Fear and Loathing at Makena’s XTERRA Race

“I am a writing fool with a charming smile and a total-access Press pass.”
– Hunter S. Thompson, Hey Rube, “Madness in Honolulu,” December 13, 2001

There’s no question my Sunday would have been better spent catching up with the rigors of the entertainment beat. But I’m a sucker for a chance at a wild ride, and that chance (an exciting, sports-related one, no less) was too-readily presented.

What else would you have me do with my Sunday morning? I’m a Kansas City Chiefs fan. Yes sir, let me repeat that: a Chiefs fan. So. I could either wrestle my aching bones out of bed in the early darkness, hunker down at the Ale House to watch those Poor Bastards endure a 30-point loss to the San Diego Chargers and meanwhile suck down a couple pints of Sierra Nevada and half a pack of Smokes—all by 10am. Or, I could ride along in an air-conditioned press van with photographers and TV crews from around the world, at the prestigious 14th annual XTERRA World Championship in Makena. Hmm?

Speaking of Smokes, I decided to do without them. I am about to be around scores of Healthy people and wanted to skirt dirty looks. However, the bright yellow-laminated Press badge they gave me did little to help my Aching Situation. My stomach would flop with glee every time I’d catch sight of it clipped to my lapel, thinking for a crazed moment it was a pack of yellow American Spirits that had miraculously materialized in my non-existent breast pocket.

That was a long rant for a rather irrelevant point—whoops! So, I suppose I’ll now get to my professional duties and report on the race.

It’s a few minutes past 8am, Sunday morning. The banner strung out in front of the Makena Beach and Golf Resort has shiny new vinyl script reading “formerly,” applied to the corner of a pre-existing and faded-by-comparison whale tail logo and text that says “Maui Prince Hotel”—evidence of the transition still taking place since Benchmark Hospitality International took over management of the resort in September.

The police officer checking in cars at the entrance glances at my Haiku-mold covered Toyota and inquires as to my business there. Satisfied with my response, he shouts to his counterpart, “Media!”

Grabbing a list from the back of a parked truck surrounded by orange traffic cones (which are in overwhelming abundance today), the other man looks the list over before folding it back to his chest, shielding the names from me—as if I could read it from eight feet away, through my dusty windshield. They ask my name again. I repeat it. They nod, smile and usher me to the upper parking lot.

I approach the hotel lobby where a giant red banner flanks the entirety of the entrance, welcoming “Competitors, Family & Friends,” to the event. The aloha-shirt clad valets direct me inside and point me toward the Media Room.

Tall, thin banners printed with glossy action-shots of champions from years past adorn the grandiose pillars of the lobby, and rolling bulletin boards line up like giant colorful dominos to form a museum of sorts, each side of the board representing a different year, tacked with photos and standings.

The resort’s Ilima Room #113 has assuredly seen many makeshift incarnations, and this week it’s the XTERRA Media Room. Cold and quiet, the dark wood media table is strewn with papers, laptops and loose trail mix.

I peer at a piece of 8.5 x 11 paper taped to the wall, that in single-line ballpoint script says, “Play Like A Champion Today.” Can do. Well, can try. Meanwhile, the kind attendant radios down to Trey Garman, XTERRA’s Vice President and my contact for the event, “Anu is here. Do you want to meet her?”

“Absolutely! Send her down!” crackles Garman in reply.

I’ve been concerned for the last hour that I’m late, but as it turns out, I’m a little early. I meander my way through the landscaped grounds to a mass of white tents (Medical, XTERRA clothing, a Paul Mitchell salon for charity, Kona Brewing Company…) and spot a stunning Sea of mountain bikes aligned at the bottom of a hillside.

Garman points me toward the beach, where the race will commence with a 1.5-kilometer (1 mile) swim, then gives me the scoops: “As soon as you see the first of the men get out of the water, you’ve gotta run up to the parking lot.”

There, press vans will be waiting to whisk us off to follow the Race Leaders on their arduous journey, as they tackle a 32-kilometer (20 mile) mountain bike trail, followed by a 12-kilometer (7.5 mile) trail run through the “Spooky Forest.” I could pass out and die just thinking about it.

With nearly 45 minutes left until race time, I mosey about, looking smug with my shining badge that allows me to go wherever I damned-well please. Competitors are getting inked up with their numbers—big greasy black letters carefully penned onto their biceps and calves and neat red and white waterproof stamps of the XTERRRA logo.

