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Wildflower Half-Ironman Race Report

Wildflower - Long CourseLet’s just start with a little description of this race.  Started twenty nine years ago, Wildflower has become one of the “it” races in the triathlon world.  Considered by many to be the toughest race in North America and to have one of the best festivals/expos, the event draws incredible crowds and incredible athletes.  Only two North American races routinely draw impressive international and professional athletes: Kona and Wildflower.  The whole energy and atmosphere is truly remarkable.  Racing at Wildflower is likely the closest an age-grouper, like myself, will ever get to experiencing what it must feel like to ride the Tour d’France.  Over 25,000 spectators come to cheer for over 3,000 athletes.  When you factor in that there is basically no lodging, meaning everyone camps, Wildflower certainly justifies its tagline of: The One and Only.

All that being said, the race itself is nothing short of amazing and amazingly brutal.  The location, Lake San Antonio, in the central wine region of California, is beautiful.  Green, rolling hills cover the countryside.  The Lake is clean and blue, just like the air.  The absence of hotels, roads, and indoor plumbing just adds a nice touch.  The swim is like many other lake swims, except thousands of people cheer the start and finish.  Usually, I only get goosebumps leaving the water when it is chilly.  At Wildflower though, each wave start is greeted by a rowdy, rambunctious cheer.  As the athletes exit the water, the spectators are lined on either side of the chute to Transition, passionately supporting everyone, from the fastest pros to the struggling first-timers.

After the T1, most riders know the terror that lies ahead.  The bike course is unforgiving, challenging, and will crush anyone unprepared to tackle it.  With over 3,500 ft of total climbing in 56 miles, it is not for the faint of heart.  The course starts blandly enough, proceeding idly along the lake shore for just under two miles, not nearly enough time for your legs to prepare.  After a sharp right turn, the course begins to break even the strongest of riders as you climb out of the Lake.  This hill may be the toughest of the day and coming so quickly, no one is physically ready.  After a 1.2 mile swim, even Lance Armstrong would find most of his blood struggling to shunt from his upper-body to his legs.  Suffice to say, that climb sucks.  But, it only gets worse.  The entire bike course consists of hills, hills, and more hills.  While the descents are great, some steep enough to permit aggressive racers to exceed 55 mph, the climbs are on the other side that the “great” spectrum.  In particular, from mile 40 to 45, the course starts to climb.  The hill starts subtly, almost like it is sorry.  After about a half mile, all feelings of pity and remorse leave the course and she punishes each rider, with merciless intent, as the pitch gradually but noticeably gets worse and worse.  Packs of riders are reduced to the easiest gear they have, out of the saddle, and pushing with all their might simply to keep the bike in motion.  All thoughts of speed, winning, and time are smashed upon reality of pain.  This hill, called “Nasty Grade”, becomes simply a matter of survival.  After Nasty Grade, two miles of a rocketing descent, the steepest of the day, greet each exhausted rider.  Thankfully, at mile 48, with a mere 8 miles to go, more punishing hills await…

After that debilitating bike ride, an even more grueling run lies ahead.  Unlike the bike, the run starts in earnest, with a small section of stairs leaving T2.  While one flight of stairs sounds rather innocent, trust me when I say, it is not how you want to begin the half marathon at Wildflower.  Beyond the stairs, the rolling course greets you and does it’s best to prepare you for what lies ahead.  The first few miles are manageable, with relatively minor “up and downs”.  Around miles 2-3, the uphill begins.  Getting to Mile 7, the end of the uphill is a major accomplishment.  Unfortunately, it also means you are about halfway.  At this point, many racers have no option but to walk large stretches to allow their depleted legs time to recover.  Scores of seasoned veterans and prime physical specimens will find themselves struggling to simply jog.  From Miles 7 to 9, the course meanders through the two main campgrounds.  Hundreds of cheering spectators greet you at every turn.  These two miles are truly remarkable and a great “pick-you-up” at a much needed time.

Unfortunately, there’s still the last four miles, which really separate those that want it and those that want to finish.  At Mile 9, you turn right onto a paved road and jog downhill for one mile.  The grade is steep enough that’s it is not a pleasant jog.  Adding to the discomfort is the visual of people heading the opposite direction.  That’s right, at Mile 10, meaning only a itsy-bitsy 5K remaining, you make a 180 degree turn and run right back up that same hill.  It is extremely demoralizing to see what used to be people, but are now zombies, cadavers, and skeletons, struggling to “run”.  Most people, if they have not already succumbed to the pain that Wildflower gives you, weaken and wither.  Only the strongest of minds have the willpower to command the legs to continue running.  Mile 11 to 12 is a long, shallow “U” shape, nothing particularly tough about it, except everyone is almost certain burning from excess lactic acid, drained beyond imagination, and just wanting to lie down.  Running this section requires a mind of steel, unwilling to concede the moment.  Cresting the last hill, at Mile 12, takes you to a massive, steep descent to the finishing chute.  Falling here is very easy, but so is sprinting.  It becomes a delicate dance between speed and tumbling.

