Back on The Dirt: Xterra Lake Tahoe

Off-road again!
Off-road again!

Since my knee become healthy enough to run again and I’ve returned to triathlon, all my races have been on the road. I’ve enjoyed these tremendously and seen a surprising amount of success there, including two overall wins in the last two efforts and a near-miss at qualifying for the 70.3 World Championships in my first race back. However, I could hardly wait to get back on the dirt last weekend for Xterra Lake Tahoe. My last real Xterra race was all the way back in April at Vegas, where I earned my World Champs slot. I remember feeling, and writing, that that race was a major breakthrough for me, ultimately giving me my best Xterra result I’d seen to that point. I really felt then like I’d reached a new level, and was so excited to carry that momentum forward for more Xterra racing.

Unfortunately life had other plans for me with the injury, and the momentum certainly got broken up a bit. But when I decided to do Xterra Tahoe City back in June, racing the swim and the bike but walking the 10k run portion as my knee continued healing, it was so clear to me that even though my season hadn’t gone exactly as planned, the passion I had for Xterra racing hadn’t diminished one bit, and I was so eager to be able to return to the offroad scene in full form.

Xterra Lake Tahoe, on Aug. 17th, brought that opportunity, and I am really happy to say that it fulfilled — and even exceeded — my expectations in every way. To start, it felt amazing to be back to racing triathlon on the dirt; as if I was back in my “happy place,” at home with the community of athletes I come to love more and more every time. And what’s more, is that just as Vegas had been a breakthrough race for me at the time, Xterra Lake Tahoe was even more so, and I couldn’t be more excited about the new belief I have in the possibilities that lie ahead as a result of this race. But most important of all, I was reminded of just how much Xterra so totally ROCKS!

The people of Xterra are amazing. There is something about this group and the sense of community it provides that is just unlike anything else I’ve experienced before. And it was evident from the time I arrived at the venue for the Lake Tahoe race. Xterra is a relatively small group, but everyone is so passionate about the sport and their efforts that what we lack in size we make up for in strength. And while there aren’t a ton of women out there, the ones I do find myself racing against again and again are tough as nails (but even more kind), and the field is seriously competitive. Xterra Lake Tahoe, as usual, was no exception. I was up against some of the best women in the country at this race, on one of the toughest Xterra courses out there, and I knew it was going to be one hard-fought battle out there. But I was ready and excited!

Swim – 29:10 (with run to transition), 4th female

Coming through lap one of the swim, with Lizzie Gruber (one of the raddest chicks on the Xterra circuit)
Coming through lap one of the swim, with Lizzie Gruber (one of the raddest chicks in Xterra)

SwimExitPerhaps I just lined up too far into the middle of the pack, but the swim start here was ridiculously aggressive — one of the worst I’ve ever been a part of. I felt like I was getting completely trampled by the other racers around me as I made my way into the water and headed toward the first buoy. My goggles got knocked off, I got pushed under the water, and pulled down by my feet, again and again. I felt like I was pretty much trying not to drown. By the time I reached the first buoy to turn, I felt completely exhausted and unsure how I’d even get through the rest of the swim. Fortunately, once things cleared out around me I was able to finally find a rhythm, focus on stroke efficiency, and get things going a bit. By lap two I’d settled in and felt a lot stronger, and did everything I could to pick up the pace. I exited the water in just under 26 minutes, which I was actually quite pleased with, especially after struggling so much at the beginning. Off to a surprisingly good start!

Bike – 1:59:53, fastest female

Probably the most beautiful bike course in the world
Probably the most beautiful bike course in the world

The bike course at Xterra LT is incredibly challenging, with a brutal long and sandy hill climb up Tunnel Creek to get things going (30+ minutes of climbing) before hitting the Flume Trail and then continuing to climb up from Marlette Lake, onto the Rim Trail before topping out and then leading into some really technical, tricky descents back to the bottom. It’s one tough 22-mile course. But, it’s a ton of fun. I knew there could be no holding back here with so many other very fast women out there, and the bike course (2+ hours in itself for the majority of racers) making up such a significant portion of the race. So I pushed it hard from the beginning and never let up. About halfway up Tunnel Creek I caught Sarah Backler, a very talented racer from New Zealand who finished third overall amateur (first in the 30-34 AG) at last year’s World Championship. She hung on and we road together, duking it out and pushing one another to the limit, for the rest of the ride.

Other than one incident at the top where my chain came off, the ride went very smooth, and I felt super strong — and most importantly knew I had left it all out there. I ended up with the fastest women’s bike split, at 1:59:53. This was more than a 10-minute improvement over last year, and I was incredibly psyched with that! Sarah had snuck in front of me at the bottom of the fast descent down Tunnel Creek, and after a blazing transition that beat all but one guy, she gained almost 20 more seconds on me heading into the run. I knew I had my work cut out for me, big time.

