Saturday, September 05, 2009

Dirty Fun at the XTerra Lake Tahoe Triathlon

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of joining 350 multisport athletes for the XTerra Lake Tahoe off-road triathlon in Incline Village, NV. This sprint/Olympic distance triathlon offers a delicious sample of the many things that make Tahoe special, from swimming in the crystal clear Lake, to mountain biking down the epic Flume Trail, to finishing a trail run in a dog park full of four- and two-legged spectators. I had never done an off-road triathlon, so thought it would be fun to be the “newbie” and see if this XTerra community loves trails as much as ultrarunners do. If love of a trail is measured by the volume of dirt in your teeth from smiling through a whole race, then in retrospect, I’d say it’ s pretty damn close.

(Does it get any better than this? Photo courtesy of Travel Nevada)

An off-road tri wasn’t on my marathon/ultra training agenda, but when I saw that this event landed perfectly on the morning of a nearby wedding we would be attending, I figured it was fate calling my name. Let’s call it “cross-training”, shall we? Thirty seconds later I was registered for the sprint distance, and instantly freaked out at how unprepared I was. Damn you, Damn you to hell. (Damn you too,, even though this one wasn’t your fault)

I haven’t been swimming regularly for almost two years. And my mountain bike has gathered more dust than the Arc of the Covenant (cue the Indiana Jones music). But this is what the sprint distance is for – long enough for a workout, but not so much that newbies like me will get into too much trouble. One lap of 750 meters in the water, 22 miles on the mountain bike, and a 3.1 mile run. Just find a rhythm, go fast when you can, and have as much fun as possible.

I chatted with the other athletes as I set up my gear in the transition area, laughing about the few plots remaining from the beach towel land grab that eager, early-rising athletes had claimstaked. C’mon guys, I’ve had studio apartments with less square footage! We all cracked jokes and shared our personal histories of past rookie moves, and there seemed to be an endless supply of both. The ample laughter eased away any tension, and I sensed that XTerra athletes and ultrarunners are cut from the same cloth. We share a common bond for laughing and sweating in the dirt, perhaps more so than our distance-loving cousins, the Cult of Ironman. Then again, I don’t think any of us would pass up an opportunity to spend a cloudless day outside bonding with nature. Perhaps that cloth is big enough for three cults. ;-)

(Check out the polka dot bag two bedroom transition area)

I made my way down the swim start with Laura Ward from Tahoe City and Piers Stockwell, whom I had met last year at the XTerra 10k. Both are fabulously fit, and like me were using the sprint distance for some cross training. They eyed my Vibram Five Fingers shoes, which I was planning to wear in the water to make the 600m transition from the swim to the bike a bit easier. Is there anything these shoes can’t do?

(Olympic distance athletes do two laps, photo courtesy of Ryan Jers)

We took off at 8:10am, a few minutes behind the Olympic distance racers (they would be doing two laps). The water was perfectly calm as we swam around the Hyatt pier, past the boats, and made our way towards the beach. My swim stroke was definitely lacking, and I set into a manatee-like pace near the back. One poor guy had a panic attack, latching onto an unsuspecting boat to tear off his claustrophobia-inducing cap and wetsuit. Another hyperventilated in the mountain air and was floating on his back. Such drama with the manatees! The Olympic distance swimmers caught us on the last corner, throwing elbows and cutting through our pack like the Waterworld version of Hells Angels. With that, the last of us ran up the beach and down the street, frantically pulling off our wet suits to reveal our age-inscribed calves and size each other up.

I was sooo stoked to jump on the bike I could hardly contain myself. Oh Santa Cruz Blur, I have missed you so! This loop out the Flume Trail and back through Marlett Peak is one of the best around, and I had run these trails dozens of times. My hope was that my BMX background (15 yr old State champ, baby!) would combine with my trail knowledge to overcome the fact that this is the first day I’ve touched this bike since Sophie was born three years ago. Preparation, shmeparation!

After a short sprint down the road, we began the first of two hellacious climbs. The 3-mile Tunnel Creek trail had me openly thanking the Gods of triple chain rings, as my thumb subconsciously molested the shifter looking for even smaller gears. Most of the pack stayed to one side, panting and heaving in unison, and walking when it got too steep or sandy. An “unauthorized aid station” with a man in a tutu was handing out bacon strips telling people to get their protein early in the race…had I realized this was the only food on the course I might have taken him up on it! It did seem a bit odd that there were no food or gels on a 3+ hour course, but I guess this is the XTerra way.

(Nathan Bartels and Troy Wendt tackle the lung-busting Tunnel Creek climb)

I had to pull over to realign my front wheel a few times and stop the Halloween-esque squeaking of my disc brake (spooky rider on your left!). It felt so odd to have mechanical issues during a race! I also got a pic, one of just a few I was able to take. Taking pictures during an XTerra race risks life and limb, either from a high speed fall or from stopping the momentum of another rider who would quickly, and justifiably, pummel you for your indiscretions. I only had to try and start pedaling again on this steep climb to understand that.

(Climb, climb, climb!)

At the peak of Tunnel Creek, we were rewarded with the gorgeous Flume Trail. This trail isn’t much more than a single track notch in a cliff, but you can haul ass on its long straightaways. I stacked up behind some slower riders, but it gave me a chance to suck in the deep blue of Lake Tahoe and enjoy the scenery. I started chatting with the guy behind me, and it turned out to be the panic attack guy! He said it was the first time it ever happened, but he was able to calm down after a brief rest.

