Age no obstacle for Vanlandingham

Former off-road triathlon champion still a contender at age 44

Updated: September 18, 2013, 1:03 PM ET
By Doug Williams | Special to ESPN.com

VanlandinghamXTERRAShonny Vanlandingham's mountain-biking prowess is her biggest strength.
Shonny Vanlandingham is fast on her bike, but she knows she can't outrace time.

At age 44, she's had to make some concessions to remain one of the world's best off-road triathletes.

She trains smarter, not longer, and pays more attention to stretching, recovery and building strength. And she knows that even though she's incredibly fit, she's going to have some bad days with the good. It just happens.

But on any given day, she can beat all comers.

"I often use Toby Keith's song for motivation," she says, laughing. "He says, 'I'm not as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was.' I really believe that to be true."

Her hope now is that she can be good enough Saturday to win the XTERRA USA Championship triathlon near Ogden, Utah.

Though Vanlandingham's list of career achievements is long -- a victory at the XTERRA World Championship in 2010, four U.S. season points titles and two victories on the circuit this year -- she's never won the U.S. championship race, finishing second and third on the championship course that ends at the Snowbasin Resort.

"I've gotten real close," says Vanlandingham. "I placed second there one year, and that was the year I probably should have won because I had a flat.

"But that's the way it goes with mountain biking. But yes, this is a course that has eluded me. I would love to knock off a win there before I retire."

Committed through 2014

Who knows when Vanlandingham will hang up her goggles, helmet and running shoes?

[+] EnlargeVanlandingham
XTERRAVanlandingham has showed no signs of slowing down at age 44.
Four years ago, she was asked what she would be doing when she was 45. She guessed she would probably be retired from full-time racing and just "show up now and then to line up with the youngsters to see what I've got."

After all, she has the best of all worlds and plenty of interests. She lives in Hawaii over the winters, where she has rental properties and a small coffee farm. She can ride upcountry trails or go stand-up paddleboarding. For the rest of the year, she lives in Durango, Colo., where she often gets into the backcountry.

But when she won the world title in 2010, her perspective changed.

"The last time my contract ended, I thought I would retire, but I won the world championship at 41, so I thought, 'Well, I guess I'm not too old,'" says Vanlandingham, who rides for Team Luna Chix. "So I signed another few years."

Her current contract runs through 2014. "Maybe I'll keep racing until I'm 50," she says.

Vanlandingham says it with a laugh, but she really has no intention of stepping away as long as she's having fun and performing at a high level. This year, she's won two events (in Colorado and Brazil) and is ranked No. 2 in the XTERRA U.S. series.

"If I feel like I do today and I'm still competitive and enjoying the sport, absolutely, I'll sign another contract," she says.

If she does, it won't surprise Lesley Paterson.

Paterson, the No. 1-ranked triathlete on the U.S. XTERRA circuit, the defending champion at this weekend's race and a two-time world champ, says Vanlandingham exudes joy when she races.

Though Paterson admires Vanlandingham for her accomplishments and abilities, it's her attitude that stands out even more.

"Her longevity in general in the sport is huge," says Paterson, 32, a Scot who lives in San Diego. "I mean, she's just too talented, technically, endurance-wise, power-wise. I think what is the most impressive thing is how she relates to her competitors and the type of attitude she has.

"She absolutely loves what she does, and you can tell that. There's no animosity. There's nothing but support for her fellow competitors, and I just adore her, to be honest. She's probably the most favorite competitor I've ever had the opportunity to race against."

Paterson says when Vanlandingham passes her -- or anyone else -- she'll offer words of encouragement. It's the same when someone passes her. Once, when she passed Paterson, Vanlandingham suggested Paterson draft off her for a while.

"Who does that? It's so cool," says Paterson.

Once at a world championship, Vanlandingham passed Paterson but yelled, "My money's on you for this race!" Paterson finished second but was pumped up by her friend's message.

Paterson says Vanlandingham's example has inspired her. Now she, too, pays it forward, encouraging others. "The thing is, the sport is like a family to her, and that's her approach to it," Paterson says.

Multisport background

The fact Vanlandingham cheers on others doesn't mean she's not a competitor, however. Her résumé proves it.

As a girl growing up in Texas, she was a standout basketball player and middle-distance runner then played point guard at East Texas State (now Texas A&M-Commerce), where she was honorable mention all-conference.

After college, she played pro basketball for a while in Brazil and competed briefly with the U.S. national handball team at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

After moving to Hawaii, where she was guiding bike tours, she decided to take a shot at being a pro mountain biker -- a decision that changed her life.

[+] EnlargeVanlandingham
XTERRAA win at the 2010 world championships changed Vanlandingham's outlook on her career.
"I thought my sporting career was over, but then I realized people were cycling for a living," she says.

While riding the National Off-Road Bicycle Association circuit, she became its most successful rider, with 15 national race wins and three national series titles. She also was a seven-time member of the U.S. national mountain bike team.

Off-road cycling was something that appealed to her because of her years riding off-road motorcycles in Texas with her family.

But at the end of the mountain biking season in 2005, she decided to give triathlon a try. She had gone back to Hawaii, and the XTERRA World Championship was being held there. She entered and finished seventh, posting the best mountain bike split.

She loved the new challenge and jumped into it full time. By 2008, she had won her first race and was rolling.

Though she's done some traditional road-race triathlons, Vanlandingham loves the off-road circuit. It offers the extra challenges of rocks, mud, dust and narrow trails. At the end of some races, she's covered with mountain grime.

"It's not just about racing your competitors. It's about conquering the terrain and challenging yourself to see if you can ride certain sections," she says. "It's a lot of skill involved. It's not just about your engine."

The weakest part of her triathlon has always been the swim. With her track background and NORBA experience, she's strong on two of three legs. But when she gets into cold mountain lakes, she's no trout.

"The swim is a work in progress," she says. "I didn't grow up swimming, besides the backyard pool. So that's been a big challenge. But at the same time, that's what I really enjoy about triathlon is the challenge, because usually people have a weakness in one or two of the three. It's kind of a nice challenge to be a beginner again and have to really learn."

Is this the year?

Though Paterson is the favorite going into this weekend's USA Championship, she says Vanlandingham has a good shot.

After the 1.5K swim at the Port Ramp Marina on Pineview Reservoir, she'll switch to her strengths, the 28K mountain bike and 10K run.

"I definitely think she's fitter and stronger than she's probably ever been," says Paterson. "She generally comes out a little bit down from the water and then she has to kind of fight her way up on the bike and sometimes that can tire her out for the run a little bit. But you know, she's definitely up there as a contender, no doubt about it."

Vanlandingham had a good opportunity two years ago at the U.S. title, putting together a strong season, but she tore her ACL about a month before the race. She competed anyway, wearing a brace, because she knew if she finished in the top 10, she would win the season points crown. She finished seventh, then had surgery.

Last year, the knee was still giving her problems and she had to pull out midrace. Now, she says, the knee is stronger and she's regained most of her speed. If the speed is there, she believes she has a chance Saturday.

It's just a question of whether she can have that one "as good once as I ever was" kind of day.

"I just need to put it together on the right day, and I can still go as fast," she says.

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