July 28, 2002 – Keystone, Colorado
By Pat Brown
ISSUE #17, August/September 2002 – Four the fourth straight year, Colorado hosted the Nissan Xterra Central Championships and the accompanying Off-Road Sports Festival. Being a Colorado native, I love this race. Every time I go up to the Colorado Rockies, it brings a smile to my face. I grew up ski racing in these mountains and to be able to continue my racing career up in the clean thin air is a real treat.
I must also note that I have a love hate relationship with this race. You would think that with this course being in my back yard and living at moderate altitude in Boulder Colorado, I would have an edge on my competition. History has a way of repeating itself and this year was no exception. Every year I come away from this race with my tail between my legs wondering what the hell happened to me on race day. As I always say, maybe next year.
The field was probably the most competitive in Xterra history. Not only did we have the current Xterra World Champions and Colorado residents Conrad Stoltz and Anke Erlank in the field, we also had 5 other past Xterra World Champions. In addition there were 9 racers with Xterra Championships wins to their names, the 3rd ranked ITU racer in the World, and too many other racers to count who have finished on the podium in Xterra races. The race turned out to be a real showdown between the world’s best triathletes.
The sold-out field of 700-plus athletes included many of Colorado’s finest professional triathletes. Among the men were: Ned Overend, Conrad Stoltz, Peter Valentyik, Jimmy Archer, Ryan Ignatz, Mason Rickard, and Jared Berg. Among the women were: Jamie Whitmore, Anke Erlank, Kerstin Weule, Monique Merrill, Melissa Thomas and Cameron Randolph.
The thing that separates Keystone Xterra from the other Xterra races is the altitude. The race takes place between 9,000 feet and tops out at over 11,000 feet. I don’t know many athletes that are truly prepared for this challenge. The highest elevation that some of us live at is only around 5,000 feet. So no matter who you are, the thin air always causes some major problems.
I had the chance to go up and preview the course a few weeks before the event. Why is it that you always feel good during the pre-ride on this course? As I rode up the mountain, I could see myself in first place riding away from the likes of Conrad and the boys. What a dreamer I was on that day.
At 10:30am Big Kahuna sounded the start canyon and off we went. US National Team member Seth Wealing led the way for the men and Colorado resident Cameron Randolph had a great swim to lead out the women. Three-time Keystone winner Kerstin Weule was right were she needed to be and entered the swim to bike transition less than a minute down.
I always preach about starting out slow. Once you go anaerobic on this course, you almost never have the chance to recover for the rest of the race. I started out slower than usual and still found myself in the top 5 after the first loop of the two-loop swim. Then it happened again for the fifth time in a row, I had gone out too fast and was not able to feel my arms and legs. My body was aching for some oxygen and none of it was getting to my limbs. I was wondering how in the hell I was even going to finish the swim let alone bike and run.
Once I stumbled on to dry land I was 40 seconds down on the leaders and doing all that I could just to stay on my feet. I could see the leaders running out of transition as I entered and felt good to be less than a minute down. When you mount your bike after the Keystone swim I have decided that you need to tell yourself that you all feel the worst you ever have on a bike. The first climb on the Keystone fire road is still the hardest part of the race for me. You can see your competition, but try as you might, it is almost impossible to catch anyone. We were all in our granny gears going nowhere!
Conrad put the hammer down right from the start of the bike and no one seemed to be able to match his pace. What I didn’t know was that the “old man” Ned was tearing up the course behind me. Ned caught me about halfway up the climb and he was just flying! I tried to stay with him only to find myself blow up again. I think I have now learned my lesson about thinking that Ned’s age will catch up to him. When Ned finally “retires” from racing, I think he should give his body to science so that they can see what a genetic freak of nature he really is.
Jamie Whitmore put in a ride like Conrad Stolz. She was the first to the top of the mountain with Kerstin only 45 seconds down. Whitmore would have the fastest bike split of the day by over 3 minutes. Another Colorado athlete, Melissa Thomas, also had a great bike and was able to climb into the top 5 after the bike.
Besides the grueling climb that Xterra Keystone boasts, the descent is also worthy of mention. “Wild Thing” is truly epic and I have only cleared it once in the last five years. This year the “Wild Thing” was more rugged than before and I don’t think a single racer rode it. As I descended upon this famous section, my arms were so tired that I had to run the whole thing. I guess better safe than sorry, but it left me feeling like a wimp for not even trying. I am sure many racers have some great stories about their attempt at the “Wild Thing”.
Once out on the run course, Conrad was truly the class of the field. He ran unchallenged to the finish and showed the world why he is the current Xterra World Champion. American Kerry Classen had a great run to finish second, while Xterra Richmond Champion Nicholas Lebrun from France finished 3rd. Australian Jason Chalker had his best performance of his career and finished 4th while the “old man” Ned rounded out the top 5 with another great performance. I had a sub par performance and ended up 10th wondering what could have been if I only raced like I do in my dreams.
Jamie Whitmore was 15 seconds down going into T2 behind Canadian Melanie McQuaid. She quickly passed Melanie and had the second fastest run split of the day to win by over 3 minutes. Melanie was able to hang onto second place with a fast closing Weule finishing in third. Kerry Barnholt of Boulder was 4th behind Kerstin. Other Colorado athletes in the top 10 were Monique Merrill and Melissa Thomas finishing 6th and 7th respectfully.
There are two races left in the Nissan Xterra Championship Series and the competition for points is getting fierce. I love having a series like this to race in. Xterra has produced the only series in America with a great prize purse where the professionals can race against each other all season long. The friendships that I have made on the tour will last a lifetime. If you get the chance, mark Xterra Keystone on your 2003 racing calendar and come enjoy the fun.
1 JAMIE WHITMORE 2:30:55
2 MELANIE MCQUAID 2:34:34
3 KERSTIN WEULE 2:35:20
4 KERRY BARNHOLT 2:35:55
5 RAELEIGH TENNANT 2:38:46
6 MONIQUE MERRILL 2:40:55
7 MELISSA THOMAS 2:41:06
8 SHARI KAIN 2:41:51
9 KATHERINE ZAMBRANA 2:43:55
10 JENNY TOBIN 2:44:16
1 CONRAD STOLTZ 2:06:40
2 KERRY CLASSEN 2:09:11
3 NICHOLAS LEBRUN 2:09:45
4 JASON CHALKER 2:10:18
5 NED OVEREND 2:10:39
6 SETH WEALING 2:11:08
7 MICHAEL VINE 2:11:49
8 BEVAN DOUGHERTY 2:14:57
9 DOMINIC GILLEN 2:15:29
10 PAT BROWN 2:15:42