Generations of Greatness: Josiah and Sullivan Middaugh
Generations of Greatness: Josiah and Sullivan Middaugh
Josiah Middaugh has won the XTERRA USA Championship 15 times and this year his son, Sullivan, claimed his first.
This could very well be the midpoint of a decades-long Middaugh dynasty, with both athletes beginning their World Cup bid on the trails of Oak Mountain, USA.
XTERRA’s elite father-son duo will be lining up at Oak Mountain and they are both fighting to get an American on the podium.
“I don’t want to fire too many shots at the Europeans because they’re kind of dominant right now, but I would like to see an American crack onto that podium,” Josiah says.
“A lot of mistakes can be made and a fair amount of adversity can be experienced out on the course, so you never know for sure how it’s going to pan out—it makes for a really exciting race.”
The 15 x XTERRA USA Champion and 2015 World Champion has raced every edition of Oak Mountain, winning it outright 5 times—but he’s never raced a World Cup with his son.
The Silent Assassin
With a long and incredibly successful career of off-road racing (he’s also 4 x Fat Bike World Champion and a 6 x USA Snowshoe Champion), Josiah was ready to retire but pushed back that decision.
“The XTERRA World Cup and the opportunity to race with Sullivan has rekindled my passion for the sport,” he says.
“I’m definitely motivated to train and get in the best shape that a 44 year-old can get into.”
Josiah, a quiet assassin on the race course, has always been a numbers guy.
A coach himself with a Masters Degree in Human Movement (Kinesiology), he is discerning, tactical, and calculated.
In practice, Josiah’s career developed gradually over time. “I wasn’t going out to win the World Championship when I first got into it. I was terrible,” he says.
“I didn’t have really early success which was good for me because I realized what it took so I always kind of kept pretty realistic expectations. I was just trying to improve on my own time from the year before. I kept that throughout my career, more comparing, like, how does my fitness level now compare to where it was.”
The structure and mindset helped Josiah keep perspective, especially when it came to world-class performance.
By comparing his training statistics, he would have an idea of how competitive he could be in a race: “Compared to last year at this time or five years ago, okay I’m in a pretty good range right now, and then I don’t feel that kind of pressure when I race.”
Chasing personal progress instead of results points to the longevity of his success, especially now.
Josiah could be as calculated as ever but the development of the sport along with his age has changed how that data translates on the results sheet.
“One thing that’s different now is that I used to always know based on my training exactly how it would line up. I would say, okay, I’m in the best shape of my life, I can beat anybody in the world. Now I can say, well, I’m in as good a shape as I was five years ago, but I don’t know what that’s going to mean on race day, and I don’t know how that compares to the level of competition now.”
The correlation of training to racing might be different but keeping realistic expectations has allowed Josiah to stay fulfilled with his efforts.
“I don’t feel like the nerves get to me as much so I know that if I go out and just put my full effort into the course, then I’ll be happy with whatever result kind of shakes out,” he says.
A World of Motivation
A big motivation for Josiah to continue was the inauguration of the XTERRA World Cup series.
“It’s something that we’ve talked about for a very long time. There’s always been the XTERRA World Tour, but there’s never been a World Cup for the elites,” he says.
“It reminds me of when I first started racing XTERRA. There was a lot of momentum behind XTERRA. It was only a US series, but the start list read like a World Championship. There was always a handful of Olympians in the race and there were international athletes from all over the world, every continent and at every race. It’s pretty amazing that it’s kind of finally come to fruition. It’s great to feel like it’s come full circle and be back to that super high level of competition at every race.”
Seeing the momentum and top-level international competition return to XTERRA enticed Josiah to postpone his retirement but what really cemented his decision to keep racing was his son, Sullivan.
Josiah won’t be the only Middaugh on the pro start line at XTERRA Oak Mountain.
Racing alongside his son was something Josiah just couldn’t miss.
“I just couldn’t pass up this opportunity to race the XTERRA World Cup and it just happens that Sullivan’s at the age where he’s able to participate. I’m not sure that I would be doing it if it wasn’t for Sullivan,” he says.
