As more eyes have started focusing on the sport of cross triathlon, multi-discipline endurance athlete Josiah Middaugh trained specifically for the Xterra tour this year.
And it looks to be paying off.
Middaugh, an Eagle-Vail resident, is heading to Snowbasin, Utah, this weekend for the Xterra USA Championship. He enters the event placed solidly in second place on the Xterra America Tour, which represents the highest level of competition in the sport of cross (off-road) triathlon.
Middaugh says he's faster in all three disciplines of the sport this year - lake swimming, cross-country mountain biking and trail running.
"This year, I focused completely on Xterra, where as other years I've done some adventure racing or some half-Iron Man races on the road," he said. "We'll see how it pans out. So far, I wouldn't say I'm having my best year ever, but I feel like I'm the most fit that I've ever been. It all depends how you perform on that day, but everything's kinda signaling towards a good finish to the season."
The Xterra America Tour, which attracts athletes from all countries, has five championship events here in the continental U.S. At the first - the West Championship, held annually in Las Vegas in April - Middaugh finished second behind the South African Conrad Stoltz. Middaugh said he felt he was right on pace with how he performed in that race the year before, which he won with a time of 2 hours, 13 minutes, 39 seconds.
"But (in 2012) Conrad is biking much stronger," said Middaugh, who finished in 2:10:02 this year to Stoltz's 2:08:22. " I actually think I raced better this year, which is a testament to the form Conrad is in."
At the third event - the East Championships, held in June in Richmond, Va. - Middaugh again finished second behind Stoltz, holding off third-placed Craig Evans of Hendersonville, Tenn., by only 20 seconds.
Even at home in Beaver Creek at the Xterra Mountain Championships - the fourth continental U.S. championship event, held annually in July - Middaugh once again found himself finishing runner-up to Stoltz, who said he himself was surprised by the win.
"I thought Josiah was going to take it," Stoltz said. "Beating him on this course is really tough."
Middaugh says Stoltz is having a career year.
"Conrad has on years and off years ... this year's an on year," said Middaugh. "He's won every single race this year. You can just see the power he has on the bike, so he's going to be the guy to beat (at the U.S. Championships)."
After a decade of racing the Xterra circuit, Stoltz and Middaugh's new intensity on the course probably isn't coincidental.
Off-road tri recently has been included into the International Triathlon Union (ITU), the governing body for (regular) triathlon, cross tri's on-road counterpart. The ITU oversaw triathlon's inclusion into the Olympics in 2000, so for Middaugh and the other professional cross tri athletes, the fact that the ITU is now sanctioning cross tri events is an exciting development in the sport.
In the first-ever ITU Cross Triathlon World Championship, held in Spain in 2011, Middaugh finished fourth. He was hoping for a better result in May in Alabama, where the second-ever ITU cross tri worlds was held. The event doubled as the Xterra Southeast Championship, the second championship event held domestically on the U.S. tour. Middaugh said the flatter course and multi-lap format at Oak Mountain State Park was not suited for him, and the singletrack biking sections made it hard to pass, encouraging those strongest in swimming, the first discipline. He found himself once again in fourth.
"There was little I could do to reach the podium," he wrote in his blog, josiahmiddaugh.com.
Despite the fact that his second-place overall position is almost certainly a lock, Middaugh has set his focus on nothing less than a win in Saturday's fifth and final event on the Xterra U.S. tour, the Xterra USA Championship.
"I've been national champion seven times, but that's because foreigners have always beat me," Middaugh said with a laugh. "I'm going for the win. Most likely the standings won't change much, but the race has eluded me. I've never outright won that race."
The Xterra USA Championship will start with a chilly, 1.5k swim on Saturday in the Pineview Reservoir at Snowbasin in Ogden, Utah. From there the athletes will head up and down the mountain on a 29k biking and 10k trail running section.