In 2009 I was a youthful and wide-eyed triathlete, landing in Maui for my first experience of the island (and my 2nd xterra ever). I’d flown in with my steel framed Kona Caldera mountain bike and aluminium wheels (must have weighted about 12 kg at least), and within a couple of days was sent out to climb the mighty Haleakala volcano alongside Julie Dibens, Paul Davis, Llewelyn Holmes and a couple of others. Of course the rear wheel exploded halfway up the climb, and -the rear brake being nonoperational- I crashed heavily on the treacherous lava rocks on the way down, rendering swimming in the Pacific for the following couple of weeks with open wounds into an absolute nightmare. Schooling days!
To my surprise however, I managed to blag a 30-34 World title, placing 2nd amateur and 22nd overall. Needless to say, I was hooked.
9 years down the line, now a newly-retired-yet-still-part-time triathlete, I still don’t have enough of the island, and so went back to Maui for the 5th time (!). Truth be told, the big aim was the long trip in Kauai afterwards, more precisely the end of the Kalalau trail where Silvia and I lost ourselves to the bowels of Mother Nature back in 2014..
Nevertheless I was hoping for a decent showing on race day. Having ‘qualified’ in Romania in August, that gave me two months to try to recover some decent fitness. In fact I’d started to feel like a cyclist again only just a couple of weeks before departure – prior to that, I could still pretend to be a decent swimmer/runner, but my cycling legs never got back anywhere near their vintage years like xterra Pacific islands 2012 – or even IM Barcelona 2017 for that matter. Perfect timing I thought.
Having done this race twice (DNF in 2011, 18th in 2014), I knew what to expect: tons of climbing, some twisty bits during the first and final miles of the bike, but nothing too technical. At least not when it’s dry. However, as for any mtb course, weather conditions will often have a massive influence on its technicality/ridability.
When we got there on the Wednesday, I only had time for a run and the course was already very slippery, though manageable. Doing the whole loop on the Thursday, I was able to ride about 95% of it, having to push the bike on only 2-3 occasions. But already it was a really thin line between making it and having to unclip and push bike. Any more rain and many of those ‘just abouts’ would become ‘no nos’.
In the meantime, Friday was an off day so we did the road to Hana, the whole loop, anti clockwise. Long and windy but oh so majestic road trip!
I didn’t bring any mud tyres with me. The local bike shops had sold all their stock. In any case those same bike shops (sharks) were charging $95 per hour for labour. So fuck that. It did rain every day though, especially at night. On the Saturday, the day before the race, the lower part of the course was absolutely unridable. Imagine having to climb 25% steeped banked hairpins covered in slippery yet sticky mud. And now try to descend that. Total joke. One of the bike mechanics in Paia told me to spray the tyres and the underneath of my bike with some PAM butter to repel the mud, and to carry a knife with me to cut through the mud if it still managed to accumulate nonetheless and prevent the wheels from turning. So that was my plan B.
On race day it wasn’t actually raining. Lono, the Hawaiian rain deity had decided to give us a day of respite I guess; however the damage was done! The surf was up and higher than I’d ever seen before on that part of the coast, and the organisers had decided to implement the “plan B” they mentioned in the race briefing: ditch the unridable first 2 miles of uphill switchbacks in the bushes in favour of hard ground golf cart tracks.
I’d slept quite well (not a good sign) and wasn’t too stressed considering the scale of the task awaiting us on the slopes of the West Maui mountains. I was eager to get going and excited to try out the Kiwami Aquarush sleeved swinskin for the first time in a race (swimskins are banned in Europe). Things triathletes get excited about…During the warm-up swim, I mistimed a (big) wave on my way back to the shore, found myself tumbling 3-4 times and for a moment unaware of where the surface vs the ground were. When I finally found some air and my bearings, I felt somewhat disorientated and realised I had lost my timing ship in the mayhem. 10 min before the start, this wasn’t the ideal situation…Luckily I saw Trey Garman on the shore, and within 5 min Janet Clark (Xterra director) was calling out my name on the beach with a new chip in hand. Quite efficient on that one guys! I was back smiling.
