Off-Road, Off-Balance

I was intrigued last summer when I first heard about a mountain-bike triathlon called Aquaterra that was to be held in Maui in November. But when I realized it was being held only one week after Ironman, I dismissed it as a race I would read about, rather than experience.  After Hawaii, however, I grew restless nursing my wounds (mostly wounded pride) on the beaches of Kauai, and the idea of participating “just for fun” took hold. (In hindsight, I must have been still slightly delirious from Ironman.)

My enthusiasm rubbed off on the other recovering triathletes with whom I was vacationing. We all had some limited mountain-biking experience, though none of us had ever raced one. I called the race director, who encouraged us to come, assuring us that the mountain-bike ride wasn’t “technical.”

Suckers that we were, we hopped on the next inter-island flight.

The Excitement Of a New Thing

The race had a special buzz about it from the start. There was an excitement that often surrounds a new event that could be ‘the next big thing.’ Off-road triathlons could take off for a few reasons.  They are easier to stage because you don’t have to worry about road closures and traffic. There is a huge base of potential participants because of the popularity of mountain bikes. And it appeals to the free-wheeling spirit of our sport, which has, in recent years, grown a little too routine with the advent of criterium courses, standard distances and less-than-exotic settings.

Even the name “Aquaterra” has a certain panache (so much so that the organizers have since changed the name of the series to XTERRA because it is owned by another company!)

It’s Just Another Swim-Bike-Run

The first leg of the course was a 1500-meter swim in the relatively calm ocean outside the scenic Aston Hotel. I figured that my swim training for the week—multiple five-yard sprints to catch the excellent body-surfing waves in Honalei Bay—would really pay off here.

The 18-mile bike course started out on a paved road for about three miles before turning into a private ranch. The trails were only to be opened to riders on race day. We were relieved not to have to worry about practice rides, since we spent the whole day before the race renting mountain bikes.

I started to get a little suspicious, though, when I heard that the race director was reassuring triathletes that the course was not technical, but telling mountain bikers that it was really technical and they would be able to crush us on it.

The eight-mile run began out in the middle of the private ranch, wound through a couple of neighborhoods, then popped out to the beach for some nice deep-sand running before returning to the hotel.

We all decided that we wouldn’t test our running legs until race day, reasoning that either we had miraculously regained our strength and speed with every chapter we read on the beach, or we would feel like we were tacking eight miles onto the 26 miles of Kona shuffle we had just completed. We agreed that it was best to remain in suspense.

The race attracted a few of the stud mountain bikers, as well as non-Ironman triathletes, primed for their last race of the season. The days before were filled with hypothetical questions about how much time the mountain bikers would gain on the descents and how much time the triathletes could make up on the run. The Ironman athletes, meanwhile, asked whether it would be possible to hail a cab from the middle of the ranch if we decided that our legs were unwilling to perform a running motion.

Swim’s OK, But This Bike is Forked

The swim went pretty much as expected. The triathletes forged to the front and caused as much commotion as possible to induce panic in the non-amphibious mountain bikers.

At the transition, I hopped on my rented Trek, slipped my running shoes into the toe clips, and headed off—nearly off the bike, that is. Its suspension fork was new to me, and I quickly discovered it can give you quite a bounce.  After a mile or two, though, I started to think I had this mountain-bike thing nailed. That was because we hadn’t gotten off the pavement yet. When we turned into the trail, my race took a considerable downturn.

Most of the course was covered with a loose lava rock that caused tires to squirrel every which way and threatened to bounce you several feet in the air if you hit one head-on. On the uphills, it wasn’t too bad, because I was going slow enough to pick my way through. But on the downhills—and there were a few doozies—it was impossible to avoid them. 

Look, Ma—no brakes!

The strategy that the people whizzing by me seemed to employ was to take their hands off the brakes and “roll” with the punches. As person after person cruised by me, I pleaded with my hands to release the brake levers. But they seemed to be taking commands from a higher being—perhaps the spaceship behind comet Hale-Bopp—and were under strict instructions to maintain a death-grip.

Now as any mountain biker will tell you, it is much more dangerous to descend with the brakes on because you have less control. After considerable debate, I found it was best for all concerned if I just dismounted and walked my bike down, death-grip intact. My decision to walk was reinforced when I saw several people ride by with raspberries and cuts from falls.

Better Racing Through Physics

I guess that’s how you test your limits in this sport; you go like a bat out of hell until you fall—then you know your limit was just a smidgen below that. Having spent the last couple of weeks perfecting my tan, I decided that it would be a waste to spread my bronzed skin on these desolate lava rocks.

After an hour of sweating my way though the course, I started imagining that the run transition must be getting fairly close. This is about when I hit the six-mile mark of the 18-mile course. I started to panic a bit, realizing that I was in for a long day and that I hadn’t even brought a picnic lunch.

Luckily, my swim had gotten me out in the top-10 overall, so I had plenty of company. At least 60 people bounced by me en route to the finish—including my husband, who had these words of encouragement: “C’mon, you knucklehead!’

I prayed for uphills and flats so that I could get on my bike and make some progress, completely forgetting about my Ironman fatigue in my desire to finish the bike before dark. Two-and-a-half hours later, I managed to complete the bike course. I was so elated to have my feet planted on terra firma, I didn’t even mind that the leaders had finished.

Footloose and Fancy Free—Finally

I took a nice long time on the run, savoring the feel of the ground underfoot and enjoying the view that had eluded me while I was searching the path for safe passage. I finally made it to the finish, happy that I hadn’t totally missed the post-race party. The race I had naively believed would take me two hours to finish lasted three hours and 52 minutes.

I have to admit, I am still intrigued by off-road triathlons. They offer a whole new set of challenges. You don’t have to be just an endurance machine—you have to have fitness, courage and strength (and, in my case, a picnic lunch). I have resolved to do another off-road race sometime, but only after considerable practice on my descending.

Now, if the blisters on my hands will just heal, I’ll get started.


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