Wildflower is held in a park in the middle of nowhere, so almost all the 5,000 or so athletes show up early in the weekend and camp for at least two days. I have long heard of Wildflower as the “Woodstock of triathlon.” If you know many triathletes, you can probably guess this is a bit of a misnomer – unless my perception of Woodstock is totally incorrect and it was actually characterized by a bunch of uber-serious athletes clad in spandex and headed to sleep before 10am. Despite that, the weekend was a blast.
Jimmy and I headed to Wildflower on Friday morning to stake out a campsite at the lake. One of our friends is a member of the PacWest tri club and they had reserved a large space for a tent city in a prime location, so we were able to comfortably set up three tents for the seven of us in our group under a big tree. The weather all weekend was incredibly comfortable in the shade, but quite hot in the sun, so this turned out to be a lucky break for us. From our group, Jimmy and I were doing the long course on Saturday, four friends were doing the mountain bike triathlon on Saturday, and one friend was competing in the Olympic distance Sunday. I was happy to be racing on Saturday. It would mean getting the hard work out of the way early, and more time for relaxation, fun, cheering and wine drinking for the rest of the weekend.
On Friday I went out for a quick series of warmup workouts to shake out the legs and preview the beginning parts of the course. Lake San Antonio is absolutely beautiful, and the water temperature was perfect.
After warming up in my full-sleeve wetsuit I decided I didn’t need the sleeves and decided I would wear my sleeveless wetsuit. I headed out for a quick run, where I saw a couple of professionals including Heather Jackson, whose tattooed arms make her quite recognizable. Heather ended up winning the long course race the next day and breaking the course record.
Five minutes later, I ran up a small hill and my left quad suddenly cramped furiously. I stopped right away and tried to shake it out, but to no avail. I have been having cramping problems in races recently, so I was very discouraged. I limped to what I thought was the massage tent, and didn’t realize until I sat down with the woman treating me that it was a chiropractic tent. She was confused about my quad, but offered to adjust my back, so I thought what the heck. Four cracks later I was off – quad still cramping but spine nicely aligned.
Race morning we woke up in our tents, loaded up our unnecessarily large piles of race gear in backpacks, and rode our bikes down a one-mile hill to the race start area.
The pro race started at 8am but my swim didn’t start until one hour and twenty minutes later. Jimmy’s race started at 9am, so I cheered him off and then did a quick warmup. I was still feeling the after-effects of the quad incident (though my spine felt great!) and was trying to shake off quite a bit of trepidation. The only strategy I could come up with was to try to go out relaxed, take electrolytes like a crazy person, and have fun for as long as my body would allow.
The start for the swim was “dry,” which means that everyone stands on the shore and when the horn sounds for the start, all the women in my group (ages 35-39) take off running wildly into the water, flailing arms and diving on top of each other. Then we bash and hit each other in the heads and swim over ourselves until we get tired and stop fighting. This process took about 200meters, or out to the first buoy. I forced myself to stay calm and try to find space in a group. Swimming behind others is much more efficient than swimming alone, and swimming is not my forte so when racing I try desperately to find someone I can swim behind who can basically tow my slow ass around the course.
On Saturday I scored big and early. During that first five minute slam-dunk session, I managed to latch onto the feet of a girl who could not only swim, but who could swim in a straight line and sight buoys without slowing down. (Traditionally I manage to hitch my wagon to a much more careening or halting star.) Once I realized what a good situation I had found I guarded that relationship jealously. I stuck right to her feet, trying not to touch her toes too much lest she would try to swim away from me, and I guarded against other blue caps in my age group who might try to hone in between us. I have no idea who the girl was, but I talked to her silently the whole time: “Good job, great pace. Way to get between those two guys. Good sighting, straight line, girlfriend, way to slide to the outside of that group. Keep it up.”
At some point towards the end, I remember the thought, “Thanks for being my friend” going through my head. In the last 200 meters I got greedy and swam out of her draft. Promptly I got stuck behind two slower swimmers and saw her exit the water about 30 seconds in front of me. Lesson learned: Honor your friendships. Even the ones your friend doesn’t know about.
