XTERRA World Championship Week – Aquaterra Beginnings

By “Kahuna Dave” Nicholas

“Hey Boss” said Jerry Pupillo.  “Look at those guys down on the beach washing the mud off.  Why don’t we do one of those Ironman things but on mountain bikes”?  It sounded like a good idea to me and here we are 20 years later.  This all happened at the 1995 Hawaiian Mountain Tour bike race at Kualoa Ranch when a bunch of pro men rode their bikes down to the ocean after a very muddy cross country race.

Every swim we had done for Ocean Challenge or the King’s Race was point-to-point.  So not knowing any better we did the first swim from Ulua Beach to Wailea Beach.  It was 1500m or so and I recall we started the race – picked up the signs and quickly carried them to swim out and transition.

I did a ton of homework to find out about triathlon.  Tinley and The Grip (Mark Allen) all agreed it was the best runner that usually won Ironman or the shorter distances.  We were bike guys and when I designed our race (AquaTerra now XTERRA) I made sure the bike took up a lot more of the total time than a road triathlon.  I figured the triathlete would win the swim, the mountainbiker would get the lead on the bike and the triathlete would catch up on the run and they would cross the line together.  Damn if it did not work first time out.  Shari Kain and Michellie Jones did exactly as I predicted with Michellie passing Shari about 200m from the finish.  Notorious cyclist Jimmy Riccitello won but mountainbiker Ned Overend came in 3rd and won it all a few years later and he was a rock in the water.

Kiely planned parties, we gave away some comp rooms, we had really nice meals and even cocktail parties. The   atmosphere was completely different from triathlon. The biggest comment we heard was “why are you treating us so nice?”  The answer was we didn’t know any better.  We figured the athlete was the reason for the event and we had best treat them well.

After the race old John Cobb who had a big online bike shop told me we had to take this to the mainland and he knew the perfect place. There was a new park in Ruston, Louisiana that had a world class trail builder who had created that    perfect place. Cobb put up $5,000 and the America Tour was created.  We had mtb friends in Big Bear & I convinced them to help organize one. Tinley knew somebody at Kirkwood resort and that became our 3rd race for 1997.

The park manager was James Ramsaur and he truly did create an amazing set of trails.  He had 250 acres and somehow made a 9 mile loop.  We later named him Kimo as that’s Hawaiian for James.  That first year we took some white trellis Kimo used for weddings and made the finish arch.  That race was called GatorTerra.  We bought a few kids blowup pool alligators and put them out on the trails on race morning.  Definitely scared a few athletes.

XTERRA would have never started if TK had not found out that Maui was looking for a TV event.  He came back and told me our crazy idea of a triathlon on mountainbikes was going to happen on Maui.  It had to be in Wailea-Makena so go over there and make it work.

We knew it was a made for TV event and we had to fit it in a one hour show.  Ironman distances were way too long and frankly, their TV show was pretty boring.  I figured we had to have the winners take about 2 ½ hours.  Given that total time for the race we could easily edit the footage to make an interesting one hour show.  We had done a lot of mountain bike races, lots of ocean swims and even 10K runs that went around Diamond Head so we knew how to figure total time for each leg.  That’s how the distances for XTERRA were determined.

We went over to Maui a lot of times but could not find any trails. We had worked with a Maui windsurf organizer named Paul Ehman for years on our ocean and cycling events and Paul had a great connection with Ulupalakua ranch.  We went onto the ranch and found miles and miles of dirt roads.  Some wide open but many gnarly, lava rock hard smaller roads as well.  From our experience creating mountain bike races I knew this would be one tough race.  Not one foot of single track but unrelenting tough riding.

