How One Endurance Athlete Stays Fit by Swimming through the Winter

The key to a world champion off-road triathlete’s success? A pre-dawn winter workout in an outdoor lap pool.

By Kirsten Dobroth Photography by Ryan Dearth February 10, 2017 Published in the Midwinter/Spring 2017 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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Early morning swims are an essential part of Josiah Middaugh's championship-worthy workout.

Image: Ryan Dearth

The sun hasn’t yet risen when Josiah Middaugh slips into the steaming outdoor saline pool for his early morning training session at the Westin in Beaver Creek. Despite the hour, and the single-digit temperatures, more than a dozen athletes from the valley’s triathlon community have come to join Middaugh for a high-intensity cold weather workout that has become something of a legend, and a winter ritual.

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The Westin's outdoor saline pool is the place where Middaugh -- and his fellow sufferers -- meet for their predawn laps.

Image: Ryan Dearth

“We have four people in every lane at 6 a.m. and they keep coming back—I keep trying to make the workout harder, but I just can’t get rid of them,” jokes Middaugh, an endurance athlete who holds world records in the off-road triathlon, a grueling event consisting of an open water swim, mountain bike race, and a trail run. “Swimming’s my weakness, and it’s the most challenging sport for me to do by myself. So having people to suffer along with me makes a big difference.”

Their willingness to share in that suffering may have something to do with Middaugh’s status as a 12-time XTERRA national champion, the 2015 XTERRA world champion, and a slew of other race accomplishments that round out his standing as one of the top three athletes on the planet in the sport. For that success, the self-effacing Middaugh credits a healthy dose of confidence, determination, hours on the trail and in the pool, as well as a series of fortunate circumstances beginning with a childhood on a Bohemian commune in rural Michigan.

Since outdoor activities were an essential part of the lifestyle, he and his brothers developed a natural inclination toward athletics and friendly competition. After high school, Middaugh ran track at Central Michigan University, where he majored in exercise physiology and met his wife, another member of the track team. The two said “I do” in the week between graduating from college in 2000 and driving across the country to Vail, where Middaugh had accepted an internship as a personal trainer. 

“I picked a place on the map, and Vail was it,” he recalls. “We packed up a Jeep Cherokee and just drove.”

In Vail, he took to off-road racing, seeking rewards that eluded him as a collegiate-level distance runner.

“I kind of had an unfulfilled college career, I was injured a lot, and I knew I had more potential as an endurance athlete,” he explains. “And a lot of coincidences just fell into place; I picked up mountain biking out here and started racing the town series, and I got really into trail running and snowshoeing.”

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The routine has won Middaugh an enviable trophy room, including the title as XTERRA's World Champion in 2015.

Image: Ryan Dearth

Snowshoeing was where Middaugh first experienced the success he was looking for; his second winter in Vail saw the North American Snowshoeing Championship come to town, and Middaugh, inspired by the prize money and the dire straits of his post-graduate finances, decided to enter in hopes of augmenting a bleak bank account. Much to his—and the rest of the race field’s—surprise, Middaugh won, capturing the purse and an inkling that he had found his true calling.

“It kicked off my career and I started thinking of it more professionally,” he explains. “It wasn’t that I was going to be a professional snowshoe racer, but it was around that time that I found XTERRA, and it ended up being a really good fit for me with my running background.”

Nowadays, Middaugh’s name is a consistent one atop the list of finishers at XTERRA events around the world. He calls Eagle-Vail home, where he uses the area’s many amenities—from trails to gyms—to prepare for a packed summer race schedule that includes an XTERRA stop at his home course on Beaver Creek. By day, as a certified strength and conditioning specialist, he earns his keep as a personal trainer at Middaugh Coaching, a business he founded with his brother that specializes in training endurance athletes of all levels.

It may seem a bit counterintuitive to specialize in a summer race series and live in an area where winter lingers for half the year, but Middaugh parlays the harshest season to his advantage, cross-training on snowshoes, Nordic, and backcountry skis, using chairlifts to maximize elevation gain, in addition to indoor cycling (he also teaches a CompuTrainer class) and swimming at the Westin, eyeing the black line at the bottom of the pool. Up to 20 hours per week of such varied and focused training allows for a high baseline of fitness, enabling him to keep up with—and dominate—the summertime competition.  

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Middaugh's pre-dawn workouts are aimed at claiming another victory on XTERRA's world stage.

Image: Ryan Dearth

“In the winter, I’m swimming and snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, and skinning in place of some of the running and biking,” he says. “It’s not quite as intense training, but at the same time the winter training is what’s made the biggest difference for me.”

After finishing fifth at the XTERRA World Championship in Kapalua, Hawaii, in October, Middaugh is redoubling his efforts this winter, vowing to recapture the title in 2017.

“It’s easy to forget someone who won the race once, but to win it again would be huge,” he says.

Every morning, with each stroke, just another swimmer in a crowded pool at the Westin, he’s chasing that dream. The Athletic Club at The Westin, Beaver Creek, 970-790-3020

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