I don't want to be like Mike. I want to be like Ned.
Normally I am underwhelmed by fourth-place finishes. Then I
heard that Ned Overend came in fourth in the Xterra world
championships last month. The Xterra is an increasingly popular,
increasingly lucrative, off-road triathlon series culminating
every October with its championship event in Maui.
Yes, Overend is a three-time mountain-biking cross-country world
champion and a member of the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame. Yes,
he won the Xterra in '98 and '99. And yes, he worked hard over
the summer to improve his swimming, Australian-crawling his way
for 45 minutes at a stretch against the current in the
55[degree] Animus River near his home in Durango, Colo.
Still, after he dropped to fifth last year, it seemed unlikely
that the man known as the Lung could crack the top five in Maui.
The dude, after all, is 46. Overend is so old, he met his wife,
Pam, in a disco. "Yeah, we're talking strobe lights, the Bee
Gees," he says. "Remember all that?"
November 12, 2001
"No, Mr. Overend, we don't," would be the reply of most of the
twentysomethings he regularly thrashes in these off-road tris.
Disco was dead before these guys were alive. They think John
Travolta's breakout movie was Pulp Fiction.
Last month's Xterra was won by South Africa's Conrad Stoltz, a
28-year-old Olympic triathlete who, according to Overend, "opened
a 50-gallon drum of whup-ass on the entire field." If Stoltz
opened that drum, Overend handed him the crowbar. The Lung works
in marketing for Specialized, a bike company. A couple of weeks
before the Maui race, Stoltz mentioned to Overend that he was
without sponsorship and in desperate need of a new ride. He'd
long admired Overend's futuristic-looking, full-suspension
S-Works FSRxc. Would Specialized consider sponsoring Stoltz?
Here's what Stoltz was really asking Overend: Will you help me
beat you? "I was tempted to tell him, 'Sorry, we don't have any
of those models left,'" says Overend, "but he's a great guy and a
great talent." Stoltz got his sweet new bike five days before
Maui. He finished the .9-mile rough-water swim in third place,
then put the race away on his new bike, flying over the Xterra's
punishing 18-mile course--a tight single track, covered with scree
and lava rocks, that includes 3,000 feet of climbing the dormant
volcano Haleakala--with the fastest split of the day.
The second-fastest split belonged to Overend, who came out of the
water in 45th place and worked his way up to third overall on the
bike. One man passed him during the run. "I was fifth last year,
fourth this year," says Overend. "If I keep moving up one spot
each year, I'll win this thing again when I'm 50."
He is only half kidding. One thing I respect about Overend is
that he takes no pleasure in winning his age group. "If you start
patting yourself on the back for how well you're doing for a
46-year-old," he says, "then you're not gonna be able to make it
to the front against these young guys."
What on earth is a guy this age doing near the front anyway? For
starters, "Ned is a physiological freak," says former pro
triathlete Scott Tinley, a veteran of more than 50 Ironman-length
races. "Plus, he never crossed the line that most of us crossed,
staying overtrained for years on end."
If anything, Overend has erred on the side of undertraining.
"There has got to be some balance in your life," he says. "A lot
of people train beyond what's benefiting them. They're just
putting in hours."
Overend has kept fresh by mixing his disciplines. After running
cross-country at three colleges, then working as a motorcycle
mechanic, Overend got into mountain marathons and triathlons and
had a brief stint, in the early '80s, as a professional road-bike
racer. "He was this incredibly gifted endurance athlete looking
for a sport," says Overend's friend Bob Babbitt. That sport came
with the dawn of professional mountain biking, which Overend
dominated as no other American ever has. After winning six NORBA
titles and three world championships, he "retired" five years
All retired means is that he graduated to different kinds of
races. In addition to off-road triathlons, Overend dabbles in
"winter" triathlons, consisting of snowshoeing, biking and
running on packed snow. Two years ago, in fact, he won the U.S.
Triathlon Association's winter championship.
"You know," he says when I mention that race, "I hear they're
going to make winter triathlon an Olympic sport." Now he is
thinking aloud. "After Salt Lake City, the next Winter Games will
be in 2006. I'd be 50. That would be perfect."
"I was fifth last year, fourth this year. If I keep it up, I'll
win this thing when I'm 50."