The XTERRA Mountain Championship in Beaver Creek, Colorado marks a turning point in the XTERRA US championship series with a shift to big mountain races. The consistent theme is long, sustained climbs on the bike and run. Beaver Creek (Mountain Championship), Ogden (US Championship), and Maui (World Championship) all present over 3,000 feet of climbing on the 15-20 mile mountain bike leg and over 1200 ft of climbing on the 10k trail run. Both the Mountain Championship and the National Championship have a net elevation gain with the lake at the lowest point and the second transition and the finish line at a higher elevation. This favors the stronger climbers and are considered to be less technical courses.
The race in Beaver Creek begins with the swim in Nottingham Lake at about 7,400 feet above sea level. Even for Colorado athletes, a high-altitude swim needs to be approached differently than a swim at low elevation. Most triathletes at some point have experienced anxiety in the water and lack of oxygen makes that scenario a little more likely. I remember during my first-ever XTERRA in Keystone experiencing for the first time the inability to keep my face in the water. I thought it was the strangest thing. For some reason I could not exhale under water. Anxiety surely plays a role, but in many cases the panic attack may be the result of simply going out too hard. The penalty for going into oxygen debt at altitude is simply greater. To avoid this problem, get in a good warm up including some efforts at race pace and settle into your steady race pace sooner.
The swim start can be difficult to simulate in training. One example is to swim 5 x 300 meters (or yards) with the first 50-75 sprint and then settle into a 1500m race pace. Take full recovery between each repetition. Even harder to mimic is the mass of people, the dark water, and all the dynamics of open water. Take advantage of any open water swims in your area such as the Avon Dunk-N-Dash series (www.avon.org). All of these obstacles can be overcome with some courage and the proper mindset.
In all of these big mountain races, the mountain bike is where the magic happens. Although there are many changes in pitch, I recommend settling into your threshold climbing pace early because there is a high price to pay by overcooking it early. Use your gears by shifting often as the grade changes to keep your power output as steady as possible. I am often asked how hard someone should go on these climbs and I truly believe it becomes self-limiting. If you have done the proper preparation with specific threshold climbing efforts, then your body will know what to do even if your mind is unsure. Be patient early and ramp up your perceived effort as the climb continues.
“Beware the fury of the patient man (woman).”—John Dryden, 1678
With so much sustained pedaling, there are few places to hide on the course. It is important to remain alert and stay on the gas. It is easy to fall asleep along the middle section on Village-to-Village, a 5 mile false flat on wide single track. So get back into time trial mode and keep tapping out your own race tempo. This is where the big strong athletes can really lay down watts and take back some time lost on the steep climbs. Since the largest time portion of the race is on the bike, you need to play all of your cards here and just hope there is something left in the dealer’s deck.
The run begins immediately with more sustained climbing, which I actually find is an easier a protransition since a short stride uphill is closer mechanically to biking uphill than running flat. The main limiter of your run ability will depend on the depth of your fitness. It doesn’t matter how good of a stand-alone runner you are, but more important will be how well you can run when tired. It has more to do with the size of your engine and less to do with your running economy. I like to say that you swim with your arms, bike with your legs, and run with your heart. I mean this in more ways than one.
The Beaver Creek XTERRA is a true mountain course with high energy demands all around. Compared to flatter courses, nutrition becomes more of a factor as does pacing, and overall endurance. Patience early is rewarded later. Consider the swim, bike, and run a closed system. Your energy bucket will not be refilled after each event so arrive tapered and well fed. Think of it more as a big sponge that you are gradually squeezing dry. Your goal with nutrition is not to replace everything you lose, but to delay your depletion just long enough to cross the finish line. I like to think of the Mountain Championship as a personal test on a challenging course rather than a race against competitors. We are all in it together and if everyone has their best day, the mountain will decide the finishing order.
Josiah Middaugh is a professional triathlete and coach at Dogma Athletica. He was the men’s 2014 Beaver Creek Xterra Champion. Learn more about Josiah at josiahmiddaugh.com