On the beach, I hang around a giant inflatable archway, what I assume will be the starting point for the swim. I’m wrong, and only discover it as the competitors begin to congregate en masse on the beach, and Reverend Alalani Hill and her wooden-bowl carrying associates pace proudly down the sand. I walk alongside them, Tweeting about my experiences thus far, and pausing as they pause to bless athletes with a flicked splash from a cluster of ti leaves.

The upbeat U2 music piped over the PA systems pauses as Rev. Hill is given the mic to perform her chanting, prayers and whatnot.

“I want you all to know you are champions. You really are,” she says breathily, as if to a bunch of 6th graders about to embark on a Fun Run. Getting everyone to hold hands (eh, sorry, my hands are full… Tweeting), she continues, “Take a deep breath with me and just center…”

She goes on about heart charkas, being careful of the rocks and ancestors and prays that everyone remembers to hydrate, topping it off with a painful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner (take my word for it).

After much to-do (in several languages) trying to get all the hundreds of yellow swim-capped competitors entirely out of the water for a Dry Start, the jet skis that’ve been crisscrossing the shallow water, attempting to corral-back the competitors, make a speedy departure. A helicopter filming for a syndicated show due out next year swoops down overhead and boom goes the starting gun.

Startled, I yelp and run away, not sure exactly how fast it takes a world-class champion tri-athlete to swim 1-mile, but sure it’s comparable to how long it’ll take me to hoof it back to the parking lot.

Estimating correctly, I make it to the vans in the nick of time. I’m fortunate to end up in a comfortable burgundy Ford along with Matthew Thayer from The Maui News, his wife and a quiet, lanky photographer from Japan (the other vehicles look considerably more crowded).

Our fearless off-road leader is a spunky gal named Emily, manager of Trail Runs nationwide, who’s in charge of radioing in all the live updates being posted online. The first stop is “Heartbreak Hill,” which I can attest is barely navigable by foot. The cameramen take their positions and we crouch amidst the dust and keawe spikes, awaiting the first athletes. The chopper can be heard overhead, nearing our position and signaling that the leaders must be close. There’s a shout from below and from around the corner come the first contenders.

It’s painful just watching. Some appear more experienced—either more deft on a bike or from having tackled the trail in years prior—and navigate their way onto dry tufts of grass that hold traction better than the loose lava rocks in the fine, dry dirt.

Others slip and fall immediately as they hit the hill, toppling over sideways and blocking, to shouting dismay, the athletes behind them. Some see the hopelessness of Heartbreak Hill and give in quickly, hefting their bikes onto their backs and running up the hill instead. Some struggle to regain balance, and one even looses his chain and takes a huge time-hit from a previously large lead.

When the first few women cross our paths—including England’s Julie Dibens—I hear, “Media!” shouted once more (and again and again at every stop), and everyone comes barreling down the hill, serious-faced, back into the vans and off to our next photo-op position.

It’s hot. My phone is out of service and rapidly losing its charge. Without my Twitter capabilities, I feel useless. Enviously I spy other reporters’ notebooks and their carefully penned notes. Mine are getting sloppier, the pages rippling with sweat from my sticky hands.

The athletes jostle leads with every stop. By the time we reach the 15-mile marker at “Watertank,” the athletes are caked with dirt—weird, thick black liner contrasting against bloodshot skin, like creepy face paint. Richard Ussher of New Zealand has lost his bike seat, and I fear for his manhood in precarious position above what is now just a metal spike.

The helicopter again loops low, stirring up even more dust, and the exhaust of ATVs and dirt bikes carrying medics and more camera crewmembers is making me impossibly lightheaded. As if in a cave, I hear the echoed shouts of, “Media!” and, relieved, I slide into my cool center seat in the van.

By the time we’ve reached our final stop at the “Spooky Forest” (that’s “third entrance” to you locals), we’ve already lost several press peeps, and when they shout “Media!” for the final time, we lose even more. Why they’d prefer to stay and photograph runners instead of seeing the new world champ cross the finish line, I will never understand.

There’s a roar as the first man approaches: now third-time world champ Eneko Llanos of Spain, clocking in at 2 hours, 37.22 seconds (Dibens will take her third consecutive wahine win, clocking in at 2 hours, 56 minutes and 42 seconds). I lift my iPhone to snap a photo, and just as Llanoa approaches, the screen goes dead black.

Moments later, I find myself face-to-face with the Spaniard, a mere foot separating his wraparound sunglasses and my Tommy Bahama movie star goggles. Head spinning, I pretend to take photos with my dead phone, and inch away slowly as attendants shout for water.

Time to hit the buffet—and maybe grab a Smoke. Maui Time Weekly, Anu Yagi