After three weeks of racing week in and week out you would be sure I have my pre race routine down to a tee. Sadly this is not the case as somewhere between Dan's decision on time of departure on race morning and my unusually long toilet pit stop mid warm-up I found myself scrambling in transition with just 10minutes to go to race start. Before I continue let me just remind you that all this chaos lead to my first every podium finish in an Xterra World Tour event, method in the madness perhaps? As I scrambled my way down to the beach I couldn't help but soak up the breath taking view of the Pacific Ocean on yet another beautiful race morning. Over the past month we have been blessed with fantastic weather on race day and Xterra Saipan was no different, well to start with at least! Island weather can be rather temperamental at times. After one last sip I handed my bottle to our incredible homestay(Russ and Kanae) in Saipan, who have made our trip to the Island truly unforgettable, and joined my fellow Xterra athletes on the beach. As I pulled my cap on I lifted my head to the puzzled look on Dan's face, all he said was "body marking???" with question marks in both eyes. I paused for a second glanced back at the transition area and realised pretty quickly that ship had sailed. Thankfully we are on an Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and rules out here are more like guidelines so my lack of completing a rather basic pre race requirement went mostly unnoticed.
A voice from behind the crowed piped up, "we are going to start you in 10 seconds" which was promptly followed by "10...9...8..." My hopes of a quick warm up were dashed and getting my goggles on before the inevitable 1 was now proving to be a task in itself. With much satisfaction my goggles were now on and I had around 3 seconds to try and figure out which direction we were to be heading. The game plan quickly changed to just follow the man in front of you which worked out pretty well until the front pack of Ben Allen, Rory Downie and Dan Hugo got a small break and I was now leading the second group, serious false sense of security to those behind me! The entire way around the 750m lap the ground was nearly in reach and due to the cristal clear water it was extremely obvious just how well you were moving. The first two sides of the triangular shaped swim lap were terrific and I was soon to realise why, there was a pretty significant rip tide pulling which was fantastic while swimming with it but once we turned into it was rather worrying. Suddenly I was able to take much better notice of the sea life just beneath me as after another 3 strokes I was still in the same spot, to our relief as we neared the beach the current lost its strength and we were able to finish the lap strong. Lap 2 flew past with myself and Frenchman Olivier Marceau working well together, into T1 just over a minute to Dan and nearly two to Ben was a little worrying but with a bike course which played to my strengths I was still on track for a good result.
T1 was slow but I was determined to get my gloves on before leaving transition as I had lost them during my mechanical in the Philippines which had caused a few nightmares not to be repeated. The course started with about a 6-8minute tar road climb before turning off into the forest and half way up the climb I realised this ride was about to get seriously messy! The heavens had opened and when I say opened I mean serious torrential rain, the kind that hurts the forearms and pierces the eyes of those not wearing glasses! Dan and I had ridden one full lap of the course and managed to get a second look at the more technical sections the day before the race, unfortunately both these occasions were in the dry. The majority of the bike course was very manageable even in the wet but one relatively short section of muddy, rocky, slick jeep track would nearly be the end of my race! In the dry I had managed to ride it well on both occasions so was pretty confident going in but once we arrived it was a whole different ball game... Anyway back tracking a bit after the first few kilometers I had caught and passed both Olivier and Rory and was now lying in 3rd position overall with just Dan and Ben ahead. At around the half way mark just prior to the long brut of a climb pushing the total amount of climbing on race day to just under 1000m of elevation in just 32km I got an indication from a marshal that I was 4 minutes back. Not exactly inspiring but I was convinced Dan was on a ride and busy sticking it to the Aussie which gave me a lift at the time, Sadly this was not the case as Dan's rough couple of days were catching up to him and coming up against a classy Ben Allen anyone would need their A game to outdo this Aussie! In the mean time I was locked in my own battle with the never say die attitude of Sam Gardner. He had caught me on the long climb but I was able to stick with him and cresting the final steep loose gravel road I had lost only 20m. Managed to bridge quickly on the more technical grassy decent and after a small error from the Brit took back 3rd place. A week prior at Xterra Philippines I had run over 5 minutes into Sam so with just 10km of the bike course to go, majority of it downhill, I was already dreaming of a podium position.
This all changed within the next 10minutes... Once we entered the slick, rocky and now extremely muddy section of the course due to the rain I was all over the place. With absolutely zero traction to speak of and tyre pressure much to hard I went from a top professional athlete to something which must have resembled a small child riding their bike without training wheels for the first time. The Brit was comfortable in these conditions and had clearly made a much better tyre and pressure selection because on the first gradual rocky climb my rear tyre began to slip and from then on I was having to run every small hill. It was like trying to ride uphill on an ice rink, impossible in other words. Within a minute I had lost sight of Sam and things were beginning to unravel quickly, more haste less speed fits perfectly here and at the next water point before the final decent to T2 I got the horrifying split of 2 minutes down on 3rd place. In less than 3km I had managed to lose over 2minutes, I was determined to make back as much time as possible and after a few risks on the final technical section I got the split of 1:45 as I entered T2.
The run start was very flat and with the majority of the course inside the thick dense forest I needed to take advantage of my speed here. Felt smooth with a high turnover and much spring in my step so I was convinced I would soon see Sam struggling through the forest. He must have been running scared and there is nothing I love more than chasing someone down but as the kilometers ticked by there was no sight of him. You can run most of the course besides a few vertical sections where you need to scramble up on your hands, the only drawback is it's very slow going through the dense jungle with wet routes, rocks and vines. During the week we had run the course and for over a kilometer you run down a rocky river bed, no ground to speak of just big boulders covered in green moss. I had really struggled to keep up with Dan and as we excited the river bed I was rather negative about the section something Dan picked up on very quickly. He gave me a quick pep talk and impressively managed to change my opinion of it all together, perhaps he has a future in counseling ;) As we entered the river bed with about 4km to go on the run there was still no sight of Sam and I was beginning to get worried, either way I had to attack this section regardless of my feelings towards it. Now it could have been Dan's pep talk or my decision to race in the new Puma Faas 300 Trail shoes (let's call it 50/50 to be fair) but whatever the reason I was flying down this river bed with the grace that even Ryan Sandes would be proud of! As I looked up with around 100m to go before we excited the river bed I saw Sam and got a massive boost of adrenaline, opened up my stride length on the short gravel section before we hit the tar and never looked back once I finally reclaimed my first ever podium position. After a long tar road descent we had the privilege of running the last kilometer of the race along one of the most spectacular beaches in Saipan! This was a real treat and the hard sand under foot made the experience that much more enjoyable. Crossing the finish line in 3rd spot I was smashed but so very happy to finally have a mechanical free race and show my true form. Another big congrats to the two up front, Ben Allen with another flawless performance and Dan for proving his class once again!
Thanks so much to our generous hosts Russ and Kanae for not only keeping my belly full of the most phenomenal food but for showing us the very best Saipan has to offer, this little island in the Pacific Ocean is a very special place!