Can't believe we are in February 2016 already! The time has just flown by with three races already under my belt this year. The harder you train the luckier you get apparently and luck has certainly been on my side these past few weeks. I took on potentially more than I could handle with 4 races in 5 weeks beginning with the Xterra SA Series in Buffelspoort on the 23rd January followed by Xterra PE the next Saturday and then the long haul over to the Philippines for the beginning of my Xterra Asian Tour Title defence. With just one weekend off I find myself once again in race week but this time with a little added pressure. I have yet to win our national title in South Africa, a race so close to our hearts and one I am determined to call my own. But before I get to ahead of myself lets take a quick look back at what I have been up to over these past few weeks.
XTERRA BUFFELSPOORT - 23rd January 2016
After a really solid training block over December/January - despite a small hiccup after a tumble in December which left me with a torn Teres Major (AKA rotator cuff muscle) I felt I was in great form and ready to take on this aggressive racing block I had planned for myself. Xterra Buffelspoort is always a really tough challenge with harsh terrain and a demanding course at altitude, add to it the great level of competition we have in SA and best you be firing on all cylinders come the 23rd if you wish to have a chance at victory.
I had a relatively mediocre start well below my own high standards and entered T1 over 2 minutes down from the up and coming ITU star Basson Engelbrecht. I somehow justified the time loss in my own head and convinced myself I would soon close the gap, regardless of whats happening in a race its so important to stay in that positive mindset. I soon made my way to second place but the gap to first was not closing as fast as I would have liked and after the first (and only) long climb on the bike I was a little concerned that I had still not gotten a visual on Engelbrecht up the road. I knew I was moving well and just kept making sure I was doing the small things correctly. This was Bassons first Xterra and although he is well versed in the triathlon world i takes some school fees before you can put an off-road race together successfully. Finally I made contact with the youngster and with a couple kilometres to go he made a small mistake in a rocky single track section and I took my opportunity to open the gap. I only had about 30-40seconds coming into T2 and I knew from his ITU background that his running would be really strong, it all depended on just how much energy he had expended out on the bike. I am not the fastest runner but I pride myself on my efficiency off the bike. I felt comfortable and pushed hard early on to try and get out of sight before we hit the long hard climb Xterra Buffelspoort is so infamous for. Once on the climb I had a few sneaky looks over my shoulder to try and get a handle on where Basson was but the trail behind was empty and I was surely pulling away now. The really hard part of most Xterra races is that final 30-40 minutes when your body feels like it is giving way beneath you, those who can learn to find strength in these moments are usually the ones who claim victory. My suspicions were confirmed when the lead motorbike caught up to me and gave me the split back to second place.
From the high point on the climb I was able to take the foot off the gas a bit and just allow my body to settle into a more comfortable pace knowing I had a busy racing schedule ahead of me and not wanting to do any more damage than was necessary to my body. Crossing the line I was really stoked to have my first win of 2016 and proud of the fact that I was able to defend my title from 2015.
Photo Credit: Tobias Ginsberg
Photo Credit: Tobias Ginsberg
XTERRA PORT ELIZABETH - 30th January2016
Onwards to PE and after a solid week of training and some confidence after winning the first race of the season I was on a high and ready to tackle this new race on the Xterra SA circuit. One of my favourite things about racing Xterra is the pre race build up and getting to learn new courses trying to gain every advantage you can over fellow competitors before that starting gun sounds. Having a new course which no one knew exactly what it entailed or demanded most athletes traveled out early in an attempt to gain maximum course knowledge. Ending my first lap I was really happy with the new route and really loved the fast and flowy 'urban' mountain bike leg. Lots of single track made it feel like an XC MTB Track and the short punchy climbs were perfect for my build and power to weight ratio. Word on the street once I arrived was that Stuart Marais was in town and had been spotted earlier that day out on course practicing. This was news to me as Stuart and I are daily training partners in Stellenbosch and I had no idea he would be toeing the line out in PE but regardless I was excited and knew Stu would put up a fierce battle come race day.
The swim was 2 laps of 750m with a pretty long beach run in-between due to ocean currents. Theo Blignaut took and early lead with myself and Stu settling into 2nd and 3rd. After the first loop we had lost about 10-15seconds but managed to make it up quickly on the beach run and the 3 of us entered lap 2 together. Theo led the lap again but this time Stu and I were able to hold on and the three of us exited the water together - Much happier with this swim over the previous weekend in JHB.
