Vail triathlete Josiah Middaugh readies himself for the big double: The Ironman Triathlon and the Xterra World Championships
Through the lobby and into the men’s locker room, past the hot tub and showers, Vail 24-year-old Josiah Middaugh pulls a stationary bike into the steam room. He sits, facing the door, looking as if someone had just poured buckets of water over him. The look on his face goes beyond motivation. It’s a picture of serenity.
Mr. Serenity, the 2002 Xterra amateur national champion, had just punched out from a day of work as a trainer and needs the humidity. In eight days, Middaugh will be competing in his first Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, then a week later, will be competing in the Xterra World Championships in Maui. The island state is about as opposite of a climate as Vail, so Middaugh turns a little section of his workplace into a tropical paradise. Steam. Steam. And more steam.
“I guess doing both was always in the back of my mind,” Middaugh said. “I didn’t want to jinx myself. But I always figured a two-week vacation in Hawaii was better than one, for sure.”
Born in upstate Michigan to his parents, Steve and Jana, he and his brothers Micah and Yaro (who also live in Vail) were raised in humble surroundings. Dirt floors. Thatch roofs. Later, when he had more “contemporary” shelter, he still didn’t have running water or plumbing. His dad, a carpenter, breathed perspective into his children.
Maybe that’s why Middaugh, during Monday’s steam session, still carries the countenance of a sleeping baby.
“It was an eye-opener when I got to college,” said Middaugh, who ran varsity cross country and track at Central Michigan University. “For a while, I was embarrassed to have friends over, because my parents ate tofu. But it’s definitely helped me a lot. My parents will laugh at all this.”
His college years, though, were hampered by knee surgeries that put him out of commission for two seasons. Running 90 miles a week put too much strain on his joints, which he’d been pounding on since he started running with his father when he was 11. To graduate with a health and fitness degree, he had to do an internship at the Aria spa. He liked Vail so much, he moved out after marrying his girlfriend, Ingrid.
“The big part of the reason I have this drive now is I didn’t have the success I wanted to in college,” he said. “I have things I need to prove to myself.”
Like many flatlanders, he discovered mountain biking and snowshoeing in Vail, but unlike most flatlanders, he won national championships. Last year, Middaugh won the U.S. Snowshoe Championships in his home state in front of his parents. His work in the Xterra competitions – off-road triathlons –this year earned him the top seed in the 20-24-year-old age group in the country. His success led directly to the world championships Oct. 27 and a visit from Sports Illustrated last week.
“I’m still recovering from that,” he said.
Middaugh’s accomplishments this year include the top amateur at the Xterra West Championships and Central Championships, and he won his age group in the East Championships in Virginia.
In his first attempt to qualify for the Ironman, he won his age group at the Half Vineman Triathlon in California. His vacation was officially extended.
But learning to do a triathlon (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile road bike, 26.2-mile run), required him getting wet. Competitive swimming wasn’t natural for Middaugh, who then began training at Master Swim in Vail.
“Technique pretty much comes with biking and running every day,” Middaugh said. “But it’s pretty much something you have to learn in the water.”
Another Vailite will be joining Middaugh at the World Championships a week later. Lisa Isom, who works in public relations for the Vail Recreation District, qualified, helped by a third-place finish at the Yuba Rock and Road Off-Road Triathlon June 1. She will do the 1.5-kilometer swim, 30K mountain bike and 11K trail run course after a summer of hard training and qualifying.
Isom, a mountain bike specialist, learned to swim by diving in head first.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Isom, describing the beginning of the races in the water. “I think swimming is the most technical thing I’ve ever tried to do. I’ve definitely been knocked around and had my goggles kicked off.”
The humidity of Hawaii also has Isom concerned.
“I keep thinking, “Lisa, you’re going to be fine,'” she said, laughing .”But when I get to sea level, all that oxygen makes me tired. I’m drinking more liquid to get my body used to it on the course.”
And as for having Middaugh right along side?
“It’s going to be a huge help,” she said. “He’s such an inspiration because he’s so young. Just to have turned it on at that level so early, it’s amazing.”
Others think so too.
The peak for triathlon athletes historically doesn’t occur before the age of 27. That gives Middaugh a few more years of training.
“I’m finally getting to be competitive,” he said. “It’s just like anything. It takes time. To be an elite racer, it takes years.”
Years spent on course, in the water or, if you’re Middaugh, pedalling away after hours in a fog of steam.
“I want to do this four more times,” he said, this time with the door open and a photographer taking his picture. He means, of course, the steam training. But with all the attention he’s received, he could have meant the publicity, which is priceless to a young athlete only sponsored by PowerBar. While that means he won’t go hungry, it still means he has to put in a full day’s work before the fun, or steam, begins.