If Xterra is the jewel in the crown of off-road triathlon, two-time World Champ Lesley Paterson is the undisputed queen of the trails. Ahead of this weekend’s Xterra World Champsionhip, she told Mike Anderson all about California, crashes and the Commonwealths…
Strange as it may seem, but Lesley Paterson’s triathlon “calling” actually happened when she gave up the sport.
Growing up in Stirling, Scotland, Paterson first found her way into tri as a junior, before working her way through the Scottish Triathlon system and into the national squad.
At the time, everything was geared towards ITU racing and international competitions, such as the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. As a result, there was a huge emphasis on the swim, although Paterson freely admits that she was “not a swimmer”.
Forced to put in more and more time in the pool, her early enthusiasm for the sport began to wane. “I found myself doing 10km in the pool every day and not really getting anywhere,” she explains. “It’s not that exciting. I mean if it was, I would have been a swimmer!”
But that experience, combined with missing out on selection for the 2002 Commonwealth Games (“by something stupid like two seconds”), combined to force Paterson to completely lose her passion for tri. As a result, she simply quit the sport.
End of the beginning
Around the same time, she got hitched to sports psychologist Simon Marshall and the couple moved out to California when Marshall was offered a job at a university in San Diego.
“I couldn’t wait to get out, to be honest,” she admits, the tone of her voice suggesting that the memories still bring back painful associations.
“I was a complete failure as an athlete in my eyes and wanted to reinvent myself as someone else.” That someone else was Lesley Paterson the actor, so she went back to university and studied for a Masters degree in theatre to complement her BA in drama.
As enjoyable as the acting was, Paterson was restless. Before long, she was looking for a new challenge – along came Xterra.
“I saw it in a magazine and thought ‘Oh, this looks totally wicked’. They had one of the
US Cup races near San Diego and I thought I’d give it a go.”
Although she’d found a new passion, success wasn’t instant and her first race back ended with a classic triathlon pitfall: cramping.
“I came out of the water with Michele Jones, which was ironic given that I was never a swimmer. I got on the bike and went into the lead, but it was about 110°F out there and I didn’t really drink or eat. So I came off the bike, cramped like a bastard and had to walk the run!”
She came in “a little way down”, but it was enough to reignite the sporting passion. “Not only did I enjoy it, but I knew I could be good at it, too.”
(Images: Iain Macintosh, Nigel Farrow)
Hitting the trails
With California the mecca for mountain biking, Paterson finds herself spoiled for choice when it comes to the perfect training terrain.
“Go 10-15mins out of the city and you’ve got Alpine climbing,” she reveals. “I’ve done 50-mile mountain bike races with 10,000 feet of climbing and it’s very sandy and dry, so a different style from European, and certainly British, riding.”
Even though she does occasionally race 70.3, Paterson’s training is very much off-road-focussed – not that this necessarily means MTBing it all the time.
“It’s probably 50-50 on the bike, road versus mountain. As I come closer to races I do more group-riding stuff, chaingangs, lots of stuff with fast accelerations and high-intensity intervals. Hopefully I can do some 70.3s in that phase, too, because it’s the perfect time to do them.”
In terms of running, her training is similar to the bike, but with less volume, and almost all (“80-90%”) is done off the bike.
“A lot of the tempo work I do is hill-based, because I’ve found that, if I do a lot of flat concrete or treadmill work, I’ll get injured. And I’ve also found that if I do too much running, it really takes away from my strength on the bike.
“Towards bigger races, I’ll do maybe a month of high-intensity running for leg speed, but I only need that much and my running’s on top form.”
Back in March, Paterson “rocked up” to one of the US Cup mountain bike races, part of the prestigious Cannondale Triple Crown series, intending to use the race as training. She was coming off the back of a hard training week and had actually done a run that morning, but when she got there, she found that it was a bigger race than she’d expected.
“They were calling everyone up [to sign in] and they called up Annie Last, who was eighth at the Olympics, and a bunch of other cats who were Olympians. I was like ‘Shit! I’m going to get my ass kicked!’.”
But even though a crash on the training lap had left her with the appearance of “a right beginner, bleeding all down my jersey” – and a struggle with her pedals at the start meant she started “at the back of the bloody field, looking like a right idiot” – the day wasn’t all bad.
In fact, things couldn’t have gone much better, as not only did Paterson rejoin the field, but she rode through it solo to victory. It was the first ‘proper’ mountain bike race she had ever competed in, let alone against a world-class field.
After that, Scottish Cycling made contact with the suggestion that Paterson might want to try to qualify for the mountain bike race at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She ratified their faith with a win in the Whiskey 50 – the race with the biggest prize purse in mountain biking – a few weeks later.
So next season will have a distinct bike flavour to it, with Xterra resigned to a back seat as the Glasgow-hosted Commonwealths take centre stage – although she thinks she can still “get away with” doing a few Xterras early on.
“I gave up triathlon because I didn’t qualify for the Commonwealths in 2002, so wouldn’t it be ironic if I qualified for the mountain biking next year?” Ironic maybe, but it would also be an amazing end to Paterson’s 12-year relationship with the Commonwealths. And proof that, eventually, class wins out.
(Images: Iain Macintosh, Nigel Farrow)
For our guide to watching the Xterra World Championship this weekend, click here