The Wildflower Triathlon happens to be a bit of an icon in California and among the triathlon community at large; plus, it would do you good to learn something today. After all, you’ve heard me drone on from time to time about all the training for said event, so let me share with you the details of my race weekend.
The Wildflower Triathlon is one of the largest triathlon events in the world. The event is hosted at Lake San Antonio in central California and nearly 35,000 athletes, volunteers, and spectators travel to this site for the event. This year, there were 3,280 competitors in the Olympic distance event that I competed in. It was my first event at this distance. I knew it would be a good training event for the Half Ironman I am training for later in the season.
Part of the fun of Wildflower is seeing our friends from Kansas City and Santa Barbara there. We camp in the same spot every year and enjoy the camaraderie that goes hand in hand with the competition at this event. Greg, Kidder, Martz, and myself were all competing in the Olympic distance race on Sunday. A few members of the Santa Barbara crew were hard-core participants in the long (70.3) course and competed on Saturday, arriving back at camp pleasantly exhausted. We had a few cocktails and warmed up some homemade chili garnished with Fritos before retiring for the night. The double-edged sword of this event is that it doesn’t start at the crack of dawn, so we knew we’d have time to prep our race gear in the morning. Unfortunately for me, I don’t do so well with sleeping in a tent and I did not wake well-rested. I chalk it up to par for this race course and look forward to the reality of Greg actually owning a Sprinter van.
Race morning! Ever since I was a kid, I have enjoyed the jitters that accompany the anticipation of my participation in something. As we walked down the steep hill to the race area, the butterflies started and I could feel myself getting into race mode. I had quite a bit of time to wait before my start, but there was plenty to do in getting my transition area set up and supporting the guys. Every five years, they will all fall into the same age group — and this was the year. Martz at 40, Greg at 43, and Kidder at 44. The competition was fierce! As I watched them plunge into the cold lake water, my stomach was really fluttering.
My wave started a full hour after theirs, at 10:35 AM. This seems like a good thing when you’re going to bed late at night and have a lot to prepare in the morning. However, it means your bike ride and run will be in the heat of midday and that can often mean disaster. The forecast called for a sunny 78-degree day and it was already warming up fast. I made my way to the start line. As I was stretching out, the announcers called our attention to a swimmer who was coming out of the water momentarily. His name is Talmadge Atkins and he has cerebral palsy. This athlete had just swum 1.5 km (0.9 mi) by himself, alongside a companion swimmer. The announcer told us he was then going to ride tandem with a cyclist for 40 km (24.8 mi), and then his mother was going to push him in a “stroller” for 10 km (6.2 mi). Hearing this feat helped to put my own race into perspective.
I paused for a moment to take in the sights and sounds of the competitors and spectators around me. I am so grateful for the physical and mental ability to take part in these activities. Not only that I’m reasonably good at it, but that I am ABLE to do it. At the end of the day, it was helpful to put into perspective that it was less about how well I finished, but that I was able to start and finish at all. Let the race begin!
It was our turn. The women 35-39 age group. We had our chance to test the water, then lined up behind the timing mats at the start line. The buzzer sounded! It’s quite a swarm of flailing arms and legs as everyone runs and dives in, and not at all enjoyable. The only up-side is that it takes your mind off how cold the water is. It takes until about 100 yards past the first buoy for the crowd to thin enough to be able to get into a real swimming rhythm. Overall, I was pleased with my swim and how straight my path was, relative to other open water swims I have done. Clearly the practice has paid off! I only looked at my watch once to see how long I’d been out there (0:17:34), though I did not know how far I’d gone. When I finally made it to shore and stood up, I was pleasantly surprised to see my time right about where I wanted it to be at 0:30:36. I made my way up the ramp, catching my breath. I was refreshed and felt good going into my strongest of the three events: biking!
