Thursday, May 7, 2015

Wildflower Triathlon Festival: A Race Like None Other

This is just a small part of the awesome festival that goes on
during Wildflower. It's an experience like no other race.
Several years ago I made a list of races that I wanted to do at some point in my life. After everything I had read about Wildflower and after learning so much of the history of triathlon, I knew this was a must do event. It has been around since before I was born and is one of the oldest triathlons in the country. It has launched careers with breakthrough performances by many now world class triathletes. It is known as an extremely challenging course that will test your legs on the the bike and run courses. And it is known as one amazing weekend where thousands of people converge in the middle of nowhere in California for this Woodstock-like event.

Tri-California puts on an amazing event. Wildflower certainly lives up to the hype and their employees are all wonderful. The amount of work they put into making sure this is a great experience for everyone is second to none. For the professional field nothing is left unattended to. They help take care of lodging and food for the entire weekend. They promote the athletes and given them plenty of opportunities to represent their sponsors. Their communication leading up to and throughout the event is excellent and greatly appreciated. I can't speak highly enough about their professionalism and courtesy, and I would absolutely say that this is a must do event for any long course triathlete. It is something you have to experience for yourself.

The travel for the race was a long day. We flew from Rochester to San Jose Thursday night after work. We got into San Jose pretty late, so we stayed there and saved the more than two hour drive for Friday morning. We arrived down to the park just before noon on Friday. I unpacked my bike and then took it for a spin. After watching the Southwest baggage handlers throw it around on the tarmac as they loaded the plane I was fortunate to escape with only a broken rear draft box and not a cracked frame or wheel, but that's a story for another time. I rode for about an hour, which felt good after a long day of traveling and sitting in uncomfortable airplane seats. Then I did the normal pre-race registration stuff and went to the athlete meeting. That all wrapped up a little after 5pm, so we headed for dinner and then to our hotel in Paso Robles, which was about half an hour from the race site. Many athletes camp out at Wildflower, and Tri-California offers to put professional athletes up in home-stays or cabins, but since my dad, Jen, and Becky were all there we opted for the comfort of a hotel a little further away.

Race morning we made the drive down to the park without any issues. Getting in to the park was much easier and quicker than we planned for, so we ended up being a little bit early, which was fine by me. I'd rather be early and have time to carefully check everything over than to feel rushed and use nervous energy hurrying around.

Because the area has experienced such a horrible drought, the format of the race has had to be slightly modified. The lake is completely dried up where the swim normally is, so they had to move the swim down to where there is still some remaining water, which is a little over two miles from transition. We got shuttled down to the start after setting up transition. After the swim you then have to run the 2.2 miles from the lake to transition before heading out on your bike. Then you finish with a 10.9 mile run and your two runs are added together for your run split. It is unique but they did a great job of making it work. As you exit the water there is a second transition area set up where you can place a pair of running shoes to have for the first run, which goes through the dried up lake bed. It was crazy to think as we ran through there that there should be water 30 feet above our heads. Hopefully the area gets the rain it needs to restore the lake and end the drought for everyone who lives there. It looks like a wildfire waiting to happen.

The actual race:

Wildflower. The One and Only... 
The race was an 8am start, so a little later than most races. The weather was perfect with light winds, a clear sky, and temperatures starting around 60F. It warmed up throughout the day, but it probably topped out at about 80F. I got in the water for a warm up and then lined up with the other professional men. I tried to put myself right in the middle of the pack so I would have a good opportunity to find some feet to draft on and have a better swim. Unfortunately, I swam like garbage again. It was so frustrating to come out of the water and see that I was on 30 minutes again. I have been stuck there for an entire year, despite having significantly better swims in the pool lately. I just can't seem to crack that barrier and mentally it is taking its toll on me. Obviously I need to make adjustments, but I just don't know what those are right now. Hopefully I can find some answers sooner than later.

The uphill run out of the water. OUCH!
Coming out of the water you had to run up a pretty steep boat launch that really jacked up your heart rate. I got my wetsuit off and put my running shoes on for the run to the other transition. It was mainly through dirt trails where the lake bed was. I beat one professional male out of the water and about three quarters of a mile into the run he came flying by me like I was standing still. He turned out to be Ryan Hall's (the US Olympic marathoner) younger brother. Awesome.

