Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ode to Wildflower

For those of you who don't know (where have you been?) registration for the Wildflower Triathlon Festival is now open. There are three events: Long Course (70.3), Short Course (Olympic), and a sprint mountain bike race. The race is held the first weekend of May in Monterey county, and is commonly referred to as the "Woodstock of triathlon". It really is a great event. While Kona is the superbowl of our sport, Wildflower is where first timers and world champions rub shoulders. Nothing I've experienced has demonstrated the spirit of inclusiveness in the triathlon community like my experiences at Lake San Antonio.
My first triathlon ever was the short course in 2007. Everyone's "first time" is special, and for me that meant toeing the line on Sunday morning in wave #3. I was wearing my hot pink swim cap, and was scared of my first full contact swim start. I have two memories of the swim portion of that race. First, it felt like swimming in a washing machine. I couldn't believe that after 20 minutes of swimming there were still people inches away from me on all four sides. Second, I remember getting my first mouthful of water - and being pleasantly surprised at how good it tasted! People complain about the water being dirty at Lake San Antonio - but fresh water is a million times better than the salty, diesel fuel-y taste of Mission Bay in San Diego. The bike course is mostly a blur in my memory except for the first mile and the last mile. The first mile is up a pretty large incline called Lynch Hill. It's not that bad a climb, 7% grade or so, but it starts right after the bike mount line - so you have lots of people weaving around trying to get clipped into their pedals and find the right gear. I think I passed 100 people on that hill - apparently I was a better than average hill climber. I realized that late in the race as we were climbing a big hill, and as I passed him a fellow competitor yelled "Nice! way to go!". There had been people on the sidelines cheering for me all day. That was the first time I'd ever had an athlete compliment me - and it felt good because he knew what he was talking about. I felt like at that moment I had joined the club, this guy was my competition - but also a classy sportsman - and a compatriot in the battle against the hill. On the return trip we had to descend Lynch Hill - which was terrifying. I never have descended well, and this situation was as bad as ever. I was going downhill on the right side of the road at about 30 MPH. We couldn't be on the far right of the lane because the run course used the same space - so we had about half the lane for descending bikes. Some people were hitting their brakes and going slow, some people were bombing down the hill at 40 MPH. Additionally there were bikes climbing the hill in the other lane - and they would occasionally cross into our lane (technically a disqualification) to pass slower climbers. It's a recipe for disaster, I wouldn't be surprised if some serious accidents had occurred there.
The run was miserable. After winding along the lake a bit the course turned onto a road, and up a hill. I was out of breath instantly, but forced my feet to keep moving - even if painfully slow. I kept waiting for the top of the first hill, dreaming of the downhill. It never came. What I didn't know ahead of time is that the course has one hill - and it's about 4.5 miles long. At the end you descend back to lake elevation on Lynch hill - which is pretty damn steep. I ran the whole course - though honestly I don't know how, I was exhausted. I crossed the line in less than 3 hours, which was my target time, and instantly got dizzy and my vision narrowed. This was my first race, and also my first experience with dehydration. As was typical for this race, it had been f'ing hot that day - and my nutrition/hydration plan pretty much didn't exist. I had never done a running race before, and hadn't learned how to drink while running - so most of the water I attempted to take in ended up in my lap. I loved my experience at Wildflower, especially sharing it with two of my best friends - and couldn't wait to return the next year.
In 2008 I completed the long course, and to my great surprise and pleasure my buddies NS and SP returned with me to race. I don't remember the swim at all. I do remember being on the boat ramp waiting to start as the pro's came in. Chris McCormack looked like a man possessed coming out of the water - I was shocked at how quickly he shed his wetsuit.

The bike was rough for me. I was on a new bike, and I had mechanical issues. I stopped 5 times on the course to try to adjust my derailleur, but with no luck. The course is hilly - highlighted by what they call "Nasty Grade". It's a long steep hill, and it's at the end of the course near mile 40 - so if you didn't save some for the end you are screwed. It's also populated by the best and most entertaining triathlon fans you'll ever see. I felt fine climbing the hill, and even though my mechanical issues prevented me for really applying any force to my pedals I still passed a lot of people. The eventual descent from Nasty Grade is fantastic! It's scenic, and I hit over 50MPH - FUN!! It almost made me forget how pissed I was with my bike performance due to the mechanical issues.

The long course run is hellacious. I don't know any other way to describe it. It's got lots of hills, and they are steep! I'm not a runner, and I have almost no experience in running races - but I'd be hard pressed to imagine a half marathon course more challenging than this one. I've done two half marathons in SD with some hills (La Jolla and AFC) - and neither of them even comes close. I had to walk a lot of the course, which ultimately left me unsatisfied with my performance in the race. But I certainly had a great time doing it.
I have loved Wildflower and would recommend it to anyone. I've missed out on camping both years - I prefer a nice soft hotel bed - but maybe this year I'll make it to the party. For the first time in 3 seasons, WF won't be an "A" race for me, so what the heck. Though I still haven't decided whether to do the short or long course race, I'm certain I'll be at Lake S.A. come May. Maybe I'll see you there.

Also, check out Tri-Cal TV for some cool video of the race - including a video shot on Nasty Grade.

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