Thursday, May 25, 2017

XTERRA Oak Mountain Pan Am Tour - Pelham, Al

This will be my sixth time making this trip to the beautiful Oak Mountain State Park in Alabama.

I love this place so much that it comes very easily year after a year to put it on my calendar as a must do race. Not only are the trials just perfect, scenery is always spectacularly peaceful, tranquil and fresh. The huge forest and the lake creates the most relaxing atmosphere for the mind and body.

This season is a little different however and to be honest I did question myself if I should have come. With the lack of XTERRA races locally and most of them gone from the US calendar it’s very hard to stay motivated and keep chiseling away day in and day out hard trainings for a year just to show up for only one major race in the region in a season. We used to have the whole American Series with a few regional championship races especially prepped for Pros but much of the importance for the amateurs alike. Now everyone is left with no choice but to attend only the maximum of two races in the whole country, one right here in Alabama and the only other one at almost 11 thousand feet of elevation in Colorado. So, this year became hard already, tough in that scenario as well as the whole country decided to join this race just because they have no choice if they need to compete for any point standings and have even the slightest chance for an overall standing. Not that many amateurs or Pro racers can afford to travel to other countries to compete and collect more points and have more races under their belt. It takes more time and effort to travel aboard. There are some smaller races regionally but even those are hours and hours away from us South Floridians, so yes it became really hard even for the most dedicated of us and committed to the sport.

So, with the lack of racing in triathlon and more of the laid-back preparation that I am not used to, ready or not we traveled to Alabama once again.

The drive was long but we broke it up and left after work and drove more than half way through. The following day the remainder of the trip and almost straight to the trails to pre-ride my bellowed Bama bike course.

It was going to be a hot weekend and it was quite steamy at Oak Mountain. We biked in the mid-day heat and luckily for us most of the course is located under the dense foliage of this humongous forest.

The practice ride was pretty good and I found out quickly why I love riding here so much. There is just the ample amount of the fast and flowy single track all over the mountain with more or less technical sections. All of them however bring so much joy to someone who rides on the daily basis only a few mile-long loops on a constant repeat.

This year’s course was longer and included a new smooth trails, the Centipede and Jekyll and Hyde and the Johnson’s mountain was taken out. It did come close to 21.8 miles which I expected to take less time as the regular course since those two new sections had no technicality to them whatsoever, but rather were just super-fast, roller coaster style of joy riding. I must say I missed the Johnson’s mountain which I found more challenging and much better suited and much worthy for the race.

The next day got even hotter and temperatures got even higher and it supposed to reach the mid-90s.

We did our lake swim for practice and with just wearing a basic bikini there was feeling very comfortable and warm. There were just some cooler spots in the lake but everyone knew for fact that race will be without wetsuits.

On the race morning, I almost didn’t bring my wetsuit to the race site and at the last minute kept it along with my speed suit just so it’s there. It was pretty amazing to find out when setting up my transition space that after taking the temperature of the water we will be wetsuit legal. Oh dear, those were very good news for me especially with my little too relaxed swim training recently but I knew that we were going to cook in them and we will cook some more on the rest of the race.

I have to admit I was nervous, it’s always so much more difficult to come to a race with a really long break in between. Everything seems just a bit overwhelming and possibly intimidating. I did not have a good night sleep because of it and as always wondered why I am doing it to myself that it supposed to be fun and not that. But the truth is that there is no one without the other and everyone is experiencing some sort of pre-race jitters and has possible doubts. The race is the place to see where we stand and how we compare to others. I did not have huge expectations for the swim or the run but was hoping for a good bike split.

