Xterra Las Vegas (and the Ups and Downs of Racing)

My race season is now in full swing, and with the most extensive travel taking place these first few months, I’m already behind on race reports… shocker! At any rate, it feels really great to be fully engrossed in the race scene again, despite the relative chaos and complete lack of free time. 😉 I recently completed an 11-day road trip to Southern Nevada and Utah, where I competed in the first two races of my 2015 pro season: Xterra West Championships in Las Vegas and the Ironman 70.3 US Pro Championship in St. George, UT. I’m already back on the road again, now in the southeast, having just raced Xterra Alabama and preparing for the upcoming Raleigh 70.3 race. But I still want to take a little time to reflect on those first two races, even if I’m already on to the next… (more so for me than for anybody else, as writing about them really helps me process things in my mind and get the most out of my learning experience from each race).

While the Xterra Vegas and St. George 70.3 races took place back-to-back weekends, in close proximity and in very similar environments, my experiences couldn’t have been more different. Looking at them both in retrospect now, it’s a perfect illustration of the ups and downs of racing, because while one of these races went really well, just a week later the next one was terrible! But that’s the way it goes, in racing and in life… I guess you just have to “keep on keeping on,” be thankful for the ups, and even for the downs… because they make the ups that much sweeter, and they teach us so much about how to get there. Ultimately, I think the lows of racing are actually more important than the highs — they are what really define our character and strength as athletes, and what make us progress the most. That’s why, despite getting a pro-career-best result in Las Vegas, I honestly think my very sub-par performance in St. George was a more important day. Because as immensely disappointed as I was with that result and that day, I know how much I will get out of having gotten through it and not given up, and I know how much more disappointed I would have been if I had given up.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not still fired up about how things went down in Las Vegas!

Xterra Las Vegas: Moving On Up!

Going into Xterra Vegas, I had some clear goals, but I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. I didn’t feel I had a great sense of where I was at since my injury had thrown things off so much in my lead-in to the season, and the couple pre-season races I did get to do were very “so-so” with just coming back. But I knew having those under my belt would be a huge boost in getting me ready for this pro season opener, and I felt like I was finally starting to come in to form. Despite all the scrambling and unanticipated challenges, the pieces were coming together! So I decided there was really no reason why I couldn’t have a great race here.

I’m really glad I made that decision and didn’t let myself be held back by any doubts or concerns about where my body was at or the challenges I’d faced this winter, because it ended up being a great day! Coming in, I had set my sights on a top-5 finish. I try to set pre-race goals that are not just result oriented, but rather things that are in my personal control, regardless of others. But make no mistake, I was still shooting for that podium! I’ve never made it into the top-5 at an Xterra pro race before (last year my best finish was 7th, which I achieved twice), but I was confident it was attainable for me here, despite my pre-season challenges. I knew I’d have to have a great day and fight crazy hard, but I definitely felt it was within reach, and this was as good an opportunity as any! I felt surprisingly good leading into the race, and all my pre-race preparations had gone  well. The course was in great shape, and the weather was exceptionally cool for Las Vegas. I was thrilled about the overcast skies and mild temps on race morning (given my total lack of heat exposure so far this year), and was generally feeling super positive about how things were shaping up for the race ahead.

Heading out on a lonely 2nd lap! Photo by August Teague.
Heading out on a lonely 2nd lap! Photo by August Teague.

As soon as we hit the water and the gun went off, I was feeling strong. I’d had an absolutely horrendous swim at the local Xterra I did back in March, and had some issues with my thumb getting bashed around in the mass start, but I’ve been putting in some very focused swim work, so I was confident things could go a lot better here. I had a great start and found myself swimming alongside some of the top female pros, and hanging in pretty comfortably. I was both surprised and stoked to see who I was in the company of, but tried to stay calm, remind myself this was where I should be, and just focus on doing everything I could to stay there. I hung on through the first buoy, but as we rounded the turn back to the beach to start lap two, the swimmers around me got super aggressive and I started to get bumped around and way off line. I sort of just let this happen, allowing them to essentially bump me out of the way, and I ultimately got dropped. For a bit I could still see the bubbles ahead of me and I tried to just hang on to them as long as I could, but eventually they got more and more faint and then I was alone. I was disappointed I had let myself get bumped off, because I really had felt pretty comfortable with the pace. I vowed to not let that happen again, and to try to stay on longer next time, and I swam on.

I got out of the water in about 8th place, and by the time I reached T1 another competitor was right on my heels. She ended up crushing the transition to exit ahead of me, but once I got on the bike I set my sights on her and caught back up. Sometimes I get stressed being in tight head-to-head battles with others, but I reminded myself to work with her on the bike, to use that to my advantage and hopefully bring us both closer to some of the next competitors up ahead. Unfortunately that didn’t work out as smoothly I hoped, as we had pretty opposite strengths and seemed to have a hard time making them come together. I moved by her fairly quickly, but then she charged up the first long, steep uphill to move back in front of me just before the top. Consequently, I got stuck behind on the downhill and had to hold back a lot of speed. This is always a bummer, as it’s easy time lost. Onto the next gruelingly steep uphill, she was super strong again and I got gapped, but I made it right back on the descent, and then was once again trapped behind.

