Triathlon Training: Can You Survive the Xterra Off-Road Tri?

What's triathlon training look like during COVID-19? It's tough when races are cancelled and pools are closed.

But with many states lifting COVID restrictions, races are resuming including the Xterra Off-Road Triathlon in Rocky Gap State Park in Flinstone, Md.

Endurance athlete Brynn Cunningham wasn't planning on competing in a triathlon in 2021. But everything changed when she learned she'd have a chance to take on the Xterra course again.

Would her running adventures and last-minute triathlon training be enough to help her go the distance?

Here's what happened...

Triathlon Training: Swim, Bike, Run

Triathlons invoke the feeling of playfulness. The three activities involved - swimming, biking and running - bring forth fond memories of childhood. 

Likewise, summertime lures the inner child out. 

Combine the two - triathlon and summertime - and BOOM. A jolly good time is sure to come. 

Brynn Cunningham competed in the Xterra Off-Road Triathlon at Rocky Gap State Park in Flintstone, Md.

The Road to Tri

During the summertime, my childhood days were spent biking to the river, swimming across rapids, running through the woods, jumping off rocks into creeks, biking trails not open to mountain bikes, sliding down natural water slides and running barefoot across rocks for the fun of it.

One could say that the road to off-road triathlons began back then. 

I recall in high school receiving phone calls from coaches trying to recruit me for the basketball and cross country teams. 

“Practice begins in July,” they would say.

July?! The prime outdoor adventuring month?!

No way. I would not, could not leave the trees, forest, dirt, mountains, river, to drive 35 minutes away to a city to run on pavement or bounce a ball inside a building. 

This is my life, I thought. My heart is here, not there.

And so I stayed.

Not much has changed since then.

From Childhood to Adulthood

I eventually moved from my hometown, a mecca of outdoor fun, but always to places where outdoor pursuits could be found.

Southern California? Rock climbing and surfing.

Southwest Ohio, near Kentucky? Rock climbing.

The mountains of South Carolina/Georgia? Rock climbing, white water kayaking and mountain biking.

In all these temporary homes, I ran.

It wasn’t until 2010 when I took up mountain biking when I began to do intentional, self-created duathlons and triathlons.

Most frequently, I would mountain bike then trail run. 

Often I added white water kayaking to the mix. 

The order of the sports was not always the same. Several times a week it was run/kayak or vise versa. Other times it was bike/run, bike/kayak/run or run/bike/run. 

When I moved away from the southeast back to my hometown, the multisport habit stuck.

The Road to Swimming

In 2018, I fractured my left foot, and running, mountain biking and kayaking were impossible. 

Pool running, which is treading water while wearing a flotation belt and running in place, was the solution.

Eventually, the pain subsided, but not enough to actually hit the trails or rivers in any way. Lap swimming felt OK, and I began to log laps four to five times per week. 

30 laps led to 72 laps led to 108 laps. 

At the same time, I took up indoor spinning classes, not my idea of a fulfilling, soulful, peaceful experience with stunning views, surrounded by nature, near my home, but enough to keep the endorphins of exercise flowing and a solid way to transition from injury to recover. 

Finally, the broken foot healed. 

My First Triathlons

Swimming was the positive outcome of something so downright depressing. I continued to swim, seeking lakes when the weather was warm, and signed up for my first triathlon, the XTERRA off-road tri, held on July 14, 2019, at Rocky Gap State Park in Flintstone, Md.

It was such a fun experience that I signed up for another triathlon in September, The SavageMan, held in Deep Creek, Md. It was a great event, but I knew that it would be my last tri with road biking and road running.

XTERRA off-road was more my style.


Then suddenly, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and changed life as we knew it. 

Pool swimming came to a screeching halt, and I avoided the lakes where I once enjoyed open-water swimming because of crowds.

All racing events were cancelled. 


An official triathlon race was not on my mind for 2021. 

My main focus was the Laurel Highlands 50k trail race, held on Sunday, June 13.

Recovery after the 50k went well.

