The road to being a champion is paved with suffering and learning.
It had taken me four years to make it to the Xterra World Championship in Maui. Since my inception to Xterra racing it had always been a dream. Now that I have raced it I am left humbled, grateful and most of all happy.
My 2009 season had started off with a bang, to the head that is. I had a harsh accident while pre riding the course for Xterra Red River in Oklahoma. Suffering from a concussion I was debilitated for a week. I still raced two weeks later after the accident and continued a few weeks later in Louisiana for Xterra Ruston. Racing with a limit was something new for me. My cardiologist and neurologist advised me to take it easy on the exercise and to listen to my body, when my body was saying no I had to stop. It was the complete opposite of how I wanted to race and train.
It was this predicament that left me very grateful just to be a part of Xterra and to still be able to play the game with my favorite competitors on my favorite courses.
I ended up racing five Xterra triathlons this season, the World Championship would be my sixth. It was not until Ironman Buffalo Springs 70.3 that I had felt like my normal self this season. I had experienced various prescription drug side effects which had my heart sky rocketing and my lungs crying at the worst times in racing and in training. After getting off the drugs it would be two months later for things to feel right again.
To prepare for the race I had taken a month to focus again on what I had lost and that was my running mojo. It had been some time since I felt fast on my feet and I knew that getting my speed back was necessary. This race is very late in the season and while I was looking forward to kicking back and closing the chapter on another year, I was not in a position that allowed such relaxation. It was now more important than ever to get back into race shape.
Getting back into race shape means a couple things. Number one is weight; ideally I like to step into the ring at 138 lbs. In the off season my weight bounces between 150-155 lbs. I had not achieved my race weight range in over a year. This year I would not achieve that goal either. I arrived to Hawaii at 145 lbs; I had developed the speed on the run in training and felt confident in my ability. My power to weight ratio is strongest at 138 lbs, anything more is just excess anything less is a loss of too much muscle mass.
The other aspect of race shape is getting familiar with swimming once again. The swim would need a few key workouts to get acclimated with my stroke and the water. Those workouts felt strong leaving me confident that a thirty minute mile in the water would not be a problem.
The course in Maui is different from any of the courses in the world of Xterra. It’s the longest course and so far it proved to be the most challenging course I had ever raced on. The course climbs over three thousand feet of elevation on the bike. For those that live in mountainous areas this is a walk in the park. For an XC rider from the flat lands of Dallas the climbs would prove to be quite a challenge.
Christina and I arrived in Hawaii on Wednesday in the afternoon; this would allow plenty of time for acclimation and preparation for the race on Sunday. Aunt Joanne and Uncle Eric arrived a mere thirty minutes before we did from Kansas City. We headed immediately to the Makena Resort which is where the race was being held. We attended a dinner in the pool area of the resort that was being held for the sponsors of the race. Uncle Eric is the president of Zorrel and comes to Maui every year with the always incredible and shamelessly beautiful Aunt Joanne.
The bike course is not available for any type of riding before hand, the course meanders along the same path every race with just a few changes annually. Xterra had setup a pre-ride course that was a portion of the run course combined with an existing trail.
Upon the first morning in Maui I went for a run on the beach. Seeing the beaches of Maui for the first time up close was a treat. The water was like nothing I had ever seen; it’s clear and immediately calms the soul no matter what may be lurking in ones head and heart. Unfamiliar with the area I played it safe and went along a trail that was heavily occupied with tourists out for there morning walks.
I saw a few Xterra athletes out there as well; odd how one can recognize another athlete perhaps it’s the determination on their faces or the look in their eyes. The caliper of athlete was something different though. The few people I saw looked strong as fit people do, however these men and woman were not weekend warriors. Maui was the meeting grounds of Xterra’s best in the world and that was very evident when I saw the racers that I would be competing with.
The run had went well, one thing for sure Maui had hills and my loop was less than a minute longer on the way back to the hotel which was odd as I thought it would be at least five minutes longer with all the hill climbing on the way back to the hotel.
