Wildflower Triathlon, an event known and revered around the globe due to its 30 year history and international media attention. It has launched the careers of many up and coming professional triathletes, and humbled many more. For local Santa Barbara triathletes, Wildflower is synonymous with the start of the triathlon season, probably the most widely attended race outside the immediate area. What is it about this race?
Could it be the Woodstock festival labeling, because who doesn’t like camping in a campsite best suited for 1-2 tents with 5-10 tents? Maybe it’s just the sheer number of volunteers, mostly Cal Poly students getting their community service hours, helping out when they’re not partying the night away, with their beer bong at mile 2 on the run? Or could it just be the course, arguably one of the hardest Olympic and half Ironman distance races you’ll ever do, with lightly trafficked roads for the bike ride, and a run contained wholly within the park? Probably a little of each.
I returned to WF after a two year break, having focused on marathons since my last long course race. Last time I was focused on a top five finish, “the podium”, trying to morph my IM training knowledge into the half. Little did I know that my psoas was once again going to be my limiter, managing to run myself from 4th place off the bike into 8th place in my AG. I was there, but then not.
WF was preparing for a big 30th anniversary weekend this year, I was aging up (as good a reason as any to inflict more pain and anguish on my body, no?), so I signed up early for my fifth long course event to go along with nine other Olympic races there, including multiple podiums, no pressure.
One bit of history that precedes all this, WF has long been the race where local athletes went to earn their Hawaii Ironman slots, “back in the day”, before the WTC (World Triathlon Corporation) slowly but surely pulled their slots away from the independent race organizers, the very groups that helped make triathlon and Ironman distance triathlon the popular sport that it has become. Local legends have made their names racing at WF and I have been lucky enough to know and race with many of them, their times and results higher up on the list and faster than my genetic capability allows. I would train and race as hard as I could, tying to do justice to their past results.
With all this as background, all that was needed was a little race day motivation to help me push myself as hard as I could go. Unbeknownst to them, three of my AG competitors provided just the fire I needed prior to the swim start. Standing idly around our bikes in T1, three guys next to me, jokingly or not, pointed to themselves and said “This looks like the podium today.” Not recognizing any of their faces, knowing that at least one tri-mutant (a triathlete who had the good luck to pick a set of parents who contained both endurance and strength in their DNA) and possibly more were entered in the race, I wondered who they were and could I upset their dreams. Off we went.
Foggy goggles to start the swim forced me back into a pack of swimmers I did not want to be in, so I found myself in a dogfight to the first buoy, not how I like to start a 5+ hour day. I swam the entire course fighting to make up for lost time, finishing right on my hoped for time. Job one done, not a lot of bikes had left T1 yet, a good sign.
Pacing on the long course bike rewards you with legs to push up Nasty Grade and take it home to T2, hopefully with something left for the run. Headwinds on the way north for 20 miles made me wonder if I was saving enough energy, but starting in one of the last men’s waves, all I had to judge my forward progress was slower athletes from previous waves and the numbers on my computer. I kept telling myself to fuel the machine and to trust in my training.
I passed one of the three guys I saw in transition on Nasty Grade, he passed me back before heading into the park, so I just kept him in sight. We exchanged glances in T2, he headed out on the run; there were only three bikes on the racks, mine and two others. When I catch an AG competitor, I tend to slow down as I approach them, regather my energy, and then make my move. He responded and we ran side-by-side on the dirt trail for a few minutes, but then dropped back, calling out that he thought we were 2nd and 3rd, with Kim, the aforementioned tri-mutant, out in front. I gave him a thumbs up, hoped to never see him again until after the finish line, and then pondered the thought that I was actually in 2nd place, with 11 miles left to defend my position.
Once again pacing and hydration, dealing with the warm conditions, and getting myself to the mile 6 aid station, past the long steep dirt hills, took all my attention. Heading back uphill at the out and back section on the course, with 5k to go, about 100m past the turnaround I saw another one of the three guys from transition, and he saw me. A few minutes later he pulls up on my shoulder and in a very sportsmanship like way, extends his hand and says “I’m a straight up guy, good job”, and moves on. Damn, but hopefully I’m still in at least 3rd, knowing that if history is any indication, they give nicer awards to the top three finishers, another carrot to go chase!
To say the last 2-3 miles of a half IM distance race are hard is an understatement, and on this course, two of them are mostly uphill. Some people say they’re going to save something for the last few miles of a marathon (what a bunch of BS!), I am not one of them. When I'm racing, I am running as hard as I can, for as long as I can, so there’s nothing left to “pick it up”, “find another gear”, until the finish line chute, and that could not come soon enough.
With a slower than hoped for bike split (it is what it is, was it windy or was it just me?), and my tight hamstrings limiting my ability to pick up the pace on the downhill sections of the run (of which there are many!), my final goal was to go under 5.5 hours, well off my hoped for goal time, but the thought that I was in the top 3, my first time in a half Ironman distance event, was reward enough for a tough day, and I just made it.
The 2nd place finisher, only a couple minutes ahead it turns out, was still in the finishing area, so we exchanged pleasantries, he repeated that he thought he got 2nd, me 3rd, and I headed off to find my wife, get something to drink, and wonder if I had done enough. Turns out I did, third place on the day in my age group, very cool. Typical of any race of this scale, the awards take a long time to start and a long time to finish, so it wasn’t until 8:30 that we got back to the hotel to get cleaned up, before heading out for well deserved beer, 25 oz, thank you very much!
The only question to be answered now was when USAT emails me to ask if I would like to compete for Team USA at the World Long Course Triathlon Championship race on July 29 in Vitoria, Spain, is do I have the will, the desire, to fly to Europe to join the fun. A one lap, mass beach start 4k lake swim, a two lap 120k ride around the lake, and a four lap 30k run in what is reported to be a very scenic old town in Spain, does that sound like a lot of fun? To be continued…