The ‘Off’ Season
By Neal Henderson
ISSUE #20, June/July 2003 – As the weather forecast for May 10, 2003 includes a reasonable chance for snow, my thoughts turn back to the winter triathlon season of 2002/03. As a triathlete, I’m always seeking new challenges, and when Mountain-Quest put on the first USA Triathlon Winter Triathlon National Championships in February of 2001 I was there. Winter triathlon is a relatively new sport combining running, mountain biking, and Nordic (a.k.a. cross country) skiing. The ITU has been holding World Championships in Winter Triathlon since 1997. I fared well in the 2001 race, but made it a winter training priority to improve on my 12th place finish in 2002. I contacted fellow Boulder triathletes Jimmy Archer and Jared Berg to help me learn how to ski. Both are successful summer triathletes who also know how to ski – very well. If you compare the sports of triathlon and winter triathlon, skiing closely resembles swimming. Both take place in (on) water (frozen in winter), and both rely heavily on technique for speed. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the proper technique in 2001…and I was still far from being a good skier a year later. As a typical compulsive triathlete, I spent several months gasping my way around the trails at Eldora to reach a level of mediocrity on snow.
By the time the winter triathlon season rolled around in 2002, I had some fitness, though I still lacked the finesse necessary to be fast. I was contemplating going to the ITU Winter Triathlon World Championships in Italy in February to represent the US. In 2000 and 2001, Jimmy Archer was the sole US representative at the ITU Winter Triathlon World Champs, placing within the top 25 each year. I asked Jimmy to continue to mentor me in the art of skiing, as I realized I needed the help to be competitive. He taught me the differences between V1 and V2, which waxes work when it’s really cold and dry, and other random facts known by good Nordic skiers. In Nordic skiing, you need to train your body and properly prepare your equipment to be really fast!
Training for winter triathlon in 2002 began a little late. A lack of snow in the early season pushed back the normal Thanksgiving Day start of Nordic skiing a few weeks. By the time I got onto snow at Snow Mountain Ranch, I knew that my training time needed to be accelerated. I trained to get in some aerobic base miles, but training at high altitude in a new sport, I was borderline anaerobic the whole time. After a couple of weeks, though, I could actually talk with Jimmy while skiing, and realized that I was getting a little better. I also upgraded my first generation skate skis and combi boots to new lighter and faster skis and boots. In skiing, like cycling, equipment matters…but it’s the preparation of that equipment that really is important. The US Ski Team reportedly spent about $200,000 at the 2002 Winter Olympics on waxes alone! Speed costs money…but saves time. By January, I actually felt like a skier at the Eldora New Year’s Day 10K race.
Unfortunately, a lack of publicity and poor pre-registration caused the USA Triathlon 2002 Winter Triathlon Championship race to be cancelled in late January. Jimmy and I kept training, though, as we both had purchased tickets to go the World Championships in Brusson, Italy over the weekend of February 23-24, 2002. The event in Italy would consist of the individual race on Saturday with an 8K run, 15 K bike, and ending with a 10K ski on an FIS World Cup ski course. On Sunday, the first ever Winter Triathlon Relay was to take place with three athletes each completing a 3K run, 5 K bike, and 3 K ski one after another. If you think that preparing for a triathlon transition is difficult, try putting on skis, boots, and poles when you’re tired and cold!
After the cancellation of the US event, Jimmy and I scrambled to find a 3rd US teammate for the trip to Italy. We were self-funded, so it was a little challenging finding another US athlete to go over to Europe for a winter triathlon. Needless to say, we were in for some tough races, but we were committed and hungry. After an exhausting search for a teammate, we found Denver triathlete Mason Rickard, a former pro cyclist and XTERRA pro veteran racer, who agreed to join us on our European invasion! For some stupid reason, the weekend before the Winter Triathlon World Championships, Jimmy, Mason, and I went to Grants, NM to compete in the Mt. Taylor Winter Quadrathlon. It’s an epic event (read stupid and hard) combining cycling, running, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing climbing from Grants, NM (at 6,000 feet) to the top of Mt. Taylor at 11,300 feet over 22 miles (13 bike, 5 run, 3 ski, 1 snowshoe). Oh yeah, then you have to do everything in reverse order to get to the finish! As you can imagine, 16 hours of driving, and 4 hours of hard racing 7 days before a World Championship event wouldn’t be considered an ideal tapering strategy. We also forgot to consider the effects of jet lag and international travel with bikes and skis!