Later on in the day I had finished assembling my bike and wanted to check out the pre-ride course. The course was a few miles away from our hotel. I checked in at the bottom of the hill with the director and after that was on my way. Without any hesitation the course climbed immediately and when I say climbing, I am not referring to some thirty second interval. Minutes would pass, tectonic plates would shift and over fifty babies would be born before the climbing would end. After twenty minutes of climbing I had reached a right turn on the course. There was a young girl there handing out water and directing traffic. I asked her “Are we still going up”? She directed me to the right; everything from here was now downhill.
The course turned into a few rolling hills and then some nice drops I was mortified and curious to how my bike would hold up. She handled like a dream. As the trail descended I could feel the bike sliding out from me. It’s hard to describe but for this type of riding you want to be very tight on the body in certain places and loose enough in other areas so that the bike can wiggle its way through the trail.
The lava rocks played tricks they were very large at times and at other times felt like marbles in their rolling manners. The sound they made was a familiar one; I had ridden quite a few rocky courses this season and felt very comfortable on this type of terrain. The humid hot air and loose ground would make a challenging setting for the Xterra World Championship.
I ended up riding the loop twice then heading back to the Makena Resort to wash my bike. I was quite pleased with how the bike handled and very happy with my tire choice, the bike section was definitely my kind of course. Very fast when things were going down and some climbing that burned my legs in the best way.
I was afraid to say it, but was already thinking it, was that it? The course certainly presented its challenges but did not appear to be insurmountable by any means. Too early to count the eggs before they had hatched I decided to keep my mouth shut.
The next day my legs were a little sore from the run and ride but overall I felt great. I needed to get into the water today and see how much the swim was going to hurt. I was very excited to be swimming in the ocean. Christina, Aunt Jo and I went down to the water in the afternoon. There was a buoy out in the water about 600 meters from the shore, I wanted to swim out and back from the buoy and that would be the day’s workout.
My concerns originally were with the tides of the water. I went into the water and started the motions; it was surreal to see water so clear. I could see everything beneath me. It was less then twenty five feet from the shore that I started to see the fishes. I kept swimming towards the buoy, sighting was proving to be more difficult than I had imagined. The waves and ripples of the ocean were blocking my view of the buoy.
I had made it to the buoy and hopped up on a floating ball that needed some company. I sat there and reflected for a few minutes. It felt incredible in a world attached to everything and everyone it was a great feeling to be so far away from the rest of the world. There were other swimmers out there but none at that moment, it was just me. I thought about a few things. I thought about how fortunate I was to be out here, I thought about my loved ones and lastly I thought if there was a shark attack now, they would never find the body. So I left after that.
The swim back was a nice one, the current helped by pushing me towards the beach and I was very pleased with the workout. The next morning I would be running an Xterra 10K event with Christina. This was a great opportunity for me to see the run before the race.
The10k race started in front of the Makena Beach Resort and then made its way to the street before leading us out onto the trail. The initial climb would be the first climb on the cycling course, until today the course had been off limits. The climbs would take us to where the right turn was on the bike practice course; from there it was a series of climbs and downhill’s before reaching the beach. The run course had two beaches that would be run on.
As Christina ran I asked her if she missed it. Christina had started her racing career four years ago when I did, we came up together, my desires led me to triathlon for her it was running only. She looked great out there strong and sexy of course (worth mentioning).
It was a very fun event, everyone had a great time and unlike some other events everyone had a smile on their face. The course was a very challenging one, but again my thoughts came to the same conclusion, was that it? The course is actually a seven mile race but they still call it a 10K. The run certainly presented some very challenging terrain and climbs but again nothing that I felt was too much to handle. It would be tomorrow that my assertation of the course would change dramatically.
It was now race morning, I checked my transition bag in the morning to ensure everything was in tact. I then jumped into the shower for my ritualistic pre race cleansing and shaving. Christina and I made our way to the Makena Resort and now it was time for me to setup transition and check my gear one last time. After getting marked I made my way to transition.
The course was notorious for destroying bikes. This year would be no different. I had injected two to three times the amount of tire sealant into my tires. I installed the thickest heaviest tires that I owned. I installed the thickest grips to absorb the downhill descends the course would throw at me. After finding my spot on the rack I needed to do a final check on the PSI for the tires.
