2001 XTERRA National Championships

Lake Tahoe’s clear blue water extends for miles, nestled between mountains blanketed with towering pines and punctuated with barren rock outcroppings. The thin, crisp, cool air at 6,200 feet above sea level is just one more reminder that I’m not in Michigan anymore.

This is the site for the inaugural 2001 XTERRA National Championships.
The road to this championship began earlier this spring as triathletes from around the U.S. raced at qualifying triathlons. These results were grouped into various age brackets by gender, determining athlete rankings within each of the seven national regions. The top three from each group earned berths to the big dance here in Tahoe.

I had a good year, winning four qualifying races including the XTERRA Eastern Championships. But I came in second at the final triathlon in Ohio. I was solidly beaten by Tom Lyons, the Southwest regional champ who happens to lives close to Tahoe in nearby Reno, Nevada. Nonetheless, I still managed to snag the North Central region title and got the nod to race the championships.

XTERRA swim at Lake TahoeBlue sunny skies welcome us on race morning. My parents are setting up the official Todd Scott cheering section along the lakeshore as everyone else gets their gear precisely arranged in the swim-to-bike transition area.

Rocky, the voice of XTERRA has his microphone rap going, prodding the racers towards the beach for the 9 AM start. Dave, the XTERRA Managing Director (a.k.a. Big Kahuna) gives us the final instructions before the cannon blast signals our mad dash start from ankle-deep water to the first buoy.

For me, this swim is more brutal then most as everyone is well bunched up – imagine a group swim at a World Wrestling Federation convention. Luckily the madly splashing crowd spread out as we circle the next buoy and head back to shore.

Once on land, we sprint along the beach, re-enter the lake and swim a second half-mile lap. At the end of this second lap, I run past the raucous Todd Scott cheering section and into transition, tearing off my swim cap, goggles, and wet suit in stride. I quickly pull on socks, bikes shoes, helmet, and sunglasses before grabbing my bike and running out of transition.

The bike starts with a brief warm-up spin along the opulent Lakeshore Drive of Incline Village, Nevada. With an aggressive start, I pass a few other riders before settling in behind Mark Gavach, the champion of the Rocky Mountain region. I had scouted the other regions’ top riders by spending far too much time analyzing the results on the Internet. I suspected Mark and I would be among the faster swimmers in our 35 to 39 age group and that’s exactly how it worked out.

With a little more than a mile covered on this 22-mile course, we hit the first hill together and the pavement turns to dirt, sand, and gravel. I slowly pass Mark to lead our age group. This first climb is brutal as we methodically gain 1,500 feet of elevation over a few short miles. The thin air makes breathing laborious. Everyone is riding at his or her maximum level, creeping up and up towards the first summit. No one has the extra air to even talk. The only noises are the occasional gearshift and the XTERRA helicopter camera hovering somewhere off in the distance.

XTERRA biking at Lake TahoeMidway up, Mark passes me to regain the lead. He’s moving just slightly faster, but at these slow speeds, it’s enough to open a gap. I quickly establish my new intermediate goal: keep him in sight. As the gradient tapers, I can still see Mark ahead. A rider from a younger age group passes me and using him as a rabbit, I conveniently match his pace, and before you know it, the gap to number one in practically nothing.

We’re now on the famous Flume Trail cut into the mountain slope. To our left is an exposed, rocky wall. To our right is a steep drop-off towards the lake nearly one-third mile below us. The plan is to ride as fast as I can on the three-foot trail between the two extremes. This is no time to be a tourist. Admiring the scenic vistas might end in a tumultuous power slide off the rugged mountain.

Now, the pre-race consensus was this would be a long day of competition. Knowing this, I made extra sure my race nutrition was totally dialed in. I was downing water like beers at a bowling alley. Before each of the three bike aid stations, I sucked back a packet of sugary gel for a hundred-calorie kick. Well my first kick was underway and Mark pulled over to let me jump back into the lead. I’m not sure if he knew it was Team Michigan until I went past. I didn’t look back, burying the accelerator.

Eventually the trail juts away from the cliff side, meanders around Martlette Lake, and starts uphill once more. Somewhere along this section, Tom Lyons passes me with conviction. I punch the pedals to catch up and switch into full Xerox mode, duplicating his every move. Being a local, he knows these trails as well as anyone. He knows all the best lines through the bumps and sand.