The race was held in the tiny cross-country ski area of Brusson, in the Val d’Aosta region of Northwest Italy, bordering France and Switzerland. It was my first trip to Europe, and I was soaking it in. On Friday, the snow on the course felt a little bit soft, though it was expected to get colder overnight. We were excited for Saturday’s race, and spent the rest of the day prepping our equipment (cleaning the mountain bikes and waxing skis). We hung out with the team from Lichtenstein whose top racer, Marc Ruhe, was leading the ITU Winter Triathlon World Cup series. Marc and Jimmy had met a couple of years earlier, and it was nice to have someone who could translate to and from almost any language (Italian, German, French, Spanish, and English to name a few). He also helped out with recommendations for bike tires/pressures and ski waxes.
Saturday morning was the elite individual race, and conditions were tough. Jimmy had a mechanical before the start, and wasn’t able to start on time. When he got to transition after the run, his front tire was flat and he called it a day. Mason and I struggled to avoid last place. In the end, I stayed just in front 32nd overall…with Mason in 33rd out of 33. We went back to the hotel unhappy, but ended up celebrating with Marc who had won his first World Championship. In the team relay on Sunday, our bad luck continued. We did make it the finish though, and we weren’t last! The 2002 experience made me hungry to return in 2003 for a better and faster race.
The winter of 2002/03 I dropped my swim training, and added more Nordic skiing. I became more proficient, and entered many of the local ski races…often finishing in the top-10 overall. With new confidence in the skis, I felt better prepared for the upcoming winter triathlon race season. Helping preparation for European racing, Barry Siff and Liz Caldwell of MountainQuest Adventures agreed to put on a 3-race Winter Triathlon Series at Snow Mountain Ranch, near Granby, CO. The races were held in December, February, and March and had progressively longer distances. These races attracted between 40 and 90 racers, with the series final attracting athletes like Mike Kloser (former MTB World Champion and top Adventure Racer), Travis Brown (Olympic MTB racer), and Danelle Ballangee (super-tough Adventure and endurance athlete). Keep an eye out for more races in 2003/04!
The 2003 ITU World Championships were held in Oberstaufen, Germany. I was the sole US athlete, and had a crazy trip to Europe. The race situation was similar to the 2002 race, with the individual elite race on Saturday with a 7-km run, 12-km mountain bike, and 10-km ski. I felt well prepared, and excited to race. There were 63 starters in the men’s Elite and U23 race. I made a rookie mistake, having put a pair of toe heaters inside my running shoes before the race to try and keep my feet warm. After 1 lap of the run course, the heater had slid to the front of my shoe…cramming my toes with every step. The black toenail is still there, as a reminder of that mistake 3 months ago. Never the strongest runner, I dropped off the back of the race. Though I wasn’t last on the run, I wasn’t far behind. In transition, I removed the heaters from my socks, and got onto the bike…ready to make up ground.
My excessive enthusiasm caused me to overshoot a couple of turns, and I completed several snowy superman maneuvers into the snow before I settled down. After the first lap, I calmed down enough to get into a little rhythm. Riding a mountain bike on soft snow is challenging…big tires and low pressures are the only way to keep riding. By the end of the bike, there were at least 5 racers behind me…with about 50 ahead, though some racers were already quitting. I had traveled way too far to quit, though the idea did cross my mind a few times. The ski course was brutal, but my training was paying off. I picked off several racers, though my split was still minutes behind the leaders. By the finish, I was 43rd place…out of 44 finishers. I guess most of the Euro winter triathletes didn’t want to be beaten by an American. Either that, or I didn’t understand the German officials “encouraging” me were actually trying to get me off the course. Maybe 2004 will be a little better!
Neal Henderson is an elite triathlete, and coach. He is the Coordinator of Sport Science at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. He can be reached at email@example.com.