Xterra World Championships: Realizing My Potential

First things first, the Xterra World Championship in Maui is without a doubt one of the most special and unique races out there. This year marked my fourth in a row competing in Maui, and I have treasured each one of those opportunities so much. I just love the entire experience of being a part of such an iconic event, with an incredible group of people, and in such a magical place. There’s truly no other race that quite compares to the atmosphere and energy of this one, in my opinion!

TURTLES!! Always a Maui highlight! Photo by August Teague
TURTLES!! Always a Maui highlight! Photo by August Teague

But as special as this race may be, it is equally brutal. The course is long, hot and just plain hard. The swim is choppy and messy, and often boasts a surf break that makes entering and exiting the water extremely challenging and frankly quite scary! On the ride the climbs are steep, relentless, exposed and downright painful. The descents are fast and open, but rutted, requiring careful navigation while maintaining maximum speed. The single track sections are twisty and tight, with little margin for error, especially during the last five miles on tired legs and a hazy mind. The run, like the bike, leads racers straight uphill out of transition and continues to wind its way up, on some pitches so steep it’s barely runable, before topping out 3.5 miles in and then dropping back down (but not without obstacles that can trip up even the very best, or without one last gut-punch of a climb in the final mile). Top it all off with a run across the sand to the finish (can you say heavy legs…?!) and you’ve got a seriously epic challenge that takes the world’s best to their very limits, exposes any weakness, and gives true meaning to the term “Xterra warrior.”

The view from the top of one of the biggest climbs on course.
The view from the top of one of the biggest climbs on course. Not too shabby!

While I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of relative success on this course over the years, each time I’ve conquered this race it has felt like a monumental feat to get through it, and left me feeling completely destroyed at the finish. But hey, that’s how it’s supposed to be, right?! And of course the harder the challenge is, the more rewarding it feels when it’s over. So naturally, I couldn’t wait to get back to Maui this year! But this was the single most important day of the year for me; the one I wanted to succeed in more than any other — and I knew I needed to be completely prepared.

Preparation: Getting it Right!

After Nationals, I had a LOT of work to do to be ready for Worlds six weeks later. From a training perspective, six weeks really isn’t a lot of time, especially when you need to make as much progress as I did. But if you do it right and make the most of every opportunity, six weeks can allow for a whole lot of change. Fortunately for me, I had the absolute best guidance possible in August/Unleashed Coaching, and thanks to that (and a whole lot of determination), those six weeks allowed me to achieve a complete transformation.

It’s been a turbulent year with some unexpected turns, and we’ve had to completely overhaul my training plan several times, which is never easy. As soon as Nationals were over August and I took a hard look at everything I’d been able to do up to that point through the injury recovery, where things stood at the moment, where I wanted to end up, and everything I would need to do to get myself there. While the training we’d done prior to Nationals had already been targeted at Worlds, and we wanted to keep building on that, in many ways we still had to hit “reset” and reassess the plan to get the results that we wanted. Basically, we had to step it up, and we didn’t have a lot of time. We knew it was going to take more work, more faith and more patience than I’d had to invest yet so far this year. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, and also that it wouldn’t be guaranteed, but we knew it would be worth it. So we committed ourselves to pushing to a new level, buckled down, and dove in head first.

Cyclocross races were a big part of my Maui prep, and provided great training at extremely high intensity. Photo by Jeff Namba, Sacramento CX Series
Cyclocross races were a big part of my Maui prep, and provided great training at extremely high intensity. Photo by Jeff Namba, Sacramento CX Series

We trained hard, but we trained smart, and extremely specific. Every session was purposeful and specifically targeted to Maui and the improvements I needed to make for the unique challenges of that course. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always fun. I had days when I was tired, didn’t want to do the next session and questioned whether I’d come into form in time. I had to remind myself to keep faith in the plan and in myself, and to trust in the process. But as the days went on I saw more and more extremely positive progress in my data, even when I least expected it, which really boosted my confidence. By the time I got to Maui, I felt like a completely new athlete. While I’d done all the wrong things leading into Nationals (despite my best intentions), this time I had done everything right. And for the first time in a long time, I truly felt like I could achieve something really special here.

