Race Coverage

Refocus & Adapt....


By Bettina Keppers

Xterra North American Championship - Oak Mountain, Alabama

Air temperature: 85 F
Water temperature: 76 F
Humidity: 90%

COVID: I’ll preface this race report with this tidbit of health information. I tested positive for COVID just 9 days before the race and finally tested negative two days before. Symptoms included difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, lots of coughing,...

headaches, severe fatigue, night sweats and chills, and also some strange swelling in my legs. Suffice it to say, with my asthma and the aforementioned symptoms, I knew it wouldn’t be smart to tackle this race with a normal race pace heart rate or effort, so I refocused my goals from qualifying for the World Championship to enjoying my adventure vacation and the entire Xterra experience.

Race Course: They say this is a classic mountain biker’s course. The one mile swim is in the calm waters of the small Double Oak Lake and the 10k run is mostly not-too-technical single-track. The 21 mile bike course however, is a perfect mix of elevation gain (about 1,800 ft, mostly over 2.6 miles of climbing mid-course) and flowy single-track that also has about 15 drops of 10-15 inches, roots, the famous “Blood Rock” section that causes far too many over-the-handle-bar crashes, and nearly constant turns that make the course feel more punchy than flowy over the first 10 miles. In summary, it’s a blast to ride and it’s hard to get bored, and should your mind drift off into fairyland, you might just crash into one of the many trees or bridges that caused many racers to have scuffed up or dislocated left shoulders. 


The pros were allowed to complete one lap of the two lap course before us amateurs began our race. Then, there were only two waves that started one minute apart, the men under 55 years old and then all the women, relays, and men over 55. My swim started off strong and a few of us quickly caught up to the men in the heat ahead of us. I considered latching myself to the feet of one of the women who seemed to have a similar pace to me, but I’m always worried that someone will take me off course or not pace correctly, so I swam on my own as I almost always do.

About 100 yards before the Aussie start (halfway point where you have to get out of the water, run a small section of beach, and swim another lap) my goggles fell off. I had to navigate with my goggles around my neck for those 100 yards, but was able to get them back into place while running on the beach before jumping in for the second lap.

After starting the second lap, the fatigue I’d been feeling in my shoulders leading up to the race caused me to pause and I chose to slow a bit to preserve my arm strength for the long and arduous bike course ahead because Duluth had a rough spring for mountain biking and I’d only had a chance to get out 2-3 times on the trails before race week, so my shoulders were weaker than I expected them to be. This is one of those considerations a triathlete doesn’t have to make when racing on the road! Aerobars for the win on that one!

I was the fourth woman out of the water and even beat a few pros despite the choice I made to slow down and felt strong coming out of the water while running to my bike.

Transition 1 - Swim to Bike
This Minnesota girl planned for a hot and humid race having NOT trained in hot and humid conditions. So I placed a frozen 50-ounce water bottle in transition to pour cold water over myself. This cost me time in transition and may not have decreased my core body temperature at all, but psychologically it was the right choice! Being able to pour cold liquid over my entire race kit before I took off on the bike felt fantastic and I was ready to get out on the course!

The bike was a blast and was more fun than I could’ve hoped for thanks to the fact that the forecasted thunderstorms never materialized. What also likely helped was that I purchased a larger bike and longer stem over the winter and this really helped me feel more confident on the techy descents AND for the first time ever I didn’t experience ANY back pain! Thank you to my bike fitter, Asa!

Due to the heat and humidity, I decided to wear a 50-ounce Camelbak as I knew I’d be out on course for just over two hours and my bike doesn’t have the capacity to fit more than one water bottle. This system worked out well and allowed me to store a frozen water bottle on my bike, so I could cool myself off on the big 2.6 mile climb mid-course. I surprised myself by running out of liquid with 30 minutes still to go on the bike, but I knew I had a small 10-ounce water bottle waiting for me in transition and I wasn’t going at a true race pace effort, so I decided not to let it stress me out too much.

