Maui, Hawaii, the home of Jaw’s, the world’s largest and most dangerous surf break. But Maui is also home one of the toughest races in triathlon; The World XTERRA Championship. For me this was the culmination of my season and a true chance to go in against a racked field of the world’s best triathletes. After a season well ahead of expectation I was previewed in the race programme as a contender and I was looking to really take it up a notch and have a standout performance.
Sam Gardner, the most experienced and classiest triathlete in the UK had used his armory of contacts to equip us with a diverse training camp utilizing the whole of Hawaii’s Big Island and then Maui. It kicked off with a homestay at Tonda’s, a 67 year old ex-peace-corp worker and then it moved across the Big Island to swim coach supremos Bill and Jean Sakovic in Hilo.
Training with someone of a similar standard was fantastic; it was disciplined yet fun, fast but measured and all the while had a real sense of purpose. Our arms smashed through ocean waves, muscles turned circles against Caldera backdrops and our legs pounded the beaches. Yet despite this serious edge it would transpire that Sam “broadsword” Gardner was about as much of a hoon as myself. Teenage antics and pranks took centre stage as we blagged our way around the island hitching lifts and calling favours.
After a week of happy toil our stay culminated with a visit to the Ironman World Championship, to get fired up for the future. What an event – 2,000 athletes putting themselves through the absolute ringer in the name of pleasure – it struck a chord. The race also saw our rendezvous with legendary Australian swimmer, Shane Meadows and a few well earnt beers with Patty; Tonda’s incredibly hospitable neighbour.
So to Maui and we were locked into what appeared to be a tropical paradise directed and managed by a group of religious fruitcakes straight out of a beat novel. Packed in liked Sardines it was a very intimate setting in which to hone ourselves and finally prep.
Physically the run in had been perfect and with a week to go all looked great – my swim times had tumbled, a small duathlon win showed I had killer bike and run speed and I really felt that this would be as planned: a breakthrough.
Yet as the race got closer a few gremlins began to rear their head. Bad sleep, a terrible spider bite and a concern about a lack of leg zip. Allied to this was a feeling of being surrounded, my usual preparation is to be alone and not in company. The field itself was also on my mind, a white hot who's who of pro triathletes and olympians.
So to race day and the Makena beach resort Maui; a stunning beach and 550 athletes all charged up having qualified for the big one.
The race course is legendary. Unchanged for 15 years it takes in two laps of a beautiful blue sea where you have to contend not just with the arms and legs of other athletes but also turtles from beneath.
After a hotel-side transition it is onto the bike. Climbing all the way up the side of the Haleakula Volcano I was relishing the climb-fest. Yet once the climb was done the infamous “plunge” would begin. This is a one-mile boulder strewn crash fest that take you to yet more rocky rollers before the run.
The run was a cracker, taking in two fabulous beaches between which lay “spooky woods.” By far the most difficult thing about the course was that you could not pre-ride the bike section as it was on private land; having never raced the Worlds this was not ideal.
With helicopters swooping overhead and camera laden frogmen laying in wait you knew that this one would be a major affair.
I got out of the traps well and swam on the far right of the bunch. I had clear water and then moved into the mêlée to try and get on some fast legs. The thing with swimming is that you feel you could go faster but as soon as you move out of the slipstream you have to work disproportionately hard for the gains you make; as such I tucked in. The swim was two laps with a small beach run. I made a few places on the beach and heard my friend Will shout at me “1.30 back,” this was exactly where I had hoped to be. A second beautiful lap and on some quick legs I came into T1 ready to unleash the bike speed after my best ever swim.
I had the 37 plate, the same as my best race of the year in the Czech republic and I was hoping the big wheels would roll as well half way across the world.
As a rider you know when it is game on or game off and this felt distinctly like a bad day. All that taper, all that training and now on the slopes of the Volcano a leg no show. I could see riders ahead who I had been torching past all year but I just could not make the ground. Had I swum too fast? Was my head not right? Was I overtrained? Was I a big game choker? These are questions that have been running through my head ever since.
Half way around the lap it was clear my legs would not return. When I made it to T2 my friends were certain I had experienced a mechanical. I had in fact biked ten minutes slower than all those I have been outbiking since I broke through in mid-summer. The run was a contemplative affair. I knew I hadn’t got anywhere near what I wanted so kind of ran at a fast sustainable pace – if I had been in the mix a lot more speed would have been found.
So that was that, 19th pro. On paper a good first effort but I could see the potential for much higher. Jim Thys from Belgium in 10th summed it up for me; “where the hell were you? I was waiting for you to come smoking by on the bike!”
In the immediate aftermath I was measured in my reflection. So it was a bad day, the year had been great in so many ways; I was National Champion, I had won the XTERRA World Tour in Japan, I had podiumed in Europe; success beyond expectation. Yet time and reflection has made me realise that I could be more committed, more intelligent and better prepared. As such I will go forward and give it everything in 2011 as I return to XTERRA and also to Ironman 70.3. But for the new season I am going all out to be truly the best I can be.