And because I thought it was a quality post-ultramarathon recovery activity, I went to the YMCA and swam 66 laps six days after completing the race.

Around the same time, I received an email announcing that the XTERRA Off-road Triathlon at Rocky Gap was back, scheduled for Sunday, July 11.

On June 20, I signed up, with three weeks until race day.  

How I Trained for the XTERRA Off-road Triathlon

  • Swimming - It had been 15 months since swimming consistently, and about eight months since swimming at all. These are the swims I did to prepare for the 2021 XTERRA:
    • Swim one: 66 pool laps (1650 yards)
    • Swim two: half mile open water lake swim (540 yards)
    • Swim three: 72 pool laps (1825 yards)
    • Swim four: one mile open-water lake swim (1750 yards)Six mountain bike/trail run duathlons 
  • One kayak/run duathlon
  • One mountain bike/kayak duathlon
  • Four mountain bike rides from three to 15.45 miles
  • Two trail runs, the longest of which was 10 miles
  • Four white water kayak sessions on the Lower Yough
  • Three hikes
  • Daily morning yoga from 60 to 120 minutes long

Race Day

Rocky Gap State Park is a scenic 75-minute drive from where I live. When I did the XTERRA in 2019, my husband, two sons and I camped at the state park and enjoyed the close proximity to the event. This year, we decided to wake up early and make it a day trip.

5 a.m.

Woke up

5:10 a.m.

15 minutes of yoga

5:30 a.m.

Final gear loaded into the vehicle

5:45 a.m.

Made a smoothie and put it into a to-go cup

6 a.m. 

Woke up our sons

6:15 a.m.


7:30 a.m.

Arrived at Rocky Gap State Park in Flintstone, Md.

Races are a family affair. Grey, my youngest at age four, still not completely awake. (Photo/Eric Harder)
Avie, my oldest at age eight, made sure I had my swim cap and goggles before we walked to the swim start. (Photo/Eric Harder)

Open-water Swim

Rocky Gap’s Lake Habeeb is known for its clear, warm water. On race day, it was 78 degrees.

The swim segment was 0.75 miles, or about 1,400 yards. It consisted of two laps, with a sprint across the beach between lap one and two.  

Pictured below is the corral with the second wave of swimmers, which included all women solo triathletes, duathletes and relay teams. Second wave swimmers were given yellow swim caps, required during the swim, and ours to keep. First wave swimmers received green.  

Author Brynn Cunningham pictured right of center in the criss-cross racerback top and blue tri shorts. (Photo/Eric Harder)
Wave two waiting at the in-water start. (Photo/Eric Harder)
Wave two taking off at 9:03 a.m. (Photo/Eric Harder)
Author Brynn Cunningham (far right runner in dark blue shorts and bra top) sprints across the beach after the first swim lap. (Photo/Eric Harder)
Author Brynn Cunningham back in the water for lap two. (Photo/Eric Harder)
Finishing the swim and heading toward the transition area. (Photo/Eric Harder)
Brynn was out of the water in 29:47, dried off, moved to the transition area, and hopped on a mountain bike.

Mountain Bike

The 13.4-mile mountain bike course begins on one mile of paved road then turns onto a single-track semi-technical trail. There are several sections of double track, with the final mile back on the single-track, rooty lakeside trail and along the grass past the transition area to begin the second lap. It is two laps total of mixed terrain with little elevation gain (compared to my home trails). 

Author Brynn Cunningham completing lap one. (Photo/Eric Harder)
Author beginning lap two, with the transition area (TA) in the background. Only athletes were permitted in the TA. (Photo/Eric Harder)
Brynn rode 13.46 miles on mountain bike trails in 1:25:24 at the Xterra Off-Road Triathlon, the hopped off the bike to run the final leg of the race.

Trail Run

In 2019, I was pleasantly surprised by the stunning trails here. Prior to the race, I had thought it would be mediocre. 

It is not.

If it were mediocre trail running, I do not think I would have returned to this event.

