Off-road triathlon season gets underway in US; Middaugh feeling good
Off-road triathlete Josiah Middaugh, of EagleVail, ended last season second overall on the Xterra Pan American Tour, and he skipped four of the 12 events.
This year, Middaugh is gunning for the win once again, and once again, he’ll take an abbreviated approach to the competition season.
The U.S. component of this season began May 18 at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham, Alabama, where Middaugh has been dominant in recent years, winning five of the last six pro-level Xterra events there.
Before the event started, Middaugh predicted his top competition would likely come from New Zealand’s Sam Osborne.
“He’s been really strong the last few years, and I’ve seen his progression, but I only get to race him once or twice a year,” Middaugh said. “He’s got the better of me the last two times in Maui (the birthplace of off-road triathlon), and he’s coming off the New Zealand summer, so he’s going to be a lot sharper. I knew he’d be further along in his season than I was.”
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In Xterra events, in which Middaugh has been racing for 19 years, if he doesn’t win, the swimming portion of his race is usually to blame. That was again the case in Alabama, where Osborne exited the water three and a half minutes ahead of Middaugh.
“I had my typically challenging swim, and Sam is one of the best swimmers in our sport,” Middaugh said. “And on those trails, it’s really challenging to make up really big chunks of time against a really good technical rider, which (Osborne) is, because there’s so much time when you’re not peddling — twisty, turny, oak forest.”
Osborne said he was lucky to not have a mechanical issue on his bike.
“I think I had a bit of a reaction to the anti-fog I put in my goggles because I was suffering from clouded vision most of the bike,” he said. “As a result, I was taking some real dodgy lines and hit some rocks. I was hoping I wouldn’t blow a tire out, but I managed to ride well enough and I think I heard something like ‘two minutes’ heading into (the transition from biking to running) and I was confident I could hang on to that on the run.”
Middaugh, true to his form, had both the fastest bike ride and the fastest trail run on the day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap Osborne had on him after the swim. With that in mind, Middaugh said he was happy with his result.
“I’m coming off winter, (Osborne) is coming off summer, so I’m in a good spot,” Middaugh said.
Mountain Games next
While most of his Xterra competitors will spend any time they have in water working on their swimming skills and fitness over the next few months, Middaugh will start off June with a bit of paddling.
Earlier this year the Vail-based GoPro Mountain Games announced a few changes to the format of the event’s Ultimate Mountain Challenge, and the changes were enough to lure Middaugh back into the competition.
Middaugh was a 10-time winner of the Ultimate Mountain Challenge before he decided to stop competing in the event in 2017. A new format for 2019 includes six events, and athletes must compete in at least one bike event, at least one whitewater event, and the mandatory Pepi’s Face-Off run as a sixth and final event on Sunday, June 9.
In February, as Middaugh confirmed he would indeed compete in the Ultimate Mountain Challenge once again this year, he told organizers he loved the new format, which was a big part of the reason he’s returning to the event.
“It’s different,” Middaugh said. “I’ll have to compete against kayakers, runners and bikers, all fighting to gain points in their categories before the big showdown on Sunday.”
With running, biking, and water-based events all mandatory, an off-road triathlete might indeed be the person to beat in the Ultimate Mountain Challenge, said organizer Tom Boyd.
“There’s nobody better than the champ to give guidance on how to prep for this event, whether you’re a pro going for the $10,500 prize purse or just a weekend warrior who wants to earn your custom UMC hat and take on this quintessential outdoor challenge,” Boyd said of Middaugh.
Avon Xterra in July
Following the Mountain Games, the Avon/Beaver Creek stop of the Xterra tour will be the next big event for off-road runners, bikers and swimmers. While Middaugh will be competing in the pro division, a robust schedule of amateur events, running-only competitions and other endurance-based challenges are available to all participants when the event arrives on July 20.
Middaugh has been an ambassador for the local Xterra event for a long time, hosting athletes at his house and getting his family involved in the competition. He says between the Mountain Games, the July Xterra competition and the newly announced triathlon festival 970AvonFest (coming to town in September), a triathlon culture has started to take root in Eagle County. It’s an obvious observation, but Middaugh also added a caveat to the statement — a truth that mountain sport athletes have long known.
“The swimming is where many locals struggle,” Middaugh said. “It’s been my lifelong challenge, for sure … You have to put time into it because it’s 80 to 90 percent technique.
“But someone going out and skiing or snowboarding for the first time, they’re going to feel the same way,” Middaugh added. “You can’t just strap on some skis and hit the black diamonds.”
Middaugh was a distance runner in college at Central Michigan University before moving to Vail in 2000. He liked trail running and mountain biking, but had very little experience swimming.
“I would huff and puff and hold onto the wall and catch my breath and try to do it again,” he said of swimming laps in the pool. “The first time I went to a masters swim, I remember I’d get up early, drive down for the 6 a.m. masters swim, and I’d swim the warm up, which was about 1,000 yards, and then I’d get out of the pool, because I was exhausted, and go home and take a nap.”
Middaugh said joining the masters swimming group — where there were others like him, struggling to improve their technique — was a crucial step leading him down a path toward triathlon racing.
If you’re interested in triathlon, “The thing to do would be to join a masters (swim) group, something like we have at The Westin,” Middaugh said. “You might just barely make it through the warmup and have to call it a day, but that’s how you make progress.”