Xterra East Championship: Rolling With the Punches

It seems like I’ve been writing a lot of disappointing race reports lately. I wish that wasn’t the case… but I guess that’s just part of the territory sometimes. I also wish, so very much, that things had gone differently for me at the Xterra East Championship/USAT Off-Road National Championships out in Richmond, Virginia. But they didn’t. They went how they went (which is terribly), and I guess that’s part of the territory too. As a pro athlete with a packed race schedule, there will be good days and bad; lucky days and unlucky; easy days and down right difficult. Unfortunately, Richmond was all of the latter for me, when I wanted oh so bad to have all of the former. But the thing about racing is we can’t always control when the bad/unlucky/down-right-difficult days decide to show up. All we can do is make the very best of the day we are given. And on this very bad, unlucky and terribly difficult day, that is exactly what I chose to do.

Lead-In

Just getting to this race was challenging for me due to my crazy workload right now and financial restraints (getting across the country is expensive!!), and I wasn’t even sure it would happen until about a week beforehand. Thanks to a mileage transfer from August and some help from LUNA team mechanic, Chris, with transportation, I was able to pull it off, though it’d be short and sweet. I traveled all day Friday and got in very late, and had just one day in Richmond before race start. After a mega-sleep-in Saturday being so tired from travel, I was fortunate to have Chris help me out with my bike, as it needed some major TLC. Thank goodness he was there! We got in a great pre-ride on the bike course later Saturday, which was crucial as the course is quite technical: lots of rocks, roots, stairs, steep pitches, tight turns, water crossings, etc. There was always something to be thinking about, and while it wasn’t the most physically exhausting course it was certainly mentally challenging because of all the focus required. That being said, I was totally psyched about this ride! I was thrilled to have a more technical course, which I think plays to my advantage given all of our technical riding here in Tahoe. Although, there were some tricky sections out there that were pretty different from what I am used to riding, so I was prepared for a wild, fun and tough race! The pics below, courtesy of Xterra, give a nice little sampling of the course (and spectators!).

With how fast the day went and not wanting to make myself too tired, I didn’t get to preview the swim or run courses. In hindsight, this was definitely not the appropriate race to plan a short trip for. Given the unique challenges throughout all aspects of this race (swim, bike and run), it’s an event that requires significantly more prep/preview time. But, I didn’t have that luxury this year, and — as is the theme of this race for me – it was what it was, so I just had to roll with it.

Survival Mode: The hardest Swim I’ve Ever Done

Swim site at the James River
Swim site at the James River

After a terrible night’s sleep, I woke up less than refreshed, but eager to race. I was excited about the course and atmosphere, my body was feeling good, and with a strong pro field but a few key players from the past two races missing from the roster, I felt really poised to turn in a strong result. I’ll go ahead and throw it out there that I was aiming for a top-five, and felt really confident it was attainable for me here. But unfortunately, that goal would start to feel out of sight very early, as I had the absolute worst swim of my triathlon career. While I’d examined the swim course map and walked down to the river on Saturday, the buoys weren’t set up. Once it was all set Sunday morning, I was completely confused by the course, which was a total maze of directions compared to every other simple square, rectangle or triangle triathlon swim course I’ve ever done. I was panicked before we even started about my uncertainty of where to go, but both Suzie and Emma (two of the nicest, most talented pros out there) were kind enough to try to explain it to me before things kicked off. I felt much less clueless, but was determined to do everything I could to stay with a group so I didn’t end up lost in the middle of the river. But as concerned as I felt then, I had NO idea just how brutal that swim would end up being.

Photo courtesy of Xterra
Pro swim start. Photo courtesy of Xterra.

I had a fantastic start, and was swimming super strong with a couple male pros, in great position, for the first part of the swim – a reflection of the work I’ve been putting in. I felt comfortable with the pace, and my stroke felt great. I was happy to be hanging on to fast feet and in with a group so I knew where to go! On the way out to the island mid-swim, I could feel the effects of the current, but they seemed minor. I just focused on hanging on to those two male pro feet like glue. But as we approached the island, they surged a bit and I didn’t respond. I exited just behind them but as we ran across they gained more distance on me, and I re-entered the water on my own. This is where the swim turned from great to seriously catastrophic.

