By Dana Willett
You may know these guys. Maybe from their days as XTERRA pros in the early 2000's. Or their current roles as high-end coaches to world-class athletes like Cam Dye, Christine Jennings, Flora Duffy, and Taylor Phinney. Or maybe you just enjoy their snarky feed on twitter (@apexcoaching). Today they are in the news not for their professional aspirations, but a little bit of friendly rivalry that has brought them to XTERRA World Championships in Maui, where they will both be competing as amateurs on Sunday (in addition to coaching Flora Duffy and Kyle Leto).
Grant Holicky is a former professional triathlete, Director of Aquatics at Rallysport Health and Fitness, head coach of Rallysport Aquatics (RACE) in Boulder, and a coach with Apex Coaching. (You can usually spot him by the throngs of teenage swimmers tagging behind him, devoted to his "keep-things-positive" coaching style. He is also married to the venerable Breeze Brown, the nutritionist and founder of Breeze Bars. )
Neal Henderson is a long-time endurance coach, former professional triathlete, award-winning cycling coach, sport scientist and founder of Apex Coaching. (You can usually spot him by the throngs of hopeful athletes tagging behind him, asking questions about his Olympic coaching, eager to improve, threshold questions in hand.)
What Grant and Neal have most in common are their duals on the racecourse, and their grounded friendship.
Grant elaborates: "When Neal and I raced professionally we had some epic battles for 15th place . . . We were always close. Neal always had the upper hand but it was always close. There are multiple stories of us duking it out in the last 1k of the run. We've been good friends ever since."
So how is it, after so many years out of the pro circuit, the two find themselves facing each other again? "I joined Apex coaching in 2011, so now we are professionally intertwined," Grant explains. "We both turned 40 a month apart this year, and we'd been talking about XTERRA all year. But I have to put it on Neal – he made a decision in July that he was going. So I had to go. It was one of those friendship things where he said 'you’ve got to go.'"
Neal jokes about how little training the two have done, saying "You know the quote in the Rocky movie when the guy is asked about his prediction for the fight, and he responds, 'Pain!'? Ya, I predict pain. It's going to hurt out there, but I'm looking forward to having a good time with it. When I did XTERRA in Beaver Creek I forgot to practice swimming, and I hadn't run for four weeks - I learned that I was in over my head. But now, for this, well . . . I swam several times in the last week."
Grant interjects: "Neal does refer to himself as 'Mr. October' – he’s ALWAYS ready for this race and he’s always dominant – gleaming, in fact. Or maybe that's just his head."
Neal continues, "I figure out what doesn’t work with myself – I’m the ultimate experiment – I go out and do stupid things, and then I don’t repeat those things with the folks I coach."
They both agree the world of XTERRA has changed over the last decade. "Around 2000, 2001, that was the golden era of XTERRA," Grant notes. "The prize money was high, and back then Kona and Maui were on back to back weekends so the 'double' drew a lot of racers. It was a spectacle." (The "Double" award is given to the pro and amateur man and woman with the fastest combined 2013 XTERRA World Championship and Ironman Hawaii Championship time.)
He continues, "The national series was 8-10 races, and inevitably there would be two in a region. A lot of us struggling pros would travel by car. Now, there are more races with less prize money spread around. I think as the prize money drops a little, the interest drops a little bit. What was so much more dramatic ten years ago was the prize money in the national series – a pro could have a successful year in prize money alone and make $100k – so you saw a lot of people dabbling in both road and off road."
"The series had fewer events and so had relatively higher prize money per event," Neal adds. "Now the actual prize purse is comparatively lower – you have to do so many more races, and the cost of traveling to all of those races has made it difficult for the pros to do the global series."
"Also, the guys winning XTERRA are so damn good – these days you’ve got to be a specialist in it – you don’t see a lot of guys from road coming over," Grant says.
Those that do tend to suffer, Neal points out. "Lance Armstrong did the XTERRA championships and got his butt kicked. It just shows you can be a hyper fit individual with capacity to go fast, but there’s an element that is clearly different than what road triathlon demands."
But the lack of pro prize money and the arduous demands of the sport do not seem to deter those who are passionate about it. "Off-road triathlon requires getting out of your comfort zone, going up steep climbs, steep descents, no rhythm – you are all over the place. For a lot of us that’s one of the attractions," Neal says. "I did traditional Ironman and found that the XTERRA really suited my psychology and skill set because it was so variable. I don’t have to be fastest, but I need to be strong. It has very different requirements."
Grant adds, "What I notice is a different mindset, a little more of the cyclocross scene. It's more laid back, there are more smiles and more support among athletes, along with less competitiveness. I don’t know if it's because with XTERRA something's going to go wrong – something always doesn't go according to plan - but you’re all in it together. There’s a different type of psychology. When Neal and I were racing together professionally, we were always trying to beat each other's brains out, but we were the best of friends. To me that’s just a different personality. It really suits some people and is a real draw. I'd say it's competitive with a huge amount of support."
That friendly aspect, and the atmosphere of camaraderie, is causing the amateur ranks to grow. In Colorado, there are now several XTERRA events throughout the season put on by Without Limits, including a new race for 2014 in Aspen. Grant notes, "The sport does have a growing amateur following. One thing they’ve done really well is created more regional races. Now there are 5-6 in Colorado alone. Lance (Panigutti) of Without Limits held 3-4 events this year that all sold out, so numbers are there. You have to limit the number of participants because in off-road it's not as easy to police the course."
As for Sunday? Neal & Grant are downplaying their individual preparedness, but admit they have each been "secretly" training. Grant reveals, "I will occasionally ask Neal for an opinion, for road racing and cross racing. When we were talking the other day Neal looked at me with a gleam in his eye, and admitted, 'I wrote a Training Peaks plan for myself.' And I had to admit, I did too. But, I haven’t been a great athlete to my own coaching. The main goal for us is that we race to be fit, to have fun, and to get out there and challenge ourselves. It's not a whole lot different than the hard time we give each other before a race or a hard workout."
Neal adds, "I’m looking forward to passing along to my athletes what I experience on my own. It makes it easier on our athletes when we've walked in their shoes. We understand what they’re going through, and we have that perspective. We understand the inside of the race."
Neal also ranks the fun factor at the top of his race goals: "I’m going to show up and go as hard as I can go. I’ve been putting fun first in everything I do. There's not a lot of pressure."
Still, they can't help but rib each other about finishes. "I think I’m going to be good on the bike – we'll have to wait and see on the swim and the run," Neal says.
Grant jumps in, "I think all the pressure is on Neal – If I go out there and beat him, it's all on him. I have nothing to lose."
"Wait a minute - there is a 10min offset for each child that you already have," Neal chides (he has two children). "I just want to make sure we’re clear – the children thing brings a whole new level that Grant hasn’t had to manage in his life."
Grant is quick to clarify, "What Neal doesn’t know is he's got two kids and I’ve got 35 teenagers!"
For complete information visit the XTERRA World Championship website. Live updates will be provided throughout the day (the race begins at 9am Hawaii time, 1pm MST). You may also follow the race on twitter: #XTERRAMaui