Swim time: 31:30
Out of the water we ran up a steep incline to transition. I hadn’t seen the bike course with my own eyes, but it is legendary for being challenging (and slow). Because of the quad cramp the day before, I started very cautiously up and down the hills for the first hour, letting people go by me without worrying about it. Several women passed me looking strong. I couldn’t tell if they were in my age group or not but I made a decision just to do my own thing and not worry about others. By the second hour, my legs had loosened up and I started feeling great. The big hills were behind, and the best part of the course began. We were passing fields and wineries on flat or slightly uphill grades, and I was able to just relax and get into a rhythm.
There was a lot of encouragement from other competitors during this race, which really helped keep my spirits up. In other races I have done, it is not unusual to hear men grumble when being passed by a woman that they are “being chicked” or some other kind of whining nonsense. Not so in this race. I got called a “badass,” an “inspiration” and “amazing.” I had no idea if I deserved this kind of praise but I was happy to lap it up in the moment. I tried to pay it back when I could – especially to competitors missing limbs, other women, and people doing really dumb things like riding a single speed.
The hardest part of the bike course is a long hill called “Nasty Grade,” which comes at mile 42. After riding in California for the past three weeks, it didn’t actually seem so bad and was over much quicker than I expected. I was able to push a bit harder for the last 10 miles and before I knew it we were coming back down the steep hill to transition to start the run.
Bike time: 3:01:30
If the bike at Wildflower is feared, the run is legendary. Mostly on singletrack trails or dirt roads, the course climbs steep grades for miles at a time and is mostly exposed to the heat. However, one of the more anticipated elements of the run – at least by yours truly – is the traditional Naked Aid Station at mile 4 that is organized (and manned – and womanned – by students from Cal Poly (who provide most of the volunteer support for the race). The first few miles of the run are on the road that undulates (read: short steep hills up and down) along the lake. Then you move onto the trails, where the climbing – and carnage – begins.
Wildflower, I learned, is a race that does not respect those who do not respect it. By mile 3, hundreds of people were walking the run course, and clearly in for a very long, very painful afternoon. The bike course is easy enough to trash your legs on, and if you get off the bike the least bit wobbly, the run course is not about to show mercy to your quads.
The saving grace of the run course is the fans. The trail meanders through campsites and skirts the road, and there are large groups of spectators every mile. Unfortunately, the Naked Aid Station was not to be found and I took to shouting at every aid station, “Why is no one naked here?!” At mile 8 there was a lone naked guy in the middle of the trail. “Finally a naked person,” I shouted. “Finally someone who appreciates it,” he called back. The sight left me, truthfully, sort of thankful that there hadn’t been more. The beer stop at mile 7, where I stopped for a few good gulps, was more inspiring.
Surprisingly, this brought me the most fame and fortune of the race. Two miles later, the aid station volunteers started whooping when they saw me coming. “Here comes 2407!” they shouted. “You were the first woman… to take the beer!”
Miles 10-12 of the run course were tough. At 9.5 miles you run down a long hill and then, in the middle of the road, you have to turn around a cone and run right back up. You get to see all the people who are chasing you, as well as all those who are just out of your grasp. This was also the first time during the race where I could get a sense of my placement among women. I counted 10-12 coming up the other side and determined to pass as many as I could in the next two miles. The last mile of the race is straight downhill. Luckily my legs were cooperating and I was able to charge down the hill in what was probably my fastest mile split during a half ironman distance race ever.
The finish line was magical. With the lake to your left, hundreds of spectators line the finishing chute, all of them acting like you are the champion. As I ran in, I was filled with an incredible sense of gratitude – for my friends (including my new swim buddy), my life as it is now, and I thanked everyone who has inspired me or challenged me to live a meaningful life that is of some help to others. Most of all, I thanked my legs for showing up to the party.
Run time: 1:44
Jimmy was waiting for me at the finish line. He had a great race, taking 8th (out of 130) in his brand new 50-54 age group and beating me by two and a half minutes (inspiration!).
As it turned out I managed to take third in my age group and 15th amateur female overall. I wish I had known I was missing out on a bottle of wine, which went to first place only, by two minutes. It might have encouraged me to step up my game a bit!
Next week Jimmy and I will head up the left coast to Washington state, where undoubtedly many more adventures await. We’ll do our best to keep you updated!