The nearly five-mile course begins on about half a mile of pavement then turns into the woods onto single-track with plenty of roots, rocks, some bridge crossings, a section of rather technical downhill and a steep climb up a boulder garden. It ends on about half a mile of pavement, then into the grass to finish under the arch at the transition area.

I was in my element on the run. 

Plus, according to my watch, it has 589 feet of elevation gain, nice and hilly for such a short run, just how I like it.

Author Brynn Cunningham, in bib 217, runs across the finish line to complete the XTERRA triathlon in 2:42:40. (Photo/Eric Harder)
Brynn ran the final stage of the race in 43:14, covering 4.78 miles.
Stoked with my time! (Photo/Eric Harder)
Brynn beat her previous time at the Xterra Off-Road Triathlon by about 30 minutes, shaving time off on the mountain bike and run.

After the Finish

In 2019, I completed this exact course in 3:04:30 and won fourth in my age group.

This year, my official time was 2:42:40, a huge personal best. 

I took about 22 minutes off my mountain bike time and four or five off my run time. Swimming was a couple minutes slower, but I’ll take it, considering the very little swimming I did.

Even more, I felt fantastic during the entire event.

Happily resting in the transition area after finishing. (Photo/Eric Harder)

The Results

Before announcing the winners, race director (RD) Andy Bacon invited anyone who received an injury during the race to the front of the crowd.

Those who came forth:

  • A man with a bloody forearm
  • A man with a broken foot
  • A woman with a bee sting on the roof of her mouth plus an abrasion on an extremity
  • Myself, with a bee sting to the butt cheek, which I incurred at about 0.6 miles into the run 

It was based on crowd choice - the person who received the loudest cheers won a camp chair.

I won an EX2 buff (pictured below) for a close second. The woman who was stung in her mouth won - I cheered loudest for her!

Xterra Off-Road Triathlon participants received finisher awards, along with other prizes for going the distance.

Next, RD Andy announced the winners over the mic. Top three overall were awarded, plus top five in each age group. Top three winners plus first place in each age category received certificates for the XTERRA world championships in Hawaii. 

I won third place in my age group; 12th overall woman; and 76th out of 204 total athletes (men and women). 

My official results.

Age group and overall official results.

On the podium with the 35-39 age group winners. Brynn won third place her age group; 12th overall woman; and 76th out of 204 total athletes (men and women). (Photo/Eric Harder)
Age group winners received pint glasses with different colored fonts based on place. Third place received one with purple font. (Photo/Brynn Cunningham)

All in all, the XTERRA off-road triathlon was indeed a jolly good time. 

It is a family-friendly event that I recommend for those seeking adventure in a safe, supported way, or simply to experience new scenery and trails, with music, easily accessible amenities (bathrooms and showers next to the start/finish/transition area), easy parking and check-in, plenty to do for family waiting while you race (my kids swam in the lake) and great swag. 

Front side of the super soft t-shirt that all racers received. (Photo/Eric Harder)
Back of the t-shirt. (Photo/Eric Harder)

Gear & Fuel for the XTERRA Off-road Triathlon

Swim, Bike & Run

Garmin fenix 6s Pro Solar Edition multi-sport watch

Zone 3 Tri shorts (discontinued, no longer available for purchase)

Sporti Active Ribbed Double Cross Workout Bikini Top


Bike & Run


Amphipod Hydraform Thermal Lite Handheld Water Bottle (20 oz.) full of plain water, all of which I drank during the run

Patagonia Duckbill Cap

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Brynn Cunningham
15 Following

Trail runner, ultrarunner, white water boater, cyclist (mostly MTB), swimmer, triathlete, cross country and backcountry skier...


Marci McGuinness You look so happy! That guy (#149) coming across the finish line when you are crossing LOOKS LIKE YOUR DAD!!!! I flinched when I saw him. Holy moly.

Brynn Cunningham The guy pushing his bike lol!!! He does!! ❤️

Lauren Worrell Awesome job, Brynn!
I enjoyed reading your article!

Brynn Cunningham Thank you, Lauren!!

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