My first off-road triathlon: 2005 AZ Xtreme Desert XTERRA Tri

author : PirateGirl
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The XTERRA off-road triathlons consist of a lake swim, a mountain bike trail ride, and a trail run. I decided to try the AZ Xtreme Desert XTERRA Tri as my 1st off-road triathlon, and my 3rd tri ever.

The XTERRA off-road triathlons consist of a lake swim, a mountain bike trail ride, and a trail run. I decided to try the Arizona Xtreme Desert XTERRA Triathlon as my first off-road triathlon, and my third triathlon ever. On paper, it didn’t look too terrible: a 1600 m swim, 30 km mountain bike, and 4.5 mile trail run. But I should’ve known better when the word “Xtreme” appeared in the title of the race. And it was very extreme. They weren’t kidding.

My husband, Zac, and I left Saturday morning and drove to Saguaro Lake in Mesa, AZ. It was about a 2.5 hr drive from our home in Tucson. I got my packet, and started to try to figure out the logistics of this race. This wasn’t a tri with the usual transition areas, as T1 and T2 were half a mile apart. We were given 3 plastic bags and had to put our race number on each. The first bag was the T1 bag. T1 was at the Keyhole parking area at the Saguaro Lake marina. This had to have all of our bike gear in it, and afterwards, all of our swim gear had to go inside. After we left T1, we weren’t coming back, so if you wanted your swim stuff (wetsuit, goggles, etc) returned to you, you put it all in the bag while in T1. The next bag was the T2 bag. This had to have all of our run stuff in it, and they would hand us this bag after the bike. Again, we would have to take the run stuff out, and put the bike stuff in if we wanted it back. The third bag was for all of our stuff that we would have with us just before the swim. We were being shuttled from an off-site parking area to the swim start. So things like outer clothes, shoes, sunscreen, Bodyglide, and sunglasses would go in that bag, and they would take it at the swim start and shuttle it back to the finish line.

Our bikes had to be dropped off in T1 between 3 and 5PM on Saturday to reduce crowding in the area on Sunday morning. But we were allowed to return on Sunday morning to drop off bike gear and liquids for the bike as long as we did it before 7AM. The bike racks were guarded by a sheriff who allowed stuff to go in T1, but not to come out. I went ahead and racked my bike, and decided that I would bring the rest of my bike gear in the morning and drop it off at about 6AM. After that, we checked out the swim exit. The swim was point-to-point in the lake (rather than a loop), and ended right at T1. This is where we got the first taste of “Xtreme.” They told us, “The end of the swim is over by those flags.” So we go over to the flags, and look down. Yep, DOWN a rocky cliff. We would have to swim up to the rocks and boulders below, and scramble over them and climb up the hill. Of course, this is after swimming 1600m and still wearing a wetsuit and goggles. I just knew that after the first 20 or so people got over the boulders, they would be extremely wet and slippery.

The exit of the AZ Xtreme Desert XTERRA swim

We camped in our RV that night, and during the night a storm ripped through. I was glad that I didn’t leave all of my bike stuff in T1 that night. The next morning there were puddles everywhere, and it was still quite windy. We got to T1 at about 6AM, and I dropped my bike bag off. Most of the number plates on our bikes had blown off, but mine wasn’t too far from my bike. It was a bit soggy, so we poked some new holes in it and re-attached it to my bike. Some bikes had blown over in T1 and were piled on top of each other.

Bikes waiting in T1


I ate a quick breakfast, and after dropping my bike stuff off in T1, parked our RV at the off-site parking area. I dropped my T2 bag off with the event folks, and got body marked. Then I got my wetsuit and swim stuff bag, said goodbye to Zac, and got on the shuttle vehicle. The shuttle vehicles were two trolleys, which was kind of cool. We arrived at the swim start at a bit early, so I had about an hour and a half before the start of the race. I decided to hike up to the beginning of the mountain bike course trail and see how it looked. By the time I hiked back it was time to grease up and pull the wetsuit on. I got in the water about 15 minutes before the start and swam around to warm-up. The water was about 68°F, so my sleeveless wetsuit was perfect.

Trolleys shuttled the racers to the swim start

Racers awaiting the start of the swim


Since this was my fist time swimming in open water in a group (2nd open water swim ever) I positioned myself to the extreme left side of the group which, oddly enough, put me straight in line with the first buoy. The gun went off at 9AM, and we were off to swim the 1600m. Since I was so far to the outside of the mass, I didn’t have too many people around me. I had to navigate around some swimmers that seemed to have stalled. I never got kicked in the face or anything, but did feel a few people down by my feet. After I got to the green buoy, I could see the next buoy (a yellow one) off in the distance. Geez, it was a long way off.

The wind was making waves, so I felt like I was getting tossed around everywhere. Definitely different than pool swimming. I finally got some clear water where I didn’t need to worry about running into someone for a bit and worked my way through the waves. I slowly made my way towards the second buoy, and sighted for the third one. I couldn’t see it too well, but I could see one of the docks to the parking lot. So I sighted for that. There were only a few people around me then. One guy was fixing his goggles, and another guy was backstroking. Then there were these 3 guys together, that looked like they were trying to stay together in a group.

