By Holly Bennett
After a nine-year absence from the Northern California coast, XTERRA debuted a new venue this weekend in scenic Santa Cruz. Long known as a surfing haven and an outdoor lover’s paradise, Santa Cruz welcomed over 200 off-road triathletes to the XTERRA Pacific Championship event. An overnight downpour muddied portions of the bike and run course in Wilder Ranch State Park, but despite threatening clouds the predicted rain held off for the majority of race day.
Swimmers were greeted with typically frigid Northern California waters, and more than a few reported numb extremities as they headed onto the bike. Americans Brandon Rakita and Seth Wealing led the men’s pro field out of T1, followed quickly by South Africa’s Dan Hugo. A fast-swimming female, Canadian Christine Jeffrey, was 4th overall onto the bike leg, with a pack of three professional men, including four-time XTERRA World Champion Conrad Stoltz of South Africa, not far behind.
The first four miles of the bike course allowed riders to speed alongside the coast on smooth pavement and bike paths before heading into Wilder Ranch, where they were greeted with grinding climbs, swooping downhills and treacherous single track trails darkened by the forest canopy. Dan Hugo took an early lead inside the ranch, but his hard-chasing countryman Conrad Stoltz overtook Hugo halfway through the bike leg. The 40-50 second gap secured by Stoltz remained intact throughout the run, and despite battling illness for the past two weeks Stoltz won an historic 39th career XTERRA victory in a time of 2:12:51. Hugo held his own for an impressive 2nd place finish in a time of 2:13:38. Seth Wealing claimed the third podium spot with the fastest 10k run of the day (34:15) with an overall time of 2:14:49. American Josiah Middaugh, lacking a hilly run which better suits his abilities, finished in 4th, followed by Rakita in 5th. Unfortunately illness sidelined 2005 XTERRA World Champion Nico LeBrun of France, who was unable to start the race.
On the women’s side, Switzerland’s Renata Bucher came from behind in the swim but managed to make fast work of the bike course, gaining the lead into T2. Her foot speed was not quite enough to hold off Scottish running sensation Lesley Paterson, however, as Peterson passed her rival a mile and a half into the run, winning her first XTERRA title in a time of 2:33:13. Bucher followed into the finish chute in 2:35:50, and moments later American Emma Garrard clinched 3rd place in 2:36:17. Reigning XTERRA World Champion American Shonny Vanlandingham, still struggling with a recent illness, claimed 4th while Canadian and three-time XTERRA World Champion Melanie McQuaid, feeling the fatigue from a recent win at the ITU World Cross Tri Championship in Spain, followed in 5th.
In the physically challenged category, XTERRA World Champion and cancer survivor Jamie Whitmore graced her first start line in over three years, racing side-by-side with husband Courtney in the Sport distance event. Legally blind athlete and XTERRA World Championship competitor Michael Stone also tackled Sunday’s course in Santa Cruz, followed closely by race partner Jared Berg, who called out details of the course to help guide Stone.
Here’s what the top professionals, as well as Whitmore and Stone, had to say about Sunday’s race:
Conrad Stoltz: “I’ve been sick since I’ve been back from Spain. I had a really tough week. I swam once, I ran once, Friday I was in bed all day and on Saturday I didn’t feel like racing. So today I just hung in there. I could see Dan much of the time so I knew he was quite close. I knew Seth was riding really well and he’s a good runner. It was tough and I’m glad I won this race despite everything not going too well. That’s what the Caveman is all about. I’m also really lucky that the Specialized crew was out here. Two days ago my bike broke so they drove to Morgan Hill, got a completely new frame and rebuilt the whole bike. Apart from World’s last year this was the first time we’ve had the Specialized crew at an XTERRA and it means a lot to us riders. “
Dan Hugo: “I kept hoping I would catch Conrad on the run. I know he’s probably not his sharpest because he’s had a bit of illness, so I was hoping I could catch him. I know I’ve done double the running work, but still when he needs to he just performs – it’s amazing. I have to give credit where credit’s due. My pace was creeping down to about 3:22 per kilometer, but he was running the same. I felt cold and perhaps biomechanically a bit restricted, but otherwise I felt good. And it was so fun! I haven’t raced an XTERRA since South Africa about two and a half months ago. It’s excellent to have a new XTERRA venue and good to be back in California. Santa Cruz is an iconic mountain bike location. It’s magical. “
Seth Wealing: “The course was an anaerobic monster! It’s not as technical as some, but you’re just going as hard as you can the whole way. You’re just flat out. That makes it really difficult. The bike course has no rest sections – it’s all pedaling the whole time. Conrad and Dan are both so good at that. I went really hard on the bike, and I was doing OK on the run but I was hurting pretty badly at that point. And all credit to them, they ran really fast.”
Lesley Paterson: “I had a good swim. I just pushed forward, got out, got my wheel on the road and then hit it hard the whole way on the ride. My favorite part was the bike – it was awesome! And the run really suited me. It’s a leg speed course and that’s what I’ve got, so it worked well for me. I was out with injury and not able to run for several weeks, but it made me hungry to get going again. It was great to get the win!”
Renata Bucher: “I was far behind off the swim, so I just tried to push hard as possible on the bike. I attacked every hill. Pre-riding the course was beautiful – looking at the ocean, the views – but during the race I couldn’t look. I was just trying to stay focused. It was very slippery.”
Emma Garrard: “There were some really fun sections of single-track where your heart rate goes down, but then you’ve got to get it up again and push hard. The run was beautiful all along the coast, and you can mostly see people in front of you, which really helps. It’s pretty motivating. It’s so cool to have some fresh blood in the women’s field, and to have Lesley win one. “
Jamie Whitmore: “I have no glute muscle and no nerve in my leg from the cancer, so there’s no stability. To get back on the bike was a huge thing. It’s been three years. I’ve only been on the bike for three weeks now and this was only my third off-road ride. The hard part for me is that I knew how to ride well before, whereas a lot of challenged athletes who decide to take up mountain biking are developing a new skill. The competitiveness just never goes away. So here I am making ground on a descent, and then someone passes me on a hill and I’m like, ‘No!’ But just racing again in general was amazing. Also racing with Courtney. It was really special doing something like that together again.”
Michael Stone: “This course pushed me beyond limitations that I didn’t know I had. It was the coldest swim I’ve ever done. It was also one of the rougher swims I’ve ever done. On the bike it poured on us for about 20 minutes. It was the first time I’ve ever had to deal with mud. Terrain-wise it wasn’t the toughest race I’ve ever done but everything about it played to every weakness I have. Except for the run. The run was fun, except for the side of the cliff coming up from the beach. I didn’t know it dropped off! But I really liked it because it took XTERRA racing to another level for me. It was a very, very special day.”