For years, I have heard stories each May of contingents of triathletes making an annual pilgrimage to Lake San Antonio, in the backwoods of central California, to participate in a somewhat mythical-sounding triathlon party weekend known as the Wildflower Triathlon Festival. Consisting of several nights of camping, a half-iron distance and off-road triathlon on Saturday, a collegiate and open Olympic distance race on Sunday, and a whole lot of shenanigans before, after, and in between, this race has an allure that is very different from any other. This year, I decided to skip out on my favorite 12k road race – Spokane’s Bloomsday run – and see what all the hype was about.
A few friends made the trip with me, and we were able to send our bikes with the University of Montana triathlon team, who drove down on Friday. This all made traveling much more pleasant. We arrived at the race course midday on Thursday, allowing plenty of time to acclimate to the warmer temperatures, check out the course, and prepare mentally to tackle a very difficult race. I was finally able to get a couple swims in my new Orca 3.8 Enduro wetsuit. Since the weather hasn’t warmed up yet back home in Missoula, I hadn’t yet had a chance to try it out, and as every athlete knows, untested equipment on race day is a big no-no. Fortunately, I was very happy with the new suit. It felt fast in the water, and so did I. I also got a couple short runs in to keep the legs loose before the race, but I was unable to ride my bike, since it would be in transit until late on Friday evening.
Due to ultra-low water levels (see photo below) there was no water at the regular first transition spot. In order to keep the bike course the same, they split the run course in two, so the race was:
- 1.2 mile swim
- 2.2 mile run
- 56 mile bike
- 10.9 mile run
Between the swim and the bike, we ran up a boat ramp (13% grade for approximately one third of a mile), back down into the lake bed, and through the lake bed (and accompanying sand) to another boat ramp, which we ran up to T1B. From there we proceeded with the rest of the course.
Anyway, after our bikes got in safe and sound on Friday night, I was prepped for race morning on Saturday. I felt really good on the swim, employed some good drafting techniques, and cruised my way to my fastest half-ironman swim to date, just over 27 minutes. I exited the water and was actually kind of thankful for the boat ramp that was T1A. It forced me to transition quickly into “land legs” mode.
Keeping the pace comfortable and concentrating on form and turnover for the first run, I felt quick and light on my feet. Even the sand didn’t seem to phase me much. Since I started in the first amateur wave, with the female pros five minutes ahead, the first run gave me a really good gauge as to where I was in the pack. When I started passing some of the pro women and not seeing as many amateur guys, I knew I was getting near the front. I entered T1B just as the amateur leader was leaving on the bike, according to the announcer.
The bike I am riding this year – an Orbea Ordu – was made for a course like Wilfdlower. Like any time trial bike, it has the geometry and frame design to make it very aerodynamic on the back section of the course, which is predominately flat with some rolling hills, but what Orbea really brought to the table with this bike is the stiffness necessary to attack the huge climbs that loom over every athlete’s mind when preparing for and racing Wildflower. Right out of the gate, one of those climbs hits you right in the face. I found myself floating past people all the way up the climb, quickly moving my way into third place in the amateur field and past the majority of the pro women. I had a few friends in the women’s pro race, and it was encouraging to be in the company of such great athletes on the bike. Near the end of the bike, one guy who was racing as an amateur passed me, so I came off the bike in 4th.
Entering the second run, I knew I had some work to do in order to realize my goal of being the first amateur across the line. I began the run at a comfortable pace, slowly reeling in the first guy in front of me. The temperature was rising.
At mile two of the second run, I caught sight of the leader, about two minutes up the road. I was still in third, but gaining ground. I tried to keep my stride consistent and not let my form fall apart. The temperature continued to rise, now in the mid to high eighties.
At mile three, I stopped gaining ground. I kept taking water and Gatorade at the aid stations, but I realized that I was overheating. The back part of the course is on a dusty trail, and it was unbelievably dry and hot. I trucked on, but my pace gradually slowed and the leaders began to pull away from me. The hills just kept coming, and all the self-doubt I had in me manifested itself in a physical inability to do what I wanted so badly to will my body to do. I began walking the steeper sections. It felt like I was going backwards. People started passing me.
Around mile five, a group of the women’s pro field that I had passed on the bike started to catch me. One by one, I started to see familiar faces. Huge thanks to Charisa, Sue, and Emily, who all provided words of encouragement as they went by me up the final part of the hills. With each successive one, I tried to hang onto the pace, but couldn’t do it.
Finally, at mile 8, there was an aid station with Power Bar gels and ice cold water. I took a gel, swigged some water, and a couple minutes later, I started to feel better. At mile 11, they had bags of ice. I put one in my shirt and things started to improve more. I did get my pace back, but unfortunately it was too little too late. I hung onto whatever my position was at that point through the finish.
To my surprise, I did end up holding on for fourth place in my age group, which earned me a podium spot and a medal. Not quite what I was hoping for, but I’ll take what I can get. The heat has always been my nemesis, and continues to wreak havoc for me in longer races. I do take pride in not giving up entirely, and being able to gain my stride back in the final miles of the run. Now that I know the course layout, I am already looking forward to next year.
Congratulations to everyone who finished the race this year. It was a tough challenge. Big props to the gals mentioned above, all of whom pulled off top-10 finishes, and to Andy Drobeck and Matt Lieto, who did the same in the men’s field.
And for the record, one Elliot Bassett did beat me on the run, by one minute, after walking the majority of the first part of the course due to back spasms. Back in early March, when he was injured as hell and couldn’t run at all, he told me he was going to do that, but I don’t think either of us saw it going the way it did. I’ll get you next time, you little bastard!
Here’s to some great company, a challenging race course, and a whole lot of fun! Next up: six weeks of good, solid training, then Wasa Lake, followed by Pacific Crest, two of my all-time favorites.