Finally, you round a corner at the bottom of the hill, spy the finishing chute, the grandstands, legions of screaming fans, and most cherishingly, the finish line!

Here, you can see a brief video showing the map and profiles for the bike and run courses.

Do I love this race?  I assume, since you are reading this, you know the answer is an unabashed YES.  Wildflower is a race like none other.  It will test all that you have and then ask for more.  As this race approached, all I could do was think about getting to the run and letting the games begin.  I craved the pain.  I wanted to see whether I would break.  I wanted to know whether Wildflower would win or whether I would win.  I knew, without a doubt, that the answer lied somewhere on the run and I was dying to find it.  Thus, without further ado, onto my race report…

Pre-Race

The day started rather benignly.  I awoke, ate, prepped, and headed to transition.  Transition was unremarkable, but for one thing: the wind.  For days leading up to this race, wind ruled the day.  I had heard two separate reports that the race day forecast held no wind, but I knew that meant nothing.  Being that my wave started 35 minutes after the start of the race, I had a bit of extra time, so I wandered down to the lake shore.  There, upon the surface, were small, snake-like tendrils from the future.  Like wandering ribbons, the wind was hinting at what it would be that day.  The morning was very calm, but the surface of the lake held the truth: the day would be very, very windy.  I sighed and accepted that fact.  I silently hoped a good swim and slow build might delay the wind until I reached the northern end of the bike loop, thinking if the wind’s direction matched the previous days, around Mile 20 it might become a tailwind.  None of that happened.  Eventually, my time came to head to swim start.  Unlike most of my age groupers, I do not do a pre-swim.  Instead, I wait at the start line, visualize what I will accomplish, and mentally prepare for what lies ahead.  When the gun sounded, I leapt into the water and channeled my “inner-fish”…

Side note, if you would rather watch a brief synopsis than read the full story, here you go… otherwise, skip the video and continue on!

Swim

Ahhh, how I love the swim.  Some people hate and fear the physical nature of it.  I relish it.  Others hate the water.  It calls to me with a unrelenting siren song of love.  Being able to turn off my mind, close my eyes, and only know the movement and feel of the water enveloping me is comforting.  When I get hit, or in turn hit someone else, I don’t mind.  It was not intentional and I know the impact affected that person more than me.

One thing that can, however, be an issue is spotting.  While the topography around Lake San Antonio is one of the things that makes Wildflower so special, the never-ending rolling, green hills eliminate geographic landmarks during the swim.  This forces all swimmers to spot off of buoys, rather than some building or mountain in the distance.  This presents little issue, unless you happen to spot off of the wrong buoy.  Which I did.  Much to my dismay, after cruising along and feeling great, my reverie was broken by a loud THWACK from a paddle being smacked on the water’s surface rather close to my head.  Popping up, a nice, young man politely informed me of my error, redirected me back to the correct, buoy and suggested I head in that direction.  In short, if one can envision a rectangle, rather than swimming down a long side, I swam a diagonal.  Not really what you want to do during a race, where time actually matters.  While everyone else was swimming 1.2 miles, I likely added an additional .2 miles; not smart, not smart at all.  My goal was to have a sub-30 minute swim and I exited the water at 31:08.  I believe I cost myself about 4 minutes and would likely have set a new personal record (PR), but oh well.  That’s what happens when you sight off the wrong target!

T1

Nothing remarkable here.  I opted not to do a flying mount, as the moment you leave T1, you hit a hill.  Having fallen once doing a flying mount because I encountered an unexpected hill too soon, I did not want to repeat that mishap.  I got in, changed, and got out in 2:45, totally fine with that.

Bike

Well, the bike is what the bike is at Wildflower.  Painful, challenging, long, and so on.  On this day, however, those little tendrils of prognostication I glimpsed on the lake during pre-race, became full-fledged furies.  The wind blew and blew and blew.  For nearly the entire bike course, the wind relentlessly pressed against me, sadly rarely on my back.  The first 20 miles were nearly a pure head-wind.  Miles 20 to 30 were nearly a pure side-wind, which nearly dumped me twice and I was using Ksyrium SL wheels (no aerodynamics at all.)  During these 10 miles, I saw rider after rider using aero wheels struggle to maintain control of his bike and was constantly reminded why I love my SLs.  Finally, from miles 30 to 40, the merciless wind actually assisted.  Those ten miles were an extremely welcome respite, especially given what lied ahead.  I used this time to get mentally read to crush Nasty Grade and show my fellow riders what a small, light athlete with decent power can do.

