Quite a lot has happened since my last blog post!  Since then, I caught a nasty flu, recovered, raced two more mountain bike races, and (most importantly) earned my first XTERRA USA Pro Tour podium spot!!!  How’s that for an executive summary?!

The XTERRA US Tour kicked off this last Saturday (April 25th) in Henderson, Nevada.  This was my 4th year racing the XTERRA Western Championships.  In previous years, I had “participated” in 2012, DNF’d due to a double-mechanical in 2013, and then finished 8th in 2014.

The trip to Vegas was really enjoyable this year.  A fellow XTERRA athlete Nate Youngs (who I had met last year in Maui) happened to have family living in Henderson and they offered to put us up.  Let me tell you, it was cool living next to Chris Angel, if just for a few days.  Needless to say my Hyundai Sonata rental turned some heads in that posh neighborhood.  They see me rollin’…

Uh… anyways, after we settled into our swanky accommodations, my pre-race prep workouts were underway.   And I felt good.  Like too good.  I know from experience that how I “feel” and how I “perform” are two completely different things.   And there is good reason for my skeptisizm this time around.  Only a few short weeks earlier I caught a nasty bug.  I guess it was the flu, and it knocked me out of a week of training.

Chris West

Pre-race, feeling “almost too good.” Photo Credit: Trey Garman 2015

Before illness, my confidence was sky-high.  My numbers on the bike, my bike race results, my running, swimming, crosswords proficiency, diction, were all at an all-time high.  But after, I did not seem to be performing at the same level.  So, understandably, my confidence going into this race was a bit lower than it had been pre-illness.  However, I knew my baseline fitness was still better than the same time last year.  And as the weeks went on, the memory of the illness faded and all indicators started to trend slowly in the right direction.

Originally, this winter I trained with the intent of coming out of the water with Josiah and catching Mauricio Mendez on the bike.  I figured if I could do that regularly, I’d have good crack at the podium (top 5), at some point.  But Mau wasn’t listed in the  pre-race write up.  Also, about three other podium contenders from last year were also missing.  Basically all South Africans.  But Ben Allen and Paco Serrano were listed.  So I had the same goals, same plan but the faces just changed.

Speaking of the pre-race writeup… I had to rib my XTERRA family a bit before the race about that.  The write up basically said: Look out for racers #1, 2, 3,… 5, 6, 7, 8…etc.  I was #4.  Haha!  So funny.  We all had a good laugh about it and they told me if I made the top 5, they would “never do that again”.  ;o)

Race morning quickly came and I felt totally ready to go.  Fairly eager even.  Again, almost too ready.  It seemed too simple on race morning at the pro rack.  I found myself completely prepped, warmed up, hydrated, etc… standing there, chatting, laughing, enjoying myself and thinking “oh God, what did I forget?”.

Oh, nothing.

Ok, cool.

So, half in my new Blueseventy Helix Wetsuit, I strolled down to the swim start.  After a nice long swim warmup I found myself calmly waiting for the start.  I staked out my start position according to the beach shape with fair disregard for where the other pros seeded themselves.  More importantly, with regard for the location of the mini starter’s cannon.   I was super eager to swim.  I knew from workouts that I was strong, if maybe not what I consider “fast” quite yet.   I’ve done a LOT of swim work this winter and was genuinely curious to see how I went.

I’m about 7th blue cap from the right in the swim start pic (below)

Photo: XTERRA 2015

Photo: XTERRA 2015

Once the canon fired, I dove in and got out fast.   I had clean water for maybe 200 meters with a group to my left and a larger group moving quickly far to my right.  Once I started to feel the effort, I decided to veer left and join in.  I hip-surfed for a bit further and it became single file.  Then the swimmer in front of me veered and a gap formed.  CRAP.  I surged hard, but I was still recovering from the start effort.  The gap grew slowly.  I was unmolested around both turn buoys, which is a real treat!  Open water swimming this Winter with The Triathlon Squad and Darren Smith’s D-Squad had prepared me for an ITU style rumble.  But it didn’t come.  In fact, I looked back after the 2nd buoy and saw I was leading a group!

