Returning to the Philippine Islands for my third consecutive year I was thrilled to learn about the new race location of Legazpi City in the Albay province of the Philippine Islands. Albay is most well known for Mt Mayon, standing at an immense 3000m above sea level this highly active volcano would provide a dramatic backdrop to this equally dramatic event. Mt Mayon albeit mightily impressive dwindles in comparison to the love and affection us as professional athletes and any foreigner for that matter receive from the Pilipino people upon arrival and throughout our stay. Nowhere else in the world do we get treated as well as we do in the Philippines and much gratitude must be sent towards Sunrise events who host a truly unparalleled professional racing experience. From the moment we land in the Philippines we are treated like royalty, from airport transfers to beautiful hotels and multiple pre arranged course viewing opportunities allowing us as the professional field to compete at our true potential.
The race itself would be a 1500m one loop swim in the dark Pacific Ocean blackened by the lava rock sand. A 32km grueling mountain bike leg high up against Mt Mayon providing some serious elevation gain would follow and as with most Xterra races would prove to be the deciding factor on the day. Finally a 9km run mostly on thick lava rock sand stood between the athletes and the eventual finish line at the historical landmark of the Legazpi Church ruins, the remains of a church demolished by a volcanic eruption 150 years ago.
Xterra Philippines has been moved a month earlier and is now the opening race of the 2015 Xterra World Tour. Being a month earlier meant considerably cooler temperatures than in past years which was a welcomed relief to the intense heat and humidity we became accustomed to competing in when the race took place in Cebu a month later.
Being the first championship event of the 2015 calendar meant the return of many familiar faces all hoping their off season preparations would be sufficient to earn them a successful start to the year. At some point all professional athletes deal with some form of injury or other and after completing the New York Marathon as a social event in November 2014 I managed to add myself to the injured list, an immature decision which has cost me financially and taken an emotional toll on my seasons preparations. Unable to run I had to alter my training and spent much of the time I would have been out running in the gym. They say everything happens for a reason and this has certainly been my silver lining, more time in the gym following a precise strength training program has allowed me to take the next step as a professional triathlete. I have never felt stronger and more composed both on the bike and while running so for this I am secretly grateful for the injury and the forced adaptation to my training schedule.
Despite these eye opening improvements the extremely limited running has certainly taken its toll and the lack of conditioning is very evident especially when racing, hence a revised racing strategy. It is pretty simple really, bike as if there is no run to follow. In the past I have always had serious confidence in my running ability so I was able to ride a little more conservatively and save something for the run. With such low confidence in my current running form there is little reason to hold much back on the bike and it has been somewhat liberating. The more I race Xterra the more obvious it has become that whoever can bike the fastest will more often than not win the day regardless of their swim and run. Solution... I am biking as much as my body can handle and I bought a Specialized Epic World Cup, a complete game changer. They say it's not about the bike but I have reason to believe otherwise. As mentioned above I cannot attribute all my improvements to simply buying this bike but all I know is this bike was built to win races.
All this being said I returned to the Philippines this year with much anxiety about my current race form despite winning Xterra Buffelspoort just two weeks prior. This race takes place each year in January and is a great way for us to test our early season fitness. Beginning the year at altitude is always a little tricky and can be somewhat misleading for athletes coming from the lower lying coastal regions of South Africa but I was pleasantly surprised with how my body responded and this gave me a good deal of confidence when boarding the Emirates airliner headed for the Philippines.
By now most have come to learn of Dan Hugo's somewhat abrupt and surprising retirement from professional sport and non were more shaken and unsettled than those closest to him. For the past two seasons myself and Dan have been somewhat inseparable in training, traveling and racing together. It became a comfort zone in which we both thrived and I attribute my fast rise in the professional sport of Xterra mostly to Dan and the pool of knowledge he was always so willing to share. Without his guidance and support I would never be where I am today and for this I will always be indebted to him, Thank you Dan!
It took some time for the dust to settle and a few tears to dry to figure my next move. Suddenly I was alone, what would I do today? Before it was easy, Dan did the majority of the thinking and planning I simply woke up and did my best to execute whatever we had on our plates for that day. On some days, perhaps to many, Dan even had to wake me from my child like sleeping coma I would often slip into, such was the level of comfort in his plan. But, In what seems like a moment looking back on it now, all this was gone and I was flying solo... An unsettling yet somewhat liberating experience.
Slowly I am learning the implications of this immense loss, initially it was mainly the lack of company while training but as time passes more holes are being revealed. Dan was a master at pre riding a course especially when it was a new location and we had limited time to gain course knowledge all this while at the same time not wanting to tire ourselves out before the weekends race, a delicate balancing act. This weekend in the Philippines was a prime example with a new race venue and a completely unknown course. Thankfully I seem to have adapted very quickly and even without Dan's presence I was very confident going into Sundays race that no one knew the course better than myself. Pre riding is a unique skill all on its own and one which every athlete needs to master if they wish to race competitively. Come race day on almost any course I would be relatively confident in my ability to race an entire lap without any route markers out on course. This not only eliminates the possibility of getting lost but it allows you to race with added confidence knowing what is ahead and where caution is required.
On race morning we woke to a cool overcast morning very uncommon for a race in the Philippines but no one was complaining. It had clearly rained overnight and because we had pre ridden in the dry I was unsure how this would affect the bike course with many rocks and roots out on trail. Regardless all athletes would face the same conditions but for added traction I opted to lower my tire pressure slightly.
