XTERRA Moab Triathlon (Sprint Distance) Guest Blog Post

My friend and fellow Team Blonde Runner (TBR) Triathlon teammate John participated in TriUtah’s XTERRA Moab Triathlon as his 1st open water triathlon! Way to go John! The following is his experience during the race. Enjoy!


Saturday I competed in my first ‘grown-up’ triathlon (my first tri was the SDRC tri, but the swim was only 350 meters, and it was in a pool). I probably picked the most difficult sprint triathlon available – the Moab XTERRA Sprint. Not content with just being kinda cool and doing the road tri, I went offroad. The XTERRA sprint is 750 meters of open water swim, 20k of biking up Moab’s best offerings of slickrock, sand, and sand with big rocks, and then 5k of running uphill on sand. Um…

So let’s start with the race—wow, these guys run a great race! Well-organized with great support. A friend also participating in the race fell and cut his elbow. I passed him on the way down from the bike turnaround, offered him help, and he said it was on the way. Sure enough, a few minutes later I passed an EMT working her way up to him. There were race officials, photographers, EMTs and volunteers pretty much everywhere (except the run – more on that in a minute). It’d be nearly impossible to detract from the awesome beauty and challenge of biking and running in Moab, but not supporting your race sufficiently would be just about the one way to do that. Hats off to TriUtah for a well-run race!

Now the details… The swim was 750 meters, or one lap around Ken’s Lake. The lake itself is nothing to speak of – it’s just a small reservoir. But if you have good vision (I don’t), imagine sighting an open water swim on Moab’s beautiful red rock buttresses and peaks! Everywhere you turn, there’s red rock to reward you. The water was a pleasant 60 degrees (OK, pleasant if you were in a wet suit – or if you took a dip when you finally finished). Race starts were pretty well organized, and the participants were chatty and fun (unlike several road races I’ve competed in). And the race staff was very communicative about the long transition and the need to place transition shoes at the water’s edge (transition was a long, rocky path from the water’s edge). My time: 00:19:23 (just less than a minute over my goal).

OK… mountain biking in Moab… Look, you either bike at Slickrock, where there’s pretty much just slickrock with a few minor sand washes in between, or you are going to battle sand, sand with little rocks, sand with big rocks, sand with rock drop-offs or just slickrock with rock drop-offs. Since this wasn’t at Slickrock, there you have it… Lots and lots of sand. The trail starts at Ken’s Lake and follows a smooth crushed-gravel Forest Service road. Up. I measured grades of 8% to 13%, in fact. And once you leave the forest service road, the trail continues up. In fact, this trail could be named the Up Trail. And when you aren’t riding up, you’re slogging through sand washes. Eventually the sand passes and you’re just climbing up broken slickrock, with challenging steps. If you’re wondering if you’ve reached the top, well, you probably haven’t. Keep stepping up, keep grinding in your lowest gear (unless you’ve developed a Moab-level of fitness, which I have not). If you can’t get that heartrate down, stop and take 5 deep breaths. That’s what I did, a lot! Finally you reach the turn-around (unless you’re an “XTERRA Fool—I mean Full”—participant, then just keep riding). So turn around! Guess what – what goes up, gets to go down! That downhill ride is an absolute blast, but trust me, it is no break for the legs. You’ll be dropping steep steps upwards of 3’, and they come one after another. If your shock isn’t heated up by the time you reach the Forest Service road, you’re walking too much. Glide back down the gravel road and run into transition. Your next adventure awaits you! My time: 1:14:53. Yes, an HOUR and fourteen minutes. (honestly I think my goal was to be under 57 minutes).

Now, I know it sounds hyperbolic, but honestly the 5k run seemed to be continuous uphill, in sand. It can’t be possible, because the run starts and ends in the same place. Logically there has to be some downhill. Trust me, it doesn’t feel like it. At one point I thought to myself “the only reason we biked another trail is because this would be too technical for mountain biking!”. At times, it was very frustrating. Just like on the ride, all I wanted to do was stretch out and break into my stride. Instead, if I wasn’t slogging sand I was jumping up rocks or turning sharp turns. But isn’t that the point of mountain biking and trail running? The trail was beautiful, at times passing along a wooded creek and at other times running along cactus flora. The last bit of the trail was, admittedly, just a long slog along the gravel bank of Ken’s Lake, with a heavy wind, but even then the views of the ramparts surrounding the Moab Valley made up for it. My only complaint is that the water stations were few and infrequent. For the ride, I was smart enough to wear my Camelback. I should have worn my trail belt for the run. My time: 00:38:07, and my goal was 00:35:00).

Some notes, then, for myself and others for next year. First, road biking will not prepare you for the mountain bike ride. Look, unless you are incredibly fit, you will be ‘racing’ along at 2, 3, or maybe 4 MPH. It’s an entirely different kind of endurance. And if you don’t have bike handling skills, you’re going to be hating it. I watched a guy fall and get up 3 times in a 100 yard stretch. Get out and ride Moab in March and April before you do this race. If you don’t ride this specific trail, ride Porcupine or even Slickrock. Get comfortable with slickrock steps (both up and down), and gain the fitness level you need to climb that stuff. I found myself just grinding along much of the ride, trying to catch my breath. Second, realize that you are taking all that lactic acid from the ride into the run. Nothing new, right – that’s what triathlon is about. But it’s an entirely new level here! I just kept telling myself “lean forward and keep your arms moving”. There were a lot of sandy hills where I was keeping up around 80 steps a minute, but total travel for each step might have been 3”. Seriously. Third, bring a trail belt with electrolytes for the trail run. Water in a Camelbak was enough for the ride, but that trail run was a killer. It’s hot, it’s sandy, it’s difficult and it is long. And then all of that is followed up by a hot, windy run along the reservoir. By that point, I had stopped sweating and I knew I was in trouble (for the record, I was still rehydrating at 8 PM back home Saturday night). I’ll definitely have 20 oz of water with Elite electrolytes added.

In closing, you have to take that bike ride seriously. It’s going to take longer than you could possibly imagine, it will suck the life out of your legs, and you will pay for it for another 45 minutes while you slog 5k in sand (uphill, both ways). If you want to improve your XTERRA times at all, focus on preparing for the ride. That’s what I’m doing next year!

There will probably be people who complain about how tough this race is. If you want a clean race site without blowing dust and sand, Moab is not the place for you to compete. If you want a smooth bike course with few obstacles confronting you, Moab XTERRA is not the race for you. If you want to stretch out into your stride and find your inner Zen while running that last 5k, Moab XTERRA is not the place for you. If you are looking to sweat, bleed, and probably shed a tear or two—and all that in some of the roughest, hottest country around, then you need to put the Moab XTERRA on your 2013 event calendar. I’ll beat you there next year!


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