All in all, I found myself on the Oak Tree Lake shore standing almost waste deep in the brownish stirred up water by hundreds of racers and I got 30 seconds to go time. I could not believe it was happening again. My mantra for the swim was to stay “cool as a cucumber”, I knew I will have to put lots of effort to manage my open water anxiety. The less I race the more likely it is to take place and I am so very glad I was able to override my fears and dislikes and just focus on this damn yellow buoy far-far away in the horizon. I turned myself quickly off the race start onto auto pilot the moment I realized I did soldiered through the toughest part which is always the first 200 meters with a massive wave start. Someone did try to swim over me but I could care less, I just slightly moved to the side and I was fine, still focused and I didn’t want to even think where I was and why, I allowed my body to do what it learned in the pool practice and let it be. My mind drifted a million times in a million different places and it was a good thing for me. The stretch to the first buoy was really far and I had to focus a little more approaching it since all the traffic was heading now to this little space. Last thing you want to do on the buoy is to get pulled, pushed down and hit but this time it all went pretty well, the next buoy was very near and after that was left the long swim along the lake shore to the far away start/finish shoot. My arms felt tired on this lap, more than I would like them to be, I wondered how I was going to manage my effort through the second lap.

The quick grass shuffle was barley enough to shake off my arms and grab a few deep breaths and ready or not I had to get back in. I was swimming again and did not even bother thinking how far the buoy was. The difference on this lap was that people were more scattered all around so it was in a way more chaotic, I let my mind drift once again but at the same time I had to start thinking slowly about my transition and biking. This time around my arms felt much lighter but I felt like my heart was doing lots of work, it was not an easy peasy swim for sure, and soon after I started to feel the heat. Now I was uncomfortable thinking that if I’m overheating now in the water and I am so warned out, how tough it was going to feel on the bike and then run in this muggy and steamy hot conditions.

Glad to be over with the swim finally and I hoped on the bike. There was short road stretch to organize yourself on the bike, put gloves on and so on and soon after I jumped into the single track, and in instant I had to be ready to start my passes. In the matter of minutes not only did I realized it’s going to be a long journey having to have to go through whole groups of people ahead covering the single track as well as I felt how difficult was to bike while already exhausted from spending a half of an hour in the water. By the way our swim instead of 1 mile which equals 1.5 km happened to be 1.9 km long!

I was drenched wet, burning hot, huffing and puffing and trying to convince riders to let me go by. Some were better at it than others, some ladies were super nice and gave me some room, others could care less. I was progressing forward and really being in my zone however, I felt that in almost every single crucial section there was a person or a few who did not progress through the trail as fast as I would like to and therefore slowed me down on stuff that I could really fly on. There were a few riders that looked like they did not belong, they were hardy moving on the sections that were meant to be fast! I was a little shocked and had no slightest clue how they got in front of me I think I will have this visual of the guy in yellow going so slow in the single track after the cabin that it felt like the 16 mph that was required here was bogged down by him to the 2-mph pace. Thankfully I went around but it was not instant. The girl on the rock garden almost completely stopped looking on a little wooden bridge. I had to keep them going and telling them to keep pedaling and moving forward until I could finally safely pass. Man, that was rough. In the meantime, I started having a back and forth battle with one of my competition females. She would catch me up on the little climbs and I would have to go by her on all the technical sections and descents. Those are the mountain climbers! Ha ha. So, I told her “Listen, you are faster on the climbs I am on the descents, let’s make it work”, I just hated being blocked on the fast stuff.

