Racin’ down and dirty

When it’s over they’re filthy, bloody and exhausted. That’s why racers love the Xterra

In last year’s Xterra debut in Nevada, about 4,000 participants and spectators came out to play.

In last year’s Xterra debut in Nevada, about 4,000 participants and spectators came out to play.

A female athlete, a professional, had warned her competitor about the corner.

“You’ve gotta take your foot out to go around the curve,” she told Tom Lyons as their mountain bikes approached a turn on a new course at Half Moon Bay last year.

But even with the warning, Lyons, a Reno entrepreneur and amateur athlete, took the corner a bit hard. The dirt was soft—"that talc-y, powdery stuff"—and he flew over his handlebars and landed—"poof!"—in the dust.

“I had dirt all over me,” he says. “I was covered in the stuff.”

He brought the picture of his finish home to his wife, Ann. The photo, he says, makes it especially evident why he likes the Xterra’s off-road races.

“I said, ‘Babe, this is what is so great. My zipper’s broken. I’m covered in dirt. You can’t even see my face.’ “

The Nissan Xterra USA Championships, a wrap-up for 28 races across the nation, returns to Incline Village on Sept. 20-22. The event blends aspects of triathlon with those of a mountain bike race, attracting athletes from the likes of Ironman as well as road and mountain bike racers. The championship debuted last year at Tahoe, drawing 4,000 competitors and spectators from around the nation.

Professional and amateur athletes invited to the event compete for a $30,000 purse during a 1.5-kilometer swim in Lake Tahoe, a 32-kilometer bike through the hills and a 10-kilometer trail run. Winners of the event will go on to the Xterra World Championships in Maui in late October.

The three-day event in Incline Village will include the Xterra Nevada, a shorter race open to all competitors, a Saucony Trail Run, the Xterra University with free swimming, biking and running clinics, the Yahoo! Climbing Wall and a Paul Mitchell Cut-a-thon for charity.

After last year’s event, Xterra organizers received rave reviews of the Lake Tahoe area from participants, says Tom Kiely, president of TEAM Unlimited, the group that produces the Xterra races.

“We’ve found an ideal home for this premier off-road, multi-sport event and race,” Kiely says.

Compared with the Xterra, Lyons says, other triathlons can be pretty tame. Riding a bike along a nice clean street. Jogging along a neatly groomed path and taking a cool swim in, maybe, a pool. It’s fun and all, but you just don’t get the same feeling of accomplishment.

“When you finish [an Xterra event], you’re really dirty and you’re rarely not bloody. You’ve been flying down hills, across streams and the dusty desert. Maybe you hit a tree with your shoulder … and when you finish, you feel like you really did something.”

Also, at other races, the sense of competition can get out of hand.

“Someone will pass you, and you think, ‘Oh no, he’s beating me,'” Lyons says. “At Xterra, someone passes you, and you say, ‘Way to go! Good job!’ To finish this race is so grueling, so tough that you’re proud just to finish. It’s more of a personal thing.”

Also, unlike other races, Xterra pits qualifying amateurs, like Lyons, alongside professional racers. Lyons, 40, is the reigning South West Region winner in the 35- to 39-year-old age group, and he finished second in the Xterra USA Championship for that age group last year.

This season he’s raced in the Dam Sprint in Perris, Calif., the Yuba Rock & Road in Utah, the Nissan Xterra East Championship in Richmond, Va., and the Nissan Xterra West Championship in Half Moon Bay, Calif. As part of his training, he competed in Saturday’s triathlon at the Sparks Marina.

But Lyons, the founder of Retail One, hasn’t quit his day job. The local entrepreneur started his business as a teen picking up shopping carts for local grocery stores. With the help of some venture capital, lots of 80-hour work weeks and a smidgen of luck, he’s turned the business into a large company that manages equipment for grocery stores, home improvement stores and other big-box retailers.

As a teen, Lyons played high school sports like football and basketball. In college, he worked out to stay fit. But for a while, physical fitness took a back seat to growing a business and parenting three kids. Then about 10 years ago, shortly after he turned 30, he sat back and took a good look at himself. His youthful trim 165-pound self had expanded to 205 pounds.

“I said to myself, ‘You’re just a fat pig. Your kids are going to ask you to walk up a hill, and you’re not going to be able to do it.’ “

Lyons ran his first triathlon in 1994. His intense training consists of a 5- to 8-mile daily run with his faithful companion, a Queensland heeler named Maggie. He starts up the path just outside his hilly home in the Thomas Creek area off Arrowcreek Parkway southwest of Reno. At lunchtime during the summer, he swims at Idlewild, one of the area’s only 50-meter pools. “We’re distance swimmers,” Lyons says. “So it’s nice not to have to flip-turn all the time.”

Some days he runs, swims and cycles for at least a couple of hours. He trains in at least two events a day five days a week, and sometimes he does all three—depending on mood, energy level, metabolism and “what’s going on with life.” In the Lyons basement is a pretty comprehensive gym, with treadmills, exercise bikes, weights and even a tricky-looking mechanism for riding your own bike inside. All in all, he figures he spends an average of 20 to 22 hours a week in training.

When it comes to the feeling that Lyons gets after participating in an event like Xterra, he says it’s worth all the work, and he can’t wait to hit the course this year.

“It’s such a feeling of accomplishment," he says. "You get done and say to the other racers, ‘God, was that amazing! Could you believe going down that hill?' You feel like you really had to do something."