It felt like it took forever to get to where the dock was, and in the distance I could see the last buoy and a line of volunteers in yellow shirts on the cliff. Good, there would be someone to fish me out of the rocks. I sighted a lot, trying to swim straight to the volunteers. I followed one guy in and was finally there. I got my feet up onto some rocks under water, and stood up and reached for the boulders out of the water. Sure enough, they were drenched and slippery. “Great, I’m going to slip and take a huge chunk of neoprene out of my new wetsuit,” I thought to myself. I got over one big boulder and heard one volunteer yell, “Help her!” Another volunteer yelled, “Give me your hand!” I raised my arms up and felt two people grab them, and then there were two hands around my waist. These people lifted me up completely over the boulder field and set me down on the dirt of the hill. I grabbed one more hand as I made my way up the dirt slope and was finally on level ground. I trotted down the dirt path, and made my way to T1.

Racers experiencing the "xtreme" exit of the swim

Thankfully, lots of volunteers were there to help me over the slippery rocks.


I got the upper portion of my wetsuit off while running. There weren’t any volunteers or carpeted areas to take off the wetsuit, so we were on our own for that. I stood on top of the concrete area by a picnic table, and got the lower half of my wetsuit off. I made my way to my bike, and had plenty of room as everyone around me had already left. Someone had left a carpeted mat in the dirt not too far from my bike, so I stood on that to towel my feet off. I got my shoes out of my bag and realized I had forgotten to undo the Velcro beforehand AGAIN (did this in my first tri too). I got my hydration pack and helmet on, and threw my wetsuit and swim stuff in my bag and did one last check of my area to make sure that everything of mine was bagged. I grabbed my bike, and was off. They had a line for us to mount the bike at, and I ran towards that and did my running cyclocross mount onto the bike. Because we had to un-bag our bike stuff, and bag our swim stuff, everybody spent about 4 to 5 minutes in T1.

Exiting T1 and off to the mountain bike course


I was prepared with a full hydration pack of water, along with 2 bottles of 50/50 water/Gatorade on the bike. We had to climb a big, paved hill on the road leading out of Saguaro Lake. I looked back and saw that there were still people swimming in the lake. I made the turn onto the state highway and continued to climb. The road wasn’t closed off, so I had big trucks with trailers, RVs with boat trailers, and Sunday drivers all flying by as I rode my mountain bike. I just wanted to get to the safety of the dirt. Finally we made the turn to the access road to the dirt trails. I rode over the cattle guard leading to the trails, and hit the wash and the first steep hill. I got off my bike and hiked up that hill, then got back on and rode up the next little climb. At least I was on my bike when the photographer took a picture. This trail intersected the big off-highway vehicle (OHV) trail, and a hill covered in loose rocks. I got off and walked, just like the others around me. That was Big Hill #1. The trail flattened out a bit after that, and was covered in big rocks that were at least fixed in the trail. In some sick way bouncing over the rocks massaged my legs that were burning after walking up the first hill.
I slowly spun along the short climbs and cruised on the downhills that followed. Then we made our way to Big Hill #2. Some guy had caught up to me by then, and saw Big Hill #2 and said “You’ve got to be kidding me.” We rolled past a Jeep that was full of tourists, and they cheered for us as we rode by. Then we started the steep climb up Big Hill #2. I could see two people walking up it already, and myself and the guy that was just in front of me both got off and started hiking at the same time. The hike wouldn’t have been bad except I was pushing a 25 lb mountain bike. My odometer was still ticking over the miles, but the speedo was reading 0mph as I hiked along. At the top the trail leveled out, and I got back on the bike and finished the last little climb. The AZ XTERRA 4x4 Club was parked all along the trail to make sure we all stayed on track, so the guy at the top of that hill was saying “Come on! You can make it!” as I climbed. “It’s all downhill now,” he said. My idea of downhill seems to be different than that of other people’s. “All downhill” to me means no climbing. But I had pre-ridden the course and knew how many more smaller hills there were to climb.

The trail continued with short climbs and downhills. Finally there was one medium grade climb followed by a fast downhill. I knew there was a deep wash crossing was coming up after that. I flew down the downhill and shifted down into the gears that I would want for the sand. I hit the sand at the bottom and started spinning, churning my way through the wash. The rain from the night before had settled the sand down somewhat, but it still stole a lot of energy. It was at this point that my stomach started growling. I forced down more gel, but that didn’t help with the growling stomach. And, unfortunately, I didn’t have an energy bar with me.

The sandy wash gave way to a twisty OHV track that had small sections of sand. So you had to watch your speed when you hit the sandy pits, or risk going over the bars. I slowly climbed along, watching the miles slowly creep by and waiving at the XTERRAS as I rode by. Only a few more people passed by as I finished up this section of trail, and I began to wonder if I was the last rider out there.