There was about a mile of road we had to use to get from the Aston resort (later Outrigger) to the dirt road leading to the ranch. This road was as wide as a 4 lane highway.  We found out later this was made to handle huge trucks bringing cinders down from the volcano to fill in the area that became Wailea.  There was too much traveled dirt road so we started looking for cow trails or smaller, older routes to follow.  We found one and it worked well and led to what would become Heartbreak Hill.  The problem was that when we came back to mark it we couldn’t figure out which small trail it was.  Then one of us remembered an old abandoned car was on the trail we used.  We found the car, an old Plymouth Valiant, and that is how Valiant Park got its name and that cool, twisty bit came to be.

Another problem cropped up when we couldn’t bring the bike back to the hotel in the distance we wanted .  Going back would make the bike too long.   Plus, there was no good run route around the hotel.  The solution was a small horse stable business out past Makena.  We could tie the bike route to come down to the stables for T2 and then     create a run back to the hotel.  The stable owner was a great guy and helped a lot.

The only problem was not enough space at T2 to put bike racks.  I took a chapter out of the original Ironman T2 and we put up tents, built big bag racks and hired a couple flatbed trucks to take the bikes back to the start.  Riders would come screaming down Cactus Alley into T2.  We posted a marshal just up the road and he would call the bike number on a 2-way radio.  Another vollie would yell out the number at T2 and a volunteer would grab that bag and have it waiting.  At the dismount line another volunteer would take the bike and the athlete would grab their transition bag and go into a tent with benches to change. Like I said, we just didn’t know any better & it seemed like the right thing to do.

There was no real route from the ranch to the stables.  We found remnants of an old road but it was totally overgrown.  I had a bunch of Marines that worked with us on the NFL Pro Bowl and we took a dozen or so to Maui with us to work on the course and marshal points.  Those guys are workers.  We blasted through the bush cutting trees, pulling crap out of the way and uncovering the old route.  About half way down we ran into hundreds of huge cactus. Some had been growing there for years & were 10-12 feet high. It was christened “Cactus Alley” and was part of the course for years.

The run was harder to make than it seemed as most of it would have to be on the road.  Not what we wanted.  So we scouted woods and beaches and although we had to cross a couple roads, Ted Kozlo got the Maui police to approve it and help.  Scary forest was created with a rake.  It was nothing but scrub kiawe trees and other woody weeds.  We wanted to go over the pu’u past little beach but it was too dangerous.  I remember doing it and sliding and tumbling down that damn thing to black sand beach.  What we did was leave Makena Beach (Big Beach) through the parking lot and then started walking into the woods.  We eventually found our way back to black sand beach and Scary Forest was created.  How did we mark it?  With a rake making a path through the leaves and hundreds of arrows.

Ulupalakua allowed us one day on their ranch for the race.  This is how the no advance look or practice on the trails happened.  They are a full, working ranch and I did not blame them in the least. They did allow us access to mark the course and I recall wondering why our stakes and marks kept being knocked down.  What we found is the cattle saw the arrows and thought they were food !  That’s why in those first years before the ranch started moving the cattle for the race week we had to hang arrows from tree branches or screw them into fence posts.

XTERRA racing has been the work-life passion of Dave Nicholas for two decades now.  He’s been the race director at every XTERRA World Championship race since 1996, and is the driving force behind the ever-expanding XTERRA World Tour. He’s also one heck of a race-car driver, and at the young age of 73 drove his 1960 MG A to several class victories this year.

Dave MG




Jimmy Archer

Founder and Editor at DirtTRI.com. Jimmy has been a professional athlete for over 18 years as a runner, cyclist, mountain biker, cross country skier, and primarily, triathlete. Jimmy has a degree in exercise science from the University of Colorado and is a USA Triathlon and USA Cycling certified coach. Jimmy became a freelance writer in 2000 while competing and covering the ITU Winter Triathlon World Championship. Since that time Jimmy has been head editor at two magazines, been published in numerous publications within the endurance sport, recreation, and travel segments. Currently Jimmy is competing professionally in off-road multisport. In his spare time Jimmy passionately follows Formula 1, Moto GP, and is an avid cook.

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