When the road began to elevate, I was ready.  I had previously ditched all excess weight and drained the last of my hyper-concentrated, nutrition-ladden water bottle.  More importantly though, I had a plan.  I knew I could move faster than most other riders and keep my heart rate under control by using my easiest gear to “recover” and shifting three or four gears up, coming out of the saddle, and slowly but methodically using my body-weight.  I employed this tactic during an 8 mile climb at Pumpkinman Triathlon, another half-iron race on hilly terrain, last year to great success.  At that race, I passed dozens of competitors, giggled while cruising up the hill, and still started the run feeling fresh.  As Nasty Grade became nastier, and I could see the struggle on my fellow racers’ faces, I became stronger.  As they weakened under the incline, I became tougher.  This hill would not break me.  My training had prepared me for the pain and I loved riding hills.  Given my weight and my power, Nasty Grade withered before my onslaught.  I was determined and my will was resolute.

After cresting Nasty Grade, I enjoyed the massive descent beyond it.  Flying along at more than double the speed limit is exhilarating, especially after feeling like I conquered something rather brutal.  At this point, with under 10 miles until the end, I just hoped and prayed I would not have yet another deflating flat tire.  (Yes, pun totally intended.)  My timing goals for my last two races were extinquished by flats and I did not want another.  On this day, my luck held and I reached T2 without having to use my repair kit.  Descending the last mile into T2, I began to think about the run and cracked a smile knowing the real tests were about to start.

T2

Boring, slow, and acceptable is all I can say.  I donned socks, started my foot pod, and placed my new P90X visor on my melon.  Jogging out of T2, I took two glasses of water and doused myself in eager anticipation.

Run

More so than the bike at Wildflower, the run is treacherous.  It will take all you have and give nothing.  I could not wait to start.  I exited, ran up the stairs, and cracked my first smile of the run, knowing what lied ahead.  My plan was to run steadily for the first seven miles, open a little from Mile 7 to 10, and then give it everything I had for the last three.  Nutritionally, I carried nothing and intended to hydrate and cool at the aid station.  At each one, I took as much water as I could and splashed myself with it, maybe taking one or two small sips of liquid.  I ate nothing and drank nothing beyond water to keep my body moving.  I knew that if I ran correctly, I would have enough energy and salt to last until the end.  The only “food” I had were two full gel blocks I put in each cheek at the very end of the bike.  The only calories I would get would come from those as they dissolved.

I used the first two miles, of simple, small rollers to get my legs ready.  At Mile 2, you leave paved roads and run the next five on dirt trails.  In places, the trail is very steep, both up and down, but overall, you climb, climb, and climb some more.  In my mind, I have divided the run into four “tests” of endurance, each more challenging than the last.  Test 1 came between Mile 3 and 4.  Last year, this was the first place I broke and was forced to walk.  I was so fatigued and drained, I actually contemplated stopping and accepting the DNF.  This year, I wanted to blow past that point and that’s exactly what I did.

After passing the aid station at Mile 4, there’s about three miles of a steady incline.  This section is very challenging simply because the uphill never ends.  With each turn, you expect it to stop, but it never does.  Often, the incline only gets worse.  Physically, it is tolerable if you are prepaed, but mentally, it can be debilitating.

Unlike last year, I was ready this time.  I knew what I faced and was prepared to meet the challenge.  Keeping my head up and my eyes focused forward, I simply forced my legs to turn over and over.  As the pain swelled, I just maintained.  I knew my mind would try to play some games, but I also knew that if I reached Mile 7, I could “recover” running through the campground because it was flat.  When I reached Mile 7, without walking or weakening, I was ecstatic.  Test 2 was complete and complete with smashing success.

Miles 7 to 9 are amazing.  The crowds, as I mentioned above, are just incredible.  To the greatest extent that I could, I allowed their energy to refill mine.  I also, though, played and had fun.  I would point, cup my ears, and make comments.  I firmly believe that interacting with other competitors and spectators, in a positive and fun way, is phenomenal.  Each time I could do that, just give a little bit of fun or positive energy to someone else, I always found it flowing back to me in greater amount than it left.  I knew, however, that I had to be cognizant here as in these two miles, it is exceptionally easy to get “caught up” in the moment.  Last year, I found myself nearly sprinting and nearly paid dearly for that.  Given how much more I was pushing myself, I could not make that same mistake.  While having fun and playing with the crowds, I used my breathing pace to moderate my speed.  My lungs, in essence, acted as a speed governor, keeping me at my desired pace.

