The scene? A remote, pristine, mountain-enclosed lake in California. And 6,000 of the geekiest screaming tri-geeks this side of the Artic. All gathered for one weekend of camping, debauchery, and suffering at the 2002 Jamba Juice Wildflower Triathlon Festival.
Brianne and I made the decision to go ahead with the trip in late March, and we had been looking forward to it. I had heard that the long distance course was one of the toughest around, and I wanted to see for myself. It would be my 3rd half-ironman race, but really the first for which I was pretty well prepared (my other 2 are Gulf Coast 94 and 99, both of which went poorly for one reason or another). Brianne would be racing the Seagate Collegiate Championships, her 3rd Olympic distance race in 6 weeks, and was coming off a poor performance at the Collegiate Nationals in Memphis just 2 weeks prior.
We flew out to San Luis Obispo on Thursday, the bikes arrived safely, and upon arrival at a family friend of Brianne's, I succeeded in stripping my headset bolt before conking out in frustration and exhaustion (but Brianne had no trouble putting her bike back together).
Friday morning things started to get better, as we had a great breakfast, then found a bike shop that would be able to get my bike fixed by that evening. That would mean I would have to miss the pro meeting in order to pick it up - a seemingly innocuous series of events but a series that I would pay for during the race.
As we drove to Lake San Antonio, we discovered exactly how remote the race site is. We also got our first taste of the difficulty of the bike course. Very hilly.
After picking up Brianne's packet, we went for a short swim in the lake, and I got to try out my new QR fullsuit, courtesy of John Reback and Reback Realty of West Palm Beach. John is one of my main Florida competitors, but upon seeing the sorry state of my old QR (1995), he decided to make me look respectable. The rest, I suppose, is up to me…
The swim was nice, as the water was cool but not freezing (66 on Saturday, 64 on Sunday). Afterwards, we picked up my packet, I excused myself from the meeting and introductions in order to return to town to pick up my bike. Then we climbed back into our borrowed van and headed home - with a pit stop to get my Cervelo P2K out of the shop (they fixed it with no trouble, much to my relief).
Friday evening was very mellow; we had a quiet dinner, then hit the sack by 8pm.
Saturday morning we were up at 4:15 and on the road by 4:20, with big cups of coffee in hand. Brianne drove while I found my happy place.
The race site was packed with bodies, but everyone, for the most part, seemed very calm. Maybe the California athletes have a more relaxed vibe about them. Maybe their diet contains natural tranquilizers. Maybe people just chill out at Wildflower. Whatever - the spirit of this race was much more peaceful than the high-strung, freaked-out aura we get at some of the FL races. It suited me just fine.
As I set up my gear I ran into a couple of the pros I am friendly with and saw some of the big guns setting up their places. When they walked away I deflated their tires and put thumbtacks in their shoes.
Just seeing if you were paying attention.
At the swim start I made a tactical decision to start on the far left side (the buoy was about 200 yards out and on the right) with the intention of avoiding the pack and cutting across. That was a mistake, as I did not get out fast enough to cut over, and instead got pushed to the outside and swung wide around the buoy. As we headed down I had to swim my way through about half the pro pack. I could see the swim leaders about 25 yards ahead at the 2nd turn buoy, but was never able to catch up. Instead I led the chase pack for a few minutes, then settled in. A hundred yards from the finish I swung out and pushed it to come out 2nd from the chase pack with the 11th fastest swim on the day.
In T1 I went with a jersey, socks, and gloves, as the air temp was around 50 and I'm a Florida boy. It was slow but probably worth it.
Then we hit the bike - immediately into rolling hills, and then a 400 foot climb to exit the park put a hurtin' on my legs. 3 guys passed me in the first 2 miles. Another 3 passed me in the first 10 miles. At about mile 15 I started to warm up and passed 2 pros who had probably gone out too fast. By mile 20 I had found something of a groove and felt comfortable. I wasn't cranking like I wanted to be, but I wasn't sucking wind, either. For about 8 miles I could see a tight pack of 8 riders about 400 yards ahead, but I was never able to catch them. Instead I caught and passed a couple more pros who had been hanging off the end of the pack.
My good ride came to an end at around mile 32, though, when I was pulled over for a staggering violation. This is an old USAT rule that requires that professionals in a non-drafting race ride off the line of the rider directly in front. This means if the rider in front of you is riding on the white line (no matter how far ahead they are), you should ride 2-3 feet towards the middle of the lane (not to be confused with blocking). The rule is usually enforced in Duathlon. Since I missed the meeting, I also missed the announcement that this rule was in effect.
Ignorance, as they say, however, is no excuse. I immediately pulled over and asked if I had been too close to the next rider (about 12 meters up). "No," was the reply, "you are getting a staggering penalty." Three guys whizzed by as I stood on the side of the road. In big pro races, if you get a foul on the bike you have to come to a complete stop and unclip both feet. A quick mark or banding and you lose maybe 45 seconds to 1 minute. But you also lose contact with whomever you may have been riding near. If you're feeling great, pull back up and start passing people. If you're feeling ok, get your groove back and ride baby. If you're feeling lousy, ask the official for a ride home. But you won't get it!
So I laughed it off, said thanks to the official (who is just doing his job, however pissed you may get about receiving a penalty), and went looking for my groove, but it had scampered away into one of he many prairie dog mounds that line the course.
