May 14, 2012

Wildflower Long Course (Race Report)

I may be a little late, but I finally managed to put together a race recap for the awesomeness that was Wildflower. And once again let me just say that if you've never experienced these races, put them on your list! Seriously. This recap became ridiculously long, so if you make it through I'll be thoroughly impressed. Enjoy!

I met up with some friends on Friday to head down to the race together. We managed to figure out the puzzle of getting four different bikes on one bike rack and fitting the gear of four triathletes in one car before setting off. The drive was pretty uneventful, but did take longer than I thought. For some reason I was thinking 3.5 hours, when in reality it was more like 5! We stopped to get some groceries before heading to our rental house at Lake Nacimiento. It was getting pretty late at that point so we dropped off our stuff real quick and then headed to Lake San Antonio to pick up our race stuff. On our way there my friends offered to drive the infamous "Nasty Grade" so I could get a sneak peak and know what to expect of this epic hill on race day. It definitely went on for a while, but it didn't seem quite as bad as I'd expected, at least not from a car.
the view from our house!
For those of you who don't know, Wildflower is a weekend-long triathlon festival. There are races on both Saturday and Sunday, and most people camp out at the lake making it one big party. Think Woodstock for triathletes. As we rolled into the campground it was like triathlon city. Tents everywhere, bikes all over the place, gear laid out. Part of me wished we'd camped to get the full experience, but I'll admit having a real bed and shower was pretty nice : ) We parked and then grabbed the shuttle to head down the mile-long Lynch Hill to the race area. The hill was a doozy, but fortunately those doing long course only have to go down it on the bike and run. Since it was so late it wasn't very crowded and we were able to pick up our packets within minutes. Then we checked out the huge transition area right on the lake, took a look at the swim start, and then made our way back.
 sweet tan lines!
 at the top of Lynch
 empty transition
 swim start all ready to go!

When we got back to the rental we made a quick dinner of pasta and then I got to work getting my last minute race things together and double-checking my gear. We hung out and chatted for a while before I realized it was getting pretty late and I should probably get some sleep!

Wildflower has a fairly late start (8am for the pros) and then waves for age groupers, so we didn't have to get up too early. We had to be at the campground by 8am so I went through my usual pre-race routine, ate some breakfast, loaded up my bike and gear, and then were on our way! On race day the shuttle aren't running in the morning so athletes typically ride their bikes down Lynch Hill. My friend had brought along an extra aero helmet and had offered to let me use it. At first I said no way - I didn't want to look like a total poser : / But then my friends reassured me that lots of people would be wearing them and that it would give me an advantage, especially on the descents. And so I donned my fancy helmet said adios to my friends and cruised down Lynch!
trying to figure out the aero helmet...
...and good to go!

There were people everywhere and the air had a tangible excitement to it. I headed into transition and found my spot pretty easily. I lucked out and had a spot literally right next to the bike in and close to the bike out. As I was setting out my gear my coach found me and told me to come meet up with everyone when I was done. I still had a while til my swim start (9:10am) so I headed over to the Team One10 trailer to hang out for a bit. The guys had already started by that point so I hung out with the girls, took some pics, and checked out the swim course. With about 15 minutes to go I got my wetsuit on and grabbed my swim stuff and made my way down to the boat ramp!
 Team One10!
One10 long course gals

My wave (F29 & under and 50+) was the first women's wave. My friends wished me luck and then I hurried down to join the rest of the purple capped ladies. I was confused at first because all of a sudden everyone was in the water swimming out, and the thought crossed my mind that I'd missed the start, but turns out they were just warming up. I got in the water and was pleased to find that it was actually quite pleasant! I'd opted to go sleeveless and was so happy I did. I placed myself a few rows back to the left, and then we were off!

It was a little crowded the first few minutes and some women were pretty vicious, grabbing ankles and throwing elbows. But soon enough it spread out and I was able to get some space. The swim course was an L-shaped out and back so it was pretty easy to follow, just keep the buoys on the right. Instead of doing a lot of sighting I just tried to stay within my wave and make sure there were people around me. My mind often had weird and random thoughts while I'm swimming in open water and this was no different, but I was able to really get into a zone during the middle of the swim. I kept telling myself to focus on my stroke and I think it really helped.
swim course

I finally got to the turnaround and was happy to be heading back, but at this point the fast women from the wave behind mine had started catching up and instead of swimming around us, they wanted to go over us. Thanks, ladies! I also caught some of the slower male swimmers from the wave ahead of me and had a hard time getting around them. They clearly were not very good swimmers and were flailing around in the water, making it difficult to get past them without getting kicked (which I did). Finally I could see the swim finish and I tried to push a little more. I never really know how to gauge my effort in the swim - I usually try to just stay comfortable - so I figured my time would be similar to that of Oceanside, about 40 minutes. So when I stepped out of the water and saw the time on my watch, I was a little shocked to see a 4 minute PR! As I ran up the boat ramp I had a huge grin on my face and when I spotted my friends I smiled and yelled "37!" It was definitely an awesome way to start a race!
right before I freaked out about my time

swim time (1.2 mi): 37:09

The run to transition wasn't too bad, and I was so stoked about my swim that I really didn't care! I peeled off my wetsuit and threw on my bike gear. This was my first time wearing a trisuit in a race and I loved the convenience of it and not having to worry about a shirt in T1. As I grabbed my bike and headed out some volunteers suddenly started shouting at me and pointing at my leg - I had no timing chip! I knew I'd had it on at the swim start, but had no idea where or when I'd lost it. I started to run back to my gear to look for it when they urged my forward to give me a replacement. As they strapped it to my ankle and I got going all I could think about was that my awesome swim time might not even be recorded! I was devastated (and only a little bit dramatic), but the race had to go on.

