My 4th trip to the Philippines took me to the city of Danao in the region of Cebu. Xterra Philippines has been really good to me over the years seeing me win the past two editions of this iconic race in Albay. Having the race move location is great for all involved having the opportunity to see a new travel destination in the Philippines and giving the people of Danao an opportunity to host this World Tour triathlon event.
Sunrise Events once again put on a flawless event and their race organizers put together one of the most challenging racecourses I can remember competing on. The climate in Danao is enough to frighten the most hardened of endurance athletes, add to that impossibly steep mountains and a mountain bike leg over 40km and even the Pro field started shifting uncomfortably in their seats. After a few pre rides of the course the concerns grew, not only for us as the Pro field but the age groupers alike. The thermometer touched 40 degrees Celsius everyday with extreme humidity added to that. As the race drew nearer we opted to hide out in the comfort of our air-conditioned hotel rooms at the Coco-Palms Resort who played host to this years edition of Xterra Philippines.
Race day arrived and the forecast was much the same, we were in for a long and hot day. The race itself consisted of a single loop 1.5km swim in the calm waters right in front of the Coco-Palms Resort, which was very convenient for all athletes staying at the hotel. The mountain biking leg was two loops of a 20km lap with 750m elevation per lap giving a total of 40km with 1500m climbing! The usual winning time of a world tour Xterra event is roughly 2h20, the bike leg alone would take most athletes longer than this to complete including the majority of the professional field. Finally the run would happen at the hottest time of the day reducing most athletes pace to a slow walk at best, just putting one foot in front of the other seemed like a victory when trying to navigate steep lava rock climbs and loose rocky off camber descents.
The swim started out at the most leisurely pace I have ever experienced in a triathlon race. I think everyone knew what lay ahead and were pretty content to settle into a calmer start. Rounding the first buoy Sam Osborne, frustrated with the slow pace moved to the front and put in a surge, Ben Allen from Australia went with him but I missed the move and found myself in no mans land. With 350m to go I could still see the two athletes ahead of me and knew I had limited the losses to under a minute. My strength these days is on the bike and I was fairly comfortable I could close this gap within the first few kilometers. The MTB loop started with a couple of technical rocky descents with a high risk of puncturing, I took it conservatively but when the road opened ahead I had already more than halved the lead to the guys up front. I was feeling good despite the rising temperatures and decided to put an effort in and get across the gap as quickly as possible. I bridged up at about the 6km mark and began to feel in control of the race, the MTB loop had a one mile climb on a cement paved road with a gradient only barely ride-able even in the 50-tooth gear of a SRAM Eagle cassette!
Starting the second lap we were entering the 2nd hour of racing. I had estimated a 3h30 race time so I knew there was still a lot of racing ahead but I was now into my riding and looking forward to executing another solid lap time. Sam and I had now dropped Ben who unfortunately suffered a puncture shortly after which took the Aussie out of the running for the win. I suspected Sam was now feeling the heat so I opened the throttle a little to see if he could respond up one of the many loose steep climbs, a gap opened and I decided to go for it. In a head to head running race Sam has my number so I knew I had to damage his legs as much as possible before we started the run leg. From there I just kept the pace hard but within my limits, leading a race is always tricky as you can never get reliable splits to the athletes behind.
Finishing the 40km bike leg I could feel I had pushed pretty hard and the legs were a little shaky coming off the bike, I took it conservatively out of T2 and stopped at the first aid station to try and cool my body down and get some vital fluids in. I was convinced Sam would be within striking distance so I had to keep moving well if I wanted to come out on top. Had I known I had put 6minutes into the Kiwi on the second lap I may have taken it a little easier but there was no way of me knowing where he was on the course so I just kept pushing and making sure to refuel at every aid station. Perhaps growing up in South Africa and spending many of my school boy days out playing under the African sun had prepared me well for this day but whatever the reason I was not suffering from the heat as most of my fellow athletes were. If I am honest there was total carnage behind me, the gaps were huge with a few DNF’s and some Pro athletes literally vomiting on the side of the trails from heat exhaustion. The organizers were phenomenal with multiple aid stations offering ice-cold water to try and keep the athletes going. I walked through every aid station and up most of the climbs but still had the fastest run split to my surprise. The last two kilometers seemed to go on forever but knowing that I would be winning my 3rd straight Xterra Philippines Title kept me moving well and entering the finishing shoot I was so relieved to cross the line and collapse into an ice bath!
Thanks again to Sunrise Events and everyone involved in making this yet another extremely successful year of Xterra racing in the Philippines!
Until next year...