Rock/Creek Race Team member Tom Sell, on the Tsali Xterra race

Let me begin by adding the disclaimer that my race reports will not be nearly as entertaining as those given by my friend Jim Farmer… but, here goes. I first started doing triathlons in 1986 as a way to stay in shape for college wrestling in the off season. This was back when everything was neon, aero bars had not happened yet and the Riverbend triathlon existed with the final run segment taking you to finish in the middle of the festival. Way cool!

After doing a couple of Ironman triathlons ten years ago, I basically abandoned triathlons due to frustrations with drafting and high entry fees. I run and ride almost exclusively on trails now, so when I made a decision to return to triathlons this year I opted to do several Xterra races. The Xterra races have the normal swim, followed by a mountain bike segment and a trail run.

The year 2011 saw me enter the 45-49 age group — which may sound easier — but the southeast region has been dominated by a guy named Mark Rudder, who was the nation’s #1 ranked off-road triathlete in 2010. He placed second in the worlds in that age group in 2010, as well, so I knew I had my work cut out for me. My first race back was the Xterra Southeast Championships on May 22nd.

The day started out pretty good, as I beat Mark out of the water by 1:51 only to have him blow by me on the bike segment. Shortly thereafter I suffered a broken bike shoe, followed by a rear flat, effectively ending my day with a humbling six-mile hike out of the woods.

My next attempt was going to be the Tsali Xterra triathlon. The format was a little different, with a 1/2 mile swim, then a 5-mile trail run, and ending with a 10-mile mountain bike leg… not really what I wanted but I was willing to go with it. The Thursday before the race, I got a new geared 29er. For those of you not familiar with mountain biking, a 29er is a mountain bike with 29 inch wheels as opposed to the 26 inch wheels on normal mountain bikes.

I have come to find out that 29ers are similar to wetsuits for swimmers: the worse swimmer you are, the faster a wetsuit will make you. The same holds true for mountain bikes: the worse you are on dirt, the more a 29er will help your mountain biking by helping you roll over stuff (think monster truck). I took my new bike out Friday to set it up for a short ride. I was determined to go against conventional wisdom by using something new on race day.

Me, Angie (my girlfriend) and Molly (our Lab) left Chattanooga late on Friday and made it to the Tsali campground at around 10:48 PM… only to find the campground completely full. We were able to find another campground down the road that was smaller but had some vacant spots. The campground was eerily quiet, so I quickly set up our tent and decided to take care of camp fees in the morning. We left Molly in the back of the SUV (Kris and Randy: it was sixty degrees and the windows were down) and settled in for some sleep. At 3:47 AM, nature called and I needed to exit the tent. I posted my left hand down on the ground inside the tent to unzip the tent with my other hand, and as I did my post hand hit the panic button on the remote. The lights and horn started going off like crazy! I scrambled around the sleeping bag and mattress pad, desperately trying to find the remote, but I could not seem to find it in the pitch black.

Finally, after about a minute, I was able to locate the remote and turn off the alarm. As I peered out from inside the tent I could still see the dome light burning brightly as if to say “Hey, we are the people who just set off their car alarm!” The light would not turn out on its own. I finally left the safety of my tent and got inside the SUV to try to remove the dome light bulb, but could not even do that. Finally after ten minutes of fooling with it I was able to turn a dial on the dash that extinguished the light. I stayed in the car another two minutes before slowly exiting and taking care of my over-hydration issue.

I had just crawled back in the tent and was laying there wide awake when, suddenly, something spooked Molly and she began barking incessantly. I whispered several times for her to be quiet but she was intent on letting us know something was out there. Needless to say we were mortified, and I was unable to go back to sleep.

At exactly 5:30 AM, I woke up Angie for us to make a fast exit. I removed the tent poles and scooped up the tent, mattress pad and sleeping bag all together and stuck it in the back seat. I hastily scrawled a sorry message on an envelope and stuck some cash in it and left it on the picnic table. We could not exit fast enough.

We got to Tsali shortly before 6:00 AM. Angie curled up to continue her sleep, and Molly and I exited to take a walk and check out the area. Molly loves the water and swam for awhile before they opened up the packet pick-up. The race was put on by Gone Riding, a race promotion company founded by Dave and Terri Berger. Gone Riding promotes mountain bike races and other endurance events all over the Southeast, and in my opinion they do a pretty good job. They are well organized, courses are well marked and they give out great shwag.

I picked up my packet, got marked and headed back down to the boat parking area where I had left Angie sleeping. I got my bike squared away in transition and waited for the race to begin. As the whistle started the race, I took off in the out and back straight line swim. I have learned to swim open water without goggles and I feel much better in the water without them. It seems like goggles are always filling with water or getting knocked or kicked off your face anyways, so it works better for me. I exited the water in the top ten and quickly put on my numbered shirt, shoes, grabbed my Rock/Creek visor and my Ultimate Directions handheld full of Heed.

As I headed up the first hill, a woman told me “8th overall.” My run strategy was to go hard but not all out in order to save my legs for the mountain bike segment. I was able to reel in three guys on the run, and came into bike transition in 5th place overall. I knew Mark was coming, and I just hoped I could go with him on the bike. Within five minutes of the bike segment I saw Mark go flying by. I started to push to keep him in sight as long as possible, but it just was not going to be.

I pushed hard on the bike but managed to lose four more places, including one to Rock/Creek’s Crosby Wheeler in the last mile. I ended up 9th overall, individually, and 2nd to Mark Rudder in our age group. I had out-swam him by 1:15, and we ran nearly identical times (:04 seconds apart), but he out-biked me by 6:00. I have a lot of riding to do to get there, but I will get my times down. I encourage everyone to get out there and challenge themselves to new adventures. Just, leave the keys outside the tent.

One footnote: my bike times are on their way down. In my first two SERC mountain bike races this season, my best overall finish was 9th overall in cat 2 (40-49). This past weekend, I managed a third overall in the Raccoon Mountain mountain bike SERC race. Mark: I am coming after you!