Making The Leap To Off-Road Triathlon

An Xterra newbie shares things he learned that will save you from some of the first-timer pitfalls when you’re ready to make the leap.

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He’s raced in world championships in Kona and Vegas, but top age-grouper Kim McDonald had never raced an off-road triathlon until earlier this year. In addition to discovering a wildly good time and refreshing race experience, he learned a few things along an inevitably bumpy road that will save you from some of the first-timer pitfalls—and trail rash—when you’re ready to make the leap.

Riding the trails on a mountain bike was once one of my favorite ways to spend the weekends. Yet after a series of crashes, two of which resulted in broken ribs, I quickly lost my motivation for the sport. When my massage therapist had his mountain bike stolen five years ago, I gave him mine. Better to have someone use it, I figured, than to let it gather dust in my garage. I was sticking to road riding and triathlons. But I’m looking at getting a mountain bike again. And the reason is Xterra.

My first off-road triathlon was in April at the Xterra West Championship in Las Vegas. Billed as a hilly but not overly technical race, I figured it would be a good way to build fitness for the Wildflower Long Course Triathlon the following month. And since I was familiar with the Lake Las Vegas event site, having competed in the 70.3 world championships in September 2011, I chose to enter the championship race—a 1,500m swim, 30K mountain bike and 10K trail run. After pre-riding the bike course on my borrowed mountain bike the day before the event (and having difficulty on the climbs and descents), though, I realized I was in way over my head. I should have entered Xterra’s sport race instead—a 750m swim, 15K mountain bike and 5K trail run.

On race morning, my worst fears were realized: rain, wind, 57-degree water and air temperatures in the 40s. It was shaping up to be a long and miserable day. To motivate myself, I decided to focus on three simple goals: keep warm (even if I had to spend more time in transition putting on extra clothes), have fun and try my best not to seriously injure myself. I also consulted with three experienced Xterra pros who gave me their tips on how to make the leap to off-road racing—reigning Xterra world champion Lesley Paterson, Trevor Glavin and Jessica Cerra.

Here’s what I learned from them and from my first Xterra:

Preview the course

I typically do this before a road triathlon but discovered it’s even more important for an off-road race, where taking the right line down a steep descent or properly rounding a corner with soft sand can make the difference between staying upright or serious injury. I pre-rode the bike course with Ironman pro Kate Major, and the one section we missed was, sure enough, the place where I went over the handlebars and face planted on race day. Lesson learned.

Wear full-fingered cycling gloves

While I discovered that the swim in an Xterra is no different than in road triathlons, the off-road course demanded extra gear in transition. Glavin told me to take the time in T1 to put on full-fingered gloves—and I’m glad I did. Not only did they help warm my numb fingers after the cold swim, they also made shifting easier and protected my hands when I fell off my bike. I also wore a compression top for warmth and protection from possible crashes.

Be extra attentive to nutrition

Thanks to the rough course, the three gels I had tucked into the back of my race singlet were gone by the time I reached for them. Xterra isn’t like a road triathlon, where you can pull out your water bottle or eat pretty much whenever you want. The steep ascents, descents, loose rock and dirt force you to keep both hands on the handlebars much of the time. And because the mountain bike and trail run will take you longer to complete—and be far more taxing on your body than in an Olympic-distance race—getting in your nutrition on the bike becomes even more important. Cerra advised me to put most of my nutrition in a water bottle and drink whenever I could, which I did. Better yet, wear a hydration backpack, which Major and a number of other competitors used so they could drink relatively hands-free.

Focus more on the trail, less on the competition

Paterson warned me that as a road triathlete it would be difficult not to tense up and that I’d likely get frustrated because I hadn’t ridden a mountain bike in a while. “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she said. She also told me to “keep focused on the trail and not your competitors. Accidents happen when overtaking, being overtaken and reaching for nutrition.” And because passing isn’t easy on many parts of the course and there would be plenty of people riding faster, Paterson advised me to be aware of the competitors behind me and to let them pass. I took the suggestion to heart, getting off the trail at three spots before steep down hills to let quicker people pass. As the Scottish world champion put it, “It’s not worth getting your knickers in a twist and holding people up!”

Ride like a mountain biker

Glavin told me that as slow as I might seem to be riding up the steep hills, I’d be faster staying in the saddle than getting off my bike and trying to run uphill, a tip I verified when people around me fell and had to start running. Keeping my weight forward on the uphills kept my front wheel on the trail, preventing me from falling backward, and keeping my weight on the back of the saddle on the steep descents kept me from going over the handlebars. Glavin also suggested I keep my tire pressure low, around 25 psi, to increase traction, and to refrain from using my front brake when cornering to avoid washing out on the loose dirt and rock.

Wear racing flats

While trail shoes may be ideal for training on trails, lighter racing flats with soles thick enough to avoid feeling sharp rocks seemed to be the choice for most of the pros and the faster competitors. The lighter-weight shoe helped me lift my tired legs after the bike on the uphill parts of the run course. Since some portions were so taxing, I decided to slow to an uphill jog or walk to avoid maxing my heart rate on those sections, then picked up my speed and tried to pass people on the downhills. It’s a strategy that the fleet-footed Paterson effectively uses to win her races and allowed me to make up enough of the ground that I finished third in my age group.

Running through the finishing chute that morning was like traveling in time back to some of my first triathlons in the early 1980s. The scene in the transition area was very festive and low-key. People were laughing, displaying battle scars and not really talking about their times or where they finished up, but about the adventures they encountered along the way—how they were reduced to a crawl up the steepest hill on the run or the various ways they went over a ravine we were forced to cross on the mountain bike course.

“The big difference between road tris and Xterra is that our fields are limited by the use of trails,” says Trey Garman, vice president of Xterra. “You can put literally thousands of competitors on the road. If we did that on trails, it would be a walk, not a ride, and certainly not a race.”

But off-road events are growing in numbers and popularity. The 2012 Las Vegas event drew 425 competitors for the championship, sport and relay races combined—about a hundred more than the previous year. Since its inception in 1996, Garman says, Xterra has seen a hundred-fold increase in participants. The number of races has grown dramatically too in those 16 years, with a total of 70 Xterra races now in the America Tour and about 150 races worldwide.

Who are the people who participate in these races? Garman said they’re a mix of road triathletes, mountain bikers, adventure racers, trail runners and some pure specialists who do only Xterras. But they all share one thing in common: “an adventurous spirit and a love for nature and the outdoors,” says Garman. “I think you’ll find most Xterra types live the lifestyle—swim, bike and run on trails, go to national parks and places where there’s a great natural environment to do their thing.” Since most Xterra participants work full-time and are raising families, Garman says the training is also more attractive and manageable to them than it would be for a 70.3 or Ironman. But I’m sure they’re also showing up to these races because of what I discovered in my first Xterra: They’re completely different from the typical triathlon experience and, more importantly, just plain fun.

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