This carried on for much of the first lap, with me gaining time on the downhills, flatter or technical sections, but then not really being able to get away because I would either not have room to get around or I’d get caught back up on the next climb. This was a little frustrating as I felt I was loosing a ton of time and opportunity on the descents, and I’m sure it was frustrating for her as well. All part of the challenge of racing though… just gotta make it work! I tried to go around in the loose, rocky lines on some of the downhills and it worked sometimes, but I couldn’t make a clear breakaway. Finally near the end of the first lap I put in a hard surge as we went over the top of the last climb before the most technical descent, really not wanting a clear path ahead. I just made it out in front and charged the descent hard. This was followed by one of the more technical sections, which I was able to ride nice and clean, and that ended up being enough for me to get a good breakaway.

Charging hard on the Orbea Alma! Photo by August Teague.
Charging hard on the Orbea Alma! Photo courtesy of Xterra.

By that point we’d already passed another gal, and shortly after I made one more pass to move myself into 6th place. I charged as hard as I could trying to track down that top 5, and never looked back! This ride is deceivingly challenging. It’s not particularly technical, but there are some sketchy spots with really loose, dry dirt, and there is some very steep terrain. The climbs are pretty relentless! It’s funny, I always sort of manage to forget just how hard triathlon racing really is when I haven’t done it for a bit, and then I am brutally reminded at the beginning of the year! This stuff is TOUGH!!

I cut a bit of time into 5th place over the rest of the bike course, but still hit the run in 6th. I was so determined to move up, but I saw on my way out of T2 that I had some speedy women in hot pursuit! I would need to give absolutely everything I had on this run. I was confident in my running abilities, but hadn’t had much practice thus far with running off the bike at race pace, and given how hard I’d already pushed I had no idea how well I’d be able to run. Fortunately my legs came around quickly, and I ended up feeling really strong… just not quite strong enough! The run covers two of the same massive climbs as the bike course, and on the first one another competitor came flying by me. I was slightly deflated but knew I was still running strong with a chance to catch more women ahead, so I carried on and tried to keep her in sight. I was having a great day, and I wanted to keep it that way. She was gaining more time, but I could now see the next competitor up ahead, so I set my sights and worked to make my way up to her. I knew there were still other fast runners behind, but I just stayed focused on what was in front of me and tried not to think about anything else — including how much this was hurting! Once I got onto her heels I dug deep and made the pass, moving myself back into 6th place again. I pushed as hard as I could to make it stick, and then just tried to make it to the finish line as soon as possible before anybody else could snatch it away from me! I crossed the line in 6th, only about a minute-and-a-half off the podium, but pretty elated with a career-best pro performance and what was overall one of the strongest days I’d had in a long time.

Thrilled to cross this finish line! Photo by August Teague.
Thrilled to cross this finish line! Photo by August Teague.

I felt really solid from start to finish, and most importantly I knew I’d had the best race I possibly could that day. I had given it everything, and there really wasn’t much I would have changed about my race (okay, other than trying to hang on longer in the swim and get around earlier in the bike…). It was a bit bittersweet to come so close to the podium and just miss out, but I was definitely satisfied with my performance and would rank it as one of my best. I ended up having several gals within just another minute or so behind me, so it was certainly a very tight race — and a great battle — all the way down to the line. It was really nice to be on the right end of it this time, as so many other times I have just fallen to the wrong side of those tight battles and missed out on several places by the smallest time margin. It’s great to see the depth of the women’s Xterra pro field expanding so much, and the field just continue to get stronger. Last year I finished 7th in this race, but I was all alone. Once I got dropped from 6th halfway through the bike, I had no challengers from behind and nobody in striking distance out front, so this year’s result was much more hard-fought than that had been. I know that with this field of strong, talented women — and fierce competitors — there will be a lot more battling throughout the rest of this season! I think many of us are very evenly matched, and it could be anybody’s day at any point, so it will all come down to who has more to give within the race. Should be exciting and challenging, and ultimately make each of us better!

All in all, I am very happy with how things shaped up in Vegas, particularly given everything that went on for me during the off-season. To reach a new career best when it is least expected after a challenging few months is awesome. That being said, however, I think I definitely still have a lot more in me. I do feel that I’m still on my way back and continuing to get stronger, and I think there’s more potential there for sure (including that elusive podium finish — I know I can get there!). I’m certainly not in top form yet, and wouldn’t want to be at this point, with the season lasting all the way through early November and the most important races still months away. This was a solid day, and a great sign of steady progress toward what is to come, but it was by no means perfect. There’s room for improvement, and untapped potential — and that’s a great thing! Now to figure out how to tap into it… 🙂

I think the biggest takeaway of this race for me is to always keep an open mind about the possibilities and to never stop believing in yourself and your potential no matter what the circumstances are. This is a recurring theme for me, and really at the core of how I define myself as a racer, but this was yet another good reminder of how important it really is. I think it’s totally fine and appropriate to adjust expectations based on personal circumstances or those around you, but you have to not lose sight of what you want and what you believe you are capable of. This is a conscious choice that we all have to make every time we line up at the starting line, and sometimes it isn’t so easy. But as much as I can possibly help it, I choose to keep believing! The quest for the podium continues…

So great to race and share the trip with my LUNA teammate Suzie, who finished third! Photo by August Teague.
So great to race and share the trip with my LUNA teammate Suzie, who finished third! Photo by August Teague.

I’d hoped to get some words about my experience in St. George in here as well, but that will have to come next, followed by an update on my southeast racing adventure! So much writing to be done when there’s so much racing going on… it’s tough to keep up! 🙂 Thanks for reading! – K

One Comment Add yours

  1. Sissy goltra says:

    Great job Kara! Loved the article!

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