Eventually she realized the facts and followed along. Well until the jeep road over 3-mile climb while her and some other girl just charged by me. I saw my Pax here at the only one on the bike feed zone (geez don’t miss that!) when he poured some awesome bottle of ice water down my back. It was so refreshing and much needed. I tried to keep an eye on the girl in color who went back and forth with me before, but the one that just went by me in the blue outfit was simply gone. The climb kept getting steeper and rockier, it was much more worn out and eroded than usual and made things a little more challenging. I kept the girl in color in sight and was not so far back throughout most of the climb. Happily, first time ever I could race here without having to change my chainring, the SRAM Eagle system was just perfectly edging on the lowest gear that would need only for the few steepest parts, therefore the Floridian set up worked perfectly. And there were only three times that I remember that I actually dropped my gear that low and exactly when I did that I was on the very steep climb under the fallen boulder and right before the bridge when I was catching up to a few other male riders. Since it got here a little bit busy after the horizon became a little bit clearer and I could see another few riders further up ahead I realized my girl in color was also gone. I charged and charged and finally got to the top of the mountain into the fast descent and a few long and sandy rollers. Right before the last uphill I went by another set of guys and went to a bumpy descent, it didn’t take long for one of the men to jet by me on this rugged terrain and start getting away on another fast stretch right before blood rock. I tried to keep up and eventually was able to catch him. Right before getting into the narrow and rock covered single track that proceeded the blood rock I asked the guy if he knows how to clear blood rock cleanly and he looked at me and said that he never rode it. Man, it didn’t take me even a split second to just go by him and he at the same time just realized it would be better if I went first. We started flying through it and when we were approaching more rocky parts toward the end we stumbled upon a rider on a fat bike! WTH, what is this guy doing in front of me, I had no idea, each time there was a little rock he would slow down big time and roll over it gently. I asked him three separate times to make space and let us go by but his ego sadly stood in his way and unfortunately in ours as well. The constant trees on the side and really no other way around and him not cooperating was just not working out. I was hoping that the last turn right before the descending down to actual blood rock trail he would let me go, but he just hit his brakes instead before a little root step down and started rolling into the trail. I yelled at him why he would not let me go and he just said I should have passed if I wanted to and he just kept on talking and riding like a snail barley going over the smallest rocks and little drops, it was actually pretty scary to go so slow through that. Man, I told him to just stay quiet and focus on the trail and riding. The man didn’t get that far however, soon after he saw the first rock drop he hit his brakes hard, stopped right in the middle and started unclipping, I was right on his feet and useless fat wheel. I was so angry, at no speed and nowhere to go I had no other choice than to dismount, run around him and run the whole section down. It was the saddest thing ever wasting all this time and knowing I could have ridden all of that and have been much further by now.

The rider behind me proceeded as well and soon we hoped on the bikes and went to the next fast section. It was the speediest part of the course where you really have to watch yourself since the big boulders and rock over rollers are filling out the path and are scattered randomly all over. It’s very easy to make a mistake at those speeds on such a technical descent or just fly off to the side. So however instead of finishing the trail and going across the road to the Johnson’s mountain we were doing a sharp right to go to the new this year Centipede trail. It was pretty smooth and flowy maybe with a few rocks here and there, pretty easy and I guess good leisure and fun trail. This is when I caught up quickly to my girl in color and soon after I made a clear pass, I knew that since there was nothing to it and not much to worry about here I could fly like the wind on this trail and I kept gaining positions. Soon I got to the Jekyll and Hyde trail which was even more flowy and even smoother but for sure more fun. There was more speed involved and rollers were just straight from a theme park, race or not I did throw a few yippies here and there it was so much fun. The rider that hung on my tail however really wanted to pass since he said it was his type of terrain and he really didn’t like the rocks that we had before. So, I let him go, but like I should have known from the past things are not always unfolding as people present them, so even though he rode fast I had to nudge him quite a few times to pick up the pace. Now I wonder how much faster I would have gone if I didn’t let him go but at the same time maybe he actually kept me safe from overcooking some of those rollers. Either way to my complete surprise almost toward the end we caught up to the girl in blue. It was a long time since I saw her last and we were on her tail in zero time. Now I was trying to just figure out how to get by both of them. The male rider soon realizing I was really in need to pass and he was not getting away from me anytime soon finally let me by, well better later than never.

Now I had her ahead, I looked a few times on quick opportunities but she didn’t look like she would be easy to let go and cooperate. Interesting how this all works but just seconds later we got to the total 180-degree sharp turn and all I can see is this slow-mo movie playing ahead of me… All of a sudden, her bike slides across the turn toward the right pretty much taking most of the trail, her body somehow manages to go over the bars and lean toward the left and downhill section of the trail. She is in this weird fetal position and for the longest time just kind of standing on her helmet doing like a perfect but weird yoga pose. I yelled “you are doing a headstand” I counted in my head, 1, 2, 3 and she was still standing, finally soon her body tipped over and she rolled over. This time I was able to barley squeeze by her and asked if she was OK. When I finished my turn, I looked back and she was getting up and getting on her bike. Apparently, she was OK, just seconds later we were crossing the road and returning on the rest of original race course, the Family Trail and right after Rattlesnake.

