Maggie Rusch

Professional Triathlete

XTERRA Oak Mountain

I never said I was full of good decisions. But, after a fun season of cyclocross: if the road less traveled was more fun, then maybe going entirely off road would be even better.

Several weeks back, I signed up for an XTERRA race in Alabama, with the intention of buying a mountain bike and spending several weeks shredding in Bent Creek, Dupont and Tsali (all awesome North Carolina trail systems) in advance of the race. But life and Ironman training took its toll and I found myself having ridden ZERO times on the trail, save taking the cross bike out for a little mid-size-tire ripping in Bent Creek. 

Unpersuaded and always happy to make a bad decision, I set out for XTERRA Oak Mountain on a rented mountain bike with my gear packed. I've never been one to shy away from winging something and hoping for the best but turns out an off-road triathlon is not the best place to try it. 

I arrived in Alabama to meet short-course pro and social media friend Ian who was kind enough to let me crash on his couch. Since the go/no go decision was literally made about 24-hours pre-race, he was my god-send and provided some last minute "here's how you don't kill yourself" tips. Spoiler alert: this is after. He did much better than I did. 

I had been signed up for the Rev3 Knoxville pro race (an Olympic) that weekend but after major jangling from a local bike shop in putting together my new Felt, I was without skinny tires for the weekend (Pro tip: stick to your tried-and-trusted bike shop. If you live in Asheville, that shop should be Motion Makers—trust me). So I went and rented a mountain bike for the weekend and set off on my journey. 

I was able to check-in morning of the race and set up in transition. Other than a few critical things (sub in: mountain bike, gloves, road helmet / subtract: TT bike, aero-helmet) it was just like your standard road triathlon. 

The Swim

The only reason I might continue doing XTERRAs? The ego boost you get from the swim. I am going to go out on a limb and guess most of the athletes cross over from mountain biking or trail running because no one can really swim—it's a lot like racing in Europe. Coming out of the water, I was the second female professional by a large margin, off the back of a girl who routinely places high at XTERRA worlds. Bottom line: I'm a good swimmer—but not that good. 

It was a two loop swim (which I love, by the way) and I was able to cruise into a solid position without killing myself. While it was nice having room to breathe and sight, it was also a little sad not to get the usual benefit of drafting off of the other girls around me. 

With around 300m to go, the top age group men swam past me, I briefly hopped on a pair of feet and caught a ride to the finish. 

The Bike

I don't really want to talk about it. I went over the handlebars.. twice. I fell down a ravine. I stood down on the side of the trail about 100 times or probably 20+minutes total in order to let the faster athletes zoom by. And by faster athletes, I literally mean 90% of those on course. I had little to no mountain biking skills and it showed. Hint: apparently this is a terrible line to take, if you know anything about off-roading...

After about five miles into the twenty miles course, I realized I was not feeling so great from an early crash where I hit my helmet HARD. I was having trouble focusing on the trail ahead and I'm 99% positive I gave myself a minor concussion based on my symptoms (nauseous, irritable, sensitive to sound—that 5-hour car ride back sucked without music or podcasts). Looking back, I think a minor contributor to the early crashes was that I was so worried about affecting other athlete's races, I would go too fast where I didn't have the technical expertise or try to pull over in inappropriate places and nothing good would come of either decision (hence the falling down a ravine and going over the handlebars...)

Once I realized that my mountain bike skills were sub-par, I settled in for the ride and focused on pushing hard on the uphills and grannying my way down the downhills and trying to just enjoy the ride.

Some of the damage sustained: 

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The Run

I was done. I wanted to pull the plug like none other but no one likes a DNF and it was too long a drive home to mull over that big ol' DNF decision. So I just jogged around the 10K trail course and tried not to look too miserable. I finished, got in my car and drove the pitiful five hours home. 

Final Thoughts

The next day, I had a lovely six hour bike ride up Mt Mitchell that was not my best but also pretty decent, considering the day I had before and the bruises/contusions/scrapes covering my body. And even though it was six hours compared to the three at XTERRA, I found it a whole lot more enjoyable and rewarding. Plus, I got to test out my new TT bike :) 

At the end of the day, I realized that XTERRA was not for me, mostly because it rewards the technical and the ballsy—not necessarily just the most athletic. One of the things that ultimately got to me about playing Division I college volleyball was that your performance was not necessarily dictated by what you put into it. You could practice 20 hours a week and be just as successful as the girl who practiced five. A lot of it came down to talent, skill and luck.

On the other hand, IRONMAN seems to reward those who are willing to put in the work for a return on their investment. I prefer those kinds of odds to others that seem more like a gamble. Now, I'm not saying that XTERRA athletes are not truly gifted or capable but a lot of it comes down to bike handling skills/guts versus pure athleticism and I know where my strengths lie. 

Plus, I know that if I were to up my game and ride trails every day to practice, it would be asking for trouble. I know I am one to test my limits (cough cough, IM Hawaii 2013) and testing your limits at XTERRA means potentially flying headfirst into a tree rather than just passing out on the side of a road or in a World Championship finisher's chute. In a weird kind of way, I know myself enough not to trust myself to put myself in that situation. 

While I pretty much had a terrible day at XTERRA, I'm glad I did it. It pushed me outside my comfort zone and was a welcome challenge. It helped me appreciate what I really do excel at and enjoy. And it saved me a couple thousand dollars of investing in a bike and/or trip to race XTERRA when it's not really something that gets me excited and ready to hop out of bed in the morning. For that, I am grateful for the (otherwise miserable) experience.

And now bring on more of that long-distance, stare at your Garmin for 10-hours, ride until your teeth feel like they're rotting from gels kind of fun!!!

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