Xterra Costa Rica: An Unexpected Breakthrough

Xterra Costa Rica was my first time racing triathlon outside of the U.S. (hard to believe when I think about that!), and also my first ever trip to Costa Rica — two very exciting firsts! When Xterra announced last fall that they were replacing the U.S. Pro Tour with a broader Pan-American tour, my feelings were very mixed. On one hand I was really excited about the opportunity to check out some different venues, race fresh courses and explore new destinations. I was also excited about the potential for Xterra to expand its reach, and hopefully add some new competitors into the mix as their opportunities increased, particularly in South America. However, I was concerned about the increased costs of competing, and I was definitely disappointed that two of the U.S. races were cut from the schedule. Change is often tough to digest. We get into a routine we’re comfortable with — like racing the same five U.S. pro tour races year after year, learning the courses like the back of our hands and having a good basis of comparison for our performances and progress each time — and breaking that routine for something new can really challenge us and make us hesitant. But I wanted to keep an open mind about the possibilities ahead, and was mostly really excited to see what the Pan-Am Tour would be like, so I decided to focus on the positives, and for me a BIG one of those was getting the chance to race in COSTA RICA!

Having never been there before, I can’t overemphasize how thrilled I was to go on this trip. For me Xterra Costa Rica was really so much about the experience, and I ultimately approached this race trip as one big adventure and aimed to soak it all in to the fullest extent and do as much exploration as possible. I’ve never started my triathlon season so early before, and with having to take such a big step back in my normal training this winter while focusing on rehabbing my hips, I really didn’t know what to expect from myself, and didn’t want any pressure. So I chose not to set any result-based goals whatsoever, and all of my performance goals focused exclusively on the process and approach of racing.

All that being said, as the race got closer, I did start to feel pretty nervous, which is unusual for me. I was feeling surprisingly good in my training sessions. My body felt strong, healthy and refreshed. My hips felt the best they had in years. Mentally, I was optimistic about the possibilities and excited to race. I was so happy to be there, so grateful to be healthy after all the work I had done and changes I’d made to get to that point, and so fired up about the beauty of the venue and the course itself. Essentially, I was in a great place coming into race day, and felt much more ready than I’d expected. I started really feeling positive about my potential, which was exciting… but also made me more nervous. Deep down I truly believed that, as unconventional as my winter had been, this could actually be a breakout race for me, and I really could end up achieving something special. Finding that confidence felt great, but I still didn’t want to set expectations. So I had to find a balance between aiming high and believing in what I was capable of, and continuing to focus on the process, the experience and the steps I needed to take to make it across that finish line, rather than getting caught up in the possibilities.

Fortunately, Costa Rica is an awesome place for finding balance, and most importantly FUN, and we sought out as much of that as we could during our time there. I got my key pre-race training sessions in (and tried not to spend too much time in the sun), but my priorities in the days before the race were on my experience, and getting the most I could out of every aspect. I think we achieved this to the fullest extent, and am really glad that we approached the trip the way we did. We only had a few days before the race, but we filled them to the brim with sightseeing; exploration; beach combing; ocean dipping, flipping and tricking; best-smoothies-I’ve-ever-had sipping; all-kinds-of-delicious-food eating; monkey scoping!! (the big bucket list check-off for me!); watching live music; meeting new people; practicing our Spanish; and taking in as much local culture as possible. It was a total blast, and the three pre-race days went by all too quick!

I didn’t sleep much at all on race-eve, between the usual pre-race jitters and the heat, and the 4:30 wake-up call was rough… but the 6:45 a.m. start would be SO worth it to finish the race before temps got too brutal. Ultimately I knew that the environmental factors of this race would pose the biggest challenge for me, and I really had to think of this as a race against myself and the course more so than my competitors. Given that I’d come straight from winter to 100+ degree heat and humidity, and that despite feeling good I really didn’t have a lot of base fitness to rely on (and — let’s be honest — my shape was still pretty questionable), it was essential that I stay focused on my own race and not worry about anyone else. I was going to have to be both strategic and conservative here, which are two things my normal default racing approach of “Just go as absolutely hard as you can and see how long you can hang on” pretty much never considers, so this was a challenge for me. I also knew that no matter how well I raced, it was going to get really freaking hard when things got hot, so positive mindset and self-talk were going to be absolutely crucial. But I was ready for all of it, and excited to embrace the challenge!

Race Number
Ready to go! Photo by August Teague.
Kara Xterra Costa Rica Pre-swim
Photo by Dylan Haskin.