Onto the bike Stu went out really hard and forced a small gap, it took me a little by surprise but I responded quickly and closed the gap Theo just behind unable to do the same. Soon it became a two horse race and I knew if I wanted to win this one I had to get away on the bike and take advantage of my technical ability. Stu had raced Ironman SA 70.3 in EL the weekend prior so was definitely not at his best but I wasn't about to have any sympathy for the man and on the first big kicker I made my move and got clear. Once on my own I tried staying as focused as possible determined not to make any silly errors. The course flew past and shortly we were at the highest point on the lap turning for home. On a flatter tar section through town I looked back and estimated roughly a 30-40seconds back to Stu. I could see he was digging hard and one small error on my side would see him rejoin me at the head of the race. Thankfully I descended smoothly with little incident and approaching T2 got a split of 1minute. I convinced myself that this would be enough and pushed hard for home preparing for a fast run ahead. Entering T2 I made that dreaded error I was trying so hard to avoid. I had not taken a close look at the entry point coming off the bike and when coming into transition I accidentally went down the wrong shoot and could not find my shoes. For 20seconds I looked back and forth convinced that they should be in front of me but unable to spot them I was wasting precious time and could actually see Stu approaching out the corner of my eye, all that hard work wasted! Finally I got my bearings and located my PUMA FAAS 300Trail shoes sitting pretty one rack over from where I had been searching.
Finally onto the run I got a split of just 25seconds and the out and back on the beach confirmed this. 25 seconds looks incredibly small especially when it is Stuart chasing you. I put that out of my head and just focused on running as fast as I possibly could. My strategy was to force him to work really hard to close the gap and once he did to just sit on his pace and try to take it down to a sprint finish if I had the legs. Heading up Happy Valley I glanced back but there was no sight of him. Strategic?...Tired?... Bonking?... I didn't really care to be honest I just kept doing my job. Starting the second loop in Happy Valley I got another visual and although the gap wasn't massive it had certainly grown slightly since we started and I took big confidence from this. I surged to the top of the valley and danced back down the other side exiting out onto Kings beach and striding for home. Stuart will always get the best out of any competitor he takes on and I was incredibly proud to be able to have beaten him on the day. Xterra SA Champs in Grabouw will be a whole different beast but I am certainly entering it with the momentum firmly on my side. Take what you can get right!?
Photo Credit: Tobias Ginsberg
Photo Credit: Tobias Ginsberg
Photo Credit: Tobias Ginsberg
XTERRA PHILIPPINES - 7th February 2016
In what felt like the blink of an eye I was boarding an Emirates airliner headed for the Philippines. Xterra Philippines was my first World Tour Title in 2015 so I was really looking forward to defending my title in 2016. Admittedly I was not feeling my sharpest after two hard races and the prospect of two days of traveling ahead of me but thankfully the travel went by smoothly and soon I was landing in Legazpi, Albay feeling optimistic about the weekend ahead. Looking back now it really is all a blur, pre ride course Friday afternoon, Swim course Saturday morning, race registration, clean bike and prep, meet the pro's press conference, pre race dinner, sleep. 4am alarm and we were off to the start of my 3rd race in the past 15days, rather surreal but it was happening whether I liked it or not and with the likes of Ben Allen (AUS) and Brodie Gardner (AUS) it was sure to be another battle out there.
The Philippines can be incredibly hot and humid but to our relief it was cool and raining come race morning. The rain would provide its own challenges but ultimately it might have been what won me this race. Ben is an incredibly good swimmer and took an early lead which came as no surprise. I held on for a couple hundred meters but soon the bubbles thinned out and then disappeared all together. Exiting the water he had roughly a minute on me and I knew I had my work cut out if I want to make it 3 from 3 in 2016. Early on the bike I felt really bad and just battled for every pedal stroke unable to find a rhythm. I got a few opportunities to see Ben up the road but the gap remained at one minute and my morale was pretty low. As athletes we can sometimes throw the towel in to early and just say today isn't my day, I had two hard races in the body and when pushing hard felt so bad I just began to reason with myself that second place is not so bad. Its something I will have to work on in the future as once I saw the gap was closing my whole mindset changed. I finally closed the gap on the second long climb and we began the descent together both making a few errors on the way down due to the wet and slippery conditions. I could see Ben was struggling in these conditions and I made a mental note to push hard at my next opportunity. I tried to get away on the 3rd and final big climb of the day but Ben was to strong and sat comfortably on my wheel. At this stage I really didn't want it to come down to the run as I was feeling pretty fragile and not sure what was left in the body so I took a gamble and threw a little caution to the wind on the final technical descent. The gamble paid off and Ben made a mistake which ultimately gave me the win. Ben came down hard damaging his ribs and leg in the process. Coming into T2 I had roughly a minute on Ben which opened to a few more by the end of the run. I was happy with the form on the run and felt that even if I was pushed I certainly could have battled it out on that run course if need be but none the less was very grateful that I could coast home and get the Asian Pacific Xterra Tour off to a winning start. Defending my Title in the Philippines was an awesome experience, it really is a race like no other and one which the locals truly buy into. I cannot thank Sunrise Events enough for there generosity and professionalism which is second to none and I will most definitely be returning to Albay in 2017.
For now its onwards to Grabouw where the SA National Xterra Title is up for grabs.
If you are in town please come out on Saturday and lend your support, I will need all the help I can get!