At 7am sharp the gun sounded and we dove into the dark slightly choppy ocean water to get the racing underway. As expected the fast swimming Aussie Ben Allen took it out hard and set a strong early pace, Mauricio Mendez from Mexico took Ben's feet while myself and Flora Duffy battled it out for the 3rd spot in line. After 300m I realized I was not going to get Flora to budge so instead of wasting more energy I put a few soft strokes in and settled into 4th position at which time there was only 4 of us remaining up front. Our lead pack stayed this way until the final bouy where I was finally dislodged and left to battle the last 400m of the swim alone. As the bubbles thinned I realized I was losing time but with a long bike ahead I wasn't panicking just yet. Exiting the water I was just 30seconds down and very pleased with how my body felt.
Through T1 and onto the bike I was feeling good and a little excited to open up the legs and see what they could offer me now racing back at sea level. Usually the first few peddle strokes tell me all I need to know and the early signs were very promising. During the pre ride it was very obvious that this race was going to be decided on the 3 long climbs up Mt Mayon, the first of which basically started out of T1. I had changed my 34 tooth chainring out for a 32 in the hopes to maintain a higher cadence on the long sustained climbs and ultimately a higher average speed. This turned out to be a very wise decision as on more than one occasion I was down to my easiest climbing gear, I am still adjusting to the Sram XX1 1x11 setup. When I had the first visual of both Ben and Mauricio I knew I was in for the running. I had caught them quickly and still felt like I had plenty of peddling left in the legs with two big climbs still to come. The first descent wass fast, rocky and sandy and gave us a first feel for the marginally wet conditions. Mauricio showed more caution than myself and Ben and soon it was just two up front. Starting the second climb I knew I needed to put some daylight between myself and Ben as he is a phenomenal runner and I was very unsure of how my injury would hold up when starting the run. I decided this was where I would make my move and slowly began applying the pressure, Ben held strong and for a moment I thought there was no getting rid of him but to my relief on a steep kicker he finally lost my wheel and slowly I heard him fading behind me until I could no longer hear his breathing... Now what?? Leading a race is not something I am very familiar with but I will admit to thriving in this role. It gave me great confidence knowing I was alone out front and with the film crew hovering in the helicopter close overhead and a massive volcano ahead of me I have never felt so inspired to empty the tank and see just what my body could deliver. It didn't disappoint. The second long climb of the day opens up to large rolling grasslands and it was my first visual of Ben and Mau since we had started the climb. They had come together and were now working to close the gap.
The Philippines has always been so unique mainly because the trails we race on are trails used daily by the locals going about their daily routine. When racing on tight technical wet trail within a thick forest the last thing on your mind is keeping an eye out for one of the local Pilipino farmers carrying building material to his farm or the local communities kids playing catch. Needless to say I had a few close calls and must have scared the daylights out of more people than I wish to recall. Despite the obvious dangers I threw caution to the wind and just made as much noise as I could to warn those up ahead. Thankfully the remainder of the bike went by without incident I just had no clue of what the gap was back to the chasers. On the longer straights I looked back but never got a solid visual and estimated I must have opened at least 2minute. The course proved very testing especially towards the end and I began losing focus and making silly mistakes, I had to keep reminding myself of the running abilities of both Ben and especially Mau who could easily bridge across if I faulted on the run. This was all the inspiration I needed and I was very proud of the way I finished the bike with very few mistakes in the final few kilometers which were sandy and technical. Coming into T2 I still had no idea of the gaps but wasn't planning to hang around and find out. The slightly elevated T2 up on a bridge gave the perfect view of the remaining kilometer of the bike and when I began running I estimated 2minutes plus, turns out I had 3minutes on Ben and 3:30 to Mau.
Starting the run I didn't feel great, this was my expectation as I had ridden as hard as possible but it is never nice to feel that way starting the run. Almost immediately we dropped into a wide ravine with just loose rocks and deep sand to run on. I had opted for the Puma Faas 300 trail shoe which turned out to be perfect for the occasion. This new addition to the trail family provides a great Xterra shoe being a light weight minimalist racer but still offering great support over any terrain with its trail sole for maximum traction and stability. The heat, sand and rock combo compounded my fatigue and it felt like I was running on the spot at times, prey in the hunters cross hairs you could say. It remained this way for 4.5 agonizing kilometers, I have never been so relieved for a marshal to point me out of a ravine. To my surprise when I looked back down the valley we had just run up there was no sight of second place and this boosted my spirits. The remainder of the run was all downhill and very fast so it would be incredibly difficult for anyone to run me down at this point. To my relief the injury remained manageable and I was able to stride out for the first time in months, thrived on the feeling just to be running again. Soon the finishing area was in sight with just some tricky low lying wet rice fields to negotiate. I looked back a few times and then it hit me, I had just won my first championship race. It was wonderful to soak up the final kilometer and look up to breath in the occasion. That winning feeling is something very special and to do it with Mt Mayon as a backdrop and the Legazpi church ruins memorial site adjacent to the finish line I couldn't have scripted a more perfect setting. Mau would eventually take 2nd just 1:30 behind me and Ben rounded out the podium in 3rd. A big congrats must go out to Flora Duffy for winning the female race and finishing up 5th overall, an incredible performance as she continues to dominate Xterra globally.
A big thank you must go out to Sunrise Events for hosting another flawless race and for always going the extra mile to ensure the ultimate racing experience for all participants involved.
Next up on the calendar is Xterra Grabouw (SA Championships) where I will be hoping to continue these winning ways. It was planned as my first big focus race of the year and I will be doing everything in my power to win my first Xterra SA Title.
Hope to see you there.
Xterra Philippines race video