My recent return to Xterra, and in some strange way, competition itself, was thwarted by the weather. But that sounds lame. Shit happens. After four days of near constant rain, the great majority of the bike and run course were mired in two or three inches of icy clay; that sticky earth of which bowls and mugs are shaped and fired. Great for a set of dishes when glazed but a challenging surface on which to run or push a bike up a steep slope as the red dirt collects, dries, and immobilizes movable parts. At the 21st Xterra World Championships on Maui on Oct 23, wheels and derailleurs simply stopped going around and around.
Very soon after the start of the bike it became painfully obvious that the race would be replaced with that bane of all competitive endurance athletes, the ultimate fallback position—just finish. Still, there were those of us who sought to find the rents and seams. Could we ride some parts of the course? Uh, excuse me, coming through! On your left! Could we simply stay upright and gain time on the hike-a-bikers and the rest of the settled-in-for-the-long-run sect who wore tall numbers on their short calves?
Geez, I’d had a great swim, perhaps the fastest in the 60-64 age group. But to see that qualifying phrase in print—in the 60-64 age group-- reminds me that as a former world champion I’d either aged, left something on the table or missed stoking the long-dormant embers of racing.
After an hour-long death march, the top of the hill only revealed a makeshift outdoor bike shop in the pasture as athletes struggled to extricate the dirt and weeds and disgust from their non-moving parts. The experienced squirted Gatorade on their muddied chains. The desperate, long since fluid-less, pissed on their derailleurs.
I found the individual negotiations fascinating. Most riders, sensing the futility of it all, turned to the pragmatic and the oblique.
"Well, I’ll spend more time cleaning my bike than I did riding it."
"This isn’t a world championship. It’s a gladiator pit."
"Hardest thing I’ve done since Kona, ’96. And we’re only half way."
Surprisingly, tempers were held in check. No assigning blame. No miss-directed anger. It was a shit-show, someone claimed. And the steadily slogging pack grunted their agreement.
The morning’s swim, which was supposed to be the toughest leg, with six-foot surf and three-foot chop, seemed pleasurable compared to pushing a twenty-five-pound bike that now weighed forty with its new coat of clay. Oh, and don’t mind those uphill riders slip-sliding and bowling you down. Sorry mate, my tires, shoes, and soul have no purchase left. Shit show indeed.
The Xterra organizers have cobbled a successful and authentic aura of family-first. In other road triathlons, the conditions might’ve invited sniping and verbal attack. The worst thing I heard during the five plus hours I carried the same ball and chain was this:
“This is fucked up.”
“Yeah but we’re all fucked together.”
There might’ve been better technical preparation. Low profile tires allowing for more clearance, hard tail frames, sleeping in on race morning. The pros knew. They had scouted the course, made the changes in equipment, strategy, and approach. As an upper limits age grouper, you mostly don’t take the time or don’t care. You take your sloppy seconds. You're happy just to be on your feet and making steady progress between point A and point B. By the last trimester of your life, you either have learned humility, have found the right drugs, or are smart enough to keep your precious little powder dry for another battle.
As always, the run favored the youth; those spry and perky forty to fifty year-olds who saw the fallen log in the trail and jumped over it. The cramped, wise, and crumbled who were left picking up bread crumbs studied the longest possible way around.
At some point -- it must’ve been very near the finish line -- I knew that I could still walk, and that crawling was allowed, I put the hammer down. Which is to say I ceased with the poor-me limp-a-long and ran. Both feet off the ground at the same time. Flying.
My preparation for the Xterra World Championship might have graciously been labeled as training. I’d saved my money, bought my ticket, extricated the old bike case from under the house, and hosed out the fifteen years of rat shit. The night before the race I was remindedly-nervous. What was it like, I wondered, re-dipping a toe into the ancient racing pool? Would I feel tacked-on as an age grouper? A supporting role for the real athletes? A warmed-over has-been in search of one more parade lap?
Or could I find something that I had once sought in a two-decade occupation if not some deeper existential quest?
The worst and the best parts of Maui are that now…I still don’t know.