The swim here is like something out of a dream. Beautiful white beach start; calm, clear, warm water; and minimal chaos with a relatively small field and plenty of space between each start wave (Thank you organizers!!). The water feels truly magical, and this was without a doubt one of the most enjoyable swims I’ve ever done. (Can all triathlon swims be like this from now on, please?!) Anyway, I felt great in the water and was able to swim strong and efficient, thanks to lots of attention on that discipline these last few months, and the increased mobility and functionality that have resulted from my PT work this winter. I quickly found myself alone after Ironman racer Cait Snow pulled away and continued to extend her lead, while Miriam Guillot Boisset and Sabrina Gobbo swam together about 45 seconds behind me throughout the race. It was a bit hard to keep my pace up solo, but I tried to focus on minimizing the gap behind Cait and gaining as much time as I could on the other competitors before the ride. By the middle of lap two I already felt hot in the water, and I knew things were going to get tough!

Photo by Dylan Haskin.

My transition was ugly and truly gave new meaning to the word SLOW. By the time I got out of there, I’d gone from 2nd place to 4th, giving away all the time I’d gained in the swim… OUCH! I know I’m out of practice after winter, but needless to say, this needs some serious work! Too much free time lost… But onto the bike! Miriam, Sabrina and I essentially left T1 together, and it was nice to have some company, but it didn’t last long, as Miriam — the eventual race winner — quickly disappeared into the distance. Sabrina and I stayed together across the beach heading out toward the trails. This part is challenging as you’re working to ride across the sand, and in one section it gets so deep that you have to push the bike and run… ugh! I was happy to get to the hard-packed dirt, but almost right away you’re greeted with the longest, steepest climb of the day, and it’s a major leg burner! I knew I could either gain or lose a lot of time here, so I pushed hard, and felt really good about how I was riding. At the top I passed Cait, and saw I had also put a gap on Sabrina, and was now back into 2nd place. This is where I was determined to stay, so I charged ahead and did not look back! My legs felt great, I was riding smooth and consistent, and I was having fun!

Xterra Costa Rica LaPoint Bike
Photo courtesy of Xterra.

But I was also riding all alone. I knew I wanted to remain somewhat conservative throughout the ride, as I could already feel the temperature rising, but I also didn’t want to get complacent being out there by myself, unsure how big the gaps were behind me and knowing there’d be some fast runners chasing me down later. It was really tough to find this balance and gage how hard I should be pushing, especially with no one around. A little over halfway through the ride, I could tell I was just not keeping the speed I needed to. I’d settled in to a rhythm that was not quite fast enough, and I had gotten comfortable. I tried to hit the accelerator and change gears — it was time to get moving! But not long after, around mile 14, Sabrina popped back up behind me. I was a little frustrated with myself for not picking up the pace a little sooner and letting the gap be closed down, but there was no time to dwell on it. I reminded myself that the only thing that matters is the end result, and focused on racing SMART from there on out, sticking to my own plan and process, and doing what I needed to do to get myself to the end of the race in the best way possible.

When Sabrina came by, she was accelerating fast and looking strong. I was unable to put in the burst I needed to match her speed — at least not without overextending myself — so I focused on keeping her in sight and not doing anything drastic. She kept a great pace over the last few miles, and I worked hard to keep her in reach even though I remained a consistent 20-30 seconds back. I thought about putting in a hard push to close that gap, and was really tempted, but then my new ‘smart-racer-sense’ kicked in, and I realized that I didn’t need to do that. I just needed to stay right where I was, within sight, and start thinking about the next steps to the finish line. I knew this race was going to come down to the run, whether Sabrina and I came into T2 together or 30 seconds apart, and I needed to do all I could to be as prepared as possible to run my fastest. As much as I wanted to get that 30 seconds back right then and there, I knew the effort might be just enough to make me lose far more time on that run, so I settled in and prepared for a tough fight ahead.

Coming into this race, a tight run battle was exactly what I did not want — I just didn’t know if my body and mind were ready for the pain and the pressure — but of course that is exactly what I got, as is often the case for me. (Hey, it only makes you stronger, right?!). So when I left T2, I knew exactly what was in store for me. I knew it was going to take everything I had to get that 2nd place finish — and I knew it was going to hurt. I felt a little overwhelmed by the situation as I started running, so I tried to put it out of my mind and focus on me. I didn’t think about the time gap or the result; I just thought about putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward as fast as I could. But by a couple miles in, Sabrina and I were back in contact, and it was time for me to get tough, find my grit, and fight. I wanted this, and I wasn’t going to let it go. I put in a hard charge to make the pass decisive, and got a decent gap as we headed onto the second of two outer loops on course.

