Things are good. Im feeling rather happy with myself after my last race at Xterra Shakespear. It was a true Riverhead Winter experience – think lots of slippery clay, patches of thick mud, deep puddles and pine needles aplenty.
At Shakespear I finished well up the field compared to last year’s results, so I was keen to see myself continue with another good performance (not to mention the all important MEC battle with Mudust King). So I went for it with the front chargers from the gun, and kept pace in around 8th place as we climbed the everlasting forestry path of Barlow road.
I was in good company, Ron King just ahead, and Ed Hyde with him. I had a few back and forward tussles with Chris Wharam and some other dudes at this stage too. Sam Manson and an unknown runner were pushing it at the head of the bunch, about 30-50m ahead.
After the long climb there were few bits of up and down single track, some more climbing forestry roads and then we plunged down into a muddy abyss. Not sure of its name, but as I saw Ron King fly down ahead I knew I had to go with him. Fortunately my shoes were gripping as good as any (love the x-talon!) and we caught a couple with our reckless descent. On the uphill there were gangly legs flailing all over the show as some runners with less than ideal footwear struggled in the deep mud. It was so slippery that I was reduced to fast hike, with very deliberate foot placement. That said, Ron and I passed those speedsters and found ourselves behind Sam (who was now well ahead and completely out of view) at the pointy end of the field.
My body was feeling the effects of the ripping fast start and it wasn’t getting much reprieve on the crazy downhill rampage necessary to keep up with Ron. At least I felt sure that no one behind would be that reckless so we could be gapping the field. We pulled into the first drink station (7km) in around 37 minutes and we were quickly into another steep gravel climb. It wasn’t long till the fast road-runner legs caught up to us. I managed to find another gear and jumped behind them digging deep to hold on. Ron’s breathing grew faint and when I swung a look back he had dropped 20m back.
We crested the hill and were straight into a muddy singletrack descent. I was immediately caught behind the timid steps of the roadies. I asked to be let through but there was no response from runner 1. Uggh! The indignity – I thought he was dismissing me so I bashed through some scrub to get ahead (it wasn’t for another 30 minutes that I noticed he had ear phones in and was listening to music – some might say an equal trail-race offence). I passed the other guy shortly after and sped ahead, eager to pull away from Ron and to put some distance between me and the road-men who were sure to catch up on the next gravel section.
We ran through another forest section then down to some gravel road. Sure enough, I was quickly caught buy one of the road men. He turned to do the long course, and shortly after the second roadie caught me and then a third no-grip-Neddy passed too. I held tight with these two road guys – them pulling away on gravel and uphill sections with good grip, me taking it back on technical, downhill and slippery stuff. There are a few choice climbs on clay 4WD tracks in the northern loop of this course, so there was plenty of to and fro. I was feeling pretty good despite the fast start. I think I had buttoned off a bit now I had a battle on and there was a good gap to Ron. I finally pulled ahead of one of the roadies on the mountain bike downhill, only to have both of them speed off into the distance once we hit the main forest road again.
It was crunch time – only a couple of kms to go and I wanted that place back! I got up the last big climb and could see him 50m ahead. On the downhill single track I took the lead and when the going got slippery I went hard and tried to cut the cord. We approached the event centre with 1km to go and I couldn’t see him anymore. But I could see road-runner number two only 50m up ahead! Game on.
I worked up past the mid-course runners and fell in behind him. This last part of the course was tremendously slippery and boggy as it had been traversed by all the short, long and mid course runners before us. Think dark squelchy mud pits and murky pools of unknown depth to plunge into. Going in and out of these pools, the road-shoed runner fell. He lept up, full of adrenaline and surged ahead. I kept constant, not letting him get away. Within a minute he had slipped again. He let rip with a foul tirade of expletives as he skidded on his side. I skipped by merrily.
I didn’t want to gun it just yet as we were still a way off the finish line. He didn’t appear to be gaining on me and once I could sense the end was near I unleashed and bolted towards home. I had my own tumble in a mudpit – complete with my own adrenaline-crazed fast recovery out of said pit (minus the vocal outburst). I crossed the line in 1:48:56 and third place – my best finish in the Xterra series to date! Sam Manson was impressive in his first Xterra victory (1:43:32). Not sure who the merry man was who slipped in between us – I thought it was just Sam up ahead. There was a flurry of finishers close behind me – the roadies, then Ed and Ron all within a couple of minutes.
I was happy with my pacing and strategy and tremendously pleased with my shoe selection. I’ve now got a bit of a buffer in the MEC contest (3:38 +2:15ish so far). Ron says he will train over in Europe and although it is the promised land of alpine running, its always hard to get regular training in when you are on vacation. Still, he has soundly beaten me at Whitford and Hunua every time we have raced there – those precious minutes may prove very necessary to wrest the crown from him this year.