But it’s not much later when my bubble bursts. In a lapse of concentration, I take a bad line on a sandy climb. Tom rides it while I dismount and push my bike. By the top he’s opened a lead on me. I take my second gel and try to keep him in sight.

On the Tahoe Rim Trail, the route turns technical. It’s no longer good enough to ride around the boulders, you have to ride up and over them. On the downward slopes, you have to wheelie off some boulders and navigate the tight, saucy switchback turns. It’s through this familiar playground that Tom slips out of my sight. I start thinking that runner up at the National Championships doesn’t sound too bad.

I suck back my third gel as the tricky stuff ends and we start a lightning fast descent of our first climb du jour. With maximum speeds nearing 40 MPH, Mr. Gravity switches from villainous to righteous. The climb that took 45 minutes is a downward blur in less than 8.

XTERRA running at Lake TahoeThe path into the bike-to-run transition area once again passes the now relocated Todd Scott cheering section. My parents are flush with adrenaline.

I drop the bike and helmet, swap my shoes, and stick another gel in my back pocket. I quickly look around and don’t see Tom. This is not good because we ran about the same pace when he beat me in Ohio. As I learned later, he had a solid two-minute lead.

The run starts with a wicked welcome up a steep, loose, grinding hill. Unfortunately it doesn’t get much better. My plan is to keep moving up these painful hills, toggling between a slow run and power hiking with wildly swinging arms. Up, up, and up we continue, climbing another 650 feet.

Interestingly enough, the run is at the Ponderosa Ranch where the TV show Bonanza was filmed. And, as I run through the old Virginia City set, I slam my final gel packet. All this time I’m passing other runners. This is not normal so I chalk it up to my nutritional strategy, which has kept me fueled along the way.

Halfway through this 6-mile run and we start to hit the downhill sections with scenic overlooks of Lake Tahoe in the distance. I’ve got my Road Runner legs going as fast as they can and I’m just flying downhill. I’m still passing others but none are Tom. Some look like him from far away, but when I finally catch them I’m left disappointed.

Then, as the route leaves the dirt trails and hits the road, I see someone who looks a lot like Tom. My best guess puts him 30-seconds ahead with a mile to go. Running past my parents again, I raise my index finger and on a big exhale say “one to go.”

Closing leads in running is not like biking. Running requires patience. You can often see your target running ahead of you and as hard as you push, they don’t seem to get much closer. With this in mind, I keep my head down, stay relaxed, and keep focused on my smooth gait.

After the turn back onto Lakeshore Drive, I’m much closer. I can see Tom’s wife riding a bike next to him, giving him the status of his quickly diminishing lead. Every time she looks back at me, I flash a nice, confidant smile.

With less than a half-mile to go, I’m so close I can hear his footsteps, as I’m sure he hears mine. We cross the street and I’m right on his side, slowing to match his pace, and getting a slight break before making a final surge. His strides are long and his breathing sounds like he might be at his limit. His wife turns once again.


I figured that was my cue and I jumped around his left side, extending my stride.


I keep up the hot pace. His breathing is over the limit as it slowly fades from earshot. As we turn off the pavement towards the beach, I look back and see a splendid 20-foot gap. Getting back into the lead like this feels incredible, but this is no time to start celebrating.

XTERRA finish at Lake TahoeThe run continues over some boulders, across a couple streams, and along the Tahoe beach. No one will be getting past me now. Just outside of the finish chute, someone hands me an American flag and as I cross the line, I feverishly punch it into the sky.

“Epic! Epic! Epic!” was all I could say to my friends and family at the finish line.

After all is said and done, winning a National Champion title is great, but it pales to my memories of this race. And, I’m so glad my parents were there able to share in all of the excitement.

I’m thankful I could do so well at the race, which is due in large part to our local masters swim program and the weekly Hanson’s group run. There’s no way I could have done this well without them.

I’m also thankful that so many top racers came from around the U.S. to make this event so competitive. I’m certainly looking forward to next year’s race.

Todd Scott is from Royal Oak, Michigan. He is a Patagonia Endurance Ambassador and is also sponsored by Kona Bicycles, Armadillo Print Wear, Softride, Michelin, and Specialty Sports. For more information on XTERRA racing, visit www.XterraPlanet.com.

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