This was my first time wearing a wetsuit during an event, though it didn’t really slow me down in the transition area. I’m not known for fast transitions anyway, and this doesn’t bother me all that much. I felt reasonably speedy and was headed out in just a few minutes. Wildflower boasts a very hilly bike course. It’s an out-and-back, so there are no surprises on the second half of the course. This is good and bad, as you can imagine. Right out of the gates, we have to climb Lynch Hill. Admittedly, it isn’t an easy climb, but I was shocked at the number of cyclists walking it. Not just Team In Training people, but “real” athletes who have supposedly trained for this event. Talmadge Atkins was a distant memory at this point and I secretly scoffed at them. I actually feel kind of bad now…
I reached the top of Lynch Hill and refueled with a banana and some FRS (too much manufactured food upsets my stomach). I had ridden this course before and I knew what to expect — rolling hills that are less easy than you think they are. Only three women passed me on the way out, and only one was in my age group. I felt reasonably good about my “standings” at this point. I was passing a lot of people — including Talmadge Atkins on his tandem — and knew I was moving up in the world. On the turnaround, two more people passed me, but I was able to re-pass two of the people who had previously passed me, including the woman in my age group! Knowing I didn’t have enough fuel for the run in this heat, I ate an Accelerade gel and downed the rest of my water. I looked at my time and knew I could finish within 1:30 if I really pushed hard. I did…and came in at 1:29:22.
I quickly transitioned and headed out on the run. I was disappointed that I didn’t see or hear Greg on my way out, as I knew he had been finished for quite awhile by this time and had hoped to get his vote of confidence. It was 1 PM by this point and the heat of the day was bearing down on us. I had brought along my water bottle with a Nuun tablet in it and I’m glad I did. I was really unprepared for how hilly this run is. I like to tell myself, “You can do anything for two miles.” Not only is it true, it helps break something big down into manageable pieces. I simply had to “do anything for two miles” three times in a row. These are the mental games I play with myself.
I managed the first two miles without walking. It was hot and hilly and I was tired; I wanted to walk a million times. I told myself that I could walk the next hill if I made it through the first two miles without walking. When my Garmin showed I had passed the two mile mark, I almost begged for the next hill so that I could walk and catch my breath. My heart was racing at 170+ bpm. I turned a corner and faced a huge hill in front of me. I was sooooo prepared to walk and then I saw him: a challenged athlete running with a prosthetic leg like athlete shown in this picture. Again, my own race was put into perspective and I kept running. I made it to the top of that hill and then HAD to walk. My heart was going to pound out of my chest. As soon as I brought my heart rate down to a reasonable level (in the 150 bpm range, in ~10 seconds), I ran again. I had to walk a few more hills before reaching the road that passed by our camp — so I knew it was the last hill of the day. One more mile and it was all downhill! The Santa Barbara crew was there at the last corner cheering me in. I let gravity pull me down the hill, looking and listening for Greg as I passed through the 100-yard finish line. I raised my arms when they said my name as I finished and felt great!
I knew when I returned from the bike leg that I was doing well when most of the bikes around me were still gone. It felt great to finish and see a sea of bikes still on the racks in the transition area. No one in my age group had passed me on the run, so I knew I had done well as long as I had held my own during the swim. I finally caught up with Greg and Kidder and expressed my disappointment that they weren’t there to see my finish. He was sorry and admitted that he hadn’t expected me to finish for another 30 minutes and raced to the finish line when they heard my name being called. I was glad to be able to share my feelings with him rather than let it stew the rest of the day. We moved on to the next order of business: a cold beer! The final “event” after finishing a race at Wildflower is trekking up the steep hill back to camp. We made our way and celebrated with a few photos, a few margaritas, and some snacks with the gang. The Santa Barbara crew headed out and we enjoyed a few more beverages while waiting for the traffic to clear. Kidder and I continued to booze it up on the way home while Greg chauffeured us. After picking up Chinese take-out, Kidder successfully passed out fully-clothed and still wearing his contact lenses. Ouch! Greg and I checked our standings online. Hooray — 11th place!
Kidder didn’t have to leave until Tuesday, so we spent Monday at the beach in Half Moon Bay. After a 5-mile recovery run on the cliffs above the beach, we enjoyed lunch on the deck at Sam’s Chowder House and then had a couple of beers at HMB Brewing Company. It was the perfect ending to a perfect weekend.