Pre-Race Perspective: Focusing on the Process

This was honestly the first opportunity I’ve had this entire year to come into a race feeling like I was 100% ready, and that in itself felt like a huge victory already! I knew I was as prepared as I could possibly be. But while that felt amazing and made me confident, it did also add some pressure. I felt so fortunate to finally be racing with near-perfect preparation, at the time when it mattered most, and I wanted so badly to be able to take full advantage of the work I’d done and the fitness I had achieved. I didn’t want to see it go to waste; to have any regrets or what if’s. As critical as preparation is, of course, it doesn’t matter without execution.

I had a solid race plan that I felt good about, and I was ready to race smart, take risks and leave it all out there. But I think what I was most worried about leading in was that something circumstantial and out of my control, like a mechanical or tangle-up on the bike course, would cause me to miss out on my potential, and that was devastating to even think about. Focusing on this was a total waste of energy, and I reminded myself to “control what you can control, and let the rest go!” I told myself the circumstances of the race would be what they would be, and all I could do now that the preparation was done was to react as best as possible to whatever might happen out there. I vowed that while I might end up facing circumstances I’d be disappointed with, I was NOT going to be disappointed with myself. I vowed to keep calm and choose my reactions wisely; to embrace every aspect of the day and get all I could from this experience; to meet each moment with an open and willing mind (including the hardest ones); to remember my WHY; to stay positive and keep faith in myself; and to focus on ME.

One of August’s biggest themes of his coaching is “You do You.” This is a great reminder to stay focused on your own race and your own process, and not let any other details get in the way. Of course I wanted to perform well here, and honestly as I got more and more prepared and watched my fitness increase, I did believe it was very possible for me to finish in the top 10. That was a big dream of mine and certainly something I’d be pushing for out there, but it was definitely not an expectation or a firm goal. In fact I decided not to focus on any “performance” goals, and just stick with process goals and personal goals, and leave the results out of it. (I think in Utah I got too caught up with places/points/numbers, and didn’t focus enough on just doing me). Ultimately what I wanted most was to have the day I knew I was capable of. In the end that could mean whatever it would in the rankings, but I just wanted to finally feel like I truly had my best day, period. I wanted to feel like I’d gotten the very best from myself and realized my potential.

Last year after I raced the California International Marathon (CIM) in December, I wrote about “Finding the magic” out there on that race course, and having one of those days where everything just came together and I surprised even myself with what I was able to achieve. On that day I was able to feel so present in each moment, and embrace each step. Even when things started to hurt, I somehow still felt so joyful about being out there. This was the day I wanted for myself here in Maui. I wanted another one of those rare magic days; a day when I could surprise myself. A day I hadn’t quite achieved yet since last December. I knew I could have this day again here. This was my opportunity I’d been waiting so long for, and I felt so to fortunate to have it right in front of me now. I was going to do all I could not to let it slip away!

Having some fun pre-riding the course with my buddies!
Having some fun on the pre-ride with my buddies!

As race week went on, my nerves steadily became overpowered by excitement. I previewed some of the bike and run course, re-acquainted myself with ocean swimming, and worked on getting acclimated to the heat and humidity. I enjoyed seeing so many great Xterra friends around the venue, and got to play a bit on the beach and swim the turtles(!!!), but I really tried to keep things super low-key and get a lot of rest leading into the race. This was definitely the most strict I’ve ever been with maintaining a good “down time” routine before the race, and honestly I do think it was helpful. The night before the race I had what I think must be the single best pre-race sleep I’ve ever had, and when race morning arrived I was feeling unexpectedly calm, confident and eager to get out there and seize my moment. Above all, I was feeling extremely grateful to be in such a beautiful place with such a great opportunity ahead, a fantastic support team around me, and feeling so ready to go. My mind was in a great place, I was exactly where I wanted to be, and I was excited to embrace everything this day brought me.

Night before the race. More than 800 athletes would be dreaming of the moment they would arrive at this finish line!
Night before the race. More than 800 athletes would be dreaming of the moment they would arrive at this finish line!

Race Day: Making It Happen!

Last minute advice from Coach Aug.
Last minute advice from Coach Aug.

