Step 1: Swim in this lake.
Lake San Antonio (pictured above) is now 96% empty, making Wildflower even more unique than before. Because the California drought has caused the lake to creep 2.2 miles away from the original swim start, the format is now 1.2 mile swim, 2.2 mile run, 56 mile bike, 10.9 mile run.
This is the view of the swim start in 2008.
And the same boat ramp in 2015.
We camped out the night before the race, atop a hill overlooking the puddle that would serve as the swim venue. This would have been a super convenient location were it not for the multiple transition areas. Race morning required some maneuvering as I dropped off my bike and second pair of run shoes across the park at the “Real” transition, and then deposited my first pair of run shoes and my wetsuit bag on the boat ramp that served as “T1a”
The lake temperature was announced as 73 degrees, which was downright toasty once you got moving! The water was murky, but overall the swim was smooth.
I was excited to knock off a few of the run miles early in the race while my legs were still fresh, but before you start the 2.2 mile T1 run, you have to first ascend the world’s longest boat ramp. Steep and seemingly endless, T1a was lined with spectators, cheering on the turtle race of soggy runners who were, of course, too proud to walk this early in the day.
The first run went well, I made up some time I had lost to the faster swimmers, and I started to keep an eye out for the women who had been leading my wave.
The beginning of the bike course was technical and hilly, but once I got out to the loop, I was able to settle in to a good pace and fully embrace the ache already accumulating in my legs, and the hot sun burning down on my shoulders.
For the most part, I had the roads to myself out there, but every once in awhile I could hear the approaching hum of a disc wheel as one of the men from the wave behind me whisked past in a flash of shiny carbon and hairless, chiseled legs. Occasionally, I caught other women, and I checked for the ages written on their calves: 32, 34, 33. Great!
Not my age group anymore.
30-34 was the wave ahead of me.
As the ride wore on, the day got hotter and I saw fewer and fewer women. And finally, there were none. I hadn’t seen a single 35-39 since before T1. At Mile 42, I slowly picked off the sweaty boys grinding up Nasty Grade, the 5 mile climb regarded as the signature feature of Wildflower’s bike course.
After that ride, there wasn’t much left of my legs, so I was especially grateful that “only” 10.9 miles of hot, dry, rugged, trail running lay ahead of me…
I thought I had trained and trained for trails and hills, but that run course showed me who’s boss.
I walked early and often, on the steep climbs, and through the numerous aid stations.
But within the first four miles, it was clear that the transition back to running after each walk break was getting harder and harder to manage. Like an old VW bus stalling at every stoplight, my walking legs refused to kick back into action, so once I finally got them going again, I knew I just had to hang on to that momentum for all it was worth.
I’m pretty sure I was running up those hills slower than a casual stroll. My mouth was dry, my legs burned, and my feet screamed the loudest of all. But I just kept running.
Time and distance started to distort in my mind. How far yet to go?
16 more miles?
or was it 60?
That would take at least 4 more hours, which was only 1,081 more minutes. Unless I did my math wrong.
The saving grace out there in that hot, dusty hell was the volunteer squad, undoubtedly the greatest on earth.
Comprised of boisterous Cal Poly students in over-sized hats and under-sized shorts, packs of them would emerge, leaping and hollering as though it was the first time they’d ever seen a triathlete in action. Each aid station was a high-speed human carwash, with refreshingly icy water splashing and spraying from all sides. As soon as I downed the cups of water and Gatorade, new ones magically appeared in my hands.
Four miles from the finish line, the course played a nasty trick on me. I vaguely recognized the route since it paralleled the bike course, and I remembered that just up ahead, the road would veer left and then head down-down-down Lynch hill to the finish. As I neared the turn, a forest of road cones suddenly steered me to the right, away from the finish line. And up a really big hill.
Surely this was a joke.
Did anyone know I was going the wrong way?!
I searched the volunteers’ faces, desperately willing them to call out, “Whoops! turn around here!” but they just smiled and clapped as I passed.
Regardless of whether it was scientifically possible to reach the finish line by going the opposite direction from it, I bravely soothed myself with the reassurance that the course hadn’t actually just gotten longer. Four miles is still four miles no matter which direction it faces.
Because this course never doubles back on itself, there is no way to gauge who might be ahead or behind, but by this time, I didn’t care. I was laser focused on one single goal: get to the other side of that finish line…and lie down. Or maybe first rip these horrid shoes off my aching feet, hurl them into Lake San Antonio, and then lie down.
This was merely a fantasy.
Ultimately, I didn’t indulge in a dramatic and well-deserved collapse at the end of the finish chute.
Only world class pros do that.
In the post-race holding pen, I finally saw my (only) competition. Amy VanTassel: tall, lithe, and looking as fresh as if she’d already had a nap and a shower in the time it took me to amble on in.
I congratulated her on her race and she said, “Oh my god. That was just…awful. So. Awful”
Why yes, yes it was.
…But I have a feeling she’ll be back next year.
And so will I.
Women’s 35-39 Podium