Wednesday, December 09, 2009

2009 XTerra World Championships - Paradise Found

Last Sunday, I had the great pleasure of joining 1,200 trail runners for a romp through paradise at the XTerra Trail Run World Championships in Oahu, Hawaii. This was the final event to cap off the XTerra season of 30+ trail run events, and runners from all over the globe came to compete for $10,000 in prize money, make some new friends, and enjoy the Hawaiian views, trails, and weather so worthy of a world-class event.

(Pre-race training with Sophie)

We had such a blast at the XTerra National Trail Running Championship in Bend, OR, that it didn’t take much arm twisting to get Sophie and Christi to join me for a weekend in the islands. The XTerra events are a wonderful format for taking the family – runners get a challenging course that attract pros and amateurs alike, kids have races, activities, and plenty of shwag that ensure everyone has fun, and there’s enough Aloha spirit to change the world. Throw in some downtime to play on the beach, and what’s not to like? It was the perfect way to cap off the season.

(Me and my crew at the starting line)

Race morning produced perfect 70 degree weather, and the early sun quickly got to work cooking the morning dew of the lush mountain sides. The Kualoa Ranch is a jaw-dropping venue, and I found myself pivoting in circles trying to take it all in. It was hard to say which was bigger – the mountains on either side of the valley, or the smiles from the runners who had escaped winter snow in hometowns from Italy to Canada to Oregon. Somewhere in those wicked steep mountains was a trail that none of us were allowed to preview and could slow the likes of Max King to a 1:18 half marathon in his win last year (he’s more of a 1:04 kind of trail half marathon guy). It was going to be great!

(The sun crawls over the hills to the starting area)

(Words of wisdom from the RD)

(Sophie warms up on the obstacle course)

I did some warm-up laps chasing Sophie around the kids obstacle course, and caught up with Max King, fresh off his win at the USATF Trail Marathon Championships. I asked him who the competition was, and he cited Inov-8 runner and Mountain Running Champion Joe Gray, as well as Ben Bruce (2nd to him at all XTerra national and world events to date). I also knew that Fujio Miyachi had come up from Tokyo, Japan, and a handful of runners from Boulder, CO were going to give it their best. We talked about the lead women too, and knew that Cynthia Anderson was back to defend her title, but had the likes of Ironman Champion Heather Fuhr, New Zealand running elite Fiona Docherty, and XTerra Triathlon World Champion Melanie McQuaid keeping her honest. It would be a fast race all around.

(On your marks, get set....)


The blast of the cannon sent us off into the hills, and Max King, Joe Gray, and Ben Bruce quickly dashed out ahead clocking sub-5 minute miles. The course followed a dirt road up the valley, throwing in some steep climbs within the first half mile. It didn’t take long before runners were strung out single file along the road. The views were so amazing it was hard to stay focused, and I suspect that the few face plants I saw were from us out-of-towners.

(Spreading out on the fire road, heading up the valley)

I found myself in my usual spot, trying to keep up with the lead women about 15 runners behind the lead pack. Fiona Docherty and Cynthia Anderson, both clad in compression socks, were setting a fast pace, with Heather Fuhr calmly in striking distance. We sped up in the shadows and slowed in the sun, as the Hawaiian heat governed our pace. One delightful distraction was the mix of nationalities present through various accents and flag-covered racewear including Japan, New Zealand, Italy, the camouflage of local US Army soldiers, and the ever-present dark tans of Hawaiian locals. Every face had the same ear-to-ear grin, proof of a common passion deeper than any national heritage.

(Oceans, mountains, and sky at every turn)

The first 5k loop went by quickly, and we rounded the mountain range to head up the coastal side. Fiona put on the afterburners, leaving the rest of us to work together and enjoy the ocean views. The volcanic mud made for some interesting creek crossings, and I quickly learned to just step in the water rather than run the edge and risk cleats full of caked mud that turned your shoes into 10 lb weights. The rooster tails of dirt coming off the runners in front of me was like a cross country championship; there wasn’t a clean shirt to be found by mile 5.

(Going fast in the shadows)

(Steep, steep, steep)

The steepest climbs began about six miles in, and had to slow to a walk on the big pitch to avoid overheating. I looked ahead and saw there were two lines of runners – the acclimated, and the unacclimated. I so, so wished to be with the fast line, but had to let them pass by, including some 40’ish looking runners that had me worried about my age group standings. Local Mark Mench said not to worry, gave me a pat on the back and flashed a hang loose, never breaking stride. He’s right – don’t stress it, you’re in paradise!

(Mark flashes a hang loose as we pass the Chinaman's Hat island)

(Oh. My. God. Could it get any prettier?)

(Gravity is your friend!)

We soon reached the peak and ventured into some “single track”, aka “a mile wide thicket of bushes with a mud strip down the middle”. Had the front-runners not left footprints, I’m not sure if I could have figured out where to go! The run down the spine of the mountain was short, and we quickly plunged into the muddy single track back to the valley.

(Single track)

(Single track in there somewhere)

I threw myself down the hill, knowing the Inov-8 x212 knobbies would grab everything they could as I sledded through the thick stuff. I passed a couple of runners, took a header into the bushes, then got back up and passed a couple of more. With one big splash in a puddle at the bottom, the mud shook off my shoes and sprayed behind me. I caught sight of runners strung along the cow-trail single track ahead, and they were within striking distance. This was it, the place where I was going to make up some time. I threw my arms and kicked behind me – my “ground eater” stride – and went for broke.