After a rainy and windy week with some big ocean swell (which caused a lot of anxiety among competitors), race day brought a still, hot, sunny day with very calm conditions in the water. This was nice in a lot of ways, but the downside to the total lack of wind was that there was no relief at all from the heat. I was already sweating as we lined up on the beach to start, even after hitting the water for a warm-up. I kept ice on my neck and hydrated to the last possible second. My parents had been able to come to the race for the first time ever, which was extremely special, and they were down on the beach for the start, along with August, Suzie and her boyfriend Chris, and our team mechanic Chris and his wife Adriana. I felt so unbelievably supported by this entire team of people in Maui, and with all the cheers and encouragement sent by friends from afar, and it definitely gave me an extra boost!

Swim

The cannon went off and the pro wave attacked the water first. I decided to start a little further off to the side so I could have less congestion, but it didn’t seem to make much difference as the start was fast and furious! I thought I’d had a good start but once we all got filed in together as we made our way toward the first buoy, I realized I was actually farther back than I’d hoped. But I still had some good feet in my reach and was swimming strong with a group of women. As I’ve mentioned before, my swim has suffered a lot as a result of my ankle injury, but I felt much better here than I had in a long time, and especially compared to nationals. I felt more efficient, and I was able to keep the tempo high without feeling like I was overexerting myself. I was excited to stay in with the group all the way back to the beach for lap one, and didn’t have any issues getting out/into the water with some of the waves that had come in. On the way back out some of the leaders in our group picked up the pace and things got a bit strung out. By the buoy I had lost direct contact, but I focused on keeping them right in sight and trying to push my own pace back to the beach for the final time.

Coming in on lap one. Photo courtesy of Swichio.
Coming in on lap one. Photo courtesy of Swichio.

All in all I felt really good about my swim. I still wasn’t where I would normally expect to be, but this certainly felt like my biggest improvement since before the injury. I’d done the best job I could to limit my losses to some of the key players ahead of me who I felt like I should normally have contact with, but was still up to a couple minutes back of some of those racers. I had work to do on the bike, and I knew this would be the biggest opportunity of the day for me to move my way up the field, and ultimately the most important aspect in determining where I would finish. Far and away I had been putting in the most work on my bike over the prior six weeks and throughout the season, and this was where I’d made the most significant and measurable progress. I had a lot of confidence in my riding and was absolutely stoked to get on the bike!

Bike

Photo by August Teague
Photo by August Teague

Seeing my support crew on the way up to T1 was awesome and made me smile — a great way to start the ride! It took a bit to get my legs under me, and those first few miles were extremely hectic as many of us pro women and the hundreds of amateur men coming up from behind all tried to squeeze our way up the tight, steep, winding singletrack.ย Xterra gave us 5 minutes head start this year on the amateur men, rather than the normal 2, which was a positive change but frankly not anywhere near enough. There is no reason the pro women’s race should be getting impacted to such a huge degree by a completely separate race that is supposed to be taking place behind them, and honestly I think it’s really unfair and unsafe. There should be a minimum of 15 minutes between the waves, particularly for a World Championship event! Period. [Rant over.] So while it was a little better than in the past, it was still total chaos. As usual, people were frantic, aggressive and not making smart passes. I reminded myself of my plan to be calm and collected, and focused on staying patient, making smart moves and not wasting energy. I think I did a really good job with this, and it made a big difference. Unfortunately I saw other women getting pushed off the course or made to crash, which was so disappointing.

As we got through the first few miles and hit the more open, steep climbs I started coming into my own and really feeling good. I’d already passed a couple women up to that point, but was now starting to tick off more and more spots. I was excited about the way things were shaping up, and really feeding off the good energy I was feeling. As the course goes on, the hills get longer, steeper and harder. In the past I remember feeling so overwhelmed by these sections, and thinking they were just SO painful. But this time around it was completely different. Yes the hills were still incredibly hard and they still hurt, but they did not phase me the way I had remembered. I didn’t feel like I was suffering. In fact, I was thriving on those climbs, able to keep pushing harder and putting down more and more power as the hills went on. I was gaining time with every pitch and riding up sections others were having to get off and walk. I’d moved back past one of the women who had passed me early on, caught up to a couple more who I thought were long gone, and was hanging on for several minutes with one of the women who finished in the top 5 last year. I was, indeed, surprising myself with what I was able to do. By the time we got to the biggest climb I was sitting just outside of the top 10, with small margins both ahead and behind me. It was shaping up to be a tight, fierce race and everyone was fighting hard. I continued to feel strong in the hills, and to be honest I was actually really enjoying being out there! I couldn’t believe how smooth and powerful I felt, and I was so fired up!