As we swam back across the river, there were two buoys we needed to hit, one about halfway across, and the other almost all the way back to shore, that we had to turn around before heading back the other direction to hit one more buoy and then returning to shore to exit. (Confusing, right?!). On the approach to that first buoy, the current got incredibly strong. I did my best to “aim high,” knowing it would push me down as I swam across. It was my understanding, and that of many other pros, that we were supposed to swim to the left of all buoys, and in this case above the buoy relative to current. This would later end up being a controversy, and the whole situation was extremely disappointing. I’d learn later that apparently this first buoy was just a sighting buoy that could have been passed on either side, but it was the same color as all other buoys, and myself and many others felt it was explained differently. Not to mention, race-affiliated kayakers were directing us around the left of the buoy. This would all end up being a TOTAL game changer for the outcome of the race, as myself and several others lost huge chunks of time trying to get around the left side of this buoy. Disappointing and frustrating to say the least…!

Fellow pro Chris Ganter posted this hilarious swim depiction to Twitter, and I found it impressively accurate!
Fellow pro Chris Ganter posted this hilarious swim depiction to Twitter, and I found it impressively accurate…

At any rate, what happened was I ended up getting pushed too far down-river by the strong current, and found myself 10-15 meters below that first buoy. Believing I needed to go around the left of it, I started heading up-river to try to get back above the buoy. I realized quickly that I was going nowhere. I felt like I was in an infinity pool of death, absolutely sprinting with every ounce of energy I had into the current, and getting no closer. There were two other pros stuck there too. I pushed and pushed to try to make it up those few meters, and this was honestly the most I’ve ever struggled in a swim in my life. I literally thought I might get swept right on down the river, or have to pull out of the race then and there and get a kayak rescue. I just could not get out of there, despite my efforts. Somehow, after minutes stuck in the pool of death and so much wasted energy, I inched my way around the buoy and was back on track, but now wayyy off the pace in the back of the pack. I was disappointed, incredibly frustrated and utterly exhausted. To make matters worse, I got confused near the end of the course and started going the wrong way, losing more precious time, before getting re-directed by a kayaker to go back around that last buoy of the maze. I couldn’t believe how terribly the swim had gone, how much time I’d lost, and how far back I was. I usually exit the swim in 5th or 6th place, but this time I was third-from-last female pro out of the water. I felt defeated, and my top-five seemed so far out of reach.

Bad Luck on the Bike

I tried to stay positive and composed, knowing there was plenty of opportunity ahead. Once I got going and brought my heart down from the near-drowning, my body actually started to feel really good. I settled into a rhythm, and despite a few minor bobbles those first miles, I felt like I was riding technically well and making up time. As I reached one of the more challenging sections, where the first big group of crazed, inebriated fans gathered to spectate/scream/heckle, I knew I’d almost closed the gap to the next woman ahead, as I could hear their cheers just around the corner. This got me fired up, and I picked up the pace. When I approached the group, I started to ride through the creek bed and rock garden, which I’d done with no issue whatsoever in the pre-ride. But this time, whether I got too distracted by the ringing in my ears or just got off-line, I’m not sure… but I let my wheel get sucked into a gap in the rocks, and just like that I was going over the bars. For as fast as the fall probably was, it felt like a terrifying slow-mo highlight reel. I knew the landing was not going to be pretty. I did my best to control it, and was able to get my hands out to mostly catch myself before smacking my chin down on the rocks. This was full-on epic faceplant status. To all of our benefit, one of the spectators got a whole series of photos of my crash, which conveniently have been put into a GIF for our viewing pleasure. You’re welcome. At least while my result was far from impressive, my crash left a nice impression!

