|espnW.com: Athlete's Life|
On Oct. 23, 675 of the world's best off-road triathletes, including 28 female and 47 male pros, will toe the start line at the 16th annual XTERRA World Championship in Maui, Hawaii. The moment they take off from the white sand of D.T. Fleming Beach, they'll face 3- to 5-foot waves as they make their way through the two-loop, 1,500-meter ocean swim course. Then it's off to a 30-kilometer mountain bike circuit with more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain, followed by an obstacle-filled 10K run that includes slogging through sand and an uphill climb to the finish.
This year's XTERRA course is hard core and brand new, so any advantage from previous experience has been wiped out. Factor in a foot injury that could keep three-time world champion Julie Dibens from competing and ACL surgery that has sidelined last year's champion, Shonny Vanlandingham, and this year's title -- and the $20,000 grand prize -- is up for grabs. Below, we present three women to watch (plus a wild card), chosen with the help of "Kahuna" Dave Nicholas, creator and managing director of the XTERRA World Tour.
Marion "Bubu" Lorblanchet, France
Last year's third-place finisher, the 28-year-old from Clermont-Ferrand, France, has been almost undefeated this season, winning XTERRA Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Czech to earn her second straight European Tour title. Her only 2011 loss came at XTERRA France, where she placed third after a broken derailleur left her running with her bike.
"Bubu is a very good swimmer -- she'll probably be among the first two to three women out of the water," Nicholas said. Lorblanchet's only weakness? She twisted an ankle about two weeks ago, but plans to grin and bear it on Sunday.
Melanie McQuaid, Canada
Now in her 10th year racing XTERRA, McQuaid is synonymous with off-road triathlon. The 38-year-old Canadian is currently ranked No. 1 in the XTERRA United States Pro Series, and she was the first woman to win three world championships, in '03, '05 and '06. She has placed in the top three at this race seven times since 2000, but was 11th in 2010.
"You can't ever count out Melanie McQuaid," Nicholas said. "She's always super-strong and she's a fabulous athlete, but she'll have to play catch-up." Her weakness: the swim. If she comes out of the swim too far behind Lorblanchet, she'll have to ride hard to catch her, but not so hard that she burns herself out before the run. Perfect pacing is what will bring McQuaid her fourth world title, and with all her XTERRA experience, she is certainly capable of executing a smart race.
Lesley Paterson, Great Britain
This 31-year-old Scottish triathlete and film producer/writer cites winning the XTERRA World Championship and an Oscar in the same year as her ultimate career goal. "She's by far the fastest woman runner, no question," Nicholas said. "And this is her type of run course." It's no surprise, then, that Paterson is most looking forward to the run, which has almost 1,300 feet of climbing and obstacles including fallen trees and a rope-assisted scramble.
"I look forward to the run because it's up and down. It's fun and pretty and unusual. You feel less like you're racing and more like you're having to just overcome the terrain," said Paterson, who now lives in San Diego. Her weakness? "I get nervous about the big waves. I'm pretty small and they toss me around quite a lot." Paterson placed second at the XTERRA World Championship in 2009 and seventh in 2010.
Wild card: Renata "Swiss Miss" Bucher, Switzerland
Lorblanchet's buddy at a recent training camp in Ticino, Switzerland, and a four-time XTERRA European Tour champ, Bucher can't be counted out. "Renata, on any given day, can beat anybody," Nicholas said. "And she's the happiest I've seen her all season." The 34-year-old from Lucerne, Switzerland, has won 21 championship races in 11 countries since entering her first XTERRA event in 2004. Her weakness? Inconsistency at the World Championship. She placed fourth in '08, 14th in '09 and did not finish in 2010. However, she may be better suited to the new course, which is lush and tropical compared to the dry, lava-strewn course of years past.
Best of the U.S.
While the foreign competitors are dominant this year, the best hopes for a U.S. podium finish are in the hands of Kelley Cullen, who finished fourth at XTERRA USA; Emma Garrard, who was third at the ITU Cross World Championships in Spain; and Suzie Snyder, a rookie pro who came in fifth last year at the XTERRA World Championship on the old course.
As for the men, XTERRA legends Conrad Stoltz, Eneko Llanos, Olivier Marceau and Nico Lebrun will have a new guy to contend with: Lance Armstrong. Armstrong finished fifth overall at his first off-road world event, September's USA Championship in Ogden, Utah, and will be looking to improve on his debut performance.
Erin Beresini is a freelance writer and triathlete living in Los Angeles.