The 23rd annual XTERRA World Championship off-road triathlon scheduled for Sunday 28 October in Kapalua, Maui boasts the most competitive elite men’s field ever assembled.
It’s a bold statement, but easy to support considering the past four winners, and second-place finishers, are on the start list.
Bradley Weiss from South Africa won last year, Mauricio Mendez from Mexico was second. Mendez won in 2016, and Ruben Ruzafa from Spain was second. Josiah Middaugh from the U.S. won in 2015, with Ruzafa finishing second, and Ruzafa won in 2014, the year Middaugh placed second.
And that’s the story, all these men have gotten the better of each other at one time or another, and they’ve all remained at the top of their game.
“I think that Maui always shows us that there is more than one favorite,” said Ruzafa, who has been first off the bike at XTERRA Worlds each of the last five years. He won two of those races, in 2013 and 2014, but got chased down by Middaugh in 2015, Mendez in 2016, and Weiss in 2017.
“This year, for the first time since 2014, I’ve done altitude training to prepare for Maui and I’ve changed things in my run and bike training,” said Ruzafa, who has won Maui three times and captured four of the last five ITU Cross Tri World Titles since 2014. “I was in the Sierra Nevada for two weeks at the end of September, and since then at my home in Spain. The course is so hard, and different every year because of the weather. We always have to wait until the last moment to see what the terrain conditions will be like.”
No matter what the conditions are like on Sunday, you can count on the reigning champ Brad Weiss to be in the mix.
“The goal is always to win, and I will be disappointed with anything less than defending my title,” said Weiss, who won the XTERRA Asia-Pacific and European Championships this year. “Saying that, the calibre of athletes racing continues to improve and there is a long list of contenders working hard to dethrone me. I welcome the challenge and look forward to facing it come race day, and at the risk of sounding arrogant, I will say I am the favourite. I proved I can win on this course in 2017 and plan to do the same in 2018. The course suits me well and I look forward to maximizing those advantages come race day.”
If experience means anything, give the advantage to Middaugh, who will be racing in his 18th straight XTERRA World Championship fresh off a win at the XTERRA Pan Am Champs last month against Weiss and Mendez.
“My goal is to turn in my best performance to date,” said Middaugh. “It means keeping my focus in the water and swimming within two minutes of the best swimmer and closer to one-minute behind some of the main contenders. My emphasis this season has been on the bike and I know I am climbing faster and with better endurance than ever before. I plan to ration that power out over the entire bike course as if it were a time trial. I will try to approach each leg of the race as if it stands alone. Running is my background and I know if I come off the bike in contention then my body will know what to do.”
As for who he thinks is the favourite, Middaugh added, “This is a one-day race, so there is no competing on paper. It only matters who is the best on that one day and it makes sense to look at who is performing the best at this time of year. If you look at my performance in Utah, then I think I deserve consideration as a favourite. There are probably 5 or 6 guys capable of winning and only one way to decide it, to race!”
Then there is Mendez, the 22-year-old who said he dedicated his mind to winning this race since the moment he crossed the line in second-place last year. “My goal for this year and for every year is to give the best version of myself,” said Mendez. “It is about putting all the hard work together. Of course, winning is always in my head, but to truly give it everything I have, that will make me happy.”
In addition to the past champs, there are a number of men who want to keep the string of new winners alive and well. Chief among them is Kiwi Sam Osborne, who proved he can beat the best when he upset Weiss to win XTERRA Albay in June. “I don’t race to lose and that’s the sort of mindset I will take to Maui,” said Osborne, the reigning and two-time XTERRA Asia-Pacific Tour Champ. “You have to go out there and race like you truly want it. All the work I’ve been putting in the last few weeks I trust will put me in that sort of a position.”
Roger Serrano from Spain, along with Francois Carloni from France give the European contingent plenty to cheer for, and others not to be overlooked include the young-gun Sam Long from the U.S., Karsten Madsen from Canada, Olly Shaw from New Zealand, and Rom Akerson from Costa Rica.
In the women’s elite race, we’ll honor a new champ for the first time in four years as Bermuda’s Flora Duffy sits this year out due to injury. That leaves two-time XTERRA World Champion Lesley Paterson as the women’s favorite. The “Scottish Rocket” won all three U.S. stops on the XTERRA Pan Am Tour this season and says she’s stronger and faster than ever before.
“I’m so excited to race this year, it’s the first year since 2012 that I’ve not been injured and sick coming into this one,” exclaimed Paterson, who finished 5th last year despite racing with a stress fracture in her pelvis and has been battling fatigue and the associated symptoms of Lyme disease for years.