Run – 46:23, fastest female

Leaving transition, determined to close the gap
Leaving transition, determined to close the gap

It took some time for my run legs to kick into gear, and once they did I was feeling good. I was reeling Sarah in little by little, but I literally just could not seem to close the gap to her. She was charging hard, and running very strong. It seemed like she just kept staying about 10 seconds ahead, just out of reach, no matter how much I continued to push. By the second lap things were really starting to hurt, and I felt doubtful about whether I could catch her. I knew she must have been hurting too, but she didn’t show it, and while I worked to keep my foot on the gas it just didn’t seem like I had enough in the tank to pull off moving past her (or even closing that little gap). It was literally the exact same situation as Donner Lake Triathlon, where I was getting run down at the end of the race, but in complete role reversal.

Charging Hard
Charging Hard

I thought back to those moments and what I’d done to maintain my lead despite such a great challenge from my competitor. I had to dig seriously deep that day, and it hurt — more than I wanted it to. But I found that strength somewhere and pulled it off. I knew I had to at least try to do the same thing here, despite already feeling like I was giving it everything I had. With about 2 miles to go, not having made much closure on the second lap, I think I’d nearly given up on myself. I really just didn’t think I had it in me at that moment to catch Sarah. But then when I started thinking back to Donner and how much I had to push — past the point I wanted to, but how being in that situation had caused me to excel beyond what I thought I could do — I realized this was yet another call for me to step it up, and I needed to rise up to the challenge.

I didn’t want to have to push so hard, and I didn’t want to hurt that bad, but I wasn’t going to give up just because it sounded difficult. So I made the decision that I was going to go for it; I wasn’t going to settle with where I was even though it seemed like everything I could give at the time. And with about a mile to go, I (somehow) found another big push and started to go. By the last half-mile, I’d managed to close the gap, and without hesitation I made the pass and kept accelerating hard. As such a tough and experienced racer, I knew Sarah would do everything she could to hold on. But luckily I had just enough of a surge to get a gap, and in the end I held on to finish third place overall female (2nd amateur) in the stellar women’s field. Sarah finished just 20 seconds behind me in fourth. As it turns out, I was just one minute behind second place, local pro Genevieve Evans, and only about two minutes out of the win. My run was also the fastest of the day for women.

Pushing it home!
Pushing it home!

Finished! 3:17:30, 3rd Female, 2nd Amateur, 1st AG

Too tired for celebration!
Too tired for celebration!

At the end of the day, despite such a close, hard fight for those top women’s spots, we all finished with even more mutual respect for one another than when we’d started. We chit-chatted away at the finish area, about just how hard that race had been and how we’d all given it everything, and the camaraderie has never been more evident. We watched and cheered as more incredibly talented women came across the line, not far behind at all. The ladies of Xterra are so bad-ass. But they are also truly some of the nicest, most genuine people I’ve ever met. I am so grateful to be a part of their community and to have them there to push me to be a better athlete and person.

I was extremely satisfied with the performance I’d turned in that day. I felt like turning in the fastest bike and run splits against such a talented field really showed me what I am capable of (but now I seriously need to figure out how to not lose 4 minutes on the swim — yikes!). Despite my last couple victories on the road, I really feel like this race was my biggest breakthrough yet, and at this point I truly do feel like I’ve reached a whole new level. I’ve found a new physical strength, but even more importantly, new mental strength.I am so grateful to have made this progress this summer despite my injury. But I also realize that much of that progress may very well be because of the injury. Sometimes when our path is different than we expect, and we have to find a new direction, we end up growing far more than we ever expected. I truly believe I made some unique gains through this experience that I may not have otherwise achieved — just more proof that even a seemingly bad situation can turn into something good.

Now I’m looking ahead to my two biggest races of the year: Ironman Lake Tahoe (Sept. 22nd) and Xterra World Championships in Maui (Oct. 26th). I have some really big goals for myself at both of these events. But I really believe now, more than ever, that I am capable of so much more than I previously thought. I am so excited about the opportunities and possibilities that lie ahead. And now it’s time to do everything I possibly can to attain them.

***HUGE, tremendous thanks to Harry Lefrak of Lefrak Photography for all of the amazing race photos. I’ve been to so many races, and I really think he captures the moment in a special way unlike any I’ve seen before. THANK YOU!!***

Overall women's podium: Me (3rd), Julie Baker (1st), Genevieve Evans (2nd)
Overall women’s podium: Me (3rd), Julie Baker (1st), Genevieve Evans (2nd)
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