Sandpoint, Idaho resident Brandyn Roark Gray is one of the top-ranked female amateur competitors on the XTERRA off-road triathlon series. We asked her about the XTERRA series and pumped her for tips on being a better triathlete.

The distances in Xterra are shorter, does that mean it’s easier than a IronMan Triathlon?

I don’t think I can compare anything to an IronMan! I just finished my first half-IronMan distance and that was intense. The intensity of XTERRA is much different than road triathlons, especially an IronMan. In the IronMan you would race at a lower heart rate for nine to eleven hours, in an XTERRA you would be red-lining for about 2.5 to four hours depending on the course. XTERRA courses are all different distances. There are some more “sprint” distances and some more Olympic-type distance off-road courses. All of the Regional/National and World Championships are all about the same distance as an Olympic Triathlon, (1.5k swim, 30-35 km bike, 10k run), but due to the bike portion being off-road, they take longer to complete.

There is always that question of “which is harder” and many triathletes and racers love to balk at one another on which is harder. My husband is a roadie and races in road triathlons; we both have great respect for each other’s sport. He races XTERRA with me and I enter the races he travels to so we can be a part of each others interests. For someone with a mountain biking background, the XTERRA series would be more up their alley and though I train a lot on my road bike, I am much more comfortable and challenged when on my mountain bike.

But that is not to say road triathlons are not hard, they actually are more difficult for me because to be honest, I get bored on my road bike, it’s just spin, spin, spin and not a lot of technical obstacles. When you race XTERRA there is no “down time” to space out, you are constantly ripping around corners, dropping off ledges or cranking up a crazy mountain climb! I don’t think anything can be compared to an IronMan.

What made you decide to focus on the off-road tri circuit instead of a traditional road triathlon?

I grew up with a big brother, I was a tom-boy-from-hell. I wouldn’t let my mom curl my hair, wouldn’t wear skirts or dresses and all I wanted to do was get in the dirt and play just as hard as my big brother. My parents bought me my first mountain bike when I was about 13 and I was hooked. I remember my brother yelling at me to keep up, and in the end it just made me love that feeling of not being able to breathe, with cuts on my legs, and mud and dirt all over me and my precious bike. I loved the feeling of the earth whipping and twisting below me, the knowledge that at any minute I could fly right over the handle bars and land in a heap of laughter and fright. When my husband and I retired from competitive swimming we were bored and looking for the next adventure. He got involved in triathlon and the next year I tried my hand at it too. I enjoyed the challenge but felt I wasn’t being challenged in the way I love to be challenged. I was looking up races on the internet and read about XTERRA. The fact that the bike section was on my mountain bike and running on trails instead of road grabbed my attention. My husband and I traveled to my first XTERRA in LaGrande, Oregon and when I finished I was bloody, muddy and grinning from ear to ear.

It was the hardest thing I had ever done and all I wanted was more.

Does course difficulty in Xterra vary more race to race than a traditional tri?

Oh yes, there are so many different courses on the XTERRA circuit and that is one of the greatest aspects of the sport. Every new city/town you go to, you get something new. Which brings up the importance of pre-riding each course. There are races all over the U.S. as well as the world, so you can imagine how many different types of terrain there are.

If someone has done regular triathlons what would be the most difficult adjustment in doing an Xterra?

Probably the mountain biking. Most people can run on a trail, but when you have to run straight up a mountain on a trail that can get difficult too. The mountain biking aspect would be difficult for someone who has never rode off-road before. But, the courses are made so they are challenging for a top pro as well as being “do-able” for a beginning amateur. I remember my first year at World Champs at the infamous Maui course, a girl in my age group would blow by me on the fire road hills and then I would catch her and pass her on every downhill through the lava. She was all over the place, falling and ripping her legs up pretty bad. I actually started to coach her when I would pass her. “Let go of your front break and you won’t fall!” She was one of the top road triathletes in the nation and said that the mountain biking was really challenging for her. But she loved the comradery and energy of the XTERRA circuit.

How do you find time train with a job?

That is one that I think we all struggle with. I love listening to different racers’ stories of how they do it all. Last year at nationals, the top pro said he took out a loan from the bank just to race that year, that’s what made his win so special, he got to pay back the loan with his winnings.

All the training, racing, working, eating, sleeping etc. gets to be a routine and I tend to crave it when it is missing, but that is not to say it isn’t a struggle. On top of that, it’s not just one of us training and racing… my husband does just as much as me.

I am blessed with an amazing job and amazingly supportive supervisors. I help manage a mental health agency as well as do counseling for special needs and emotionally disturbed children. I make my own schedule and my bosses support me being gone all the time. I train, work, train at lunch, work, train after work and then go to my second job. They are all so supportive of my schedule and encourage me when I leave every week for some race.