While the course was truly a blast, it was the other competitors who made it genuinely enjoyable. I’ve found off-road athletes are generous with their compliments and while there are still some hot heads out there, most are kind, considerate, and ready to cheer on others across the gender spectrum. As the recipient of several of these cheers and compliments, I know just how much it means to hear someone say, “You’re amazing on those descents,” or “No, you stay ahead, you’ve got a strong pace.” It’s this sort of comradery that allows a person to get through the tougher mental/physical moments of the race, because those tough moments are guaranteed to make an appearance - many times over.

I finished the bike in 8th place. My greatest weakness was the long climbs due to being heavier than most elite amatuer women and because I committed to not over-exerting myself so soon after having COVID. 


I was much slower in transition this year as I took this opportunity to douse myself with the cold water bottle I left in transition for this very purpose before heading out for the hot and humid run ahead. The loss of time was well worth it again!

I took my 10-ounce water bottle with nutrition in it and felt strong for the first mile or so. This was likely because my pace was better than I was hoping for but also because so many competitors were experiencing cramping, so I was able to pass 3-4 athletes. The strength I was feeling for that first mile didn’t last long and by mile two my head won the battle over my body as my brain cycled on repeat, “ slow down, you’ve done enough, you were sick, you’ve had fun, it’s time to chill, this is too hard, you’re done now,” over and over again. I walked up a few of the punchy climbs and the competitors I had passed, now passed me. For about a mile, I was content with my decision to “chill” for the remainder of the race, but then, I came up on a female competitor and two of her friends on the trail. It was clear that her friends were providing her with the moral support she needed to complete the race, the sprint race. She had been out there for over four hours on the short course determined to finish the race regardless of how long it was going to take her. I smiled, cheered her on, and buoyed by her determination, I started moving a bit faster. I began passing folks of all genders and came up on several more competitors who were cramping. My mind was able to stay focused on the task at hand - have fun, work a little, and finish this race with a smile on my face. I passed a few more people over the last couple of miles and finished with a time of 3:45:31, just a few seconds off my time last year!

• Each leg of the swim, bike, run courses were longer than advertised. So, though my overall time was just a bit over last year’s, the average pace per sport for all three was actually faster. 

• I finished 8th amateur woman and managed to qualify for the World Championship afterall. 

Lessons learned:
• Planning ahead with bottles of ice is worth it! Being able to dump ice water on myself in both transitions and throughout the long 2.6 mile climb felt like such a relief. It may not have helped my performance, but it certainly felt refreshing when overheated.

• I made the right call when I slowed down my swim. My shoulders and triceps were the only sore muscles I had after the race and I fear if I hadn’t slowed down, I might’ve lost control of my bike on the techier/drop sections of trail.

• Passing people on the run feels invigorating. Running is my weakest discipline and so I’m used to just trying to hold on for dear life until the finish line. Seeing the inspiring sprint triathlete and being able to pass folks, mostly men because there are many more male competitors than female competitors, helped me re-engage my competitive spirit when I told myself just to hit auto-pilot and cruise easy given that I’ve been sick.

• I chose to wear a wetsuit, which was legal for amateurs, though not for the pros given the heat.  This allowed me to swim faster than last year, as I only wore a swimskin due to the temperature, but my average heart rate was also higher despite me feeling that I swam at an easier pace this year.

• Patience and adaptability are essential when injured. I’ve been suffering from severe sciatic nerve pain down both my legs since November and have been seeing a chiropractor and/or physical therapist every week since. At times, I couldn’t run at all, and this was hard knowing that my most important race (yes, this one) was my first race of the season and that I’d need to “compete” when I hadn’t put in the training I knew would be necessary to reach my goals. I was proud of myself for being able to adjust my goals leading up to the race so that I could still enjoy the experience. It was also exciting to see just how much my skills have improved since I did this race last year as I was able to go a bit faster with a much lower heart rate (i.e. I’m a much more efficient rider).