I crossed one last wash and got onto the paved road. This was slightly uphill, but at least it was pavement. Finally I got to the intersection of the state highway, and was able to fly down the hill that I had previously climbed up. I had one more short hill to climb, but at that point any climbing was painful. The hill leveled out, and it was all downhill from there to the entrance to Saguaro Lake Resort and T2. I coasted along, enjoying not having to pedal, and a minivan with Texas plates passed me and then got on the brakes. There was a guard rail to my right, so I had to pull in behind the van. The van was riding his brakes all the way down the hill! This made me really mad. I waved for him to either speed up, or move over a bit to let me by. But he didn’t. I was riding my brakes at 15mph and could have been going 20mph. Finally the guard rail disappeared, and the turnoff to Saguaro Lake Resort appeared. The minivan turned on his turn signal to turn into the resort. There was NO WAY that I was going to get stuck behind him all the way to T2. I punched it, and hammered hard past the van and stuck my arm out indicating that I was turning left, and turned around and glared at the driver. I turned onto the access road to the resort, and flew down the hill. I rode past the entrance to the resort, which was also the finish line. It looked like just about everyone had finished, and I still had the 4.5 mile trail run to do!


I did my fast cyclocross dismount and landed in a full run, and the volunteer who took my bike wasn’t prepared for me to get off that quick. I was handed my T2 bag and they had chairs laid out for us. There were only a few T2 bags left, so I wasn’t dead last. One of the volunteers helped me with my stuff, but she took my bag away before I got my number belt out. I had to go back and get it, and was finally on my way.


The trail climbed the hills leading out of the resort. The trail was all singletrack and used by the horse riding tours through there. So there were lots of horse “presents” everywhere. The trail was steep, rocky, and had a ton of switchbacks. I didn’t even bother to run; I hiked it. The climb seemed to continue forever. It went from below the level of the Saguaro Lake dam to well above the dam, as you could see the lake, marina, and parts of the beach and cove where we started. The trail finally went downhill a bit as I made my way to the state highway crossing, and the first aid station. It took me 20min to get to the first station that was about 1.1 miles into the trail. They told me the next station was at mile 2.8, so I took a water bottle to carry with me.

The trail continued in a technical climb after that. It was rocky and sandy, and all singletrack. At one point I was on all fours going up around a boulder that was in the side of one of the hills. The sun had also come out at this point, and luckily I had my white running hat on. But the sun was still hot and beating down on me. It was past noon, the hottest part of the day, and I was tripping around in the desert. I knew this was not smart, and I just wanted to lay down and take a nap. But I kept moving forward. My legs were long gone at this point and now I was definitely thinking I was the last person out there. But the last thing I wanted was a DNF next to my name. I knew that if I kept hiking, I would eventually finish. My stomach growled so I gave it more gel, but that did nothing to help. The race staff had said there would be Subway sandwiches at the end. I thought about the soft bread and cheese of the sandwiches, and knew that the only way to get to my sandwich was to finish the trail.

I climbed along the rocks and cacti, and finally made it to the second aid station. I was over half way there. The trail finally leveled out, but it leveled out in a sandy wash. I managed to go from a hiking pace to a slow trot, since I was no longer climbing. Eventually I came up to one of the volunteers that was hiking from the third aid station, and she said it was just past the tunnel. The trail led through a tunnel under the state highway, and not far was Aid Station #3. I only had 0.7 mi to go. The trail climbed along the Salt River, so where I could I trotted, and if I couldn’t I walked. I picked my way through a long rock garden, and yet another racer passed me. Finally I could see the access road to the resort above the gully that I was in and I could hear them handing out the awards for the top finishers. I had to climb a staircase made out of railroad ties up the hill to the road, and finally made it to the finish line.

Finally! The end of the trail run! I made it!


I headed straight towards the food tent, but they were out of Subway sandwiches. I wanted to cry. I was so hungry and the thought of a sandwich was the only thing that had kept me moving forward on the trail and now I couldn’t have one. I found my husband and the end and told him, “I wanna go home.” So he rode his mountain bike to the parking lot where the RV was, and drove it to the resort. In the meantime, I found all of my race bags. I had put a Cliff bar in my bag that had been at the swim start. I sat alone in the grass because I was mad about not getting a sandwich and chewed my Cliff bar, which was a poor substitute for a Subway sandwich. I wanted to smack anyone that had taken a second helping of sandwiches, or taken extra helpings to give to their friends. So it was probably best that I sat alone. The next day it seemed kind of funny to be that emotional about not getting a sandwich after the race. But we all do funny things when we’re that tired and hungry.

In the future, I will be more prepared for races with the word “Xtreme” in the title. They weren’t kidding. But I survived my first XTERRA, and even had some fun.

For more information about the XTERRA triathlons, visit


Mountains surrounding the Saguaro Lake area.



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date: June 14, 2005


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