(Rounding Marlett, and heading up to the peak)

We circled Marlett Lake, and I used the fire roads to pass a bunch of people succumbing to the rising heat and altitude. The next climb started suddenly, and a lot of folks got off their bikes to walk in the rising heat. I was thankful to have the TRT100 knowledge to gauge my pace, which quickly paid off by passing another 30 riders on the climb to Marlett Peak. Many of those riders caught me again as I white-knuckled the large boulders in the descent. Good lungs can only do so much to overcome lack of comfort on the bike.

(It just....keeps.....going!)

My Julbo Race glasses were doing wonders with the shadows (I’ve recently become a convert of their Zebra lenses, which can change shades instantly), allowing me to keep up with stronger riders on the single track. We all plunged down Tunnel Creek at full speed, narrowly missing a group of crashed riders untangling their bikes. I entered the pavement section a bit too fast, taking out a pylon and getting hoots and hollars from the police directing traffic. All in good fun!

(Finishing at the dog park)

My transition was fast to the run, as I slipped on my Inov-8 X-Talon 212’s and began sprinting through the course. There were so many zigs and zags, it was hard to run below a 6 minute pace. My lungs were bursting, but I kept at it, knowing it would all be over with soon. I crossed the finish line in 3:21, good enough for 18th place. My splits were epitomal of a runner crashing the XTerra party – 25 manatee minutes in the swim, 2:20 wimp rider minutes on the bike, and a blazing 20:43 fastest-run-split of the day (thank you, X-Talons!). After comparing notes with the others, it appears it was all about the bike today. Pierce had similar splits to me for the swim and run, but his 20 minute speedier time on the bike was good enough for 3rd overall. At the finish BBQ, few spoke of finish times but instead shared their favorite parts of the course and licked the dirt from their smiling teeth. We definitely made the most of this gorgeous morning.

I got a post-race massage from the Monsters of Massage, grabbed a burger, and cheered on the remaining athletes in the warm sun. Tom Faukner (2:34:31) and Nancy Harrison (3:07:34) won the Sprint distance, while pros Nicolas LeBrun (2:47:56) and Genevieve Evans (3:25:28) won the Olympic distance. When you think about the fact those pros had two swim and run laps, those results are truly world class. XTerra athletes are the real deal!

As I returned home to change for the wedding, I relaxed with that glow you get from trying a new adventure, and seeing your favorite trails in a whole new light. There’s nothing quite like being a “newbie” again, no matter what the distance. Perhaps I won’t put that wetsuit and mountain bike right back in the attic just yet.

Hope you are all having a great weekend!

- SD


  1. "Damn you, Damn you to hell."

    can't tell u how many times I've drunk-dialed Active and spent $600 on races I didn't have time to train for. Funny!

  2. Scott -

    You did the race last year too. I did them both as well. It didn't seem like it was as well organized this year...lines for food at aid stations...3 hour check-in the day before instead of all day...late starts...what happened?

  3. I've always wanted to do a triathlon, but am definitely not a strong enough swimmer to even do a sprint distance one. Oh well...maybe I should work on that. :) Congrats!

  4. You tell a good story Scott. But, you made one mistake. It's trail runners that a have a lot in common with Xterra racers and mountain bikers in general. A love of the outdoors, not being pretentious and a huge fondness for chili and beer!

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post. And congrats!

  6. Hey Scott, I always enjoy your race reports, but this one in particular. Your enthusiasm is infectious. A lot of newbies might have stressed or pissed & moaned about technical glitches and other unforeseen difficulties, but it seems you kept a goofy grin on your face the whole time. I've never done a tri and don't think I will (too intimidated by the bike) but you maybe, maybe made me think twice. Nice work!
    (btw new blog: and still have for running)

  7. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    TE - The difference between this year and last is that last year this was the XTerra National Championship put on by XTerra Planet; this year it was still an official XTerra race, but "franchised" to Big Blue Adventures to manage. It was up to Big Blue to decide things like early check in, check in processes, medals, food, etc. The t-shirt was definitely better though. ;-)

    Anon - If it's only the swim holding you back, I would say find a swimmer friend and go for the team relay. Lots of folks at this race doing it and having a great time.

    John - You're right, it should be trail runners, not ultrarunners! Nobody loves the trails like trail runners.

    Sarah - You should GO FOR IT!!! It only takes one tri to say you're a triathlete. ;-)


  8. Great job on pulling off the fastest run split, Scott. Sounds like a fun, cross training race. If it wasn't for the swimming I might try it too next time. ;-)

  9. Currently dealing with a Sfx in my left foot (thanks Vibrams) for about 6 weeks now and while I've been biking (road) and swimming here and there, a regular triathlon never really appealed that much to me.

    But I never considered doing one off-road before and after reading this, who knows...all I know is, it sounded like it was a blast!

    Great write up as always Scott.

  10. Wow! That was awesome! I've always admired triathlon racers..Good luck in your next race!

  11. I always love your race reports. You make anything sound like fun!! This race is definitely on my list to do someday. I don't want it to be my first tri, however. I think I need to warm up to something like this. Someday.

  12. Nice job, sounds like it was a blast! Glad to know I'm not the only one who approaches training for tri's in that manner. I am definitely one of the Manatees! :)

    Those are some sweet trails, but when I heard the bike route took riders UP Tunnel Creek Rd, I did not even consider this race. I hate riding up that road. (Still, anything that gets you to the Flume Trail is probably worth it!)

    Beautiful report Scott, as usual!


I LIVE for comments! Please add your thoughts, let me know you stopped by, etc., and be thoughtful of others. Always best if you sign your name, of course.

Latest Excursions