This past Sunday was a big day: XTERRA Nationals!

Nationals became my A race when I decided not to travel to Hawaii for Worlds this year. I certainly didn’t pick an easy A though. This is XTERRA Nationals: a race stacked to the brim with crazy fast runners, many from Utah who were experienced at altitude. The course packed 2000′ of climbing with a low point at 6,200′ and a high point just shy of 7,300′. Not a walk in the park.

I refused to set placement goals for myself. My only goal was to run as hard as I could and not leave anything on the course. Climbing is not my strength and I’m always eager for downhill to shift into speed demon mode. I was thrilled to hear the course described as technically mild and well rounded with big climbs, big descents, and a little something for everyone.

Saturday I drove up to Snowbasin Ski Resort for packet pickup and watched  part of the XTERRA Triathlon Championships. The whole drive I was in awe of the mountains, the fall colors, and the beautiful scenery. Wow, what a venue!

The only thing making me nervous was the altitude. I could feel it a bit just walking around the ski resort. I’d been at altitude for a few days and I’d been hiking up to 6k+ the last few weekends. Whatever prep I could do was done. The best thing I could do was get a good night’s sleep and hope for the best!

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Watching the XTERRA Tri Championships under beautiful blue skies knowing that tomorrow it would be me slogging up this final hill to the finish.

I got to meet a lot of the amazing XTERRA folks: Emily McIlvaine, the XTERRA Trail Run Manager who got me involved as an ambassador; and Richard Burgunder and Mark Robertson, two very accomplished XTERRA/PowerBar runners putting on an XTERRA University presentation about Sunday’s run course.

I found their information about the course incredibly valuable. Both said the start would be a fast downhill sprint around the parking lot before turning onto the trail and immediately up the steepest climb of the course. They cautioned not to get caught up and go out too fast or else the altitude would kill you immediately. They also said the course had some very fast downhills. Hell yeah!!

After all that climbing and rippin' downhill the most challenging part to me was that little itty bitty climb at the end. Ouch!
The Nationals course profile. After all that climbing and rippin’ downhill the most challenging part to me was that smaller climb at the end. Ouch!

Weather-wise my expectations weren’t quite as clear. Saturday’s beautiful warm sunshine was likely not going to repeat for Sunday’s race. A front was moving into the area and bringing with it a chance of rain and 40-degree temps at the start. Good thing I packed a little too much stuff and was fully prepared.

I woke up race morning to a slightly overcast sky with no rain. Although a little chilly at the start, it turned out to be perfect running weather and we even enjoyed some nice sunbreaks!

The race start was incredibly fast, just as Richard and Mark said it would be. Elite runners shot off the line like it was a road 5k. I put myself solidly mid-pack, getting out conservatively and enjoying the start line fanfare. When we did hit the big climb at the half mile mark I fell into a rhythm, pushed along, and couldn’t believe that I was actually passing a few people. Me up a hill? No way.

The notorious tight calf problem I’ve had all year didn’t bother me. My legs felt great. I was breathing normal. I just kept pushing along, passing people here and there. The climb was definitely tough – no doubt about it. But realizing I was already successfully tackling the steepest climb of the day was a huge confidence booster.

I can’t explain why my legs felt so great, or why my body felt so great. Who knows how those perfect little moments happen, but somehow the stars had aligned, I felt awesome, and I knew deep down I was going to have a great f’n race. I could barely contain myself!

Can anyone else relate? It’s a great feeling!

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Plugging away on the course loving every minute of it!

I pushed through the hills, stopping to power walk only a few times. I cursed the damn things but I told myself to just keep moving. Keep going, one foot in front of the other, don’t stop, don’t think, just go!

The first big rippin’ downhill after the first long climb was absolute HEAVEN. The trails were in amazing shape. They were a bit rocky in places, but hard packed, solid, and F-A-S-T. Not nearly as technical as I expected. I felt like a crazy woman coming down that descent. It was a bobsled for runners. SO FUN!!!

The second climb, the longest of the day, was grueling. Not super steep but consistent. It never ended. It kept going, and going, and going some more. Towards the top a gentleman from Georgia passed me and said “C’mon girl, just hook on to the back of the turtle. Everyone can go this pace.” I laughed and tried as hard as I could to stick to him but I was struggling. He was making it look so easy.

I struck up a little conversation with a female runner, also from Georgia, right behind me. We pushed each other along, talking as much as we could at altitude on a tough course. When we finally crested the top of the climb we both shared the amazing views. To one side you could see the Great Salt Lake. To the other endless mountains and fall colors. It was breathtaking. I only wish I could have taken pictures!

Photo: XTERRA. One of XTERRA's photos looking down from Sardine Peak, the top of the 2nd big climb.
Photo: XTERRA. One of XTERRA’s photos looking down from Sardine Peak, the top of the 2nd big climb.

I hit the last descent as hard as I could, eventually catching the Georgia gentleman who offered loud encouragement as I went by. I ran and ran and ran and the descent just kept going. It was so much fun but as I neared the bottom I was running out of gas. I desperately ticked the mile markers and willed myself along: 9, 10…

…I looked at my watch and started doing math. 10 miles at 1:49. Holy shit! Could I actually PR on this course? It’s a possibility that had never occurred to me. In the back of my mind all I could remember was talk of a last “little” climb to the finish: one that would kick you right in the ass if you didn’t leave enough for it. How bad could it be? My question was soon answered.

Right before the 11 mile mark the trail turned upward and my legs felt like a ton of bricks. After ripping downhill for miles the climb was torture. I slowed to a grinding halt and barely made it up that damn trail. My Georgia friend caught me around mile 12. He was still doing the exact same pace he had been doing earlier; rolling along, no change, just steady. I had to laugh. Me trudging uphills and bombing downhills while he was a steady unwavering effort. Crazy our strengths and weaknesses.

We turned off the hellish singletrack onto a flat gravel road and I yelled excitedly to Mr. Georgia: “Look! You can see the ski resort flags!” Sure enough, the parking lot was just to the left in the distance, a mere half mile away. But damn that last brutal never-ending half mile!

The final singletrack section continued upward through clumps of alders. If this were at the start it would seem so easy! But it wound on and on. My mindset shifted from possible PR to salvaging time. The moment I think I’m destined for an unending hell of climbing the trail popped out right behind the finish line to the last steep climb (picture above) before turning downhill to the finish chute.

I can’t even muster the energy for an excited finish line pose. I cross in 2:19, a mere 5 minutes from my fastest trail half marathon. I honestly can’t believe it. I grab a handful of oranges and immediately crash on the grass. I just ran the best race I’ve had all year! Since most of my XTERRA races this year have been generally tough ones, I sit there and enjoy a rare moment: a race that I’m completely 100% satisfied with!

Crossing the finish - 2:19!
Trucking to the finish – 2:19! Only good for 8/12 in my age group but it’s a fantastic race for me and one I’m immensely happy about!

I returned to the finish to greet my Georgia runner friends and thank them for their encouragement and a job well done. We all express our excitement about the challenging course, the beautiful scenery, and of course, the impressive competition. The fastest woman ran an amazing 1:27. The fastest man clocked a 1:16. 40% of the field ran the course in under 2 hours. To me, that’s an impressive showing.

I simply can’t think of enough positive words for a fun day spent running a beautiful, challenging course and meeting great people. A big thanks to XTERRA for a fantastic race and especially for allowing me to be an ambassador for a great organization! And of course big thanks to my coach Rusty Pruden, for keeping me on track this year with some tough workouts. Now after a small recovery break I get to kick off the 2014 XTERRA season and figure out what’s next!

Check out this great video from XTERRA highlighting the race:

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