The course can break hearts as well as bones. It was less than twenty four hours ago that last year’s World Champion Ruben Ruzafa of Spain took a fall on the course. The same course I had ridden earlier that day had sent this champion to the hospital with multiple injuries and over thirty stitches. He would not be defending his title today. These things went through my head all night; I respected the course and the island as well as all my competitors and hoped for a safe race.
I said my goodbyes to Aunt Joanne Uncle Eric and Christina and made my way to the beach. I was tense and very on edge I waited inline on the beach to be blessed by the highest priest that is there every race. It was thirty minutes until the race would start. My heart was racing, I felt ready just not stable.
The National Anthem was sung and then the priest made her blessing to all the athletes. After her blessing I was next in line to receive my very own blessing. My eyes were watering from the prayer, a four year journey was to end at this moment, and now a new adventure would begin. I walked into the water and it was at that moment that my soul found its peace. It was now time to honor my family, my name and all my supporters, let the game begin
The cannon went off violently and five hundred and fifty of the world’s best triathlete’s ran towards the water to swim a two loop mile. This was not my first rodeo and a crammed violent swim was something I liked. As I have always said as soon as you get into the water its nothing but elbows and assholes, getting punched, kicked and pushed around is expected. I swam at full throttle for the first two hundred yards trying to escape the madhouse. As we approached the first buoy I could see I was having some trouble sighting and definitely ended up swimming a little bit more than I needed to.
After the second turn I was now approaching the beach it would be a short eighty yard dash on the sand, and then back into the water for one more loop. By now the traffic was spread out and I was now able to set my own line and see the buoys a bit easier. So far I felt great the water certainly had a tranquil effect on me. Surrounded by such immense beauty, Maui would prove to be the greatest course in the world to suffer on.
Upon the last quarter mile of the swim I played with my strokes in the water, surprisingly some of the strokes still had some pull and I was able to make some passes even at the end. A seemingly uneventful swim left me with a heart that was pounding around 170 BPM and a body that was about to receive a brutal butt kicking on the bike course.
I ran into transition and things went well I was on the bike in no time. The course starts with a little bit of road time before approaching the trails. I put my gloves on while riding and consumed half of my water bottle. The trail was approaching and I was settled enough to get ready for some climbing. I veered to the left of the course and started making some passes immediately.
After rolling onto the trails first climb, I was still riding with the big chain ring up front, stubborn and glutton for pain I did everything I could before I would drop into the smaller ring. That fairy tale lasted no more then ten minutes. The course was in great condition lots of loose rock but no ruts so the line was a clear one. Twenty minutes into the course I was feeling great, the passes were still coming and the bike was feeling great. I was already out of drinking water and looking for the first water station. The station was three miles ahead.
A few more miles in Texas means less than twenty minutes out here in Maui that meant a lot longer. The bike course has a few sections that are named and if that section had one that meant more suffering was to be had. The first climb is the infamous heartbreak hill. I knew I had arrived when I saw a fleet of cyclists walking their bikes up the hill. I had watched the World Championships from years past many times over and over again. I was now actually climbing heartbreak hill, it was at this point that I realized the climbing on the course was going to take its toll on me.
Lactic threshold is something I actually enjoy; in an odd way it feels good to me. However on this course I felt lactic acid build up and fatigue like nothing I had ever felt before. As each climb would slow me down, it was always followed by another climb. I was still making my passes but the course was starting to fatigue me and I started running out of gas.
I had finally arrived at the first water bottle drop area and was in desperate need of hydration. I stuffed one bottle in my shirt and the other into my cage. I needed the water immensely; I combined that with some Gu and kept on with the suffering. I could feel my body hunching more and more over as the course continued. The climbing foot by foot was humbling me to my beginnings in racing. The course was now winning the fight.
Suffering is one of the things I love most about racing. At your most challenging moments in racing you can see something in every racer, for me it’s my will. It was a story four years in the making and now I was hurting like never before. I could not have been happier. Each turn would be a set of more climbs. My heart could only hope for some descends.
The course had finished most of its climbing and now the drops started coming one after the other. The course had no grey area, you were either climbing like a snail at speeds that a toddler crawling could pass you or you were knee deep in loose rocks at speeds in excess of twenty five miles an hour.
