then, reigning champs Bradley Weiss and Flora Duffy will have a chance to uphold their titles and continue to contribute to the legacy of this epic event.
The inaugural XTERRA off-road triathlon is featured on episode 2 of XTERRA Adventures, available at Xterraplanet.com.