Now, I’m happy about this since only a few short years ago I was ecstatic to have ANYONE behind me.  However, I am also disappointed in myself.  It means that I was the one to blame for creating the 3rd pack in the first place.  Eh, oh well.

After the first 750m lap, there was a short beach run before diving in for the second swim lap.  I saw that there was a solid gap to the next pack, so no chance to run back on.  And I also saw that there was a steady stream of athletes right behind me.  Going out to the buoys, I noticed a swimmer surge to my left.  I drag-raced them to the buoy, knowing that I had inside position.  However, they went a bit wide and then accelerated well out of the turn.  It turned out to be Josiah Middaugh.  He really picked the pace up on that last stretch.   I got right on his feet and drafted as best I could to the beach.

I have to hand it to Blueseventy, that Helix is sweet.  It swims like a sleeveless, I had no “wetsuit hickies” on my neck, and no water got in.  It also came off quickly in T1.  Just awesome.  The Nero tinted racing goggles felt great, were crystal clear, and didn’t fog.  Their products let me just swim, focus on the effort, and the task at hand.  When things just work well, you almost don’t notice or appreciate good equipment until you reflect on a race.  But I definitely appreciate it!

After the swim, there was a long run up the beach, through a tunnel and then up a steep golf-cart path to transition.  On the way up I saw I was with Josiah and Ryan Ignatz.  (we all had the exact same swim time, haha)  And word was we were about 2:30 down on the leader Ben Allen.  “Ok, that’s not bad.” I thought.  And I was with Josiah.  And that’s actually good.

Swim: 22:11 (19th) 

I had a pretty quick transition, but as I grabbed my bike I noticed Josiah was putting his shoes on.   Mine were clipped to my pedals.  So I knew I needed to get my shoes on before he caught up with me on the road if I wanted to stick with him.  This did not happen.  I got one shoe on and he rumbled past.  I got into his draft and went for my 2nd shoe.  A gap opened up.  I got the shoe on and sprinted back to his wheel.

Here’s where I think I should have been smarter.

History shows that Josiah goes to the front of the race.  So, the longer you stay with Josiah, the closer you get to the front of the race.  Easier said than done, but it’s the truth.  I wanted to stay with him.  But I reached down to tighten my right shoe.  And a gap opened up.  I pushed to get closer to him, and then reached down and tightened my 2nd shoe.  A bigger gap opened up.

And it happens that fast.  I was gapped.

Note to self: Get velcro shoes.  -Noted.  That small gap grew.  Albeit, slowly.  But it grew steadily nonetheless.  He’s the man on the bike.  Very impressive!  Now it was time to ride my own race.  My Niner Jet 9 RDO full suspension performed beautifully on this rugged Mars-scape of a desert course.  I was able to remain confident on some seriously gnarly terrain.  I started off in 14th, then steadily passed 10 athletes on the bike.

Now wait Chris…  14 minus 10 is 4, right?  Just checking, because that’s kind of a big deal.

Hell yeah it is!  I was in FOURTH!

Photo: XTERRA 2015

Photo: XTERRA 2015

Bike: 1:13:14 (3rd)

As I came down to the transition I saw the leader “Paco” Serrano running the opposite direction out of T2 and Josiah close behind.  Allis had told me how far ahead 3rd place was but I didn’t hear it well.  I was running out of transition when Kevin Everett (who had unfortunately DNF’d with a sidewall blowout) told me that 3rd was “just ahead”.   I wasn’t sure what that meant, but after about a mile, I could see someone well up the road.  From his kit it was Ben Allen.  From his form, he looked solid early.

The gap was very slowly coming down though, so I internalized and focused on a strong effort.  I felt like I was running one of our 10 mile tempo runs at Lake Miramar again with shoulder-to-shoulder with Trevor Wurtele.  XTERRA running is funny like that.  The effort is definitely 10K.  But the pace ends up slower than your half marathon.  And the fatigue is like the back half of a full marathon.  In deep sand.  Up loose, steep climbs.  Down loose, steep descents.  It’s just brutal.  I think that’s why you see such erratic numbers in XTERRA run results.  The fatigue magnifies small differences in otherwise very evenly matched athletes.

