2nd - 2:55 behind Stuart Marais
South African Xterra Championships
They say it's the largest and most iconic Xterra in the world, boasting the most participants taking on the finest course any Xterra athlete could dream of but for us in South Africa it's so much more. Xterra Grabouw is where most of us learnt of the sport of off road triathlon and where I personally decided that this is how I am going to choose to spend my days. Outside is free... nowhere is this more true than in the mountains surrounding the Eikenhof dam in Grabouw.
The build-up is always intense with each athlete doing their all to ensure they have the best possible result come race day. International athletes, especially those coming from Europe are choosing to travel in early in an attempt to acclimatize and gain maximum course knowledge ahead of this iconic race. The professional race grows each year mostly thanks to Stillwater Sports who continue to push the envelope in an attempt to better their previous best. This year, as with each year prior, Grabouw was sporting a brand new course without excluding any of the course features which this race has become so well known for aka the infamous rock garden as well as many other iconic locations which define this incredible race.
Race morning was incredibly cool for February in the Western Cape of South Africa and while racking our bikes the news came through of a wetsuit legal swim. The panic amongst the traveling pros (all of who had chosen to travel lightly and leave the wetsuit at home, they were coming to Africa after all) and Stuart...? was immediate and most began scrambling for plan B. It's been a very cool summer in the Cape so my Orca Alpha was very nearby and although the news surprised/disappointed me I was happy to be back in this phenomenal wetsuit. Another race morning development was the news that Conrad Stoltz had withdrawn due to illness. This took awhile to sink in as I knew the importance of this race in Conrad's life and how desperately I knew he wanted to be racing with us, I was gutted for the man. But as the saying goes with every loss a new opportunity is presented and I was planning to take full advantage of this new opening.
A strong morning breeze, very unique conditions for the region, had unsettled Eikenhof dam and made for a very rough swim to the first bouy. Myself and the Spaniard Roger Serrano (wetsuit-less) had settled into 4th and 5th position and I couldn't quite make out who was ahead. I knew Theo Blignaut was up there but I was struggling to identify the other two. Little did I know that it was the leaders of the female race, more specifically Flora Duffy and Mari Rabi. They would end up leading out the water, a serious wake up call to all the boys.
Entering T1 I had a visual on Theo and I heard the announcer mention Stuart Marais just 30seconds behind us. All the big players were up front, no one willing to give an inch. After a rather sloppy exit from transition fumbling with new bike shoes and wet hands not willing to slip into my gloves my 30 second advantage over Stuart was all but gone and I found myself on the back foot struggling to hold his wheel, a terrible position this early in the day. We passed Theo early on the long opening climb and made our way across to Roger who was struggling with a loosening bandage on his left leg. The three of us momentarily rode together but it was clear that Stuart was the strongest and soon the gaps started opening. Cresting that climb I was alone in second around 20seconds behind Stuart and roughly the same back to Roger. The Spaniard pulled off a kamikaze style decent on the first rocky downhill and bridged the gap but Stuart still had his advantage over us and I could see he was determined to settle this one early. Slowly the gap widened despite our best efforts to bridge across, myself and Roger had a great battle amongst ourselves and I seriously loved the experience. His technical ability is seriously impressive to watch and I was on the rivet trying to stay with him. Thankfully my superior climbing ability eventually earned me a small gap which I could work with. I knew with Stuarts new focus on 70.3 racing he hadn't spent much time on the mountain bike so I was sure we would close the gap on the technical single track sections which we did but not nearly enough. The gap got up to nearly 2 minutes at one point but with some focused aggressive riding in the closing stages I entered T2 1:04 back with Roger roughly a further minute behind me.
The run is what I was most nervous for. Due to an ever deteriorating ITB injury my previous run was at Xterra Philippines two weeks prior and my confidence on the run was at an all time low. Surprisingly I felt relatively fresh on my feet and managed to tap into a good tempo early on. The first time split came from none other than Dan Hugo. Having Dan out on course was very special and seeing the passion in his eyes gave me that little extra I was searching for, Dan was a phenomenal athlete but his true talents lie in his supporting abilities they are second to none.
Starting the final climb I got a split to Stuart of 1:10, I wasn't losing time but I knew Stuart was just keeping me at a comfortable distance. With such poor conditioning on the run and now carrying a fatigued body my legs began to show signs of shutting down, a few uncomfortable cramps stopped me in my tracks and for a second I was concerned over holding my 2nd place overall. Thankfully we were at the highest point on the course and although there was still plenty of running ahead the majority was downhill which couldn't have come soon enough. Opening up my stride on the descent the cramps faded and I found a good rhythm again. I knew Stuart had won this battle and I was proud of him, his first Xterra SA Title and so well deserved, I could not have lost to a better man.
Crossing/Falling over the finish line I felt relieved that I was able to put together my best possible race given my less than ideal build up but after winning the first two races of the year 2nd just seems a little less satisfying than it was in the past. My goals and self expectations have shifted and winning is now the defining factor between success and failure. An important step but before I can tap into that new found motivation it is time to tackle the niggle head on. The struggle has been real and my hopes of it clearing while continuing with a rather aggressive training schedule was over ambitious to say the least.
Training will now be taking a back seat and I am unsure when I will be racing next. The plan was to continue with the Xterra Asia Pacific Series on the 28th March in Saipan which I am currently leading but I will have to make a late decision depending on the injury. A long term focus is key and in the bigger picture a few weeks off might be good for me. If you are looking for me I will be at the pool...
Lastly a special word of thanks to all those out in Grabouw last weekend cheering for me, friends, family, sponsors and fellow athletes digging every step of the way with me, it was epic and the experience of racing at home just keeps getting better. I will win this race for all of you one day, 2015 just wasn't my time...
Event: Totalsports XTERRA Grabouw