This is where things really got painful. It got hotter and hotter, and my body got more and more tired and overheated, but I refused to slow down and relinquish any time, not knowing what kind of gap I had, and too scared that I wouldn’t be able to pick the pace back up if I backed off even for a moment. I could feel my body screaming at me and my system felt like it was starting to shut down, but I wanted that 2nd place so badly at that point, after all the work I’d done to get there, that I simply could not let it slip away. I was too afraid to even look back, worried that seeing someone close behind would cause me to shut down. I just put my head down and charged with everything I had, trying to tick away the mileage as quick as I could. I felt like I was on auto-pilot, just willing my legs to keep on pushing to that line. The last few hundred meters take you back across the deep sand, and they were BRUTAL. I was still afraid of getting passed, and wanted to keep all the momentum I could… so I just pushed even harder.

Xterra Costa Rica LaPoint Run
Photo courtesy of Xterra.

When I made it to the finish, I was thrilled, relieved, and completely overcooked! I couldn’t stand up and had to take yet another trip to the med tent to get some help cooling my body back down. I was okay, but just needed some time to get the system back to normal. This was the one disappointment of the day for me, as I had really hoped not to get to that point. (This has happened several times in the past, especially in the heat). August and I talked a lot about this after, and what additional changes we can try to make to avoid overexerting myself and putting my body into such a bad state. I have thought about it a great deal, and will talk more about this in a future blog post, but it is a big goal of mine to stay out of the med tent for the rest of this year. Sometimes tenacity and determination really can be to a fault, and we can push ourselves just a little too hard, unnecessarily. As it turned out, I ended up with a roughly two-minute lead over 3rd place, so I could have (and should have) spared myself some suffering in the end, but I had no idea, and was too laser-focused on the end result to know what was happening in the moment. I will try to be better about this in the future.

Kara Xterra CR Post-Race
Unlimited Productions photo.

At any rate, I was extremely thankful to have held the implosion off until after the finish line, and incredibly thrilled with my 2nd place finish, which is a new career best! Aside from the overexertion those last couple miles, I felt like I achieved all of the goals I set for myself on the day, and I was really happy with the way that I raced, how my body felt, and most importantly how I responded to some of the different scenarios I faced out there. I felt like this was a great opportunity for me to practice racing more strategically and staying within myself, and I learned a TON in that effort. I know those lessons will be extremely valuable to me in the future, and I look forward to building on them. And as much as I hated the tight battle for 2nd in the moment, I was thankful for it in the end, as I felt like I had really earned that finish, and I know it made me that much stronger.

Above all, I was most excited and grateful to feel healthy and strong throughout this race and afterward. I had no hip pain, which is a HUGE milestone, and to achieve a career-best result in the process feels amazing, and is incredibly validating for the decision I made this winter to step back from training and focus on taking care of my hip issues. This was a hard decision and there was a lot of frustration and sadness throughout the process, but I know now more than ever that it was the right thing to do, and I truly believe that I am just starting to see the potential of what is possible for me now with a fully healthy body. This was the first race in so many years that I did not feel limited by my hip pain, and I am excited to see what else I’m capable of once I have more training under my belt. I am thankful beyond measure to my friend Tav for guiding me back to health and encouraging me along the way. Your help has been invaluable and I could never thank you enough!

Xterra Costa Rica Elite Podium
Xterra Costa Rica elite podium. Photo courtesy of Xterra.

We got one final day of Costa Rican adventure before heading home, and it was fantastic! Costa Rica is truly a special place, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to race there. The whole experience was incredible, and I am so grateful to everyone who helped make it happen. Huge thank you to my sponsors and supporters for making all of this possible: Sierra Endurance Sports, Reno Running Company, Nature’s Bakery, Coeur Sports, Altra Running, Unleashed Coaching, Catlike, GU Energy Labs, Zealios Skin Care, Paco’s Truckee Bike and Ski, and Todd’s Body Shop. Thanks to my ‘sister’ Emily and my mom for taking care of the fur babies while we were gone so we could take this trip. To our amazing host, Renate, for taking such great care of us and coming to watch my race — that meant so much to me! To the race organizers and volunteers for working so hard to provide an exceptional race experience. And a big thank you to all of the other racers — and especially to Sabrina — for pushing me to the limit and making me better. It was such an honor to race with you ladies and I look forward to the next time! Gracias por todo, Costa Rica! I will definitely be back, and until then… Pura Vida!


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Canuck Carl says:

    WOW, what an amazing recap of this destination race.

    I am just an average to slow runner, am always amazed reading posts such as this. Congratulations on your career best result! 🙂

  2. Margie LaPoint says:

    Nicely done and great article! So glad one of your goals is to stay out of the med tent😃
    That makes me happy! ❤️ Mom

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