This is where I saw my Pax once again and he heard the crash that happened before. I was now ahead and having pretty good speed and flow and felt really good. I knew that I had to keep it strong here since we got way too much rest on the previous sections and now the final 4 miles are going to be deciding how much time I will have ahead on the run, I knew I need as much as possible, all that I could get. Even though this section can be pretty monotonic I think I stayed composed and focused enough. I actually for a change enjoyed some parts and had a good time. At one point I looked at my Garmin and all I could see is battery low, so I didn’t know exact milege to the finish but I knew it was very near, probably less than 2 miles. This is also when I started hearing some bike noise behind me that was getting closer and closer, I truly hoped it was one of the men that rode with me before. When I looked back to my surprise it was the very driven girl in blue once again and somehow she managed to catch up with me. In this order, we jumped off the single track to the fast double track along the lake and through the creek onto the road and to the transition.

She was right on my wheels and soon after was on my heels. When I hit the pavement in the full sun and the heat of the day my legs were barley moving. I was hoping the little downward section would help after the initial up but it didn’t bring much of relief. I felt like a snail trapped in running shoes. Just before hitting the rolling single track I got passed by three women, I had nothing to give to respond and with time instead of improving I started to feel worst. It was almost the Maui from few years back agony, this awful pain in my chest and abdominal area. I had no clue what it was but I felt really bad and I could not speed up even if I wanted to and to add to it I felt lightheaded. I was just wondering how I was going to get to the next feed zone so if I was going to pass out there would be someone to help.

I kept on moving but just kept slowing down, in a normal scenario I would be already in my red racing zone, now I was just trying to survive. I somehow managed to get through the first lap and things did improve. My pace was just ridiculously slow and I felt it was more than my recent lack of running that contributed to it. I was cruising now into the second lap and sun seemed to haunt me each time I hit the pavement or the over the dam gravel stretch. I knew how bad the second lap would feel and thankfully the pain was gone but the legs were not turning any quicker and I was too tired to force myself to pick up. So, I rolled through the hills with the sense of defeat especially after another set of ladies went by me and I could not even entertain the idea to try to stay with them. All my work on the bike went to garbage in those really painful 6 miles. I thought to myself how hard this sport is and how iron clad all those athletes have to be to compete here since it’s so much pain and agony. You are fighting against the demons of your own being and keep punishing yourself and are not willing to stop or give up. We push our bodies to the point where there is nothing more that can be done, where we reach the complete limits. After the bigger climbs on the other side of the lake I had one log over and this made me almost pass out, who would thing going over the log can push you over the edge and be so exhausting, but it was. The last turn over the wooden bridge and I approached the last feed zone just a quarter mile from the lakeside finish. But I looked to the left and there was the girl that passed me not long ago, she was held by her wide stretched arms by two volunteers and her head was collapsing and her legs were going soft. She could not stand any longer on her own and was passing out from heat exhaustion. She was that close… I ran on the edge of the lake and had people cheering for me with one of them being Emma Garrard and soon after today’s winner Josiah Middaugh and his brother Yaro Middaugh and besides my not so great performance I got a huge high five soon before making my last turn into the finish shoot.

I raced way longer than I am used to racing on this course, to be exact by a whole 24 minutes. The longer swim, longer bike, hot conditions and my unpreparedness contributed to that result.

I still placed 5th in a strong field but I knew I’m more than capable of delivering a better result. Improvising a race might work at times but the harder the conditions and stronger competition, the less chances of actually getting away with it.