Photo by August Teague
Photo by August Teague

The descents were a little crazy with all the traffic and rutted terrain, but I hung on tight and tried to maintain as much speed as possible. Just before we hit aid station 2 at about mile 12 or 13, I got passed by the eventual 10th place finisher, who I had passed earlier in the ride, on the climbs. She’d descended very well and was really gaining momentum toward this back third of the course. I told myself to go with her but for some reason I couldn’t quite find the urgency at that moment to really make a push and change up my pace. This is probably my biggest regret about the whole day and my only real “what if?” I can’t help but wonder where I might have ended up if I’d just made that extra little push to get on her wheel, but instead I let her go and that was that. I felt like I lost a bit of steam on the last part of the course, but it’s hard to say because it gets back into some tight and very windy singletrack, and it is tough to maintain a lot of speed in here regardless, especially with the crowds of age group men. I definitely felt like I got held up quite a bit on this section with so few passing opportunities, but I told myself it was the same for everyone and again to just stay calm and make smart moves. I passed one more pro woman in the last couple miles, and tried to get every last second of advantage I could for the rest of that ride.

Photo by Pax Tolosi
Photo by Pax Tolosi

Run

When I hit T2 I was in 13th place, and not too far out of the top 10. I was really happy with my ride and where I was sitting, but I knew I still had a hard run ahead and probably several women hot on my heels, including some exceptional runners. Unfortunately I once again had a brutally slow T2 as I had to tie my shoes and be really careful with my ankle placement, so I lost a considerable amount of time and even lost one spot during the transition, hitting the run in 14th and with 13th now out of sight. The first half of this run is always a challenge for me with its long ascents and steep pitches (my running and riding styles are complete opposites!). I was a little nervous about it as I started out, but my legs actually felt a lot better than anticipated and I promised myself I would stay positive no matter what.

Nearing the top! Photo by August Teague
Working my way to the top! Photo by August Teague

I can’t say I had quite the same experience on the run as I did on the bike, but it really didn’t feel quite as uber-tough as I remembered, and I was running strong-for-me up the hills. As expected Maia Ignatz passed me about 1.5 miles in and was looking strong and effortless. I knew I couldn’t match her pace, but tried to focus on keeping her in sight as long as possible. I honestly didn’t feel at all disappointed when she came by; I knew it was probably going to happen given her running prowess, particularly on a hilly course, and I still felt like I was having my personal best day (plus she is someone who I genuinely am happy to watch succeed!). The rest of the run I was running scared, not knowing how far back anyone else was, but that there were some other great runners back there somewhere. The climbing seemed to go on and on and the heat was taking its toll. I was ready to get to that finish line, and was already imagining how sweet it would be!

When we finally topped out I was so happy to hit the flats and descents, where I am so much stronger. I continued to be pushed by the pressure I felt from behind, positive talk in my head, and the thought of how amazing it was going to feel to be DONE! I really wasn’t thinking about the race in front of me, but then right as I got onto the last uphill that breaks up the descent to the beach, I could see the next woman up ahead (the one who’d passed me in transition). I’d been feeling pretty content with where I was at, but there was no way I was going to get that close to moving up a spot and not fight for it, so I set my sight and dug in. I knew I was going to have to make my move on the final descent over the top (as has now happened three years for me), so I kept it in control up the climb and then changed gears and let ‘er rip down the trail. Once I caught up I charged by hard to make sure the move would stick. Just moments after that I saw that there was someone collapsed on the side of the trail, with medical team in place to help out. Didn’t know what the situation was or who it was, but was totally bummed for them, so close to the finish!

Kicking it in to the finish! Photo by August Teague
Kicking it in to the finish! Photo by August Teague

But onward; all I cared about in that moment was getting to that finish line and not letting anyone get by me before I did! When I hit the beach it felt as hard as ever to run across that sand. I never looked back, but just knew I did not want to lose a spot in this last quarter mile, so I kept charging with all the energy I could muster. I made it onto the grass and kicked it in across the line, completely spent, but SO happy to be done and know I left it all out there. The finish line felt every bit as good as I’d envisioned it throughout the year, over the past six weeks, and especially in that last couple miles when it was all I could think about! My parents were there to greet me, along with August, Suzie, Chris and Adriana, and it was so amazing to share in the success with them. It was even more fun to watch as other friends continued to finish and turn in some great performances, and see how everything else had shaped up for other racers out there. The moments when you can celebrate after conquering this course are always so much fun, and I soaked it all up!

