Xterra Finland Champion!
27th Jun 2017
They say every cloud has a silver lining... but sometimes, you can even find gold!
In my last blog I predicted something good was going to happen this year, though I never expected it to happen so quickly!
Entering Xterra Finland was perhaps a knee-jerk response to the disappointment of missing Belgium for the second year in a row. Reactions from the few people I consulted on the idea were like... errr... are you sure you'll be ready? Only 3 weeks after D&C surgery? What did the hospital say? But I felt I needed a goal as soon as possible, to move on from the things I cannot change, and wow I am glad I made that decision!
I have always had an affinity to the Nordic countries; as soon as I heard Xterra was coming to Finland I wanted to do this race. It was very high on my wish list. BUT I also really wanted to do Belgium as I missed that last year, and being able to drive to a race instead of fly was the easier and cheaper option; I decided Finland would have to wait until another year.
And then everything changed - my plans for the season and life in general. I've written about that in my previous blog so I won't repeat it here, but in summary I was booked in for surgery at the end of May. No-one was sure when it would be safe to swim again afterwards due to the infection risk. I was advised to wait at least 2 weeks; and Belgium would be exactly 2 weeks post-op. Reluctantly I conceded it wasn't worth the risk, cancelled my hotel and travel plans. Again! But I needed a new focus - what could I do instead?
Xterra Finland was suddenly back on the radar - even though it was only 8 days after Belgium. I still would not be fit, but this would be a lower key opportunity to get back into racing. Due to holidays I'd planned with Simon (& our Swiss friends Karin & Rollie) it was either Finland, or wait until August to race again. I couldn't wait that long, so within days of surgery our flights were booked!
Luckily the recovery went as well as could be expected, and it was not long before I was back running and biking again... that is until I broke my big toe one week later! More frustrating that I was not even training, but kicking a punchbag! I was distraught at the thought I would miss yet another race, but physio Pete reassured me I could still run... it would just hurt! I would need to rest it until race day, so no running allowed until then.
Finland was everything I remembered from last time I went more than 13 years ago - empty roads and endless miles of forests and lakes - Nordic nature at its best. In mid-June we were going to get almost 24h of daylight too - you have to remember to actually go to bed! The hotel Saimaa where the race was based was ideal - 4* luxury and yet no complaints about bikes in rooms! This is Finland, so of course they had not one, but many different saunas... even a water park inside the hotel. It was perfect for a relaxing break after all the stress.
On race day I had no idea what to expect, or what shape I would be in. I hadn't trained properly for about 7 weeks, but anyone who knows me knows that I am bloody determined, and will do the very best I can with whatever form I have. There was only a small field of female Pros, so that took some of the pressure off. But I would have strong competition from Cecilia Jessen of Sweden. The race started as well as it could for me - a career first as I led out of the swim by 2 minutes! Lake Saimaa was a perfect swim venue - clean and calm, if a little on the cold side. The water was good enough to drink!
Onto the bike I fully expected Cecilia to catch me as she had done in Malta, but most of the training I've been able to do has been on the bike. Plus I had my new full suspension Yeti, which flew over the rocks and roots! The bike course was my favourite part - 75% singletrack and much more technical than expected. For some reason I imagined a lot of fire roads, but it was a lot more fun than that! Each time I got a time-check from spectators my lead was increasing - I was genuinely surprised by this but kept on pushing. I needed a time gap before the run as I wasn't at all confident after all the missed training, or how I would be able to run on my toe...
On the final bike lap I did start to suffer with cramp - partly lack of race form, but the power data showed afterwards that this was my highest ever output in a race! What did I say about determination?!
I had to back off a little, but still had 3 minutes going into the run. I was hoping for a nice, flat and fast course, but no - they sent us up and down every steep hill they could find, even through a swamp, just because! I had no choice but to take it steady, otherwise my legs would seize up completely.
The adrenaline and some ibuprofen allowed me to keep running, but I felt a bit embarrassed as race leader - being filmed while at times barely able to put one foot in front of the other. After the first 5k loop I had lost half of my lead, down to 1:30... I thought I cannot lose this now!! I know the only person pressuring me in this race was me, but I would never forgive myself if I didn't give everything, and gave away my first chance to win an Xterra!
I virtually crawled up the steepest climb, pulling myself up using the trees as my legs weren't responding. Every time a foot got sucked into the swamp it triggered more cramp, but you can't tell which bits are firm and which will sink! I suffered on the downhills as well, every footstrike killing my toe! But as every kilometre went by and I still hadn't been caught, my hopes started to grow. It's the first time I've felt like the name on my tri-suit - the Fox being hunted down! It was only once I reached the road, the final 800m and dared to look behind me and there was no-one there, then I allowed myself to believe I was going to win this race. Exhausted but very happy, realizing a dream of lifting the winners' tape!!
Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy, and I have to congratulate Cecilia on her 2nd place - she pushed me hard all the way and had a MUCH stronger race today than I have seen her race before. It was great to hang out afterwards and share the food at the athletes' buffet!
But no-one deserves thanks more than Simon, for driving us to the race, and putting up with everything it takes to get here. It continues to be a tough time for both of us, but the moments like this make the journey worthwhile.
Design © 2017 Louise Fox. Photography © Lukasz Warzecha