“The World Cup and the opportunity to race with Sullivan has rekindled my passion for the sport.”
Sullivan, who is 19 years old and studying biomedical science part-time, will start his World Cup bid in Oak Mountain.
Taking his elite license last year, Sullivan has already shown his potential and talent when he took the XTERRA USA Championship in 2022 (his father finished second).
Although he has ambitions in draft-legal road racing and earned himself a spot on USAT’s Project Podium team, XTERRA is a key part of his plan.
“I’ve got a draft-legal road goal and then I’ve also got an XTERRA goal,” he explains.
“XTERRA is a really awesome way to put in some variety and I also enjoy it a lot. It’s what I grew up with: mountain biking, trail running, and you’re out in nature. That’s really my jam and why I’m doing both.”
Looking ahead to Oak Mountain, Sullivan is looking primarily to gain experience, especially against the best in the world.
“The World Cup is going to be awesome. It’s going to be World Championship level every single race so it’ll be awesome to just have a ton of competition,” he says.
He might be ambitious, especially after beating his dad for the regional title, but he tempers that with the reality of his experience.
“I’m very young so I can use that to my advantage and use these races as learning experiences for later on. I’m not going into it with a ton of pressure and I know that I can just take each race and learn and put it into the next one.”
Racing at the pro level for the first time, however, hasn’t been Sullivan’s biggest learning curve this past year.
“Living on my own and having to fend for myself, studying for school and time management, doing adulting things,” he says.
In between the races, Sullivan says he leans on his father for advice, but not just about triathlon.
“I call him quite often for just simple things, like if I’m pretty tired, I ask how I should recover or something like that. Or,” they both laugh, “what should I get from the grocery store.”
Parenting vs Coaching
He might sound like a college kid but it’s clear his perspective on racing has been informed by having Josiah as a parent.
Of course, Sullivan grew up watching his father race and lived the lifestyle as a child of a pro athlete but, Josiah explains that he made a very conscious decision not to coach his kids.
“It would affect our father son relationship a little too much,” he says.
“I didn’t need to live vicariously through my kids and I really wanted them to kind of follow their own passion and their own love for sports or whatever that may be. Sullivan following triathlon is actually kind of unexpected. It wasn’t like something that we had planned. He was really focused on high school sports and didn’t really know what his future was going to be. It really was only in the last year that he decided to pursue triathlon.”
As a pro athlete, however, the concept of competition in the Middaugh family was always a positive one.
“I think that the tendency is to not nurture competitiveness with kids. It’s okay if your kid is competitive. Realizing that they don’t need to be competitive with every single thing they do, but that there’s a place for it. The kids grew up going to all of my races and that was just kind of our lifestyle, kind of their first form of play was racing each other.” The idea of competition as play is something that stuck with Sullivan. “He has always been really excited to do a race,” Josiah says.
“It’s just doing whatever you can do to help your kids pursue their passion. And realizing that you don’t have to hire the best coaches and spend money on a personal trainer and do all these things that you might think are advantages. If the kid has the talent and has the drive, then you just need to be there to direct them and guide them and facilitate their drive for the sport, give them some opportunities to race some better competition.”
The World Cup is exactly one of those opportunities to race some better competition. Both of them have their eyes on the European talent that is flying in to compete.
Arthur Serrieres is at the top of their list but, Josiah says, “There are 10 people that are going to be fighting for the podium.”
They are hoping to both be in that fight.
While the two of them could potentially work together, when the gun goes off, they say it’s every man for himself.
“On race day, you’re just focused on yourself and he is 100% on his own and we will both be scratching and clawing for every position in the race.” Josiah says.
Sullivan echoes his father’s perspective: “We could maybe come up with a race strategy before but it’s really every man for himself. Once it comes to race plans, in triathlon you can’t really plan out a perfect race. Even if you win, it may have not been a perfect race,” Sullivan explains.
“It’s going to be a competitive race on US soil so hopefully we can represent.”