By Special to OMC   Published Aug 07, 2006 at 2:27 PM
The thunder and lightning were no match for Brian Smith and Jamie Whitmore as the pair survived a storm, ensuing mud bath, and a collection of hard charging world-class competitors en route to winning the second annual Nissan Xterra Midwest Championship pro titles Sunday at the Milwaukee Lakefront.

The XTERRA creed that "Mother Nature is your toughest competitor" rang true once again.  After several days of beautiful weather along Milwaukee’s scenic lakefront, a fast moving storm rolled through McKinley Beach just a half-hour before the scheduled 8:30 a.m. start. It dumped an inch of rain on the city in the span of a couple hours, creating treacherously slippery conditions on the dirt and muddy bike trails.  More to the point, the mud was flying all over the place, and right in the riders’ eyes.  The predicament, where glasses that will get covered in mud and you can't see or don't wear them and the mud goes straight in your eye.  Either way, you can't see. To make matters worse, it clogged up the tires and nobody could use their brakes.

"Close your eyes and hope you don't hit a tree," was how Melissa Thomas explained the situation, followed by "It was epic!"

The booms and bolts of lightening near the swim beach caused the first leg of the event to be cancelled for safety reasons.  The decision was a no-brainer, and taken in stride by the 400-plus participants who swapped out their goggles for trail running shoes.  The swim was replaced by a flat two-mile out-and-back run over a combination of sand and sidewalk.

Not having a swim and adding hard driving rain completely changed the dynamics of the race.  It gave an edge to racers that don't normally swim well while taking valuable time away from the strong swimmers.  Based on the results, no one benefited more than XTERRA up-and-comer Brian Smith.

Through the first three championship races of 2006, Smith got out of the water and onto the bike nine minutes (Temecula), six minutes (Pelham), and five minutes (Richmond) behind the swim leader Brent McMahon, which meant he'd have to weave his way through as many as 150 riders to get to the front. This time, he went out onto the bike with the lead pack.  Smith’s mountain biking skills rival those of the great Conrad Stoltz and once he passed the suffering XTERRA World Champ halfway through the first of two muddy laps, it was all over.

"I've never done a duathlon before, but I have some background in running and my cycling is as good as its been all season," said Smith, who ran cross-country for Western State College and has been a NORBA XC Pro since 2001.  "Starting with the run I just wanted to stay in contact with the leaders because I knew it was going to be a pack ride out of transition.  Everyone was in contact until half way through the first lap before things started splitting up.  Dom (Dominic Gillen) wiped out right in front of me and then I got up on Conrad who was having issues.  I went by him and didn't have anybody in sight the rest of the way."

That’s because Smith posted the fastest bike split by more than a minute over Andrew Noble.  He has, in fact, had the fastest or second-fastest-behind-Conrad bike split in all four races this year.  It’s Smith’s first big XTERRA win (his previous best finish was fifth at Alabama) and vaults him from No. 7 to No. 3 in the XTERRA U.S. Pro Series standings.

"It’s an unbelievable feeling," said Smith. "It still hasn't sunk in yet, really.  And I love Milwaukee. It’s my fist time here and it’s one of the coolest towns with a great atmosphere, great course, and great people.  It’s been a fun, fun time."

The runner-up, the 40-year-old Noble, also had something to smile about.  He had the best first run, the second-best bike, and the sixth best second run for his best showing of the year and fourth straight top-five finish. Not surprising at all for the 1996 Duathlon World Champ, but awfully impressive.

"I'm having a good year, training well and trying not to get too old," joked Noble, who is now in second behind McMahon in the Pro Series.  

Tires. Tires. Tires.

"Tire selection makes all the difference and people laughed at my selection but they were the best thing out there," said Whitmore, who won her second straight title in the U.S. Series on Michelin sprints -- a narrow tire -- that "doesn't clump up with mud and has more clearance when the wheel goes through where the frame is."

"I was laughing at Jamie’s choice of tires but she was riding really well," said the gracious runner-up Melanie McQuaid. "I had too fat a tire that just turned into a big slider."

The Jamie-Melanie battle was in strong form for this one, as they ran the first two miles to start the race side-by-side then traded leads through most of the bike.  The key moment seemed to be McQuaid’s last of three crashes.

"I was trying to get rid of Jamie in the forest and was too aggressive, went over the bars and hit my head on a rock and it hurt; I was in pain, and riding slow after that. I should have slowed down and relaxed," she said.

The win put Whitmore 20 points ahead of McQuaid in the XTERRA Pro Series with just two races left -- the Mountain Championship in Ogden, Utah on Aug. 19 and the finale in Nevada on Oct. 1.

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