On to the beach and charging hard! Almost there! Photo by Jesse Peter, Xterra.
On to the beach and charging hard! Almost there! Photo by Jesse Peters, Xterra.

I ended up finishing 13th, and 3rd American! [As it turned out it was Jess Simson, another pro female, who had collapsed on the way down to the finish, so I moved up another spot when I passed by her. I felt awful for her as she was absolutely killing it out there, and I can’t imagine how tough it would be to come so close to such a great finish! Glad you’re feeling better now, Jess!] I was so, so pleased with my day and my result. Having moved up from 20th place last year to 13th this year, I was elated by such a big jump. But most of all I was just so happy I finally had the day I’d been striving for, and the day I felt like I had earned. I was able to execute my plan, achieve my process goals along the way, and embrace the moments as they came. I spoke positively to myself throughout the entire day and didn’t let any negative thoughts get in the way. I controlled the things I could control and didn’t worry about the rest, and I truly felt like I made good on the preparation I’d put in. It certainly wasn’t a perfect race, and there is still room for improvement (which is a great thing!). But in the end I did feel like I had finally found that elusive magic once again, and it felt amazing!

Enjoying the finish line bliss with two key members of my support crew, Suzie and August. Photo by Margie LaPoint
Recovering and enjoying the finish line bliss with two key members of my support crew, Suzie and August. Photo by Margie LaPoint

Gratitude and Thank You’s

I have so much to be thankful for about this experience, and there are so many people who helped to make it happen. To start, I am so grateful I had the opportunity to return to Maui and once again compete alongside the best in the world. I’m grateful to have everything come together for me on race day and enable me to see my true potential, as I know all too well how many things can go wrong in an Xterra — especially this one! I am grateful for the transformation I was able to make in such a short amount of time in order to be ready to perform my best when it mattered the most to me, and I have to give all thanks to August for guiding me along the way, pushing me forward even when I didn’t want to be pushed, and believing that I could accomplish big things (and helping me to believe it too!). I also really am grateful for all of the adversity I’ve faced this year, the failures I’ve experienced, and the races where I did not meet my goals or expectations. These are the things that keep us striving for more and pushing to get there, the things we learn the most from, and the things that really light the fire inside.

Most of all, I am grateful beyond measure to all of the people who helped me get here, supported me along the way, and made this such a special experience for me. In addition to August, it was so meaningful to me that my mom and Dan were able to be in Maui this year and be a part of my race. They truly are the “biggest fans” and I know how special it was for them to share in the experience. I owe a billion thanks to Chris Mathis, our LUNA team mechanic, for making the trip out, helping me sort through some issues I was having with my bike and ensure it was 100% ready to roll on race day, and for truly going above and beyond in so many ways to support me and the rest of our team throughout this year and my entire Xterra career. His presence has made a huge impact! Once again thanks to Suzie for being such a massive supporter during this week (and always), despite not being able to compete. This speaks volumes about her character. To Lizzy for being such an incredibly positive force in my Xterra racing and always rooting for me even when she’s taking on the same challenge (andย killing it — AG world champ for the 3rd time!!). To my California racing pals, Debby, Sian and Kim, for all the training sessions, laughs and positivity, and inspiration. To all of my friends and family from near, far and all over the place who sent cheers, encouragement, and just believed in me — especially Lindsay, Brie, Suzy, Daniel, Katie/Hayes, Allie, DJ George, and my dad… you’ve all gone the extra mile to make me feel so supported, and I appreciate it more than you know! Infinite thanks to LUNA for making all of this possible, and providing the foundation for me to grow as an athlete. To the Xterra staff and volunteers for working so hard to make this a great race experience for all of us record 800 racers! And to my competitors for bringing their A game every single time, and making me have to keep on fighting to be better.

I have met so many amazing people through Xterra and am constantly inspired by this one-of-a-kind community.ย It’s been a great year of Xterra thanks to all of you, and Maui was the absolute best way to wrap it up. I’m already so excited for the next one here, and looking forward to chasing down some bigger goals (that top 10 is calling!) and seeing how much more I can improve. Until next time Maui, you continue to have a special place in my heart! Aloha!

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