Neal Henderson looks back at the 2001 Xterra Series
By Neal Henderson
ISSUE #14, Winter 2002 – In early 2001, the XTERRA American Tour looked to be in jeopardy. After a successful tour in 2000 with 11 stops, all the XTERRA faithful were looking forward to another full season of racing. Unfortunately, contract talks and sponsorship of the series was up in the air. Team Unlimited, who put on the XTERRA series, pooled their resources to offer an abridged schedule of 3 regional championship races, culminating in a first ever XTERRA National Championship, and the famous XTERRA World Championship in Maui. Luckily, the anemic series got a big boost from Nissan…though a little too late to schedule additional races. With so much at stake, each race mattered – a lot! A new concept introduced to the XTERRA Tour in 2001 was regional amateur qualifier races aimed at qualifying athletes for each of the 3 Regional Championships – Richmond, Keystone, and Half Moon Bay.
The first regional XTERRA Championship was held in Richmond, VA on June 24, 2001. In 2000, the 96-degree heat, stifling humidity, and challenge of the course took its toll on every racer. For 2001, my goal was simple – race strong from start to finish. On the way to Richmond, the airlines decided to throw a wrench into my plans for seamless travel. As we approached the East Coast, the captain came over the radio announcing that we were being diverted to an emergency airport because Dulles, our original destination, was having problems with storms and had closed their air traffic control tower. My travel fiasco resulted in only four hours of sleep on the floor of Norfolk Airport, followed by a 2-hour cab ride to Richmond on Saturday morning. Surprisingly, no one had taken my bike from the baggage claim where it sat unattended all night!
The race course in Richmond is like no other – a thoroughly urban affair consisting of a river swim (complete with an island crossing by foot), a bike through several metro county parks full of twisted single-track, and a challenging run including a half-mile rock hopping section. To everyone’s surprise, the weather in Richmond was pleasant – sunny, and in the upper 70s to low 80s. The water level in the James River was also agreeable, deep enough to actually swim – unlike the 1999 conditions where many racers walked and waded through much of the 1K swim. The 2001 Tour opener saw many new faces on the tour including Conrad Stoltz, a South African Olympian, French duathlon stud Nicolas LeBrun, and Steve Larsen, the 2000 NORBA National Champion and winner of the 2000 Half Moon Bay XTERRA. The usual cast of XTERRA regulars were present including Kerry Clausen, Michael Tobin, Mike Vine, Jimmy Riccetello, and Colorado athletes Ned Overend, Wes Hobson, Pat Brown, Jimmy Archer, Scott Schumaker, Grant Holicky and myself. The women in contention were Jody Mielke, Melanie McQuaid, Monique Merrill, and Colorado racers Kirsten Wuele and first-timer Anke Erlank.
The no wetsuit swim went off without a hitch, including a mid-way 150-meter run across Belle Island. The bike course in Richmond began with a short road section and bridge crossing before hitting the dirt. Early in the bike, racers encountered tight singletrack full of quick turns, slick roots, short power climbs and roller coaster descents. I felt smooth through the technical bike course, and began catching some of the normally faster racers. Halfway through the bike I caught Kiwi Bryan Rhodes, winner of the 2001 Ironman Malaysia. I asked if he was having a mechanical, but it was just his legs – they were both flat! Near the end of the bike course, I caught up with Scott Schumaker for the final 2 miles of highway riding into transition. I felt strong entering the run and pushed the pace for the first 2 miles, maintaining my top 15 position. As I moved through the halfway point, I began to slow and lost a few positions. Toward the end of the run course there is a rock hopping section, which I had scouted out Saturday afternoon with Anke Erlank – a new racer on the XTERRA circuit with a solid cycling resume as a member of the Saturn Cycling team. I danced through this section, enjoying the fun of running through mud and muck, and hopping the occasional rock and log. My fun ended, though, with the final 2K of flat running toward the finish. My legs began to tie up, and I struggled to keep my pace. I came to the finish line in 2:17:59 – a time that in 2000 would have put me in 8th, but in 2001 only good enough for 18th place. Canadian Mike Vine took the overall win with Conrad Stoltz in second and Nicolas LeBrun taking third. Jody Mielke won for the women with Wuele close behind and McQuaid taking third place honors.
The next XTERRA was our “home” race of Keystone on July 29, 2001. I had ridden the course several times in the weeks leading up to the race, and was prepared to let everything hang out on the course. The 1K swim was in Keystone Lake (or should I say Keystone Duck Pond) which never gets above 60 degrees. Wetsuits are mandatory, full-suits are expected, and many competitors don a neoprene skullcap under their race cap to keep their noggins warm. As the starting gun fired, I got stuck in a frenzied pack of flailing arms and legs. By the second buoy, a pack of faster swimmers had already separated, and I was in no man’s land. Breaking water alone, I was too slow to catch the leaders and soon fell back to 2nd pack. I sat in with a couple of other swimmers for the next few minutes, but soon felt the hypoxic effects of the 9,000′ elevation and dropped further back in the pack.
