August 12, 2013

Surviving Until The Run: Getting to Know Boo Athlete Joshua Merrick

by Douglas Ansel

Josh Merrick makes his way through a creek crossing in the X-Terra Moab, where he would finish second overall.

Josh Merrick makes his way through a creek crossing in the X-Terra Moab, where he would finish second overall.

In the final hundred meters before the finish line of the X-Terra 4 Corners, covered in sweat and dust and sand from riding and running through the dry terrain around Farmington, Utah, a powerful realization hit Joshua Merrick: he was twenty seconds from taking his first win as a professional triathlete. A former collegiate cross country and steeplechase runner and now a full time physical therapist, Josh had been consistently competing at high levels of sport in the years after his collegiate career ended, first in duathlons and then in triathlons as the years passed. But while results had been strong in the six years he had held a professional license, nothing had quite matched the elation that comes with knowing that among all the athletes who devoted countless hours to training and recovery in hopes of prevailing, you were the best. Little beats the affirmation that despite the constraints of a full time and being a devoted family man, you belong at the professional level.

As a former runner who resorted to the bike during rehab from an injury, Josh only gradually introduced other sports into his repertoire, moving from competing in duathlons early on to focusing more on Olympic and Half Ironman distance triathlons. As someone who for so long relied on his legs for propulsion, swimming was never his favorite part. Josh quips, only half jokingly, that he merely tries to survive until the running portion where his natural pedigree can come out in force. “The bike portion is all about damage limitation,” he says, focusing on holding the gap to the swim leaders in check until he can run them down. And run them down he does.

Damage limitation is easier on the road – one must only pedal sufficiently hard, staying diligently tucked into an aerodynamic position, and let the same legs that run so quickly do their work. But in X-Terra triathlons, Josh’s current focus, things are never so simple. After the swim leg, competitors eschew smooth pavement and reach for knobby tires and suspension forks to tackle a challenging mountain bike trail. With technical climbs and descents, the bike portion drains one much more. Balancing speed and staying upright is imperative and a hard balance to strike. It is possible to win the race in the bike leg, to be sure, but it is much easier to lose it before the final trail run segment begins. Even if you arrive at the run in good position, the wrong bike or poor skills can leave your body wrecked, impinging on your running speed.

As Josh began to move into the X-Terra realm, his physical therapist mind immediately set about finding the best way to tackle the bike leg. Instead of simply trying to be the fastest, he took a more holistic approach, thinking not only about speed but also what would leave him most rested for the run leg, his body less battered and more capable of turning out the fast mile times that saw him not only run down the leaders in Farmington but put a staggering minute and a half into them in the final mile of the race. He talked to Nick Frey, co-founder of Boo, about building a mountain bike that would absorb vibration, leaving him fresher, and that would fit him perfectly. That conversation led to discussion of sponsorship, and now Josh rides a custom Boo RS-M29 and races with the support of Boo. “The bike is wonderful, it has been a huge difference,” says Josh. A natural climber, he praises its stiffness and light weight, but the most important feature of the bike is how it is smooth, saving him valuable energy by virtue of its custom geometry and the ability of its bamboo tubes to absorb vibration.

Something must be working well because Josh is in the middle of his best ever season. In addition to taking his first professional win, he has finished as the first male and second overall at the X-Terra Moab on June 8. Exiting the swim within sight of the leaders, Josh was in first position by the end of the 1.5 mile climb on fire roads that started the bike leg. In the challenging singletrack Moab is renown for, he crashed and was caught by three others with superior technical ability. But, after exiting the final transition, he ran down his first opponent after a mere quarter mile and mercilessly passed the second only 1.5 miles into the 6.5 mile run. The lead female was just out of sight after blitzing the technical sections of the bike leg, but Josh would finish ahead of everyone else.

With such good early season form, Josh headed to the X-Terra Mountain Championships in Beaver Creek, Colorado, on July 20 with his sights set on a top five finish. Though he would participate in other races in the following months, this would be a crucial test before the X-Terra USA Championship in Ogden, Utah, one of the races Josh’s season had been planned around. With ample climbing in a unique “double transition” race, the course in Beaver Creek would fit his strengths. After the swim, competitors leave the first transition zone and embark on a 15.5 mile mountain bike leg that climbs 3,600 feet to the ski resort where the final run is based. The climbing helped Josh pull into contention for a podium placing halfway through the bike section, but the luck that had been with him all season deserted him as he traversed a gully filled with rocks. A sharp impact jolted upwards through his saddle as a thunk issued from his rear wheel. The sharp edge of a rock had dented the rim severely, leaving him unable to even re-inflate the tire with a tube inside. The ten minutes lost trying to fix the wheel and then being forced to run the last two miles to the second transition killed chances of doing well, though when the mechanical happened Josh was in the top ten and poised to improve in the run.

In following races, luck returned and Josh leapt back up the placings, first placing third at the Indian Peaks X-Terra and almost running down the competitor in second, and then winning the X-Terra Lory in Fort Collins. A solid bike leg (even on a still-dented rim!) left Josh within sight of the leader coming into the second transition area and before 200 meters had passed on the run he was in first position. By the end of the race, over four minutes would pass before the second place competitor crossed the line.

The end of the season is approaching, but Josh is picking up steam and has several more races remaining until he tackles the X-Terra USA Championship in late September. Two X-Terra triathalons and a duathalon in the next month will serve to hone his fitness before his season-long goal of a great ride at nationals. And, though traveling to Hawaii for the X-Terra World Championships in October isn’t in Josh’s immediate plans, he isn’t ruling it out “if something crazy happens at national championships!”