Running through the finishing chute that morning was like traveling in time back to some of my first triathlons in the early 1980s. The scene in the transition area was very festive and low-key. People were laughing, displaying battle scars and not really talking about their times or where they finished up, but about the adventures they encountered along the way—how they were reduced to a crawl up the steepest hill on the run or the various ways they went over a ravine we were forced to cross on the mountain bike course.
“The big difference between road tris and Xterra is that our fields are limited by the use of trails,” says Trey Garman, vice president of Xterra. “You can put literally thousands of competitors on the road. If we did that on trails, it would be a walk, not a ride, and certainly not a race.”
But off-road events are growing in numbers and popularity. The 2012 Las Vegas event drew 425 competitors for the championship, sport and relay races combined—about a hundred more than the previous year. Since its inception in 1996, Garman says, Xterra has seen a hundred-fold increase in participants. The number of races has grown dramatically too in those 16 years, with a total of 70 Xterra races now in the America Tour and about 150 races worldwide.
Who are the people who participate in these races? Garman said they’re a mix of road triathletes, mountain bikers, adventure racers, trail runners and some pure specialists who do only Xterras. But they all share one thing in common: “an adventurous spirit and a love for nature and the outdoors,” says Garman. “I think you’ll find most Xterra types live the lifestyle—swim, bike and run on trails, go to national parks and places where there’s a great natural environment to do their thing.” Since most Xterra participants work full-time and are raising families, Garman says the training is also more attractive and manageable to them than it would be for a 70.3 or Ironman. But I’m sure they’re also showing up to these races because of what I discovered in my first Xterra: They’re completely different from the typical triathlon experience and, more importantly, just plain fun.