This race marked some big changes for this year, dropping way down in distance from full/half IM, racing a much busier schedule, and for this particular race riding and running underwater. I of course can't fault the race directors for acts of nature but the torrential rain during this race defined it.
The Folsom Lake area isn't particularly scenic, more of a parking lot next to a reservoir, but the camping is cheap and the small trail network is a lot of fun. I had prerode the course several days earlier in bone dry conditions and had a good time. The "Real" title of the race I believe relates to this course being on actual trails for both the ride and run while some other Xterras can hardly be construed as real mountain biking, being on groomed fireroads. The Folsom course is quite flat, but is mostly quality singletrack with some interesting rock features. When dry I'd call it a fast but interesting course, plenty of passing opportunities, and little monotony.
I woke up on race morning and was happy to see it wasn't raining, the weather report had indicated it would start raining heavily sometime in the AM. As the shorter sprint distance race started an hour before the Xterra start it was barely sprinkling, and stayed that way up until our start at 9am as we entered the water. The past few years I've had a bad swim to start the season, and was hoping to nail this one down. I started up front and sprinted the first 100 yards hard, halfway to the first buoy I was about 2 body lengths behind the leader and in a pack of 5 or 6 from what I could see. Just as I settled into the pace I intended on finishing the swim with I managed to get a huge gulp of water. I made a few attempts at spitting it out underwater but it wasn't happening, I had to stop and cough, and in those handful of seconds I was caught by a larger group. Most of the rest of the swim I was in this tight group, the pace wasn't quite where I wanted to be but I felt the effort of passing wouldn't be worth it. In retrospect this wasn't a good move, aside from the training differences one of the biggest changes going from long to short course is thinking about seconds and not minutes, which was reflected in all my splits. I came out of the water 28th, 2 minutes behind the eventual winner.
Since the lake level is so low there was a half mile run from the water to T1, thankfully I had my booties. I also had my MTB gloves in the back of my wetsuit, I knew I would have the time during this run to put them on so I figured may as well save the time, probably not the last time I'll do this. As I took my cap off I noticed it was raining pretty hard at this point. I began pedaling and immediately regretted not going harder on the swim, not just because I felt I left something effort wise, but passing on a sloppy course with lots of singletrack was rough. The course starts with about a mile of fireroad and double track before taking a hard right and up the first and only significant hill, which isn't steep or long but enough for me to move past 5 riders or so. Following the small climb is a winding descent, having done it only a few days earlier I was looking forward to pushing it pretty hard, but this is the time the reality of the pouring rain set in.
Most of the course is decomposed granite, which can absorb water well, but with this hard rain most of the water was just sitting on top of the trail. It wasn't as slippery as normal mud, but it sapped a lot of power. Worse yet the extremely fine sand combined with the water started creeping into the bike. On the backside of the course you leave the normal singletrack loop and go onto some rarely used trails along the lake, which were overgrown and mushy, and slowed the course down even more. For both loops all I could feel was wasted power, putting out more effort didn't result in much speed, I passed some more riders in the mildly technical parts but for the most part was just grinding along. I hadn't known the extent of the fine granite and water damage but the day after the race I found where many of the watts were going - destroyed bottom bracket, both derailleur pulleys barely spun, same story for one of the cassette driver bearings, chain was shot, both rotors completely trashed, and a brand new set of semimetal pads were down to the metal. I can't imagine I got the worst of it either, I had put on some big knobs before the race (WTB Wolverine rear and Mutanoraptor front), so fortunately I could at least keep traction. As I rolled into T2 I saw about 15 bikes on the racks, so I knew I wasn't doing too terribly.
The run course starts through the campground, with some small hills, then onto the road for a slight bit. I felt great, the power I couldn't use on the bike was apparent on the run, I set off at a low 6:xx pace and was hoping to hold it through the course. As the course rolls on the small hills get bigger, not more than 100ft of climbing or so on any hill, but miles 2 and 3 have no flat. Several of the descents were steep, and at this point the course was complete sloppy mud, a few of the descents were tough to not slide down. I reeled in a few people and hadn't been passed, though my pace was slowing due to the increasingly difficult conditions. The last mile was flatter but had a huge amount of standing water, several places there was nothing to do but run through several inches of it. Even the finish line was under water.
Xterra Real has the possibility of being a good race, but on this day it didn't really work out. Some races you race against your age group/category, some against yourself, and in this case sometimes you race against the course. On a technical course that can be great, but the enemy here was just wet sand, not really what anyone dreams of battling. I ended up in 2nd in my AG and 19th overall, and I'm happy for the Xterra points, but this brings out another issue with this race being so early in the season and in a location where the weather is unpredictable, my AG wasn't too hotly contended. I can't say whether or not I would do this race again, if I do I will definitely wait to register a day or two before the race, but I can say the directors did a great job being out there and keeping everything running smoothly even if most bikes weren't. Next stop: Xterra Renegade, May 17th