“I’m feeling totally awesome and ready to kill it this year,” she said. “The goal this year is to win it, to bring my A game, and fight until the bitter end.”
Paterson won her first XTERRA World Title in 2011, defended that in 2012, and finished second in 2013, 2015, and 2016. In July, she won her second ITU Cross Tri World Title in Denmark.
Brigitta Poor from Hungary looks to be Paterson’s toughest competitor. Poor won eight races on the XTERRA European Tour this year, including a head-to-head against Paterson at XTERRA France in July.
“I have a big goal,” said Poor. “After my 4th place last year I really want to catch the podium, and of course the main goal is to win it. I am ready to fight and super excited! I might not be in the best form, but my mind is stronger than ever.”
XTERRA USA Champ Suzie Snyder is also feeling better than ever entering her 13th race in Maui.
“To win, I’d have to have a solid lead on to the mountain bike, have the ride of my life to hold off everyone behind, and then run like I’ve never run before,” said Snyder, who won the 20-24 division XTERRA World Title in 2004 on her first-ever trip to Maui.
It can happen. Snyder has the best swim time among returning elite women, had the second-best bike split behind only Lesley Paterson at the XTERRA Pan Am Champs in Utah last month, and is coming into this race fresh for the first time in her elite career.
“I don’t really know what my body is capable of right now, as I’ve only had a few months of training,” said Snyder, who didn’t really get going until June this year.
In her first race out at XTERRA Victoria in July she finished fourth, then she finished second behind Paterson at XTERRA Portland in August and was second again at the Pan Am Champs in September.
“The good part is I’m still fresh and excited mentally, which can go a long way in carrying you through physically,” said Snyder. “I really think my positive mental state is why I performed so well in Utah.”
Snyder isn’t the only veteran in this year’s race, as three-time XTERRA World Champion Melanie McQuaid from Canada and 33x XTERRA World Tour race winner Renata Bucher from Switzerland are back for another shot at Maui.
“I haven’t focused on XTERRA since 2011,” said McQuaid. “But now that I am focusing on my Tri the Dirt series I need my own riding to match what I am teaching. I’m happy and healthy, and my goal is just to be my best on the day and have fun.”
For Bucher, the goal is simple, “To find peace with this race and the island,” she explained.
“Last time I raced in Maui I had a DNF (felt sick). When I was at my fittest point, I had a mechanical. Another year, I couldn’t catch the wave properly at the end of the swim and got smashed into the sand and hurt my back. I was so suffering on the run. This year I see a big chance for me to race and to enjoy the fight. I want to do this race for me, to finally tick it off, and I absolutely love to have Melanie McQuaid back on the start line. We raced so many years together, nearly killed each other racing. But these days, I respect her a lot and honestly, she inspires me. She shows us all that age is just a number and I’m sure she will be one of the gutsiest athletes out there!”
Bucher said she’s also pulling for her Aloha Racing teammate Lizzie Orchard from New Zealand.
“I’m feeling the best I’ve been this year,” said Orchard, who was fifth in Maui three years ago. “Breaking ribs in May was not on the plan but they have fully recovered now, and I’ve been able to train for a few months. I’ve been able to do more running lately also with my foot niggle calming down. Saying that I’m not a believer that you must ‘feel good’ on the day. It’s XTERRA Worlds, I aim to pull out a big race when it counts.”
The XTERRA Asia-Pacific Champion and XTERRA European Tour Champion Carina Wasle will also join the fray. Wasle had an incredible year in Europe, finishing on the podium at all 13 races she did and winning the last two at XTERRA Finland and Norway.
Unfortunately, she twisted an ankle at XTERRA Norway last month.
“I damaged two ligaments and a bone, and still can’t run after six weeks so I focused more on good bike training and gym work,” said Wasle.
“I’m almost ready for the swim and bike. I feel quite good, trained a lot, only my running is a bit vague. Still, my goal is a top three finish. I trained hard for it, but I’ll need for sure a perfect day and a healthy foot.”
The XTERRA Asia-Pacific Tour Champion Penny Slater is also excited to continue her upwards trajectory in the sport.
“I’m feeling really great and healthy thankfully but had a nasty crash on my mountain bike in September which kept me out of the pool for a few weeks,” said Slater, who won XTERRA Albay back in June.
“I feel ready for Maui, more prepared both mentally and physically than last year, at least now I know what to expect come race day and how brutal the course is. However, as everyone knows, conditions in Maui can vary greatly so I’m looking forward to the challenges the island throws at us this year.”
Other contenders include Michelle Flipo from Mexico, who won XTERRA Denmark this year and finished sixth in Maui two years ago, and Julie Baker, who is one of the best swimmers in the sport.