2nd - 6:20 behind Ben Allen
Photo Credit: Rich Cruse Photography
Crossing the line 6 weeks ago in Grabouw at the SA Xterra National Championships I knew I had a hard road ahead of me and was doubtful to when I would be racing again. The chronic ITB syndrome in my right knee had progressively gotten worse with each race and once I had cooled down following my second place in South Africa I could barely put any weight onto my right leg such was the damage I had caused. The pain I was feeling was mainly just inflammation and my body doing all it can to immobilize the knee in an attempt to heal itself. I of course was being the stubborn athlete refusing to admit I had a serious problem and racing anyway despite many warning signs.
My first move was to have an MRI scan to try and determine exactly what damage had been done inside the knee. The results were less than ideal. Severe degradation of the ITB resulting in the worst chronic ITB sydrome my doctor had seen before accompanied with acute inflammation of the surrounding tissue as well as a potential tear in the medial meniscus. We had two options moving forward. The first was to operate immediately including ITB release surgery as well as surgery to repair the damaged meniscus. This option obviously didn't excite me much as the rehab would have me out of racing for at least two months if not more. Option B was to have a cortisone injection into the ITB and begin a prolonged rest period, minimum 3 weeks. The meniscus tear was asymptomatic and therefore of less priority. I took option B...
Three weeks of just swimming and a little rehab in the gym was one of the toughest things I have done. Day by day you can feel your body slowly losing fitness as well as strength and it was killing me. I still had high hopes of making it to Saipan but with each passing week it felt like there was no possible way I could make it to this start line with any hopes of being competitive. After winning Xterra Philippines I was currently leading the Asia Pacific Series and was hoping to back up this win in Saipan but after the injury set back just making it onto the start line would be good enough.
With just a week of 'training' in the body, I use this term lightly as it was more a reintroduction to movement as apposed to any structured training sessions I was on a plane and heading to the Islands. I knew it would be a struggle to be competitive but the injury had settled remarkably well and I felt there was little risk doing a race even if I was not at full fitness. Sure a few extra weeks of training would have been optimal but I did not have the luxury of time so decided to just go for it and assess once the chips fell.
Having homestay's who are so incredibly good to me made my decision to return much easier. In Saipan I have stayed with Russ and Kanae Quinn for the past two years and they welcomed me back with open arms. Kanae is Japanese but spent the majority of her childhood in the US which is the ideal combination for me as I can communicate with her in English but she has all the wonderful attributes of the Japanese culture including a gift in the kitchen. Traditional Japanese is my favourite cuisine and Kanae never fails to spoil me throughout my stay each year, I affectionately refer to her as my Japanese mother. So yes returning to the Islands does have a few other perks apart from just good training and racing! I was even lucky enough to attend one of Kanae's classes at the local high school where she teaches a hospitality course.
The race itself took place in what felt like a tropical storm to me, just a light rain to the locals. A big storm system was moving past just south of our location so we were getting plenty of rain throughout my stay, significantly more than in previous visits. Ironically the day before the race the course was drier than I have ever seen it and I was preparing for a fast and dry course, sadly just 24hrs before we were due to start racing the weather settled in and showed no signs of letting up. Consistent tropical rain saturated the forests and turned a fast course into an ice rink over night. Race morning the rain continued to fall and most of the brave competitors stood huddled under the race tent waiting for daylight to break. I chose the warmth of our car and just sat quietly with my eyes shut trying not to over think the conditions. With 20 minutes to go I woke myself up and began preparing for a long battle ahead. I opted out of a run or bike warm up and just went out and swam a lap of the course. Thankfully the ocean was warm and comforting so I was happy to stroke it out waiting for the start.
Traditional to Xterra Saipan starts we had a short race briefing on the white sandy beaches and soon we were all charging into the turquoise ocean doing our best to fight the ocean currents. The current was favorable and aided in some super fast swim times. Ben Allen took the whole shot from the start and if I am honest was really a class above the rest. He led the race from start to finish and really showed some great form. Myself and a local up and coming star swam together most of the way and exited the water together in 2nd and 3rd. We had lost roughly a minute to Ben who was already out of sight.
With the amount of rainfall over night the conditions were going to be treacherous out on course and I had settled on a game plan of attacking the climbs and allowing for some caution on the descents. I had my first visual on Ben heading up the opening tar road climb which gave me a boost in confidence and I could see I was slowly closing the gap. The first time check was 1min to Ben and with 1000m of climbing ahead of us I was sure I would be able to ride across the gap if I was climbing better than he was. Unfortunately Ben was leading and had the advantage of time on his hands and soon he settled into his riding and the gap stabilized at a minute. Cresting the high point of the course roughly 2/3 of the bike behind us I had still not closed the gap, if anything it had opened slightly and if I wanted to try and make one last effort to catch him I would need to take some big risks on the descent which after finally returning from injury didn't sound so appealing to me. I was comfortably in second and made a deal with myself to just get off this mountain safely and and assess the running legs once in T2. As expected the descent was gnarly as ever and it took all I had just to stay upright. Hitting the tar road at the bottom a breathed a sigh of relief but realized quickly that I must have lost plenty of time coming down. I was unsure who was in 3rd and just how far back they were but I was not keen on finding out.
Starting the run I got the split of 4min down on Ben and I knew we were now fighting for second. Ben must have dropped like a rock and put some serious daylight between himself and the rest. I listened closely to the announcer as his voice slowly faded but roughly 2minutes after leaving transition I heard him welcoming 3rd into T2. With such low running mileage in my legs and a long 12km honest run ahead I will admit to feeling a little pressure as I settled into a good early pace. Entering the soaking forest I rolled an ankle almost immediately on a slippery root, I hobbled for a second and then began running again. Not the ideal start but a good warning sign to pay close attention to each foot placement. My energy levels were good and I was still up for the battle even if 3rd place were to bridge the gap. The run past by quickly with plenty of concentration needed to stay on two feet until a particularly rocky, mossy steep river bed slowed me to a literal crawl. It was all I could do to just keep moving forward. With about 20 meters left of the river bed, I heard the distinct breaking of a wet forest branch. I was convinced it was just a camera man who has miss placed his footing but as I turned I realized the final 2km was going to be anything but a jog to the finish line. The Japanese athlete Takahiro Ogasawara was having the race of his life and had me under all sorts of pressure. Thankfully the spike of adrenaline gave me that little extra and now that we were back onto pavement and running properly again I slowly started opening the gap. The final kilometer takes the athletes along a long white sandy beach treating each competitor to a truly stunning finishing shoot. I took one last look over my shoulder and to my relief Oga was no longer in sight, perhaps he had just dug to deep trying to close the gap but I was thankful to be able to back it down slightly and soak up the awesome view. Crossing the line Ben was all but showered and changed having put on a classy performance and taking line honors. I know I will be back to battle it out with him in the near future but for now I am just grateful to be on the podium and not having to hobble my way off of it after prize giving.
Next on the cards is Xterra Guam on the 11th April and with two more weeks of training in the body I am hopeful to be much closer to the front of the race. Until then its back to the grind for me!