By the end of the swim, I was in 15th place, and determined to have a strong bike ride. I stumbled into transition with numb feet, hands, and face and slowly mounted my personal non-motorized lift. The bike course in Keystone climbs 2,400 feet through twisting singletrack and jeep roads to the summit of the Keystone Mountain. I struggled through the early miles on steep jeep road, until we turned into the singletrack. I felt stronger as I climbed higher and higher. By the time I reached the peak, I was ready to begin the famous bomb down Keystone. The descent is exhilarating, culminating with Wild Thing – an intense and highly technical descent full of tight switchbacks and huge drop-offs. I flew down the early miles of the descent, putting my bike and myself on the edge of control. On at least 2 occasions, I had serious concern for my safety …though I was able to regain control before encountering the ground or any of the trees lining the course.
Nearing the notorious Wild Thing, I caught Mike Pigg – one of my heroes and a legendary triathlete. He was obviously suffering in the altitude, and his technical riding was not quite up to par for the upcoming section. I passed Mike and continued to pick my way through the switchbacks. Soon, I entered the toughest section with two log drop-offs followed by a huge boulder. My butt hovered inches above the rear wheel as I leaned back and tried to ride the course clean. Most competitors get off their bikes – most for safety, but some for speed. I decided to take the challenge and try to ride the course…I wasn’t going to win, and didn’t want to wimp out. I rolled over the first two drop-offs, and headed into the final big drop. I hesitated slightly and got kicked out to the right side of my projected landing. Luckily, I was able to clip out my right foot and straighten myself in one quick dab.
Safely, I arrived into transition minutes later and began the 10K Keystone run. Once again, I was in the top fifteen and was running as hard as I could. Nearing the 5K mark, I heard the footsteps and labored breathing of someone chasing me down. I put up a fight, but couldn’t keep pace with my hunter. As I eased to the right side of the trail, Mike Pigg ran by – hurting for sure, but still pushing his body as hard as he could. If nothing else, Pigg is one the toughest guys around – one who doesn’t quit on an off day or when he isn’t feeling good. Someone you can admire, just like Ned – who was hammering trying to chase down Mike Vine and Nicolas LeBrun. Soon after Pigg dropped me, I took a bad step and twisted my ankle on a rock stuck in the trail. I walked it off for a couple seconds, and resumed my limping run to the finish. 19th was my final place…still hunting for series points and a top 15 place! For the pro men, Vine again took the win, with LeBrun in second and Ned in third. For the women, Erlank held onto a big lead on the bike for her first XTERRA win, with Wuele taking second and Cameron Randolph in third.
The 2001 version in Half Moon Bay had a revised bike course – one with less climbing than the 2000 version that saw mountain bike ace Steve Larsen crush a quality field. The swim began in the cold and murky waters of a protected cove in the Pacific Ocean. I had begun my taper for the 5430 Triathlon, which I would be racing 7 days later, and was excited to race at sea level. I felt a little sluggish though, and struggled through the 1500-Meter wetsuit swim. I arrived into transition much further behind my usual place, ready to tackle the hills of Half Moon. The smell of the eucalyptus tree leaves calmed me during the initial climbing. I soon found a rhythm and steadily climbed through the forest. I even kept pace with Ned Overend for a few minutes as he passed me on his way to the front. On the descent signaling the end of the first lap, I felt strong knowing that I had picked up a couple places. As I pushed through the second lap of the course, I began to slow slightly. My legs and lungs were fine, but I just couldn’t push a harder gear…probably a byproduct of all the Ironman miles in my legs. I finished the bike in 18th place, preparing for the beautiful run along Half Moon Bay’s shore and trails above the water. The sand of the beach felt soft as I passed through the early miles of the run course. Nearing the 3-mile mark, I turned onto the hard trail and tried to push the final 5K. To my surprise, I heard the quick steps and breathing of a female behind me as I pushed up a short hill. At the top I moved to the right to allow the women’s leader to pass me. Anke Erlank was hammering, and she quickly strode away. Again, I tried to pick up my pace, but the long miles kept some of zing out of my legs and I shuffled along unable to respond. At the finish, I was in 20th place…once again outside of the points! Conrad Stoltz took his first XTERRA victory, with Kerry Clausen coming in second followed by Nicolas LeBrun. For the women, Melanie McQuaid and Aussie Raeleigh Tennant followed Erlank.