RICHMOND CRASH1The crowd was absolutely delighted, and the loud “Ohhhhh’s” were only overwhelmed by the fog horn that someone blew at me when I fell. Finally someone asked if I was okay, and fortunately, save for a pretty sore hand and some minor cuts and bruises on my face and knees, I was. I scrambled to get up, collect myself and ride on. I rode frantically, knowing I’d just lost even more precious time. My chain seemed to be grinding and gears were not shifting smoothly, but I thought I’d just gotten some grit in there. But a few miles up the road, when I shifted down to get up a steep wooden ramp section, I heard an awful noise and my wheel stopped. I thought my chain had just come off, but when I looked down, I was horrified to see my whole rear derailleur detached and now stuck in my spokes.

I knew Chris was up ahead at the top of the climb, giving feeds at the aid station, and while he wasn’t allowed to help me (no individual support allowed in triathlon), I was comforted knowing I could at least talk with him and get his input about the situation. I ran my bike up the hill as fast as I could, but I already knew I was most likely out of this race, and I was devastated. I pulled off the course at the aid station, and I almost broke into tears, so upset by what was happening. He looked at it and determined that the hanger had broken off the derailleur – most likely it was almost off from the impact of the crash, and then my downshift gave it the final push it needed. We chatted for a bit about what the options were. Fortunately, we had a spare hanger on hand there at the feed station, but I did not want to break the rules by having Chris help me fix the bike. By this point, several minutes had already gone by. As I began to try to accept that I’d be facing a DNF, I watched as two other pro females rode by from behind. I was out of the race. After much conversation between ourselves and the head volunteer at the station, he called down to the race directors and asked what we were allowed to do. They said the volunteer, as a “neutral assistant,” could help me.

So, since we had what we needed and I had someone to help me within the rules, I decided we might as well try to get it fixed. This was a slow process, and I wavered between starting to let myself get upset and just laughing it off, but ultimately stayed really calm, knowing I couldn’t change what had happened, so I just needed to figure out how to deal with the circumstances as best as I could from there. It helped that everyone at the aid station was there to crack a few jokes with me and keep things in perspective. I was also debating at that point whether it even made sense to finish if we got it all fixed. I knew I was now very out of contention for a decent result, and it ultimately probably didn’t make much sense to keep going. But I absolutely hate the idea of a DNF if there’s any possibility whatsoever of finishing the race, and at this point I was fortunate enough to have that possibility. I wanted to take advantage of that, and I wanted to fight on through this struggle and cross that finish line, regardless of result. Honestly, this was probably not the practical thing to do, and would have been against the opinion of my coach. As a pro, I’m supposed to be racing for results, so to most rational people it’s not worth the risk and wear and tear on the body to push hard just to finish a race where you know you’re well out of contention. But not finishing when I know I can is against everything I’ve stood for throughout my athletic career, and I just couldn’t do it. Had it been a 70.3, I would have had to make the smart decision to abandon ship so as to not push through so many hard miles unnecessarily, but with Xterra being so much shorter, I was determined to get ‘er done and get the full experience of the Richmond course. I’d come all the way here, and did not want to give up. In the battle against practicality, my fighting spirit prevailed.

After well over 20 minutes of delay, I was back on my bike. I continued to push hard, wanting to treat this like a race effort and see what I could do to make up any time possible. It was all intrinsic motivation, though, as I was completely on my own, wayyyy off the back. But by the time I hit lap two, I was mixed in with all the age groupers who’d started 45 minutes behind. This made it way more fun to share the course with others, but it was also super challenging to have to go around so many people, especially on the technical sections when almost all of them were getting off their bikes. But they did a great job of making room for this last-place pro to go by, which I really appreciated. When I got back to my crash site for round two, I decided to go ahead and walk, not wanting to risk crashing again. This dismayed the spectators, who then booed me as I ran by. Sorry to disappoint guys!