So I ended up being the last professional male to head out on the bike, which is a place I've been before and am not fond of. It actually took me a while to reel anyone in, but eventually I started picking a few guys off. This bike course is no joke. There are some serious climbs and the first one comes about two miles into the ride. Patience is important. I made sure not to blow my legs up too early. There was also a really bad patch of road around a mile in where I hit a bunch of potholes, causing my front water bottle to explode out of its cage. Perfect. By mile 20 I had caught five guys and was feeling pretty good. And then the worst part of my day occurred... An official on a motorcycle pulled up next to me and told me to "stand down." I knew I was receiving a penalty, but I had no idea what for. I pulled over, stopped, and waited for him to come back to me. I asked him what the penalty was for and he told me it was for not being staggered enough as I passed the last person. Basically, I needed to be wider when I went by him than I was. I could not believe it. The pass took place as we made a right hand turn, so I thought the penalty was a bit harsh, but there was nothing I could do about it so I stood there and waited as he counted down the time until I could resume riding. As I stood there, four of the guys I had passed went back by me. It was so disheartening to have that happen and it sort of broke my spirit for the race for a while. I wanted to quit in frustration. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, my time was served and I could resume. It was a long, straight road, so I could see a long way ahead. I could see three of the guys way out in front of me and the frustration got worse. "I should be up ahead of them," I kept telling myself angrily. After a lot of self talk I finally pushed it out of my mind and let myself accept it for what it was. I learned from my mistake and will be careful to not let that happen again.

Done with a difficult and frustrating ride.
I kept riding and re-passed each of those guys again. Around mile 40 I was in for another surprise. This is the first course ever that I have not driven ahead of time to give myself an idea of what it is like and do some recon so I know what to expect. There simply wasn't time for me to do that with the travel for this race. As I rounded a left hand bend in the road I came abruptly to a steel deck bridge. I locked up my brakes and froze in place. I haven't ridden over a steel deck bridge since my crash in October of 2012. I had flashbacks and a bit of an anxiety attack. I debated getting off my bike and walking across, but it was a pretty long bridge and walking across it with bike shoes on would have been a nightmare. Slowly, I started riding over it. I think my knuckles were white from how tightly I was gripping my handlebars. I made it over without incident. When they are dry and not icy, they really aren't that bad to ride across, but I still don't like it. Immediately after the bridge you start the climb called "Nasty Grade." It was a long climb (a little over three miles) with parts that were quite steep. After reaching the top you get to do some nice descending, but with not knowing the roads that well I held back a little more than I probably needed to. If I ever do this race again I will know that and be able to ride differently. A few more hills and it was back into transition. With the penalty I rode a 2:30:43 bike split on 286 Normalized Power. I'm definitely pleased with being able to put out those kind of watts for that long. All the riding and hard trainer sessions are clearly paying off.

After a quick transition I headed out on the run course. It was kind of nice knowing we already had a little over two miles in the bank and the run would be a bit shorter. It was a good thing, too, because this run course was brutal. Probably 60-70 percent of it was on dirt trails, and it was soft dirt trails. Parts of it were almost like running on a beach. It sucked the life out of your legs. And there were hills that were so steep up and down I think I would rather have had someone kick me in the teeth repeatedly than try to run up or down them. My average pace for the run was 6:54 per mile, which isn't great, but for this course it was respectable and I was decently pleased with it. There was one mile of the course that took me 9:02 to cover. Ouch! The course finished with a downhill section that tore my quads to shreds. It was by far the most demanding run course I have ever raced on and it is one that I will never forget, which is what Wildflower is all about.

The finishing chute was awesome.
I crossed the line in 4:36:25 and was the 23rd professional male out of 32. Not exactly where I wanted to be, but in looking at the results the penalty cost me about three spots. I might have been able to sneak up one or two more if I had known the course and didn't waste free speed in a few spots and stop at the bridge, but that's all speculation. At the end of the day, I ended where I did and that's what I have to continue to work from.

Here is a link to my Garmin file from the race: Wildflower Bike Course

All in all, Wildflower was an awesome experience. It was a bucket list race for me and the energy and atmosphere there was unlike any other race I have ever done. I would absolutely recommend it to every triathlete. It really is like the Woodstock of triathlon and will be an experience you'll always remember. Despite my frustration from another poor swim and receiving a penalty on the bike, I am glad I picked that race and got to experience it. Plus it was my first ever trip to California.

Awesome support from my family, as always.
After the race we headed back to the hotel to clean up and then out for dinner. We decided to make the drive over to the Pacific Ocean and I'm really glad we did. The coast was beautiful and is so much different than the Atlantic. We were even able to stick our feet in the (really cold) water. It was nice to spend time there watching the sun start to set with Becky, my dad, and Jen. As we were getting ready to leave we even saw a whale breaching out in the water. It came up above the surface a few times and was really awesome to see. We enjoyed a nice dinner in a quiet little restaurant in the town of Cambria and then called it a night. Sunday morning it was time to pack up and head back to New York.

A whale!

I get to marry this girl this summer!