The next few miles were uneventful. Another two pros slowly passed me. Then we came to Nasty Grade at around mile 42.5. This is an 800-1000 foot climb in the space of about two miles. Nasty is the only clean word I can think of for it. F&cking Horrible Grade is more like it. All you can do is sit and spin your climbing gear or stand and muscle up it. I didn't have a small enough gear for this one so stood up for the climb. Another super fit pro passed me on this hill, and had the gumption to look over and say, with a smile, "Now the fun really starts, heh?"
He got the point and left me alone when I projectile vomited on his jersey.
After that all we had to do is ride back into the park. No one else passed me. Rolling hills the whole way. Once in the park the crowd got me back into it, and I heard Bri yelling for me as I entered the transition. I quickly took off my cycling outfit, threw on my running gear…
And then sat down to stretch out my legs in the Sin Bin while the official counted off my two-minute penalty.
As I waited another three riders came into transition, and I ran out between two of them. One was Gordo Byrn, a venture capitalist turned professional triathlete and triathlon coach who hosts a triathlon discussion board that I frequent. We had a sort of unofficial bet going on who could beat who at this race - typically, I'm a better swimmer and he's a better runner. Needless to say, as we ran out of the transition together, I didn't hold my breath. I stayed ahead for about a mile, but that's when he warmed up, picked it up, and ran by - after a few friendly words, of course.
The Wildflower run course is exceptionally nice, with much of the running on hard-packed dirt trails, and the weather was perfect for me - around 75 and dry when I started my run. It does, however, feature two of its own nasty grades between miles 5 and 6. Put it this way. My mile 4 four split was about 6:50. Mile 5 was about 9:30. Mile 6 was 8:50. I couldn't run up these things - had to power walk with the hands on the knees.
After mile 6 I was able to get my pace back up and found a decent rhythm, right around seven minute miles. I even passed a runner - a rare occurrence for me (though he was walking and holding his side - not that it matters!). My feet were numb, but my legs held up well and I was able to keep my knees up and run with good form. I never bonked. I ate 1 Powergel at mile 8, and that plus Gatorade was enough to keep me fueled through the run (I also drank a bottle of Sustained Energy and had a couple shots of Hammergel on the ride).
At mile 10 we came to a long steady downhill, and I could see my competition heading back up it towards Lynch Hill for their final sprint (Lynch Hill is a mile long and descends 500 feet or so). Among them were Lance Muzslay, a fellow Ocean City Beach Patrol veteran and top IM competitor, about 2 minutes ahead of me, and Josh Allen, a former Tri-Gator, about 30 seconds behind me. I tried to pick it up a bit to see if I could catch Lance, who I've never beaten in a triathlon, but didn't get there. Instead, Josh caught me at the top of the hill while we both passed another young pro who had given everything he had for the day.
I descended somewhat cautiously, as I didn't want to blow out a knee and I could feel my hamstrings screaming a bit. Once I made it down, the first lady pro, Katja Maher, appeared from out of the blue with every intention of running me down in the finishing chute. As I sprinted by Brianne, the fear evident in my eyes and gait, she told me that I was in the doghouse if I let "a girl" catch me at the finish.
I stayed ahead - then got out of the way of the press as they swarmed the champion.
That's pretty much it. I was reasonably happy with the race. My splits were 24.23, 2.41.06, and 1.35.45. With the transitions and penalty my final time was 4.46.29, good for 34th pro and 53rd individual overall. I wanted to be 10-15 minutes faster on the bike, but after seeing the run course I am pretty happy with my half-marathon time. Next time I do the race I'll also line up better for the swim to try to make the first swim pack.
Tips and advice for possible Wildflower Long Course competitors:
Train for it. Ride in the hills as much as possible. Find a 500 to 1000-foot climb you can work into your training schedule (a grade of 7-8% would be perfect). Or ride a 100-foot climb 10x in a row.
Run in the hills at least once a week for a couple months. Practice your uphill and downhill gaits - there are several sharp downhills that can make or break you.
Either prepare so well that you and suffering are old friends, or prepare to hurt badly on this course. It is not first-timer or novice friendly in any respect.
Warm up on a bike trainer before the race. You need to be ready to get up the first climb with some loose muscles and a minimum of energy expended.
Fly out on Wednesday or earlier. I had planned to swim and run Thursday and then ride 40 minutes on Friday morning, but did none of it due to travel, exhaustion, and mechanical difficulties. While this didn't ruin my race or my weekend, it didn't help my race day performance.
Site the swim course markers. There are only 3 major buoys, and the return to the swim finish is best described as "hard to see." There is a dock with 3 gas tanks you can aim for on the return, then cut sharp left and head for the balloon-marked finish.
Hydrate and fuel enough and in a timely manner. The dry, cooler air is deceptive.
Know the rules. Ignorance is no excuse.
Smile when you finish. Chances are some of the best athletes in the world are watching and cheering for you.
Review of the race:
Fantastic. A plus. Camp out if you have the means, but if not the nearest hotels are about 40 minutes away. The Cal Poly student volunteers are all over the place. The expo/festival area is top notch. The live entertainment is great. The setting is unparalleled - anyone in the area is doing the race, watching the race, or working the race. I missed most of the guest speakers but they included people like Lance Watson and Chris McCormack. The organization of the transition areas and all associated logistics was also well done. My only complaint was that a very small section (yards) of the bike leg was on dirt. The only event that compares in Florida is St. Anthony's Triathlon in St. Petersburg. But Wildflower's setting, camping, & entertainment beats St. Anthony's hands down.
And now you better read Brianne's Sunday Olympic distance race report - she kicked some &ss.