Multisport: Couple get in zone for Xterra

By Martin Lang

With its blue waters, steep spectacular valleys and tropical warmth, Hawaii is a classic destination for couples seeking a relaxing getaway - not a gruelling physical ordeal.

For Matt and Sarah Backler though, an upcoming trip to the island of Maui will be breathtaking in the literal sense rather than sightseeing hyperbole, as they tackle the XTerra world championship in rugged terrain.

The Tauranga couple booked their spots at the Maui ocean-and-trail triathlon by winning their divisions at the Xterra Rotorua race, New Zealand's only qualifier for the world championship's age-grade classes.

Soon to turn 32 and competing in the male 30-34 division at Rotorua's Blue Lake, Matt completed the 1km swim, 26km mountainbike section and 11km trail run in 2:18:02 to take the first of three worlds slots up for grabs in the grade.

Two years younger, Sarah crossed the line in 2:31:04 to clinch one of the two berths her female 25-29 division offered for Maui. The finishing time saw her first amateur female home among the 64-strong women's field, while Matt was third amateur male among the 232 men.

"I had good and bad, but in opposite ways from previous races there," Matt says. "My swim wasn't as good as I'd hoped nor was my bike, though my run was better. "I grew up riding full-suspension bikes but now I've changed to hard-tail. You really need to pick your lines."

Runner-up to Aucklander Lizzie Orchard in the female 25-29 grade last year, Sarah this year narrowed the gap between the two from 4mins 32secs to 1min 40secs.

"She won the age grade at the XTerra worlds last year and stepped up to pro level this year," Sarah explains.

"She's my benchmark and I was pretty pleased with the gains I made."

Birthplace of the XTerra format - which takes triathlon to the wild side with off-road mountainbike and run sections - Maui poses a bigger challenge, with a 1.5km ocean swim and a 30km bike section. Temperatures upwards of 30C also put athletes through the wringer.

This year Matt will be out to improve on his 2010 debut on Maui, when his time of 3:13:47 placed him 15th in the 30-34 age-group. "A little disappointed", he aims to have his nutrition and liquids intake finely tuned this time.

"The bike was my weakest thing. I cramped up and in a tri-type race, everything compounds. You just can't run effectively when you're fighting cramp."

Accompanying him on the trip, Sarah completed an 11km trail run that was part of the wider Maui event. After 15 years at its traditional Makena location on the toes of Haleakala volcano, the world title race last year moved north to the rainforest around Kapalua. "The last course had a lot of loose lava rocks and it was a dry harsh environment," Matt says. "This time it's more tropical but the hills are just as steep ... The run is much harder apparently, more of a trail run."

October 28 is the big day, and the couple will head to Hawaii a week beforehand to acclimatise and get to know the layout.

Both working in industrial design, they train together and have a steady competition schedule over the next few months. On the Sunday of Queen's Birthday weekend the couple showed good form in the 3D duathlon based at Rotorua's Redwoods Visitor Centre, Sarah finishing runner-up in the women's 20-39 class and Sam filling the same slot in the men's same age-grade. They're regulars in Triathlon Tauranga's winter run-bike-run series, and from next month the Nduro Winter mountainbike series at Rotorua will also help them gear up for their Hawaiian 'holiday'.

XTerra world titles

  • Xterra began as single event in Hawaii in 1996 and now has about 100 qualifying events worldwide for the Maui world championship.

  • Total prizemoney of US$105,000 ($139,000) for pro divisions at Maui. Last year the event attracted an overall field of 675 entrants.

  • Olympic Champion Hamish Carter won the world pro title in 2006, and Catherine Dunn of Wellington has claimed multiple world age group titles.

  • * For the first time this year New Zealand gained a second qualifying event, the XTerra Motutapu in Central Otago offering qualification for pro class only.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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