After leaving the campgrounds, I began to prepare myself for Test 3: the hill.  Knowing I would decelerate ascending, I pushed myself a little on the downhill, just letting my legs run free.  Making the turn at the bottom, I covered myself in water, spit out the remainder of the gel blocks, although they were nearly gone, and steeled my mind for what lied ahead.  As the uphill began, I kept my eyes focused ahead.  I did not let doubt or despair enter my mind at all.  I knew it was one mile and I was either going to run it, and run it fast, or pass out trying.  There was simply no middle ground or compromise I would accept.  Reaching the top of the hill, I was drained, battered, and on vapors.  At the aid station, the volunteers had a hose and would ask if you wanted a shower, which I gladly accepted.  Sadly, it did nothing.  I had two miles to the end and knew it would take all my mind had to give to maintain my pace, avoid walking, and finish.

Mile 11 to 12 became significantly more difficult than I ever dreamt.  In my mind, once I reached the top of the hill, I felt like I would be able to cruise to mile 12 because it is mostly flat.  I never thought I would feel like I did.  Exiting the aid station, I began to pant, could feel myself heating, and began to experience a metallic taste in my mouth, a sure sign of excess lactic acid accumulation and generally a problem.  But, I had two miles and did not care.  Pain and suffering would simply have to wait about 14 more minutes.

I cannot honestly say what I did between 11 and 12 as I don’t really remember.  I know it hurt.  I know I was forcing myself to run faster.  I know my heart rate was skyrocketing and I was nearly the absolute end of my energy.  I was entering the black-hole of racing.  A place from which there is no escape but stopping, or much more likely, just falling down.  That mile was, by far, the most challenging mile of any race I have ever experienced.  It took everything I had to keep running.  I tried to talk to my fellow racers, but could not make it happen.  I tried to briefly interact with some spectators, but my mouth had shut down.  Apparently, some sign that it was a non-essential energy drain.  Getting to Mile 12 and starting the huge descent to the finish felt incredible.  I struggled to keep my footing as my speed increased, but was willing to walk the dagger’s edge of falling.  I simply wanted to finish more than I wanted to be safe.  I needed food, I needed water, and I needed anything but to be running.  Reaching the finishing chute and hearing the crowd, gave me the last little bit I needed to sprint the finish and enjoy my rewards!

Post-Race

For the day, my goal time was 5:30.  I finished in 5:33 and am extremely pleased with that.  Knowing that I swam off course, probably costing myself 3-4 minutes, dealing with the wind on the bike, and having two pretty meager transition times, I feel like I raced well and did what I could.

I did have three great moments or things during the race. First, was having a 31 minute swim.  My goal was sub-30, but only having a mere extra minute means I was significantly ahead of my goal, a very positive sign for future races.

Second, like all my recent races, I really focused on giving my fellow athletes some positive encouragement when I could. For obvious reasons, this occurs mostly on the run. I try to “feel stronger” as I progress, whether in training or a race. Given that your mind controls how you feel, I want my mind to feel good and strong, like I am actually improving while my body is slowly being ground into the dirt. At Wildflower, particularly during the second half of the run, any chance I had to say something positive, I took. I firmly believe that you get what you give. If a smile, verbal pat-on-the-back, or other similar gesture helps a competitor, I am fine with that. For the third race in a row, I had complete strangers approaching me in the finisher’s area offering thanks for helping them. While I love racing and pushing myself, knowing that I was potentially a tiny part of someone else having a positive day is significantly more rewarding than shaving another minute off my final time. Even though they will likely never read this since I have no clue who they were, thanks to all those who thanked me!

Third, I am also exceedingly excited, and even more than my swim, about a 1:46 run.  I am not good, smart, or talented enough to adequately capture or describe in words that run course and the challenge it represents.  For me to have a 1:46 is a big statement about my progress and evolution as a triathlete, but even more so, about my mental state.  Running mile repeats or other intervals and really pushing myself when permitted in training has been very tough.  The past few months have been a constant state of pain and discomfort.  Let’s face it, during a training week, I end five days of each week in some level of pain.  But, all of that prepared me to have that 1:46 and be able to handle the pain of race day.

Along those lines, I am constantly reminded of something I heard Chrissie Wellington (one of the best, if not the best, triathletes in the world) say once, if you don’t train with pain, how do you ever expect to race with pain?  Getting my body ready to do it and getting my mind ready to handle it have been brutal but amazing.  I know it sounds crazy, but I love the pain.  I love seeing what I can accomplish.  Few people really ever push the limits of their abilities and it is such a shame.  How do you know what you can accomplish unless you give it your all?  I have never been closer to “bonking” as I was in that penultimate mile but, even while feeling like I was dying, I loved it.  I didn’t just enter the “pain cave”, I jumped in with a smile.  I wanted to fall as far as my body would allow and see if I could not find the bottom.  I knew that meant a total physical collapse, but I was wiling to accept that risk.  It was painful beyond words.  But, I cannot wait to get back there and spelunk further.  Who knows what lies beyond???

Well, until Boise 70.3 in June, more training awaits and I cannot wait!

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