20 April 2009

Trampled Under Foot / XTERRA 2009!

We made the pilgrimage to Rotorua’s Blue Lake on Saturday morning, along with XTERRA enthusiasts of all shapes and sizes from around Aotearoa and the world.

At 11am, a siren sounded the beginning of XTERRA 2009, and from the banks of Tikitapu, I waited nervously as around 1000 competitors made their way around the 1 kilometre swim course.

First out? No surprises here – it was Terenzo (12:28). He was back to defend his title, and with a handy lead in the swim, he looked off to a good start. He left transition well ahead of any of the other athlete in the Pro section, and headed out on the 26 kilometre mountain bike stage.

Cabin got off to a happy start, with a PB in the swim (14:52), while his pocket rocket of a girlfriend Nic was amongst the first women to emerge from the lake in 16:43.

Hot on Terenzo’s tail was 34-year-old Coast to Coast winner Richard Ussher – in his first XTERRA appearance – and old hand Tim Wilding, who was the 2007 winner. Terenzo wasn’t having this all his own way. Not after last year, when in his debut appearance, he did what could almost be referred to as wiping the floor with some of the more seasoned and specialised entrants. So, around fifteen minutes into the bike, we were unsurprised to hear that both Wilding and Ussher had passed Terenzo.

By this time I decided to head up to the Blue/Green Lake lookout point and await the boys’ return from the mountain bike. Luckily, I’d thought ahead and brought Artemis, my mountain bike, along for the day, which made things easier.

It wasn’t long before the helicopter overhead radioed the checkpoint where I was waiting to alert us of the deluge of half-crazy cyclists that was about to come zooming through at breakneck speed. Who was ahead?

Scott Thorne. He’d slipped through transition almost unnoticed, and worked his strongest leg to get out to something of a lead over Cabin, Terenzo, Ussher and Wilding. Scott’s either family or something very close to it, and I know that he has a fire in his belly, that’s been burning for the XTERRA crown for some years now. Last year, he was third behind Terenzo and Cabin. The previous year, he’d been fourth. Was he finally going to get his prize?

Around a minute later, Ussher and Wilding came roaring through, jostling for position. Wilding sported a painful looking graze on his shoulder, which led us to think he’d had a significant bail somewhere along the way. Seconds behind them was Cabin, which set me into something of a panic. I knew going into this event that Cabin was still nursing the remnants of a rolled ankle, and that he would need a fairly extensive lead over the other boys for a shot at first place. I convinced myself he could still catch them.

Cabin and "Kermit" in the final stages of the bike

Concern grew over Terenzo’s whereabouts. Shouldn’t he have been past by now? I use “eventually” here loosely, because it wasn’t long after Cabin had been past that Terenzo came into view, to the delight of the two young boys who were “assisting” (again, loosely) with the manning of the checkpoint. We agreed that while Terenzo had an amazing run on him, he was too far down now to create any real danger for Thorne and Ussher.

Meanwhile, we received notice that the first woman had passed the previous checkpoint, so we waited anxiously to see who it would be. Smail? Wood? Leary? She seemed almost to close to the leading guys for it to be real, but soon enough, Nic Leary came flying past, much to my delight. I still had hopes for a Leary-Leishman XTERRA. Disturbingly close behind Nic was the formidable Monique Avery, who competes in the 18-24 age group. Currently, she was in front of all but one of the Pro competitors. Um, look out.

Soon, the leaders were back at the lookout on their first run lap. It was Ussher and Thorne out in front, followed by an exhausted-looking and clearly in pain Wilding. He even stopped for a drink, before trotting off again. Another spectator looked at me and shook his head. “He’s toast.”

When Cabin appeared at the top of the steps, I knew he could catch Wilding. To me, Wilding even looked bad enough that he could pull out and still call it an honest effort. But I guess that’s the difference between XTERRA competitors and the rest of the world. They don’t just quit.

On my way back to transition to await the second lap and finish, I passed Nic, who was about the drop into the forest on her first lap. Kind of unreal how close she was the guys!! Monique was still holding her own a few hundred metres back.

Back on the beach, we awaited the boys to come past between their first and second laps. It wasn’t long before two lycra-clad men ran side by side out of the forest. On closer inspection, it proved to be Ussher and Thorne. Think either of these guys was going to let it go? Nuh-uh. The leaders were followed by Wilding, and then Cabin, who clearly had enough left to take him. Terenzo was surprisingly far behind, and definitely didn’t look as comfortable as he ideally could be. All of this left Cabin in a good position. Sure, he was a bit far off winning, but he could reel in Wilding and had enough ground on Terenzo to put him out of his mind and still have a podium finish.

Cabin, halfway through the run

Nic still led the women’s event by a comfortable margin after her first lap. By now, Monique had been passed by Susie Wood, but still had more than enough to work with to take out her age group.

A number of interesting characters passed us as we waited for the finish. There were guys without tops, women with shaved heads, a huge variety of ages, cycling jerseys, hairstyles, and nutritional supplements running along the beach at Blue Lake.

Unsurprisingly, most of the boys had a noticeable drop-off in speed in their second lap. More and more age groupers passed, and finally a figure in black emerged from the forest. It was Ussher. And Thorne was nowhere to be seen. The commentator went crazy as he came into finish in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 33 seconds. Last year, Terenzo won with 2:07.09. This Ussher guy wasn’t playing around!

It wasn’t long before Thorne boosted it out of the forest trail and onto the beach for second place (2:04.04), an improvement on last year and enough to secure his spot for the XTERRA World Championships in Maui. So Cabin had been shut out, but that didn’t mean he could still chase down Wilding, which he did rather convincingly, with a final time of 2:08.47. Wilding did however manage to hold off a fading Terenzo, and the two finished in fourth and fifth respectively (2:09.30 and 2:09.45).

In the women’s event, an elated Nic (2:26.07) held her strong lead to take out the overall and Pro events by more than two minutes (!!!!) – to rapturous applause and no doubt a very proud boyfriend, and was joined on the podium by Susie Wood (2:28.25) and Annika Smail (2:28.49), who had raced quietly but strongly throughout the event. Monique Avery took out the 18-24 age group with a sharp 2:30.27, and would have been glad that she passed up the opportunity to race as a professional.

With the major placings no longer up for grabs, we made a move before the mass exodus back to Rotorua. As expected, all it made me want to do was race again, and I now anticipate next year’s event eagerly.

While Cabin didn’t quite have the day he so wanted, Nic will be stoked with her first victory and to be fair, you can’t take much away from Cabin's efforts against the formidable Ussher and an ever-improving Thorne. That’s racing, and though it’s not much consolation for now… there’s always next year. You guys - as always - rock my world!

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