Financially it’s another story which many of us know! I am fortunate to have some sponsors for gear and bikes, but traveling and racing greatly affects the credit card bills! When people ask how we do it… I shrug my shoulders and just say, “Thank goodness for credit cards.” Which in reality is really stressing, but my husband had cancer five years ago which gives you perspective on life, and we never want to look back on life and say “we should have” when we had the chance.

So, training is more simple (than financial issues) to get in with juggling two jobs (I am also a personal trainer). But that means long days and getting home for dinner usually around 9 PM every night. I get to do some work from home but work around 35-40 hours a week which with 15-20 hours of training… makes you tired.

Has your training changed much in the last few years?

Yes, at first I had no idea what I was doing. I came from a highly competitive swimming background but had no idea how to train for running or biking. But found that through asking other athletes and looking into coaches, I could start to train myself. I am currently looking for a coach to help me. XTERRA is so specific and very different from road tri’s, I would really like to find a coach who understands those differences.

Is a heart rate monitor essential for someone training for a triathlon? Oh yes, I do most of my training based on HR zones. There is such a science to training and racing and no two people are the same. It’s taken me about three years to finally understand my body and what it demands and needs to be successful. Every year I learn so much. I can’t wait until I “peak” in my mid 30’s…I should know so much my then.

Do you alter your diet during the XTERRA season?

The body doesn’t like change so I try not to make drastic changes. I probably limit my intake of sugar and saturated fats somewhat closer than usual, but overall I have always eaten really well. We eat an all organic diet. I grow most of our own veggies in the summer, and we really try and stay away from sugars and saturated fats. (Except for my daily intake of extra dark chocolate!) One major change has been in my racing and training nutrition, I started using Hammer Nutrition products, and it was an amazing difference in my ability to be long and strong. I am still experimenting in my racing with certain amounts of nutrition, but overall I have found a product that really works for me.

What are some common mistakes novice competitors make?

Over-training and not understanding the importance of sleep and proper nutrition. My husband and I believe nutrition is the key element to racing and training, if you can get that down correctly, you will have a serious advantage on your competitors. When you get into the pro and upper elite amateur racing scene it’s easier to find people with proper nutrition because perhaps they have more resources and coaching in that area. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone start or finish their workout with a Big Mac or a candy bar. The human body is an incredible machine it needs proper fuel to perform at it’s optimum potential…this takes time and effort to research and understand.

I think a lot of competitors also over train; they push, push, push and then get five hours of sleep and have no time to recover. Add to that cruddy nutrition and you have someone who may be getting away with it in their early 20s, but come later 30s and 40s and their joints are falling apart and they feel horrible. My husband and I believe in optimum health, not only for racing, but in our everyday lives. That means no chemicals, no drugs, no toxic cleaners, we spend the extra time and money now so we don’t pay later in a hospital bed. We want to race into our 80s.

One kind of random mistake I see a lot too is people buying bikes that don’t fit them. They are way too big or small for them and they end up straining their backs or not getting enough power output out of their cycling position. I am fortunate to be sponsored by Mountain View Cyclery in Hayden and Post Falls, and John and Shane really set me up on my bikes and make sure it’s a good fit. This can make a huge difference in your riding.

What’s your goal for the coming season?

I would like to be Regional Champion again, that would make four years in a row. Also, I would like to be top three in all my races this year. National and World Champion are my highest goals. Last year at Worlds I was having a great race, in the lead by quite a few minutes, then I got a flat tire, then another, then another. Let’s just say that after four flat tires I had a pretty crumby run too. I would really like to race well in Maui, the heat kills me and I’d like to figure out my nutrition so I can finish strong.

I also Adventure race and I would like to get top three with my team from Canada in the Solomon Raid Race.

I’d also really like to start racing globally, for that I would need to secure some sponsorship help to get me across the globe. So, that’s a goal as well, to see if any companies would be interested in sponsoring me.

Apart from racing specifically, I am an Ambassador for XTERRA and am trying to work on setting up a program for special needs kids as well as kids from lower socio-economic areas in North Idaho to get them bikes! We have a sports festival weekend here in Sandpoint in August and I’d like to get kids bikes so they can compete in the kids triathlon.

Did you ever figure out a solution to help avoid so many flat tires?

I was pretty stupid when getting ready for World Champs last year. I was obsessed with going as super light as I could. So, I got the super light tires, unfortunately there is crazy lava rock and huge thorns on the course and you really don’t want to ride with super lights! DUH for me! I always ride with tubeless as well, this time I will bring at least one tube with me in case I get a flat…last time a couple racers stopped and helped me with their flat stuff! That’s one thing about XTERRA, we all help each other out!