Hard to imagine it’s been 10 years since XTERRA’s first trip to Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Must have been surreal to be Canadian pro Mike Vine, the first racer to enter the notorious caves where Japanese soldiers hid and fought from during the Battle of Saipan in 1944.
Since the “Vineman” first stepped foot into that cold, dark, cavernous tunnel in the side of the mountain, thousands more have followed and come away with exhilarating tales of adventure all their own.
Saipan is a special place and touches all who visit in an almost spiritual way. It’s where Jamie Whitmore kick-started her career and won her first XTERRA (upsetting World Champion Anke Erlank back in 2002), where a volcanic explosion on a neighbor island once turned the skies black like night in the middle of the day, where Aussie pro Jason Chalker has left layers of skin from a variety of spectacular crashes, and where Richard “Doc” Wall once saved another man’s life in the middle of the race.
The Northern Marianas impact on athletes is undeniable. “Best vacation of my life,” said Sue Anne Clark from Pennsylvania.
“I made life long friends in Saipan that I stay in touch with to this day,” explained Whitmore. “The locals are the most generous, fun, and welcoming bunch of people you’ll ever meet,” added British pro Sam Gardner.
New York Times bestselling author Marty Dugard wrote about his adventures at XTERRA Saipan in his new book, To Be A Runner, and some of the world’s best pros made staying and racing in the warm, tropical climate during the pre-season part of their annual routine with the likes of three-time Olympian Olivier Marceau, XTERRA World Champs Julie Dibens, Shonny Vanlandingham, and Whitmore, and European Tour stars like Renata Bucher, and Carina Wasle all making regular stops on the island.
“One of the most incredible places I’ve ever been,” said American pro Ryan DeCook. “I was really intrigued to see the World War II relics and experience a place so rich in U.S. history. I enjoyed hearing stories of locals that lived through the war by hiding in caves deep in the jungle. Swimming around the tanks stuck in the sandy shallow waters was eerie and running through the caves sent a chill down my spine as I thought about the incredible struggle that defines the island.”
At XTERRA Saipan, the race starts on the same beach where Marines launched their attack in ’44, then the bike course traverses nearly every inch of the island where the battles took place. At the American Memorial Park Museum, many who visit watch a heart-wrenching video on how it all went down, then walk somberly through the interactive displays.
“The battle here was the game changer in World War II,” said Whitmore. “And I can tell you, having bushwhacked my way through the jungle, this race gave me a better understanding of what our grandparents went through during the war.”
There are a lot of reasons to love Saipan – the people, history, and adventurous course are a few, however, the most recurring comment you’ll hear when talking to alumni, “It’s so much fun.”
Ahh, the incredibly serious Saipan Sportsfest. Every year after XTERRA, the Tagaman road triathlon (the longest running triathlon in the western Pacific) is held the following Saturday and in between the two races are training camps, pro clinics, goKart races, a kids tri, hash runs, trail runs, golfing, tank-to-tank swims, grotto diving, frisbee golf, paintball wars, goofy scooter rides, and the Lazy River.
“Who cares who wins XTERRA, it’s about who owns the fasted lap at the go-cart track,” said Vanlandingham. “But my favorite is the Hash run. It’s more like a chase in the dark, and people act very strange and there is a bonfire and initiation at the finish. The rest is a secret.”
What’s no secret is how sweet the host hotel is. The Pacific Islands Club treats everyone like rock stars. In addition to the legendary spreads for the pre-and-post race dinners, you are bound to see the most spectacular sunset of your life at the PIC, all while sitting on a white sand beach with an ice cold drink and a great local duo playing in the background. The PIC also has its own wave pool, lazy river, and about 25 different sports you can play on property – which crew and racers alike have used as the basis for the “PIC Olympics”.
“My first year here in 2007, led mainly by Jamie and Courtney, we had a Europe vs. U.S. island-wide competition,” said Gardner. “We basically did anything and everything you could do that had a winner. It was great to get some warm weather training in during the morning then beat Jamie and Courtney at something different each afternoon.”
Well beyond just the visiting athletes, the entire island gets involved in the fun.
“The camaraderie between the local and off-island athletes is like nowhere else in the world,” said local organizer Wolf Mojica, who is supported in his efforts by the Marianas Visitors Authority.
“What I think is cool is we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of local athletes, not only participating in this event, but growing in other area’s such as mountain biking since XTERRA arrived,” said local triathlete Russ Quinn.
“Months before the event, locals start organizing group swims, runs and rides. The local triathlon club starts organizing smaller races to generate excitement and get people ready. The local kids see everyone riding and running and get inspired to try it themselves. I have participated in all of the XTERRA races here and a few abroad, and the one thing I’ve realized is that the XTERRA tribe is a brotherhood, no matter if you are a pro or amateur.”
In Saipan, the night air is warm and is usually accompanied by a lovely light breeze – with folks still in the pool at 10pm. Some have said ‘it’s a wonderful holiday in which a triathlon breaks out in the middle of it!’
Juergen Feherenback of Germany may have said it best, ‘You have not done an XTERRA until you have done this one.”
It is after all, the Crown Jewel of XTERRA.
Allen and Bucher shooting for hat trick
Ben Allen and Renata Bucher will try to make it three-in-a-row in the western Pacific on Saturday, thus turning an amazing vacation into a promising start to the 2012 XTERRA racing season.
With victories at the Guam and Philippines Championship races neatly tucked away, the pair needs only one more strong performance to make it a clean sweep.
“It’s been a great trip so far, I’m loving every minute of it,” said Allen, who joined a few dozen local and off-island athletes for a fabulous home cooked meal here in Saipan last night. “The locals are amazing, showing us all the secret spots, and inviting us into their homes. It’s a beautiful place to be, and to train.”
Bucher, who first visited Saipan in 2005 and subsequently won six straight, has been swimming in the lagoon, steps away from her plush accommodations at the Pacific Islands Club – dining in the award-winning Magellan Lounge, and strolling leisurely through the palm trees here at the host hotel.
“It’s one of my favorite places on Earth,” smiled Bucher, pictured above with Saipan’s own Butch Sublemente – the fastest local on island.
Allen and Bucher will both have stiff competition on Saturday. Allen has to contend with Marceau, who won four in a row here from 2004-2007 and no doubt has his sights set on title number five, along with Frenchman Cedric Lassonde – who just posted the fastest bike and run splits in the Philippines. Branden Rakita and Graham Wadsworth have also been in striking distance the last few weeks.
Bucher has Carina Wasle and Jacqui Slack looking to grab the western Pacific’s Crown Jewel. Wasle finished second last year to former XTERRA World Champion Shonny Vanlandingham, but nearly two minutes in front of Bucher, who placed third. Meanwhile you can count on Slack to come out of the water first and looking to hold the lead as long as possible.
The weather in Saipan this week has been phenomenal, with cool breezes, and a bright blue sky creating perfect training and playing conditions. Saturday is expected to bring the same for the 6:30am start. Follow along on facebook.com/xterraplanet for the latest news and photos from XTERRA Saipan.