After a short 3 weeks in Australia, in which I squeezed in racing another MTB Marathon I found myself back on a plane to the UK. Packed to the max with bike and hand luggage involving everything I needed for the next month or so. What happened to my off season?? A little tired I must admit, I somehow was convinced to race the final of the Xterra European Tour in the UK.
A lot had happened during my European racing extravaganza and I won’t go into the details of my chaotic private life. To summarise the situation, my Australian Visa was expired, I had no job to return to and other then a bunch of awesome friends I had nothing really keeping me in Australia. So the thought had entered my brain, maybe I had reached my expiry date there. The idea of returning to Europe, old friends, family and snowy winters suddenly appealed. Therefore I wasn’t only going back to race Xterra UK but also to show up for 3 job interviews the week after the race, heading towards a busy schedule once again.
I was meeting French/Italian pro Francois Carloni at Gatwick airport on Friday evening where we had hired a car and would travel to London based Cedric Lassonde. The three of us would make our way to Surrey the next morning. I arrived on time and found Francois straight away, before we knew it we were in the car and on our way to Cedric. Seemed to be going all to smooth for an Xterra adventure, and yes, we were led into a false sense of security, after 20min of driving we weren’t moving anymore. Something had happened in some tunnel somewhere in the UK and it took us 90min to drive the next 3kms. After another hour being stuck amongst gazillions of giant trucks, I had run out of sense of humour, Francois Italian side started to dominate and Cedric tried to patiently guide as around the traffic from his home. It took us 4hrs before we finally arrived which should have only been an hours trip! Thanks to the hospitality of Cedric, there was good music, great food and a comfortable bed waiting for us on arrival.
Still very jetlagged and tired from a crazy season racing MTB marathons and Xterra’s, I was pretty much done. I really needed a break from it all. I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t in the greatest form as Cedric had been quite ill and was only just recovering. Although I was the least prepared I had been for a race for a long time, the enthusiasm of the XTERRA England organisers and catching up with everyone again made me look forward to the race regardless of my not so ideal preparation. We couldn’t have been in a more English spot if we had tried, hosted in the little village Cranleigh. It was a very horsey area, with small farms everywhere, forests, creeks, and the bike course guided us over very picturesque views of the Surrey Hills, I even spotted a deer crossing a paddock during the course recce. After months of unusual hot days, the weather had adjusted itself to the English reputation, wet cold and windy, adding to the true English experience!
On race day the water was a bit chilly and I was really not looking forward to what seemed quite a long swim. It was an out and back course in a murky pond, and whilst we were waiting for the start it started to poor down. I suddenly doubted my decision to race, which is never a good mental state to be in at the beginning of a 3hr long hurt fest. Of we went and it didn’t take long for me to get spat out the back of the pack. My swimming is still very weak and hit and misses in races. I couldn’t even spot the first boy and my motivation hit an all low. I sat up, a guy in a kayak, belonging to the volunteers floating next to me. “this is pointless I said to him, I am done” I watched splashing arms disappearing in the distance. “are you sure” he asked me. I looked at him, he must have thought “what kind of pro athlete is this!!”. “no” I mumbled hesitating, I started swimming again, stopped looked back at him and yelled “I will be alright”. Never ever ever ever give up!
Needless to say my swim was a nightmare and I was so happy to be on the bike! Although flat I really enjoyed this bike course, we had a 10min head start on the rest of field which meant I had a clear track. With lack of major downhills, the legs never got a break, powering through grassy paddocks and twisty forest trails. This was fun! Thanks Sam Gardner for designing an interesting course for all levels! On my final lap and I heard the commentator say that I managed to ride myself into 4th position. With a lot of the stronger girls missing in action, I had a chance on finishing my last race on the podium. I heard the voice of good friend Flo Dannah, she is the better half of Welsh pro Llewellyn Holmes and a very strong athlete in her own right. She wasn’t racing and used all her energy in supporting us, and what a job she did!! I heard her voice screaming my name from all over the course!!
On the run now and I wasn’t feeling that great, I hadn’t seen the course and came to a screaming hold when I was presented with a ditch, I heard Flo “JUMP Nienke JUUUUUMMMPP” I hesitated and watched people throw themselves at the ditch getting stuck in knee deep mud. Flo again “JUUUUUUUMMMMPPPP, NIENKE, JUUUUUUUMMMMMMPPPP” screaming at the top of her lungs. I jumped, but my leap of faith was unsuccessful and it seemed like forever until I got myself freed from the mud. The second lap of the run I managed to jump the ditch only mildly better!
The run course was a true cross country course and my legs started to feel better and better towards the end, although racing with a tired body is never much fun, I really enjoyed the trails. With 3kms to go I spotted a female athlete, I thought it was a bit strange because I knew that the pro females in front of me were almost impossible to catch and the AG females behind would have been too far back to catch me after we had a 10min head start. On top of that, I didn’t get passed by any females during the race, for her to be in front of me she would have had to pass me at some stage. I caught the girl quite easily and run passed her as if she was standing still, I looked at her number and noticed she wasn’t a pro. May be I lapped her. But when I finished, I noticed her finishing not long behind me. The only conclusion I could draw from this was that she must have cut the course at some point, which unfortunately was quite easy to do. Talking to other athletes after the race I heard similar stories of athletes caught cutting the course, intentional or not. I decided not to let it worry me.
I was happy to see the finish line and managed a 4th spot amongst the pro’s which was a rewarding ending to my very long season. Jacqui Slack was heavily supported on home ground and it was great to see her take the win in front of family and friends. German champ Katherin Muller backed up after winning the ETU Cross Tri Championships the day before and managed to hold on for 2nd with stunt woman Daz Parker for an impressive 3rd. She normally chooses the warmer races so she suffered on a cold English day!!
It was great catching up with everyone after the race and although cold, windy and wet, there was a great atmosphere post-race and there were a lot of happy faces around. Even with a broken body, Cedric came 5th in the men’s race. You start to wonder what he could do fighting fit with proper training. Francois was happy with a 7th place which meant a successful weekend for us all.It was a nice surprise for me to have finished 5th in the Overall European Series, with a point system, consistency gets rewarded which pushed me up the leaders board and on the podium with the big kids!! Happy days!
My first XTERRA season done and dusted, I learned so much about myself, racing and the sport. I have met the most wonderful people and formed life time friendships. I know what I will have to do over winter to really become a competitor in this niche sport of off road triathlon. A huge thank you to all the XTERRA organizers, sponsors, volunteers, athletes, great people involved, especially to Subaru-Marathon and its sponsors for helping me achieve my goals, and this is only just the beginning. #Living the dream.