XTERRA’s Happy Campers

The afternoon before my race, the Governor asked me if I’d like to hang out at the Vail Lake Campground before dinner. I accepted with slight reservation. While I’ve heard nothing but great things about Wildflower, my only exposure to camping in Southern California was a bit scary.

It was many years ago, after an epic 4 1/2-hour mountain bike ride that took us through the Blue Jay Campground in the Cleveland National Forest. On this particular weekend, all the campers looked like they were on crack or meth. It was like a scene out of Deliverance.

Self-preservation forced me ride up the Ortega Highway with my knobby tires rather than wait for my friend to get the truck. It tainted my impression of camping until this day when we arrived at the Governor’s campsite.

Hey, this isn’t so bad. The campers consisted of young families with kids no taller than my knees – and lots of XTERRA athletes. Four of them were right next store – a nice group of guys from San Diego.

There was Mike, a man’s man with a Mohawk. Simon, the designated meticulous mechanic for the group’s bikes. Greg, the quiet, affable one who laughed at all of Mike’s jokes. And the guy we refer to as the X-man. We can’t remember his name, but he looked like a close cousin to CNN's Anderson Cooper.

Techno music pumped from the speakers in the back of Simon's car. The atmosphere was relaxed. It was definitely guy talk. (So, this is how Big felt surrounded by the girls from Sex in the City.) These guys were funny. I was in the midst of best buds who would probably remain that way forever.

As Simon slaved away on the bikes, Mike talked about training and his favorite writer. I wanted to know more about these guys’ racing experience. They were doing the full course. They were strong. And as I soon discovered, they were damn fast and exceedingly humble about it. “What was your time like at Wildflower?” “5:20,” Greg answered with a shy shrug. The others finished in under 5:30 too. It’s enough to make you wonder what’s in the water in San Diego. (If they had it bottled, it could sell for $12 at any triathlon expo.)

I had to know, did it take hours and hours of training to compete at that level? “I train about 6 to 9 hours per week,” Greg explained, “It’s base. I’ve been doing this for 18 years.” He assured me, “It gets easier. I’m faster than I was in my 20s.”

Then they jury-rigged a scale to measure each bike. I’m not sure what the point of this exercise was – though it added to the entertainment factor.

Mike mentioned XTERRA would be his third race in four days. I asked him what were his favorite races. “Oh, one year at Wildflower, I had half a bottle of Captain Morgan the night before,” he proudly admitted. “Simon took the bottle away at just the right time. I was dancing on the picnic table. I slept great and PR’ed by 20 minutes.”

The conversation somehow veered to a great, great guy – Bob Babbit of Competitor Magazine and Active Radio podcast fame. He’s the founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation. I had just met Bob that week at an Orange County Triathlon Club meeting.

We talked about a recent issue of Competitor where Bob published a triathlon lexicon. A phrase that caught my eye was “being chicked.” Def. Getting passed by a girl (that one came from Desiree Ficker).

Just when I thought Mike was purely a party boy, he talked about another favorite race – the Challenged Athletes Foundation half ironman. Turns out Mike is a physical therapist. He paired up with a woman who had cerebral palsy. She wasn’t sure if she could finish the 56-mile course. Mike talked her through the course’s tough hills and massaged her muscles when they got too tight from her condition. When she got to the finish, he said, “Look at all the healthy people you beat!” That’s when the Governor blurted out a whole new term, “They were ‘palsey’d!’” We all laughed.

As obsessed as we can be about this sport, it’s nice to know that most of us truly are grounded in what matters.