The climbing had beaten me and I was ready for the fast stuff. My body was fatigued to a new level and as each of the million pieces of lava rock passed under my tires I could feel each microscopic movement move through me like a tidal wave. Every bone was rattled, and every muscle was shaken to levels that were alarmingly unfamiliar. The descends wore me down to a level that had not existed yet in my mind. I hoped after the climbing that the pain game would be over. Every muscle in my body tightened up, as I bombed into the drops, fractions away from riding out of control.
As each section would pass I grew with more and more confidence but was not ready to push at full throttle on the downhills. I said to myself before going into the race, no matter how good it feels, do not get ahead of yourself on the drops. The course will hurt you in ways you never imagined.
I had stuck to my guns and was having a great ride. I had planned on the race taking three hours; I could tell that was no where near from happening at this point. I was about to enter into “the plunge” which is the courses most dangerous downhill section. I approached a sweeping left turn at twenty miles an hour when it happened.
The rocks on this course shifted the bike in an unpredictable manner. I was experiencing this all day, but could grasp what the course was throwing at me. My rear tire started to shift and I responded to that, the turn was approaching so I veered to the outside and wanted to cut into the corner at its apex and sweep right through it.
My rear tire never stabilized and it was in one micro second that I knew the inevitable was to happen, this was going to be my first crash on the course. I pushed Gloria to the right and let her go as I rolled onto the lava rock. I immediately looked behind me for other racers. The coast was clear I stepped to the side of the course and luckily a volunteer was there, he asked if I was okay and I was.
Bill Driegert told me when I started riding off road if you are not crashing then you are not riding hard enough. I had crashed many times in racing and in training and after a while I got used to it. I remember when I first started riding how it would happen in slow motion and then it would take me a few minutes to recover after the impact. After a few years I no longer needed the recovery time I simply kept on riding.
However this time was different, the impact was hard I had landed on the left side of my body. I was not in a position to jump back on the bike I needed a moment. I could feel the sting of all the open wounds that were being polluted with sweat blood and dirt. I looked up at the sky and remembered what a lot of people told me about this course. They said “just get through it; just make it to the finish line, that’s all you need to worry about”.
It was an interesting moment I had done so well on the local level of racing but here at the world championship I was just another pawn in a very large game of chess. I thought about my boss Steve then, he had also stated just get through the course. I tried to hop back on the bike; however my chain was stuck behind my rear cassette and was jammed between the spokes and the rear hub.
I lost ten minutes of time trying to delicately un-lodge the chain from the gears without bending the cassette, breaking the chain and destroying the rear carbon derailleur. After the repair was made the course looked a lot different. I knew early on it was not going to be a three hour race, I knew as soon as the climbing started that making it to the podium was not going to happen. The competition and the course were crushing me and there was nothing I could do, other than my best.
Survival of the fittest now, I needed to play my cards right and get through the last couple of miles I had a few more climbs before making it back to transition, I had now completed near two thirds of the race and was running on damage control. I knew the run was going to hurt like nothing else before. I could feel my left hip barking at me from the impact, my knee was bleeding as well but it was not the cuts that hurt me, it was the impact and the speed. I had made it to the main road now and was headed to transition.
On any other race I would be ready for the run, ready to move up some positions and make my mark. Last years season of Xterra had me running in the top three if not the fastest run splits of the day. That kind of performance was not to be displayed today.
Transition went flawlessly I had my shoes stuck to the pedals and my dirty feet were planted on top of them, my gloves were removed and stuck into my shirt and I made it in and out of transition in no time.
It was time for the death march now, what the bike course had offered was a near duplicate representation of suffering and insanity for the run. We started out on the road before arriving at the trail head. The first climb was just a tease. The course yesterday had felt like a challenging yet very doable course. Today it was sufferfest 2009, check your whining at the door.
I was running on fumes at this point. Some of the climbs crippled me to a walk. I thought about Ryan Lauck at this point. There were many hours of mind numbing climbing that had been done in the Wasatch Mountain Range and for that moment I was at one with my man Ryan. If ever there was an event I could relate any of this too it was running in the mountains of Utah.
We were now done with all the climbing so let’s throw in some rocky ankle breaking down hills now; at least I could hold some kind of momentum on these portions. I knew it would be another mile before the sand traps would appear. The ocean has never looked so beautiful. I can not emphasize enough that no matter how bad it got, it was the most incredible place to race in.
