XTERRA is a superb race series. It’s friendly, relaxed, well-organised and massive fun. It’s also far more than just an Olympic distance race on a mountain bike – don’t be fooled into thinking the bike section is simply rolling over a few lumpy fields! For XTERRA England, it was also the only chance to race on the beautiful, private Vachery estate. The 2014 race had more than a few issues in the build-up, but the brand owners clearly care deeply about the series’ reputation and pulled out a lot of stops to make sure it went ahead.
A midday start seemed incredibly civilised (none of this force feeding yourself porridge before dawn). The Sprint race finished entirely before the Championship race got underway and the sun came out.
The swim is in Vachery Pond, although it feels more like a small lake. It’s clean, with very little weed, but not all that deep and a couple of hundred people kick up a significant amount of silt so visibility was quite poor. Allegedly, the water was 19 degrees, but I decided to wear two swim caps just in case. Standing on the ramp watching the pro start with 3 minutes to go till the first wave of Age Groupers, I nearly changed my mind, as it was almost unpleasantly hot standing in a wetsuit in the sun. Not being renowned for my imperviousness to cold, however, I kept the extra one on and was very glad I did. The water felt decidedly chilly, but thankfully not cold enough to make my chest go tight and I could pretty much put my head in straight away and swim. It doesn’t seem to make a blind bit of difference how much attention I pay to the course and location of the turn buoys beforehand, once we actually start I never have a clue where I’m going. As long as a fair few people are going the same way as me, I tend not to worry too much.
The turnaround came pretty quickly. I couldn’t decide if this was because I’m used to swimming so much further, or because I was swimming faster. Either way, it was over before I had time to get too bored.
Swim: 1500m, 27:16
I scrambled (in my most ladylike fashion) up the steep ramp to the exit and had my wetsuit mostly off by the time I got to my bike. Never the tidiest at the best of times, but I still managed to leave with everything strewn pretty much everywhere; I’d be hopeless at the tidiness of ITU. Struggled with gloves for 20seconds or so before abandoning them. Who wears gloves in a sprint anyway?
About a kilometre into the bike course, it occurred to me that being gloveless on a bike I am significantly more likely to part company with at speed, was not the best idea I’ve ever had. About 5 km in, and I stopped worrying about the damage I might do to them if I came off, and worried more about the developing blisters on the side of each palm’s heel. Note to self – gloves are worth the seconds saved!
The bike course was a superb mixture of twisting singletrack, technical obstacles and leg-sapping open ground. My course recce the day before was worth every minute and I wish I’d managed to get there earlier to have spent longer practising; I know with a little more time to figure out some of the obstacles I would have been a lot quicker. It’s often not my fitness level that holds me back in these circumstances, but lack of handling skills (and courage!) and technical proficiency. Frustratingly, a lot of men would come past me on the open field sections, only to bottle out at the next obstacle, leaving me to try to squeeze by them again when the opportunity arose. By the second loop, I’d figured out a few more good lines and was able to push on in more places, but I still managed to come off twice – both at low speeds, onto soft dirt, no harm done. I was far from the only one! I picked off a couple of the slower pro women and got back to T2 well within the 2 hour target I’d set.
Bike: 30km, 1:47:51
Onto the run and my legs didn’t feel too bad, but an XTERRA course is never just about your legs. With ditches to jump, fallen trees to scramble over, twisting paths, energy-sapping uphills and a lot of uneven ground, you work your whole body. I really enjoyed the variety of the run and even stepping straight into a rabbit hole and performing a full body plant in the mud didn’t take too much of a shine off things (except perhaps my trisuit, which was brand new but ended up covered in mud, blood and energy drink!) Again, the biggest frustration was being caught behind a slightly slower fellow racer and having to squeeze by on the very narrow paths, but in the main people were good about letting me past when I asked.
I crossed the line in 3:00:10 (grr!), 3rd in my age group, 17th/61 women, 8th non-professional woman, and 106th out of a total of 252 starters. More importantly, I had an absolute blast. Hopefully I’ll be back next year.