Passing on the thin single track was tricky, and there was little time to ask to pass before practically running on top of the person in front of you. Luckily these were trail runners, so I just got shouts of support as I took some chances on the high side of the trail. The cheers at the finish were deceivingly close, so I just stayed focused on the runners ahead of me. The volunteers said I was in 18th…then 16th…then 14th. Could I crack the top 10? I picked off a few more runners, but it wasn’t quite enough. I finished in 1:35:23, good enough for 14th and first in my age group. More importantly, just in time to see the beginning of the kids race where Sophie ran the whole thing in her Crocs.

I nearly drank an entire jug of Gatorade trying to get my body temp back to normal, all while sharing stories with Fujio Miyachi (5th, 1:26:12), Fiona Docherty (8th, 1st female, 1:30:05 CR), Cynthia Anderson (14th, 2nd female, 1:33:01), Heather Fuhr (19th, 3rd female, 1st Master female, 1:38:01), and others at the finish. Everyone exclaimed their pure joy with the mystery trail, which dished out plenty of hills, speed, mud, and scenery to be worthy of a World Championship. In fact, every runner who came in had that addictive mix of mud, smiles, and stories. If given a chance, I would have loved to go for a second loop. But most others were content with plentiful snacks, a haircut from the Paul Mitchell stylists doing a fundraiser for Challenged Athletes Foundation, or a nice massage.

(Max King repeats his win with a new CR)

Max King won the event in 1:14:26 (CR), with Joe Gray taking second (1:17:21, also beating last year’s CR), and Ben Bruce (1:20:43) taking third. [results] I caught up with them as we cooled down and cheered on the other runners, and it sounded like the new course was tougher than last year but a bit shorter. Max and Joe had split off from Ben about 3 miles in, but Max had used his course knowledge to perfect a wicked pace a few miles afterwards to break free of Joe.

(Me and Inov-8 teammate Joe Gray at the finish)

(Ben Bruce and Joe Gray relax at the finish)

(Tom Knoll shows off his trophy from the very first Ironman in 1978)

(Sophie poses with the trail elf)

(Inov-8 x212's and Injinji tsoks kept off the mud, blood, and burrs)

(Top finishers Ben Bruce, Heather Fuhr, Fiona Dougherty, Max King, Cynthia Anderson, and Joe Gray)

We collected our hardware, headed up the coast to have a few beers while watching the pro surfers tackle the 30 foot surf, and let the day stretch out as long as possible. I was still giddy with the feeling that trail running is such a universal passion, and toasted the good folks of XTerra for putting on a world championship that allowed me to make friends across the globe in one epic morning. When I caught up the other runners and XTerra volunteers at the celebration that evening, everyone agreed that it was world class. We were soon flipping through the XTerra schedule for the next one. ;-)

(She's such a ham...where does she get it?)

(The sun sets on the island, and on another great season)

My thanks to the everyone at XTerra, their great sponsors, and my fellow trail running warriors across the globe. I hope you are all enjoying your downtime!

- SD


  1. Congrats on the AG win! Great photo's, it sounds like you had a great time!!!

  2. Awesome job, Scott. An AG win at a world championship and you got great pictures at the same time!!!


  3. "World Champion Scott Dunlap"... Sounds pretty good huh?

  4. Good write up. It's good to see your wife and kid along with you. That indeed makes these event weekends worthwhile. I do the same whenever I can. Congrats!

  5. Awesome job, Scott! It's a fantastic result and it looks like you had a ton of fun along the way. Perfect.

  6. Thanks for the comments, guys!

    Trudginalong - Believe me, I will milk the "world champ" thing as long as I can. It's good fun right up until you explain that the real winner still beat you by 20 minutes.

    Brad - I agree, the family outing makes it great (just look at how many photos above have Sophie). If you like to bring your family along, be sure to check out one of the XTerra races. They do more than any organizer to keep things fun for the family (including dogs!). For once it's not me wanting to hang out longer at the finish! Sophie is still wearing her medal around telling all her friends.


  7. Scott,
    Great write up. Now you know what the term "heat index" REALLY means ;) !
    I am on a visit to the area and did Woodside last Sat when you were in HI...remembered that the aid station is at your driveway :) so thought of you. Had a blast---gorgeous weather--now I know why you fell in love with trail running...thanks for leading the way! BTW, the "real winner" really is YOU....and everyone else who finished that course. Plus, it remains to be seen if Max will be able to run as fast as you when he is your age!!!:)
    All the best and hope to meet up with you sometime, Ann

  8. It was great to meet you inperson before the race Scott. I'm glad to hear the heat didn't do you in - it was even hot for us locals!

    My daughter couldn't hold onto her AG title in her new division, but she did come in third so still had some hardware. It was a fun morning!

    Maybe we'll see you at a CA race one day! Aloha!

  9. Wow Scott, what a beautiful experience. I love how appreciative you are of it all. Not to mention FAST!! :)Congratulations!
    Beautiful pictures, especially of Sophie.

  10. Scott

    What kind of camera do you have? I've tried lugging mine on races but it's too bulky.



  11. Boy, that sounds miserable..I'm sorry you had such a horrible time and couldn't enjoy yourself at all.
    ; )
    Hawaii has some epic trails, doesn't it?

  12. Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Adrian - I'm currently using the Panasonic FX48, and have been pretty happy with it. For fast races like this, I just carry it in my hand. For the ultras I'm putting it in a water bottle pocket or a Nathan chest pack. Cameras do fall prey to water and dirt throughout the season, so I upped to a better warranty. Hope that helps!


  13. congrats with the AG win, and the end of a great year,

    damn, that's gorgeous.

    our kids are growing up too fast, huh?

  14. It was great meeting you Scott! Congrats on a great race!

  15. It was great meeting you Scott!
    and Happy new year!!
    I will try again XTERRA WORLD and some trail race in united states!!

    Fujio Miyachi


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