My energy levels were not in a position to recover, every step before had felt challenging but now I was up against the worst of it. The sand dragged each foot slower than any pace in the race thus far. The beach would lead the runners to some single track then to another beach that had black sands and large lava rocks that break runner’s bones. In 2005 on his way to a first place finish Nico Lebrun fell on the rocks and broke his arm.
My brain had melted miles ago and the finish line was approaching there was plenty to think about though. The race had not been anything like I expected. The climbing took a chunk out of me that could not be replaced. The run made me feel like I walked a 5K. The finish line was a glorious site though. I stepped across the line and could finally stop. I just completed my first world championship.
I race a lot and have predicted near every possible problem that I would encounter in racing. I have a specific goal time going into every race. I know the exact type and how much ammunition I am going to use. These are the kinds of things you learn when you race as frequently as I do. I had planned to live my whole life in this race. The last time I had done this was in 2007 on my first sub three hour marathon. That race took everything out of me and left me emotionally and physically incapacitated in the end. I wanted to do the exact same thing in Hawaii. For me it was the most sought after race and it took four years to make it to the starting line, this race was would need more than a strong effort to get to the finish line.
I knew the course would be brutal and I had planned to use my own pain, my own history my good times as well as my bad times as a fuel. I had a full tank and yet I never tapped into that for this race. I shouted Conio! only once in this race and that was only because I felt I had to, as I had not said a word all day. I thought about Michael at that point in the race and poof, like that the thoughts disappeared. Certainly thoughts of my loved ones went through my head in the race. But where was the drama?
The world is a stage and in racing I love a good show. In my own head I could make any race feel as big as the Olympics yet I could not pull that off here in Maui. The greatest thing about racing in its simplest form is OVERCOMING. Everything you believed that was not possible is not a factor when you race. Race day is the only time you can ultimately prove to the world and most importantly to yourself, it’s not what you are it’s who you are. I have stepped up to the line of many races and have been nervous beyond belief. I frequent the restroom a lot, I tremble, however all of that changes when the gun goes off. When the game starts anything can happen. I have gotten as far as I have with that belief. Anything is possible on race day.
After Hawaii I came back to Dallas with a plethora of incredible memories. I also realized that I have unfinished business in the mountains of Hawaii. In 2010 I will attempt to qualify again to make my return.
I had signed up for a 10K race the next weekend after arriving home. I had not raced competitively in a dedicated run race in over a year. It was time to get back out there and see what I would need to work on over the winter.
I had spoken with my boss Steve about the 10K and how for the first time I had no idea what I would run time wise. For the first time it was an unknown. Steve believed in me and told me I would do great. He said “Joey you raced in the World Championship, you now are different”. I had not thought much about that and race day came soon enough.
I performed my usual pre race morning routine and made my way over to the Arbor Day 10K. I had decided to wear all black for sentiment. When I started racing I always wore all black and I wanted to be nostalgic and see if I could find a little bit of myself out there, the old me, the runner. As soon as I slipped on my headphones and put on my black sunglasses which by the way were completely unnecessary as it was heavily overcastted that morning, I felt it. Steve was right I surveyed the competition and normally what would have me edgy was doing just the opposite. With approximately 500 runners between the 5K and 10K I was not shaken I was not stirred I was stoic. I cranked up the jams, and began a short warm up, my legs felt great, my head was in a great place and I was ready to see what I still had.
I knew the first mile would tell me everything; it was a 5:52 first mile. It was slower than it was a year ago but not by much. I started to notch up positions and get settled into my running groove. My breath was controlled and the music had never sounded better.
The 5K split off was ahead and nearly everyone in front of me turned around at the U turn point, the 10K racers would proceed ahead. The second mile took forever and before I knew it I was in second place overall looking for the fourth mile marker. I had lost complete site of the lead runner. I realized I was being strung in slowly by the third place runner from behind and I was not going to let that happen. It was time to attack and to crush some competition. My kick was not there though; I gave a solid effort but nothing like I used to be able to do. With one more surge left in the gas tank I was not in a good place to defend my position. We had a half mile left in the race and now the third place runner was pacing me. We shared some friendly words and I began to pace him from behind, I figured it was time to play some head games.
