For 15 years running (and biking and swimming), Makena has played host to the XTERRA World Championships—the culminating triathlon of over 100 qualifying races from across the globe.
“They’re uber-athletes,” I overheard someone say, and indeed there’s no better definition. So it goes without saying that these uber-athletes are definition embodied—not a superfluous ounce, not a muscle misplaced or without perfect tone.
Tackling what’s considered one of the most grueling courses in the circuit, they compete for myriad reasons, but the grand prize is pride (oh, and a $20,000 check).
One mile in the water, 20 miles pedaling Haleakala’s tattered skirt and seven more miles on foot. It’s as if all 594 competitors are muscling an immovable slab through South Maui’s badlands, nature herself pushing back with a smirk. From every angle the athletes are oppressed—the trudge of loose topsoil, auburned by ranching and a cruel sun; spiked fields of keawe and a‘a; the sink of sand; themselves.
On the course, the verve is palpable as sweat-drenched competitors intrepidly dance the terrifying trail. Tears and snot streaming, stained black with dirt, it’s virile yet androgynous—every fleck of focus poured into pushing further, and then further still.
But when that first man crosses the finish line, into the bulb of cheering tumult and hungry press, every blockade seems to crumble and the wave of its dispersing energy hits with tidal force.
I wasn’t prepared for it last year, when Spain’s Eneko Llanos took the 2009 title, and I found myself a mere foot from his labored breath and impassioned fist pumps. And I remained unprepared this year, when South Africa’s Conrad Stoltz made history by being the first-ever four-time champion. Again, there I was, face to face with a champion in the moment of his triumph.
Stoltz was a man on a mission from the onset, climbing out of the surf just 20 seconds behind the swim leader Seth Wealing. But biking seems his forte, as by the first press stop—at the course’s four-mile position at “Heartbreak Hill”—he had already earned nearly a minute split, though Dan Hugo was hot on his heels.
However, by the 10.5-mile position at the hairpin called “Crossroads,” Stoltz was far and away alone, well establishing what would be a more than five-minute lead. At the 16-mile turn at the rusty “Oil Tank”—though with almost 11 miles to go—his imminent win seemed solidified.
Adding to the din of XTERRA TV helicopters overhead and dirt bikes keeping pace in pursuit, our press vans—full of photographers and journalists shouting in foreign tongues and tones—had to make special stops just to hang out the window and glimpse Stoltz galloping by, a red and white whiz. Clearly, it was Stoltz’s day and he carpe’d it effortlessly.
At “Spooky Forest,” our last stop at the South end of Big Beach, Stoltz was so far ahead we had only enough time to see him alone, before piling in the vans and hurrying to the finish line.
As he pressed up the last concrete wind of the manicured grounds of the hotel formerly known as the Prince, the announcers explained Stoltz had dedicated this race to his father, who’d recently been re-diagnosed with cancer. The murmur of the crowd effused the consensus, “Ah, no wonder he was such a machine.”
Afterward, the press prodded about his father’s diagnosis. I, too, couldn’t help myself, as XTERRA ’09 was a week to the day before my own leukemia diagnosis—my symptoms then becoming undeniable, alongside the athletes I left my fair share of blood on the course—and my article en homage to Hunter S. Thompson was the last I’d write before a protracted hospital hiatus.
“I’d considered dropping out early in the season,” Stoltz told me, adding that he was jetting back to South Africa the very next day. “But my family would want me to be here.”
So he was. And he won. The official clock struck 2:31:07 and his exuberance eclipsed the sun. But in the minutes afterward, in the settling char of burning cells, there fell something muted over his countenance, like a sharply cut prism caught in half-light, no refractions cast.
Sports psychology is beyond me—I can’t so much as make it up a flight of stairs without fearing collapse. So the roller coaster of emotion and expectation at the end of a race like that, I will likely never know.
But the course; the aftermath; the champion. All reminded me that in the roil of life, with even the greatest crests, there are inevitable descents and ever more hills. And being a warrior doesn’t end at the finish line, it crystallizes.
P.S. Obviously I had a lot of fun following Conrad Stoltz’s triumph, and you can follow him too, on Twitter, @ConradStoltz. Also, the ATVs, dirt bikes and helicopters all carry XTERRA TV crewmen. Check out their 2010 highlight reel at xterraplanet.com/television. You may notice the majority of the soundtrack is by none other than Maui duo, Moth.
Bad ass photos, huh? Sean Hower took them, of course. See an expanded gallery, on his Posterous blog:
Photographers, helicopters, dirt bikes, oh my! Gotta love this video on Sean’s posterous — shot on his iPhone by yours truly:
Want to read last year’s story? Here you go!