A few miles later, heading into a long and agonizingly sandy gulch, Ben was only 10 meters in front of me.   I ran the same lines as him, letting him do the thinking. That way I could just focus on running faster than him.   It worked.  Coming back onto solid ground, I made it to his heels. I decided quickly that I felt great and it was best to go by immediately.  I ran hard and worked to make the pass stick.  He didn’t respond.  Allis told me that Josiah was 4 more minutes up.  I so I didn’t really see the need to run any harder than needed to solidify my current position.  I haven’t been focusing on my run (yet?) this season, but I was pleased with my strength.  I felt like I had more in me if needed, and a kick seemed there if I needed it.

Run: 37:01 (7th) 

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Photo Credit: Kevin Everett 2015

I finished in 3rd!  About 7 minutes off of Serrano and 5 minutes behind Josiah.  Hats off to those guys.  That’s one aspect I love about Xterra: The strongest person on the day wins.  We (typically) don’t have to point fingers at officials or drafting rule violations.  For the most part, you hammer, you suffer, and you push, push, push to the finish.  Simple.

Final Result: 2:13:48 (3rd Overall!)  Link: Here

Proof: 

West Podium

You also “survive” Xterra.

So I have respect not only for my fellow professionals, but for everyone out there.  I definitely felt for Ben, since he was obviously very human on the day after some serious travel.  Also, he seemed to have rather nasty, bloody blisters on his feet after the race.  He must have really been in pain out there!  Regardless, he’s a class guy and it was awesome to race him and get to meet him after the race.

I’m so pumped for my first ever XTERRA podium finish, I’m beside myself happy.  The feeling is like:

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My previous best placement in an XTERRA Pro Tour race was 7th at the Mountain Championships last year.  It’s validating to get a result when you put in hard work, and that work is mostly work done in a vacuum.

I know for a fact that my competition all work hard as well.  But I can’t speak to exactly what they go through.  We all have our unique challenges.  But I know exactly what I’ve been through.  I know how many days I’ve been cranky from fatigue, or not felt like getting up, or getting into the pool, or out in the snow, or rain, or cold wind.  But you keep going with the belief that hard work pays off.  And it does.  This year saw a pretty sweet high early on, followed by a deep low with that sickness.  As my good friend aptly put it: “The struggle is real”.   Coincidentally, coach Paulo says we have to “operate in the struggle”.  -So true.

Putting in a performance you are proud of is something to be enjoyed.  But as great as it is to get a result, for me it’s more motivating than validating.  It makes me hungry to move forward and do the work required to be better.  A small gap opened up and I couldn’t close it.  I saw what it took to get to the front of a race and it was so close I could touch it.  I want to get my biking to a competitive level and then put some “icing on the cake”.  That’s motivating.  That’s exciting.

The struggle to be better is real and the process is continuous.

I have to thank Allis for her support.  She’s the one that has to deal with my seemingly singular focus and crankiness when the struggle gets real.  A huge thank you goes to Paulo Sousa for laying out a clear path for continual improvement.  Thanks for my “career day“.  ;o)  Thanks to my sponsors: Equal Earth, Blue Seventy, Champion System, First Endurance, G-Fit Studio Boise/Niner Bikes, TriTown Boise.  You all allow me to do my job to my best ability every day.  I’m honored to represent a fantastic group of companies and people who believe in me as much as I believe in them.  Thanks to my squad mates at The Triathlon Squad in San Diego.  Great friends that inspire/motivate me during camp and even when I’m training solo in Boise.

I truly meant what I said in my 5am pre-race Instagram post:  “I do my very best to make you all proud every day.  And today is no different.”

One race down, and another comes in three short weeks at XTERRA Southeast Championships (May 16) in Oak Mountain State Park, Pelham Alabama!  Can’t wait!  Operation: “Not a Fluke” starts… now!  :o)

Chris Allis West

Matchy-matchy