Another perspective of the "party crowd." Pro Josiah Middaugh handled it much better than me! Photo courtesy of Xterra.
Another perspective of the “party crowd.” Pro Josiah Middaugh handled it much better than me! Photo courtesy of Xterra.

Gutting It Out on the Run

KARA RICHMOND RUN
The “ladder” on the run. Photo courtesy of Swichio.

I was timid the rest of the bike, but I made it through in one piece and was happy to get to the run, where I knew I’d at least be on level playing field to compare my time. I ran with urgency, desperate to make up any minutes I could possibly muster, and gain any redemption I could for the horrible day I’d had. My legs felt surprisingly fresh, and I think this is where the 70.3 racing comes in handy — 6 miles feels SO short compared to the 13.1. Much of the run was flat and fast, and I was able to really hammer these sections. But true to its style, this Richmond course had some challenges in store too, with some steep stair sections, a ladder, a chest-deep river crossing, rock-hopping and more. I struggled a bit with these “technical parts,” as I hadn’t previewed them and I’m just generally terrible at running up and down stairs or climbing anything steep, but overall I felt really strong. I pushed all the way in, finding new motivations as I went along, and I actually ended up gaining one pro spot back less than a mile before the finish. I had the 6th fastest female run on the day, at 46:16. All things considered, I was pleased with that.

A nice sampling of the run elements. All photos courtesy of Xterra.

Post-Race: A Mixed Bag of Emotions

In the end, I finished 11th of 12 pro females, way off the pace. Certainly not a result I want to remember, but honestly a race day I won’t soon forget, and one I’m actually very proud of. I can’t even begin to describe my disappointment with how the day unfolded for me. I think it’s especially tough knowing how much I had to do just to make this trip happen, and given that I don’t get my trip costs covered at this point in my career, it was honestly devastating to know that any chance of a good result had slipped through my fingers due to circumstances beyond my control. I wish I hadn’t crashed, and I wish I hadn’t broken the derailleur hanger. (And I also wish I hadn’t given up several minutes nearly drowning in the James River infinity pool). But, these things are all a part of racing, and that’s the way it goes sometimes. Again, all you can do is make the best of the hand you are dealt, and I can say wholeheartedly that I did that. I am happy that I finished my race, and got to experience this course. I would have loved to leave with the top-5 result I believe I had the opportunity to achieve, but it just wasn’t meant to be this time.

After the race I kept replaying my crash and the events of the day in my head like a bad nightmare, wishing it hadn’t happened. But everyone crashes, bikes break, and those bad days happen. I’m just hoping I got mine out of the way for a bit now between this and the seat mishap in Alabama. The good news is my body felt strong, and I believe I did well with the things I could control, which is most important. And, similar to my experience in St. George, I was again reminded of the value of pushing on, and how much that can feel like a victory – even in great defeat. Sometimes this really is the toughest thing to do.

So, still waiting for it all to come together… I feel like I haven’t really had a true chance to see what I can do as an Xterra pro since Vegas, which was now a couple months ago, and I think I’ve made some good progress since then. I know the time will come, and I’m trying to stay patient and positive. But ironically, as rough as my race was, I left Richmond the next day feeling even more grateful about what I get to do everyday as a triathlete, and for all the people who continue to support me. This was a great trip, and I had so much fun with my teammates and the many wonderful people of Xterra. I was lucky to be there. Huge thanks to August and Chris for all the help in making it happen for me, to the Xterra staff and volunteers (especially the one who fixed my bike!) for organizing another great event, to my sponsors and supporters for everything you do, and to Luck Stone, who outfitted us pros with GPS trackers for a great spectator experience even from afar, and fed me and many other hungry pros with a gift card to one of the most delicious restaurants I’ve ever been to! Many kudos to my teammates, Suzie and Shonny, for 3rd and 4th in the pro field, and Hannah Rae for once again dominating the amateur race. Next time, I hope to be standing alongside you all!

Arm1
Motivation!
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One Comment Add yours

  1. Sue Daniels says:

    Way to persevere! Amazing & inspiring 🙂

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