The Adventure of Off-Road Racing
The first XTERRA race took place in Hawaii in 1996 and was called the Aquaterra. It was later renamed XTERRA. The car company Nissan chose the name for an SUV, calling it the Xterra, and was the sponsor of XTERRA races for many years until 2006.
The basics of the XTERRA for high-level competitors are a 1.5K swim, 30K mountain bike ride on a trail, capped off by an 11K trail run. A small, local race might feature at 500-meter swim, 15K mountain bike ride, followed by a 5K trail run. At the local level, the distance may be dictated by the length or layout of the available trail.
The XTERRA is meant to be rugged, and it is. It's a seriously tough race requiring a lot more athleticism than a regular triathlon. You must have good balance to stay upright on the bike and to negotiate the terrain as a runner. You could easily end the mountain bike ride with a thick coat of mud from head to toe. The pace will seem frantic at times, with twists, turns, bumps, and obstacles that will make you wonder, once you have finished, how you stayed on the bike.
You can wear a wetsuit in an XTERRA, but the upper water temperature limit for wetsuit use is 72°F. In a regular triathlon it's 78°F. Face it — you have to be tough to even think about the XTERRA. It's a point of pride for competitors.
The swim starts pretty much like any other triathlon, although at some regional or national events the swimmers exit the water briefly and run to another point where they re-enter the lake or ocean. The swim and the transition area are the only elements of the XTERRA that you will view as “normal” relative to multisport racing.
Once on land, XTERRA competitors face constantly changing terrain, with ditches, logs, rocks, sand, branches, tree roots, mud puddles — all the sorts of things likely to be found on a trail in the woods. And there are, hills; some courses will have lots and lots of steep, rock-covered, blankety-blank hills. It takes a lot of upper body strength to maintain balance and keep from crashing your mountain bike or sailing over the handlebars after running into something on the forest floor or failing to make it over a big log in your path.
XTERRA organizers usually use separate trails for biking and running, although there sometimes may be a common start. Most trails are too narrow, however, for bikers and runners to compete together, and both courses will be loops. Two-way traffic just won't work.
The XTERRA may sound pretty harrowing, but it's not all bad. The soft trail surface is easier on the legs than asphalt or concrete, and you usually get to do your ride and run in the shade. Aficionados consider their sport more fun than regular triathlons.
Trail running and riding are necessarily slower because of the turns, the obstacles, and the need to watch where you are going at all times. Also, your mountain bike is not really built for speed. It's designed to get you through the race in one piece, albeit in serious need of a bath.
Don't enter an XTERRA with the idea you are going to duplicate your time or pace from some similar distance on the road. Don't even try to guess how much difference there will be. Just relax and enjoy the new experience.
Rough and Tumble
You may look and feel like you have been in a war — or a mud bath, anyway — when you finish, but you will have a high sense of accomplishment that you made it through the ordeal despite the difficulties presented by Mother Nature. There will be times during the race that you have to get off your bike just to keep moving forward. There are photos in circulation of XTERRA competitors carrying their mountain bikes up a rocky slope. You might think you know the course, but there are always surprises. That's part of the attraction of the event.
The sport has grown so fast that there are XTERRA races practically year round, concentrated, of course, in warmer climates during certain times of the year. Pro competitors can earn serious XTERRA prize money in races all over the world, and the XTERRA World Championship annually attracts more than 500 racers. Obviously, lots of people who like to play in the dirt have found the perfect outlet.
If ever there was an activity that called for concentration, it's the mountain bike phase of the XTERRA. Even a moment of distraction could send you careening into a tree or some other impediment on the trail. You also have to be ready, even as you zoom through the forest, to deal quickly with a large obstacle in your path. It really helps to know the course.