Michael Drackert is a multi-sport endurance athlete, USAT Cross Age Group National Champion, USAT All American for both road and off-road triathlons, Ironman All World Athlete and has competed at the Xterra World Championship and ITU Cross World Championship. In addition to triathlon, Michael has competed in numerous ultra events including the Dirty Kanza 200-Mile Gravel Grinder, Black Hills 100K Trail Run, as well as a self-supported bike trip across the United States. In 2019, he will compete in Spain at the ITU Cross World Championship and will spend the second half of the year in preparation to race the Pikes Peak Marathon and a first attempt at the 100-mile ultra-marathon.
On October 28, I had the privilege of competing in one of the most physically and mentally grueling single-day endurance events in the world, the Xterra World Championship on the island of Maui, Hawaii.
The premier off-road triathlon combines a 1.5-kilometer (1 mile) ocean swim off the historically rough D.T. Fleming Beach, a 32-kilometer (20 miles) mountain bike that climbs 3,500 feet up and down the lower slopes of the West Maui Mountains and a 10.5-kilometer (6.5-miles) trail run that traverses forest trails, beach sand and an additional 1,000 feet of climbing.
The race featured a soldout field of 800 racers, including 75 professionals and more than 700 amateurs representing 44 countries.
But this isn’t just any race you can sign-up for: all athletes must earn their spot through a qualification race. There are only two qualification races in the continental United States: Xterra Beaver Creek in Colorado and Xterra Oak Mountain in Alabama. In each of these events, competitors travel from around the country to duke it out for a top-3 finish in their respective age groups.
Preparing for the Race
My personal journey started in Alabama. I chose this race as my qualifier because the course was similar to the terrain I trained on in Kansas City. A punchy and technical riding style provides a better advantage in Alabama which featured tight, twisty forest trails and only one gravel climb of 700 feet, whereas the Colorado qualifier race included over 3,000 feet climbing at altitude.
In most Xterra off-road triathlons, the mountain bike leg makes up for nearly 50 to 60 percent of the overall race time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can negate the swim and run. It’s crucial to put in a hard effort in the swimming part to get onto the single track at the front of the pack. Otherwise, it can be difficult, even dangerous, making numerous passes on narrow bike trails. In Xterra, I often see phenomenal mountain bikers competing who underestimate the 6 to 7-mile trail run (often technical with climbing). Running on a trail, as opposed to the road, can add an extra two minutes per mile to your average pace.
These observations proved true in Alabama at the Xterra Oak Mountain. On race day, I pushed hard in the swim and exited the water with many of my closest competitors. After a few early passes on the bike, I was riding on single track with athletes of similar ability to mine. I rode a steady race. While I may have been a little too conservative on the bike, the managed energy enabled me to close a near 10-minute gap on the run to win my age group and lock-in a slot to the Xterra World Championship.
After a few elated days of celebration, it was time to get out the calendar and start putting together a plan for Maui.
There’s not a lot I could do to specifically prepare for an ocean swim while only having access to a pool, other than training to swim the required 1,500 meters. I tweaked my swim sets to build towards a 2,000-meter effort. Being a slightly above average swimmer, I’ve learned over the years that two swims per week build endurance but three swims per week help maintain any speed. Consistency was the name of the game in this case.
The Maui bike course features three major climbs. The first is roughly 1,200 vertical feet in a mere four to five miles up to a beautiful ridgeline. Sections of this climb are over 20 percent gradient. I added a five-week bike focused block into my training which included four to five rides per week: threshold intervals, strength intervals, hilly aerobic and off-road race pace work.
Unfortunately, the months of September and October were very wet in Missouri, shutting down the trail networks. So when the trails were muddy on the weekends, I transferred my training to long gravel rides. I was able to put the time in on the mountain bike and a lot of the rural gravel roads feature more frequent and steeper climbs. To simulate the longer Maui climbs, I would do an overgeared time trial effort for about a mile prior to reaching a hill. This essentially allowed me to extend the time I spent near functional threshold power (FTP) to build muscular endurance.
The Maui run course required the power to climb 700 feet up and fast feet to descend quickly. My run training included three runs per week plus one brick run. One run would be hill repeats with tempo efforts on the uphill, followed by hard downhill with a heavy focus on high turnover. The second run would include three to five threshold intervals of three to five minutes or a fartlek run on trails. The brick run was after long Saturday rides focusing on a quick transition and two to three miles at race pace. I’d end the week with a long run of 10 to 13 miles. In Kansas City, we have a great Sunday morning running group, which made this workout a highlight of the week.
Finally, after 16-weeks of dedicated training, race week arrived. We were in Maui. Bike assembled. Packet picked-up. I went to check out the trails. To my astonishment, they were in terrible conditions. Due to a long hurricane season and significant rain, the trails were saturated and completely muddy. At the pre-race meeting, the Xterra race directors announced they would need to adjust some of the bike course due to poor trail conditions. Leaving the meeting, I reminded myself that this was the World Championship. Did I really think it was going to be easy?
Race day was a beautiful sunny Maui day. My pre-race routine was smooth and I made my way down to the beach. My mantra and strategy for the day were to follow the “Three C’s”: composure during the swim, confidence on the bike and compete in the run.
Then I saw the swells. Huge. The waves at the break were nearly 10 feet tall. The swim course was an M-shaped out and back with a short run on the beach in the middle. We’d have to battle the waves essentially four times. The cannon went off, my swim wave bravely plowed into the daunting ocean and it was on.
Battling for position, navigating the swells and trying to spot the buoys while on the crest of a wave. There wasn’t a lot of time for thinking, as my body executed the repetitions I practiced for months. On the last leg, I body surfed what felt like a huge wave all the way to the shore and crashed into the sand.
As soon as I stood up on the beach and removed my goggles, the climbing started. We ran about a quarter mile uphill to T1. With the difficult trail conditions, I packed extra nutrition and hydration. I just didn’t know how long I’d be out there. The first section steadily climbed a paved path but as soon as the course turned off-road into the mud, all strategy went out the window. Numerous sections were just not ridable. Even the pros were dismounting and pushing their bikes.
I’m not going to lie; it was hard, frustrating, dangerous and relentless. But I knew I had to just keep moving forward, one step at a time and keep making progress.
Before long, I popped off the trails and back onto the paved path leading straight down to transition. My bike was so packed with mud, the rear derailleur was having a hard time shifting and the chain was falling off the front chainring. Luckily, I didn’t have any major mechanical problems and was really relieved to be putting on my running shoes. The nutrition and hydration plan must have worked because I felt pretty good starting the run. I fell into a strong rhythm while keeping my heart rate from spiking too high. My shoe selection with a more aggressive tread was very useful on the long downhill portions, where I could use gravity in my favor while keeping my feet moving quickly in a controlled fall.
The last portion of the run took me back to the beach where it all started (nothing like a quarter-mile run in the sand to really finish off the legs). Hearing the announcer, fans cheering and seeing all of the national flags lining the finishing shoot was enough to inspire a last effort to the finish line. Crossing the line was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, especially when reflecting on all the work, training, planning, and commitment to even get there.
In the end, it was less about VO2 Max, metabolic efficiency, or power-to-weight ratio that got me through the Xterra World Championship. It was really about grit, resiliency, persistence and adaptability.
Sure, in hindsight, there are some training and equipment changes I could have made but walking away from that experience knowing that I endured all the known and unknown challenges of the day are really what is of the highest value. As time goes on, I may not be as strong physically but the accumulation of all these experiences that require great effort is what ends up making our character strong.