The ensuing swim didn’t feel too difficult in comparison. I mostly led the 2nd big pack around, used the waves a lot more to my advantage (except going back IN for the 2nd lap, which felt like one step forward 2 step backward for a little while. Also diving under a wave and having to stay underwater for 10-15 seconds while already out of breath was borderline scary!). When I reached the shore for the 2nd time and was on my way up to T2, I found myself next to Josiah Middaugh and Melanie McQuaid (both ex Xterra World Champs), exactly like I did back in 2009 for my first time here. Shows that when it comes to swimming, once you reach a certain level, you don’t really improve much, but you don’t lose much either! I’m guessing I could still swim at that pace in 10 years time (what with a few months training obviously).
Onto T1 then. My Achilles’ been sore for months, even more so right after coming out of the water, so I just cruised to T1, the legs feeling rather good otherwise. I lost my usual 30 seconds on pretty much everyone, and when I jumped on my bike I could see both Lesley Peterson and Brigitta Poor now in front of me. Luckily, as I mentioned earlier the first 2 miles were all uphill and on tarmac, my terrain of predilection!
By the time we reached the lake, I had overtaken a good dozen riders and was in 20th position overall. Unfortunately this is where we hit the trails and what was bound to happen did happen, though even earlier than I expected: on pretty much the first couple of bends I was already skidding all over the place, unable to get a grip on this Maui mud. I understood right there, 10 min into the bike, that this race was already over for me (for those interested, I had a Nobby Nic as a front tyre, and a Racing Ralph at the rear. These are not mud tyres by any means. Mind you, even with mud tyres, you’d still have to get off the bike a lot on this course in these conditions, even for the most skilled riders. But without, you can’t even try.)
There was a crazy scene on the long uphill stretch that leads to the trademark ridge which marks the summit of this course. A file of riders were following each others, pushing bikes, sliding back, trying to step back on the saddle but inevitably failing to pedal more than a couple meters and falling over again. In some places the gradients were so steep and the mud so slippery that even pushing bike was a nightmare and you could see riders and bikes sliding backwards with a bunch of expletives as the soundtrack. One step forward, 2 steps…once again. Even the cameramen on their powerful motorbikes got stuck on some of these portions. Comical scenes for any outsider watching for sure (I hope everyone following the race on TV had a laugh), but in the heat of it, believe me, it was no fun at all. All the bits that were “just about” ridable 3 days previously were absolutely not today, and there are lots!
Only on the more exposed part of the course was it possible to ride a bit and feel part of a bike race, but as soon as we hit the (mostly man made) twisty loops of the last 5 miles of the lower slopes, it became a joke again. By that time, the wheels were not turning, gears not shifting, cables not moving, brakes not braking…a pleasure.
Somehow though, Silvia managed to hide in the bushes and catch me smiling and ON the bike!
Sometimes I would stop minutes at a time trying to remove manually the deadly mix of mud and cane leaves that forced the bike to a standstill. I must have crashed at least 10 times, including once on camera (see the video at the end of this article), and once into a tree.
Exiting this mess and reaching T2 felt like a deliverance. I had no idea of my position any more (I knew I was far), but was all too glad to finally be able to drop this bike!
Once on 2 feet it felt more like a race, even though there were times were the only way to move forward was to pull yourself from trees and branches and whatever you could grab. The best off road shoes were slipping like on ice, but I’m sure a good old pair of cross country spikes (15mm) would have been a massive advantage on this course – I believe only Bradley Weiss (2nd place finisher and fastest runner on the day by 2 minutes) had the idea/luck to wear some. I must have overtaken a dozen guys or so on that run, without especially trying hard as I wasn’t really in it mentally, but still I felt like I finished on a good note, with even a sprint finish to boot (!).
RACE HIGHLIGHTS (check out my skills at 3:15!):
That would be 39th then. By far the furthest I’ve ever finished, not only in Maui, but in any triathlon! Not that it mattered too much, the most important was to finish, in one piece. What really mattered was…the Kauai holiday afterwards. And that didn’t happen! We flew there the morning after the race. Perfect sunny day in Maui, the best we’d had so far. Less than one hour flight to neighbouring Kauai and it’s pouring down and overcast like crazy. As we collected our hire car, we learned that the road to Haena (not Hana), where the trailhead to the Kalalau trail (the very reason why we came here in the first place) had been closed since April due to heavy flooding, and only opened for residents…Furthermore the weather forecast was heavy rain and flash floods for the next week. Not ideal when our plan was to camp here the whole time…It took us only a couple of hours to decide to switch plans and head off to dry and sunny California instead…Kauai we’ll have to come back!
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