The Wildflower long is on most triathletes bucket list, and for good reason, everything you hear about the race is true. Over ten thousand people in the middle of nowhere camping out and racing makes for a great weekend. The course is one of the hardest but the atmosphere of the race really carries you through the course. Last year was my first time racing down at Lake San Antonio and I learned many lessons, and my main goal this year was to not make the mistakes I did last year. I managed to avoid them and make a different set of mistakes, fortunately ones that didn't impact the race this time.
As I left Marin and headed south I started recalling my 2012 race, the 4 hour drive alone would give me a lot of time to strategize. Just before I crossed the bridge I was thinking about my biggest mistake last year. I knew it would be hot, 90 degrees+, so I brought just a sheet and pillow to accompany the air mattress in the back of my Suburban. Unbeknownst to me it drops to around 40 degrees at night down in Bradley, and last year I ended up sleeping in my wetsuit for a total of about 45 minutes. I look behind me and realize the truck is once again devoid of any sleeping bag, comforter, anything, about 10 seconds before I pass the last exit before the bridge. I turn around and crisis number 1 is averted.
I'm sure now I have everything I need, so restart the drive and contemplate what awaits the next morning. Racing on a course you know is interesting, on one hand it allows you to push it right to the limit when you know a downhill or easier section awaits, which is great for the Wildflower as it is relentlessly hilly from start to finish. On the other hand along with any bad surprises on the course you won't see you also won't have any pleasant ones. While I did far better this year than last the course was just as much if not more of a mental challenge for this reason. As I thought about these things and unpacked my car the night before the race a large RV was backing up a foot from my truck. I lightly move the door out of his way and it latches... locked... with my keys sitting on the front seat. I had my bike outside the truck and my phone, but to add to the fun there is no cell reception out there. I ride barefoot from my camp site to the front gate to borrow their land line, call AAA, and wait for an hour or so for them to unlock my car, which was another 30 minute ordeal as the tow truck driver could not find the correct tools in his truck.
I got my practice swim in around 6:30 that night, the water was 71 degrees, felt great. I return to my campsite, eat my customary pre race carrot cake and drink 2 warm Anchor Steams, and get under my 3 comforters in preparation for the Antarctic night.
I head down Lynch Hill around 6am and set up my transition, no surprises, all my equipment is in order, stomach feels good, I feel ready for an A race. Since my last race was an Ironman mass start you would think the Wildflower wave starts would be mellow in comparison, especially with my AG split into two groups, but it's not the case. The swim start is a running start in a narrow boat ramp, and is the most hectic start in any tri I've done. I knew this from last year, so even though I'm a middle of pack swimmer I sprinted out past the end of the dock to stay mostly clear of the carnage. I did the swim in 35 minutes, slower than I've done in other halves but I felt 100% coming out of the water.
Right off the bike is a decent 300ft, 10% grade or so climb up Lynch hill, then after this I divide the course into 4 parts - Interlake road, the first 18 miles, which is mostly nonstop rollers with a few small ring climbs. After this you hit Jolon road which is mellower rollers, all big ring, and a long slightly downhill section leading to Lake Naciemento drive at around mile 35. When you take a right onto Naciemento you have 5 miles of uphill rollers and then the big climb, Nasty Grade, 700 ft of climbing at around 7%, then Heart Rate Hill which is another 150ft or so. The last 11 miles is the extremely fast descent from the top and more large rollers heading back to transition.
After climbing Lynch going way too hard I settled into my pace heading towards Jolon, I went pretty hard for the first section and was feeling great. After taking the right on Jolon the heat started making itself known, along with a slight headwind. I didn't mind the headwind so much, last year it was about the same temperature but dead calm and felt much worse. The hardest thing for me is how dry it is out there, much different from the humid heat you can get at coastal races. I scaled back just a bit on Jolon in preparation for Nasty Grade. In retrospect I left too much on the Jolon Section, I could have picked up more time there, going up the climb I felt very fresh which was nice but a bit disheartening at the same time. The last section on the way back to transition I tried to push harder to make up for Jolon but it's hard to make up time here, it's mostly 50mph descents, hard turns, and short, hard efforts on the rollers. I rode the bike course in just over 2:50, which I am happy with considering the course.
On to the run, and much like the bike course, it's never ending hills that seem to come at the worst time. I'll divide the course into 4 parts again, the first is the 3 miles of trail snaking around the lake, which has a few short climbs and one significant one on a paved section, but compared to what comes later it's easy. I was around 10 seconds/mile behind what I run on a flat course coming up to the second section. You hang a right and head up a pretty steep hill, and then several more hills, each steeper than the next. Once you come over the top you leave any amount of shade and the heat really hits you as you descend a steep downhill and run the next somewhat flat section. Miles 5-9 go on like this with some hills, soft dirt, and a lot of heat. The aid stations at the Wildflower are the best I've experienced, and really help you get through this grinding part of the course. I ran slower than I would like here but I was saving something for part 3 - The Pit, which killed me last year.
As you get off the trail at around mile 9 you hang a right onto pavement, climb a steep hill, then see the pit, which is a 1 mile all downhill road that's fairly straight. Seems great... except you have to run back up it, and as you head down it the only scenery is the agony of other racers headed back up. I ran down pretty conservatively in hopes of avoiding walking any of the climb out of the pit, and fortunately it worked out. There was an ever so slight tailwind and it really helped me mentally, though in reality it probably did nothing, I managed to autopilot and run back to the top. You take a right after this and finish up with a lot of soft sand, a few more climbs, and finally the last mile which is all downhill into the finishing chute. I ran it in 1:50, which I was quite happy with. Where I lost the most time I feel wasn't the uphills, it was the downhills, on tired legs I couldn't keep my turnover high enough to take advantage of them and my heart rate dropped lower than I would like. Not a problem I've even thought of in training, but this race is great for bringing those kind of things out.
Just like the vibe everywhere else during the race weekend the finishing chute is great, huge crowd packed onto either side, slightly downhill, lined with flags, feels like an Olympic experience. Much like last year I sat down in the shade after the finish line and sat immobile and unable to stomach any liquid or solid for about an hour. Fortunately I came around eventually and managed to limp to the shuttle several hours later for the best part of the whole weekend, talking about racing with old and new friends by the campfire. My race time was 5:27, far from a half iron PR, but felt like one of my best races as far as executing my strategy. Of course I will be back next year to beat it, suffer through the course again, have 100 things go wrong, and have a great time once again.