Triathlon is continuing to gain popularity across the U.S. and around the world, and other multisport disciplines are not far behind. From duathlon to aquathlon to aquabike, there is a little something for everyone based on their individual interests.
But one discipline takes the base of swim, bike and run and adds a challenge. Off-road triathlons are a great foray into multisport for mountain bikers, trail runners and endurance athletes who have an adventurous side and don’t mind getting dirty. Off-road events have been part of XTERRA’s wheelhouse since 1996, and the first ITU Off-Road, or Cross, World Championship was held in 2008.
USA Triathlon is hosting its 2013 Off-Road National Championships at the C Me Dirty Off-Road Triathlon in Grand Prairie, Texas, on Sept. 15. The 600-meter swim, 14-mile mountain bike and 5-kilometer trail run will be held in the Joe Pool Lake at Loyd Park, and offers a great opportunity for age-groupers to compete for national titles on a stunning trail system not far from Dallas. Click here to register now.
In advance of the event, USA Triathlon asked a few top off-road triathletes – elites Craig Evans, Emma Garrard and Branden Rakita, and age-group world champion Kathy Hudson – what draws them to this multisport discipline and why they think you should give it a go.
USA Triathlon: Why do you like off-road triathlons?
Craig Evans: I love off-road triathlons because of its fearful and daring adventure. It creates unique challenges from course-to-course. Off-road triathlons offer everything from very technical courses offering rocks, roots, logs, bridges or even creek crossings to the endurance demands of jeep road / fire road climbs to extreme hair raising descents at 40+ mph.
Emma Garrard: I've always preferred trail running and mountain biking to road riding. It's a more fun experience being out in the wilderness and away from cars, I believe it's safer. There's also so much more variety in the terrain and more hills. I also feel it's easier on my body than racing and training on asphalt.
Branden Rakita: Roads don't vary across the country, you may get more climbing depending on where you are but that is all that really changes. Trails change dramatically across the country and each venue requires a different skill set for the different trails and it allows for different athletes to show their strengths.
Kathy Hudson: Off-road triathlons offer me the spice of life. With it comes unique terrain features and ever changing trail conditions based on the weather and time of year. Because of this, no two races can ever be the same. Even from year to year, a single race course will change. I like the challenge that off-road racing brings. Not only must you be fit – but you also have to bring an array of technical and sometimes mechanical skills in order to be at the top of your field.
CE: Another love [for me] is the people who race off-road triathlons. They are like family and extremely supportive of each other. Basically, the dirt brings people close together like warriors. We bond together as a family through our experiences and the adventure of the sport.
USAT: What is the most exciting and/or challenging part of an off-road race?
EG: The most exciting aspects off-road racing are some of the unique places you get to visit and the more technically challenging the courses are the more exciting it is and the greater sense of accomplishment I have for finishing. It's a lot less about getting a certain time and more about you against the course. The unpredictability of it is challenging, it's hard to have a race plan you just have to be prepared for a lot of different situations.
CE: Race directors are getting much better at offering off-road triathlons that are geared toward the beginner who want a little less technical course. As they begin to get more comfortable on the trails, the level of fun this sport can offer is endless! The most exciting part for me is the mass start. The energy on the start line is intense and fuels my spirit for the entire race. Unlike time-trial starts, head-to-head racing provides the athlete an exact understanding of where they stand against everyone else.
USAT: What elements make the best off-road triathlons?
KH: The best trail running sections are the twisty single track where you aren’t staring at a long straightaway of boredom. I like being hidden in the trees and lots of short ups and downs and whoop-de-doos.
EG: A scenic venue with open water close to trails, and challenging climbs and technical but fun descents. Areas for family and spectators to watch are great to have too and most importantly a really fun post-race party!
BR: The more single track on the bike and run the better the race. Jeep roads have their place on the climbs and in sections to allow for passing, aid stations and such but when you start winding and weaving through the trees, and up and over rocks an roots it just brings a smile to your face.
USAT: What are tips or suggestions you have for newcomers to off-road races?
CE: Go to clinics, get a coach, ask questions of local elite/expert athlete, and most importantly go play in the dirt. Newcomers can be very timid and the only way to get over any reservations is to jump in with both feet. It is exciting for me to be coaching on-road triathletes and watch them over time decide to stick their toe into the off-road arena. 100 percent of them fall in love with the sport and the dirty knees and elbows that come with the sport. Don't let your first experience be race day and enjoy the dirt!
EG: Focus on developing skills early on and have fun with it. Spend a lot of time on your mountain bike (if you come from the road), riding with skilled riders who are patient enough to take the time to help you ride though tricky sections. Also keep your bike in good shape; it will need a lot more cleaning and tuning than a road bike. There's more opportunity for mechanicals on a mountain bike so the more you take care of your bike the more you can prevent these from happening.
KH: The effort put in early in your learning will payoff in the long run. I’ve worked for years at trying to shave seconds from my swim time, but one season of polishing up your technical riding skills will shave minutes off your time. Change up your routine and don’t run yourself into a rut, literally. Don’t just go through the motions to get your pre-planned workouts in. Make them count if you are going to do them. And don’t leave out your core.
BR: It is a great change of pace from riding on the monotonous roads. If you have the opportunity pre-ride the trail in the weeks leading up to the race that way in the race you know what is coming, you will learn what gear you need to be in at certain points along the course. I have to say it, but crashing is part of the sport. Everyone goes down from time to time but it is all part of the learning process, you just have to get back up dust yourself off and give it another try.
Photos by Kevin Cox/Getty Images for ITU