I stalked him for all of twenty seconds when he surged and I could not respond. Out of gas and now looking at .2 miles left of course I gave what I could. The one thing I had forgotten was how much it hurt to run this hard, my head was hanging low and I was ready for this to be over. I crossed the finish line feeling great about my third place overall position. It was not until a day later that I realized after looking at the results that the front runner dropped out and I was now second overall. I lost that race overall by nine seconds. I was not mad I was grateful that I could still be a contender in the local race scene.
Next weekend would have me wrapping up the Dorba XC mountain bike series with one last race in the very short series. I would need to win once again in my category to bring home the overall title for senior men Cat2. The course was a familiar one I had raced here last year and camped over night with Michael. However last years race started with me having a flat tire while riding up to my start. I rushed back to the car swapped in a new tube and then started racing, I started the race with a six minute deficit. Less than two minutes into the race I got my second flat. This was a defining moment for me last year. I had been plagued with mechanicals all season and this was not how I wanted to end my last XC race for the season. I decided to fix the flat and race as if it was my last chance to. I finished a few minutes back from second place but was nowhere near making it to the podium.
I had been dropping pounds off my Litespeed bicycle since Hawaii, Gloria would be entering the ring now three pounds lighter than she was in Hawaii. Before the race I wanted to get in ten minutes of riding on the trail to test out the new tires and brakes and get a feel for how the bike felt. Upon my first sharp turn I wiped out and dropped the bike from underneath me. I lowered the PSI in both tires and went for a second loop, upon the second loop I washed out on a descend that turns immediately at the bottom. I lowered the tires down to their minimal amount of air which was 20 PSI. I did a longer third loop and nearly bit it again. My group was staring in a few minutes; I rushed to the start line and had a few minutes to get my head on straight.
I knew what I could do but not exactly what I could not do on the bike. Fast technical downhills were out of the question. Fast sharp turns were out of the question, the tires lacked the tread on this course. The twelve creek crossings (6 per loop) would be a problem as well. This was not the predicament I wanted to be in however this was the last race of the season and I wanted to make my mark.
Normally per the expert advice of Bill Driegert I would pace the lead rider then make my move later on in the race. Not today though I was ranked third overall in the last Cat2 race out of 130+ riders and today I was going for number one overall. My group left the line and I mashed the pedals as hard as I could. I had ridden twice with my new grip shifters but this would be the first time to be racing on them. I don’t care how much field testing gets done on any new product; nothing will tell the story like racing will. Training can not duplicate ever, the kind of pressure and torture I put my bike equipment through.
As each turn meandered through Solavaca Ranch I could hear the sound of a rider behind me. This was some what surprising as I thought I would drop the whole group right off the line. I wanted to break this course down into two simple laps. Lap one test the tires and see what I can and can not do. Lap two unleash hell.
On the first fast downhill turn my rear tire slipped on me and within one second of me reacting I was passed just like that. I knew then this would be a tough race to win, I could not push the bike all the way or anywhere near full throttle. I paced this rider for a few more miles and could see how this was going to end up very quickly; he was young, slender and very fast. Climbed like a goat and could cut a line with the best of them in trees. The only advantage I would have was to maximize my power on the field crossings.
This worked out well we must of swapped positions four or five times. I suffered two accidents but still won my division. The race beat me up a bit. Although I had won I was somewhat disappointed in my performance. A win is a win, but my standards since Hawaii had been raised. I did not want to just win I wanted to make a crushing out there on the course. What Hawaii had taken from me in the mountains had given back to me ten fold with ambitious aspirations and a new standard of racing. Things were different now, I’m different.
Hawaii had humbled me and made me remember what it’s like to suffer horrendously on a course. It may sound morbid but there is a calm feeling when I see the scars on my left hip from the accident on the course. A part of me finds comfort knowing that some of my blood sweat and tears are still on the island and that I will always have a reminder of what happened out there with the scars on my body. I want to come back next year and show my competitors as well as the island what I learned. It took four years to get there and now it will take one more year to prepare my mind as well as my body for the next one.
Thank you for reading.