Pua Mata didn't set out to win the US cross country and marathon national series, but after the first few rounds of the US Pro XCT, she realized she had a real chance at taking the overall victory in both mountain bike series.
"Looking back in general, the whole year was unexpected," Mata told Cyclingnews. "The Pro XCT was not originally a goal. It wasn't something I was going after. It was awesome to have it evolve and happen."
Mata surprised herself by racing well at the Missoula US Pro XCT, just after US cross country nationals and her third weekend of racing in a row. "I was kind of tired and we got there and the course was awesome. I was able to finish second and hold onto the number one plate," she said. "Then I started thinking, 'Oh wow, this could really happen.'"
"The last race of the series was in Wisconsin one week after Leadville - I was so scared," she said referring to having to race a cross country just one week after a 100-miler. "The Wisconsin race was nerve-wracking. I was hoping my legs could follow through."
Her legs did come through and a third place finish at the Subaru Cup netted Mata the US Pro XCT title. She then capped off her season with victories at the US marathon national championships in Bend, Oregon, and La Ruta de los Conquistadores, a mountain bike stage race in Costa Rica.
"I couldn't be happier with my results," she said.
Mata, who spent 2012 racing in the colors of Sho-Air / Specialized, is remaining with the team as it morphs into the Sho-Air / Cannondale team for 2013. Sho-Air has joined forces with what was the North American arm of the Cannondale team in 2012.
"I'm super excited and I think this merger is such a great opportunity for everybody," said Mata. "We have two companies coming together. There is Sho-Air with Scott Tedro, who is so passionate about our sport - he is sharing that with everyone and helping it grow. Cannondale is also a company like that, too... so passionate about the sport."
"When I looked at the roster, I thought, 'Oh gosh the pressure is on!' We have some fast guys," she said.
For now, however, the pressure is off. At the moment, the 32-year-old is enjoying chilling out at home during the off-season in Yucaipa, California, and she's looking forward to a week off to return to her former home in Hawaii. "When my season ends, I go back to my roots: running. I just go out and get lost and run for hours."
"I'm also doing my yoga. If I lived in the snow, I'd be cross country skiing, but I'm not a cold weather person. I'm just enjoying the time off - I've only ridden twice since La Ruta. My winter is about having fun and going camping and hiking and running and riding with friends."
Planning for next season
Looking ahead to 2013, Mata says she hasn't sat down with her new team and hammered out a schedule yet.
"There are always the races you have in mind. I'll be going back to the Whiskey 50 and Leadville 100 for sure. I've been trying at Leadville for two years; hopefully the third time is the charm. Cross country nationals has always been on my mind. And the marathons."
Mata, who doesn't plan any major changes to her training for this winter or next spring, pointed to the marathon world championships as another major goal. "I'd love to make it back to marathon Worlds. If everything came together, I think I'd be ready for that."
With the US Pro XCT calendar still to be released for 2013, Mata said she's likely to do some of the series races, but since she is expecting it to be a series with more total stops, she will have to pick and chose carefully which rounds to include in her calendar.
She is also looking forward to returning to La Ruta with her new teammate and several time La Ruta runner-up Alex Grant. She has considered doing other mountain bike stage races earlier in the season, but hasn't decide which. "I love stage races - they are so much fun. There are so many out there. I've thought about the Trans-Sylvania Epic, the Trans Andes, the Cape Epic and the BC Bike Race. All of these races would be awesome, but you have to look at the whole schedule across the board. After a seven-day stage race, you need some recovery time."
Probably Mata will include a few 100-milers on her calendar other than Leadville, but she has yet to decide which. It's unlikely she'd do enough of them to contest the National Ultra Endurance (NUE) Series. "It's hard - there are so many races. If you wanted to do everything, you could never do it. I've done a few in the past. They were fun. I've always wanted to do the Breck 100. I've raced a ton in Breckenridge, but I've never done that one race, and I hear it's super hard. I'd also love to do the Park City P2P. Park City is one of my all-time favorite places to ride. I went the first year and I haven't been able to go back since. Everyone also talks about the Shenandoah Mt 100."
Finding balance: short vs. long distance races
What's impressive about Mata's racing is that she is able to compete with the best American racers in both long and short distances off-road.
"With anything we do in life, it's all about enjoying what you do. It's nice for me to keep the balance and make sure I'm still having fun doing it. When you're doing both [long and short races], it's about recovery and nutrition and making sure you're on the same page as your coach. A lot of times we think we have to ride more, but it's best to take a rest day."
When asked how she juggles those different abilities, she said, "It's hard to switch gears between a 100-miler and a cross country race. You don't know what to expect and how your legs are going to feel. It's easier the other way around."
"I think this year there were a few races where I did feel the effects of going from marathon straight into cross country. It's not the best situation for performing at your best. I think it comes down to planning your schedule and your races effectively, where you have enough time to rest in between and get the legs back."
"I feel like I always need the long rides, even if I were just racing cross country. My body responds well to long rides and for me personally, it works well and I love it."
"Sometimes I think the shorter races serve as openers for the legs. It wakes them up and then it's easier to go for seven hours kind of steady, which is easier than two hours all out."
2013 is a post-Olympic year, and it will be interesting to see how the domestic racing season proves different than 2012. Although she personally wasn't chasing an Olympic team spot in 2012, Mata shared her observations: "There was so much energy mentally put into an Olympic year and even the pre-Olympic year. I think maybe this year, people will have more of a relaxed schedule. I think maybe sponsors will want people to do more of the races they want. I know some of the guys on our team were talking about the new enduro series. I think more people will go do that sort of thing. In the meantime, I want to mentally take a little break and not have too much pressure."
Racing for her new Sho-Air / Cannondale Team, Mata will be onboard the Cannondale Scalpel 29 and the Flash 29 for 2013.