The time we spent with all our friends and fellow racers were special, fun and emotional. It was so good to see so many familiar and long not seen faces and find out how their and where their lives are taking them. I looked at every single person I know and truly adore and thought that I don’t know how many times we will be seeing each other again and if I will be back here again. Thinking of moving on is one thing but actually doing it is other. I still don’t know if I made up my mind what should take place next.

All I can say is I’m very grateful once again for this experience and opportunity to be exposed to the top level racing in an off-road triathlon. To be with friends who not only are the top racers in the country and the world but also are the youngest, the oldest, the most inspiring and super fun characters. All those incredible people see what I see in this tough sport and hang in there very strongly for that particular reason, to stay connected to those that are so different but also so alike like themselves.

I was so happy to see Emma being back racing, to see Suzie racing strong. Catch up with talented Katharine, always super fun Debbie and always focused Caroline. It was pleasure to see Liz Grubber become so strong and make it to top 4 in Pro.

After the racing was over the XTERRA racers and the crew traditionally met up in the Margaritaville for an after party. It was awesome to catch up so many of amazing athletes there, including Josiah, Casey Fanning, Will Kasey and his wife, Marcus, Keith with his girlfriend and Lesley Paterson. It was a really cool evening and it was sad to leave.

But myself and Pax had additional fun stored that day for ourselves and after the racing and organizing we decided to go for an awesome bike ride. We had Jim chauffeur us around to the top of the Oak Mountain and we biked down the red trail bypassing blood rock and going down all the way to the Thunder Trail. The views by the way were spectacular but the clouds were already everywhere and there was the light drizzle and we could hear some thunder far away. By the time me and Pax finally got a few miles later to the Thunder Trail the rain started to pick up, very soon just slightly moist rocks started to become plain wet, it was getting rainier and rainier by the second and the trail was filled with small rock gardens all over. It started to get darker and darker soon we were in an almost complete darkness and full-blown rain. Also, the area got extreme flood warnings for this exact time. It was quite coincidental that we were riding the Thunder and Lightning Trail in the worst thunder and lightning storm and rain. Now it was so tough to navigate over the rocks but we did actually really very well with that and it was hard to see anything, the glasses were fogging and the darkness was just getting deeper. The lower we got on the thunder the more lightning strikes started to hit all around us, initially there were on the other side of the mountain, but now there were directly hitting where we were. It was tough but we had no choice but keep calm and keep descending. Losing cool now would not make anything better so I tried to enjoy our journey the way it was unfolding. I found it a great challenge to maneuver over technical terrain in those rough conditions and overall it was pretty fun. Finally, we got to the Lightning trail and oh boy, it was so fast, so steep so holly cow incredible. I did not care we were now jetting through streams of water, I was yelling out loud of joy, it was such a thrill to ride those sick descents, I was happy to hear that my Pax also had a pretty good time besides the adverse conditions we were in. In dry it would have been much faster, even more fun and way safer. When we hit the bottom, we got spilled on to the rock garden trail which was part of the race course. Everything was a flowing water now and the thunder was hitting left and right. It was really scary and there was no safe place here being surrounded but zillions of trees and riding in the deep standing water, so the only goal was now to just get out of here. When we finally spilled out to the open road it was completely white, the rain was so thick and was going sideways, the whole forest flooded in this very short amount of time. We jetted under one of the pavilions and waited there for Jim to pick us up while the lightning just kept swirling all around us…

It was another of ours little dangerous adventures but I felt like it was very refreshing and bonding at the same time. I’m very happy we got to do it together and create this thrilling and amazing memories…

Huge Thanks to all my sponsors and new ones for 2017

City Bikes, Castelli, Magura, Stan’s Notubes, Schwalbe, Trainer Road, ESI Grips, Clif, XpedoGarden of Life, Kuat Racks, Light & Motion, EVOC, Oakley, Pocketfinder, KMC Chains, Rotor Bike Components, K-Edge, Squirt Lube, SelleSMP and for 2017 - Trek and CeramicSpeed

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