In September came the first XTERRA National Championships in Lake Tahoe – a beautiful venue for a race. The events of September 11, 2001 had cast a shadow over everyone’s feelings, but we were athletes – proud of America and prepared to crown a new National Champion and XTERRA America Tour Champion. The water of Lake Tahoe was perfectly clear and made for an excellent start to a great race. Early in the swim, I got nailed in the face and dropped off the pace of the first pack. I fell back to the second pack, and kept pace with the women’s leader, Aussie Raleigh Tennant. I exited the swim in 19th place, and began the bike feeling strong. It had been nearly 3 weeks since the 5430 Triathlon, and my legs had only on Tuesday of that week begun to feel revived. Any time you lose more than 10 pounds during a race, it’ll take some time before your body returns to normal. I was hoping that my legs were back, and the course in Tahoe surely tested them!
The early part of the bike course climbed steeply through beautiful forest with stunning views of Lake Tahoe. Luckily, I had pre-ridden the course with fellow Colorado athletes Jimmy Archer, Steve Senier, and Grant Holicky on Friday. Several times we stopped to enjoy the views. During this pre-ride, one of the most memorable scenes of the 2001 tour revealed itself to me. Approaching a small lake at the top of the famed Flume trail, I crested a hill, and with a blazing sunset for a backdrop, watched a lone bald eagle fly off silently into the distance. I stood there for a few minutes, amazed at what I had seen. Unfortunately, during the race, I didn’t have a chance to enjoy the view. I pushed the climb and prepared for the loose descent. As I hammered through the beginning of the descent I made a slight error – almost breaking my foot in the process. After hitting a log with my right foot I stopped briefly, worried that my toes were actually broken. They were numb from the impact but all them seemed to be pointing the same direction, so I clipped back in and continued on. Fueled by the adrenaline of my near catastrophe I passed several racers – including Marc Lees, a world cup stud out of Australia who was giving XTERRA a go. Apparently he didn’t have much downhill experience, and slowly picked his way down the course.
Pulling into transition, I carefully put on my running shoes, trying not to irritate my already sore toes. The run began with a vertical scramble up a dusty hill, where many competitors were seen pulling on shrubs and tree branches to keep themselves from falling down! The run course wound through the TV show Bonanza’s famed ranch. We ran up and down through familiar sites from the show, including the livery, stables, and right next to the town center. It was a surreal setting for an amazing race. I continued to hobble through the run, feeling my toes swelling every step of the way. In the end, I was 25th and far behind race and series winner Stoltz. Behind the South African champion were Americans Kerry Clausen and Ned Overend. For the women, Anke Erlank repeated Conrad’s feat by winning the race and the tour championships, followed by Raeleigh Tennant and Jenny Tobin.
The 2001 edition of the XTERRA ended with the ever-challenging World Championship in Maui in October. The swim course consists of two triangular loops in the warm Pacific Ocean separated by a short beach run. I felt great in the water after lining up behind Ironman competitors Wendy Ingram and Cameron Widoff. I stayed in their draft until the first buoy where the masses came together. At the end of the second lap, I still felt relaxed and strong preparing for the brutal Maui bike course. The first couple miles consist of rolling paved road before turning onto a wide dirt road climbing the craggy slopes of Haleakala – a 10,000 foot dormant volcano! My legs quickly erupted with burning sensation of lactic acid as the trail grew steeper. Similar to the previous year, drought had left the course dry – with huge dust bowls of fine red silt. The descents were treacherous with loose, sharp lava rock and the ever-present danger of kiave thorns…several inches long and strong enough to penetrate tires. In Maui, if you survive the bike without any flats or other mechanical problems, you will probably do well. Such was the case for me, where I didn’t feel stellar, but made it to transition safely…and just behind XTERRA virgin Chris McCormack, who was getting his first taste of off-road racing. If I had been able to run with McCormack I would have slipped into the top twenty. Instead, I pushed through the 11K run full of deep sand, dense tropical forest, lava rock, and grass trails to finish in 30th place. Pros Conrad Stoltz and Anke Erlank held their late season form and both won despite this being their first attempts at the Maui course! For the women, Cheri Touchette exorcised some demons from her 2000 race and finished second while Kirsten Wuele toughed it out to a third place finish. For the men, Kerry Clausen ran to a second place finish while the always entertaining Jimmy Riccetello took third. Colorado athletes Ned Overend, Pat Brown, Jimmy Archer, and Wes Hobson took the evens, coming in 4th, 6th, 8th, and 10th place respectively. Boulder resident Cameron Widoff “fresh” off an 8th place at Ironman finished in 26th place to take top honors in the Hawaiian Airlines Double for lowest combined Ironman and XTERRA time. The official write-up for each XTERRA race usually concludes with a phrase like “this was the toughest course yet”. In Maui, that is the truth…without any doubts!