T1 time: 4:12

As I mentioned before, this bike course is no joke. It's known for being one of the most challenging out there, with relentless hills and often windy and hot conditions. Our first big hill came in the first mile up Beach. It's not quite as bad as Lynch but it was certainly no walk in the park and had my legs burning and heart rate high. At the top we headed out of the park and onto the country roads where we'd spend the next 50+ miles. The first 10 miles I didn't feel all that great. There were some small hills and some flats, but my legs just felt flat. I started to let my head get to me with thoughts of what a long day it would be if my legs were tired now. I tried to just relax and focus on the race and tried to just enjoy the experience for what it was - a long training day. The course was actually quite beautiful, winding through rolling hills of countryside, passing pastures full of horses and cows, riding along oak tree lined roads. It was quiet and peaceful, even when the course got tough!
 climbing up the first hill

Once again I was using this longer day as practice for fueling. My new Speedfil bottle held 40 oz of Gu Roctane (480 cals) and I had three Honey Stinger waffles (480 cals) broken in half and taken approximately every 45 minutes. This seemed to work out pretty well, and I found having the fluids right in my face and available hands free had me drinking a lot more and more frequently. I'll post a more thorough review later but I am definitely happy with it. My stomach held up well and I felt decently hydrated, so I think I'm starting to get a sense of what my fueling strategy will be.

There was a nice long stretch of flat in the middle when my legs perked up a bit and I found myself cruising at 19-20 mph. I was making up good time and watching my average speed come up, but I knew what was coming - Nasty Grade. Around mile 41 the road began to go up and I began the steady climb that would last til mile 45. I was grateful that we drove it the night before because I knew that while it was long, it wasn't too steep, and I knew that it had a false peak where you round a corner and keep going up. If I hadn't known these things I think it would've been very discouraging. I focused on my breathing and tried not to push too hard or think about how much farther. By that time it had really warmed up and I was dripping with sweat as I made my way up. When I finally crested that bad boy and could see the epic descent ahead of me it was a mini victory for the day : ) 

While the up part of the hills were tough, the down parts could be downright scary. Some were steep enough that within seconds you could be going 40+ mph. It's especially scary to descend in aero, but even scarier (and more dangerous) to try and get out of aero while descending. The problem with this is you have to decide at the top of a descent which way you're going to go - obviously aero is faster, but riskier since it's less stable and doesn't give you access to the brakes. There were a few hills that I ended up staying in aero and I just said a little prayer as I flew down them, keeping my eyes trained a few feet in front of me and my body still.
One of the other things that makes this course so challenging is that you've got Nasty Grade late in the course which trashes your legs and puts a dent in your average speed, but then the last 11 miles are a gradual ascent with some good little hills thrown in. Those last miles were pretty brutal for my legs, but another part of my body was in even more pain - my bum. I've noticed in training rides and at Oceanside that after about 35 miles my saddle becomes incredibly uncomfortable, and this time it was downright painful. On even the smallest descents I'd hover over my saddle to relieve some of the pressure only to have it return with seconds of sitting back down. There were moments it was so bad it nearly brought me to tears, and I even contemplated stopping for a bit. I'm pretty sure it's more of a fit issue than the saddle itself, and I have plans to get a good fit soon because God knows my crotch can't deal with that for 112 miles!

So needless to say as I rolled back into the campgrounds I was ready to be off my bike. The last mile was a fast descent down Lynch Hill and I tried to just let loose and not ride the brakes too much. As I entered the chute at the bottom of the hill I spotted my teammates and gave them a big smile before dismounting and heading into transition. I was a little off from the time I'd had in mind, but more than anything I was just happy to have the bike behind me.

bike time (56 miles): 3:34:41
I had a ridiculously slow T2 time, partly since I was still worried about my timing chip and tried to find it, and partly because I honestly just did not want to start the run. I didn't find my chip and eventually I sucked it up and jogged to the run out, stopping briefly to empty my bladder.

T2 time: 4:55

The best word to describe this course is brutal. Partly because your legs are so trashed from the bike, but also because even on it's own, it's a tough half marathon course. It's mostly run on trails winding through the campsite and around the lake so it's quite scenic and has a ton of crowd support, but has plenty of hills, too. From the start my legs just didn't have anything. The first few small hills had my quads and calves burning, and they were only a taste of what was to come. Fortunately there were some good running sections in the first few miles, but then you hit the crazy hill at miles 4, which I was told "even the pros walk it". You didn't have to tell me twice! In fact, I walked pretty much all the hills and I think that was the only way I was able to keep up some kind of running on the other sections. I took full advantage of the downhills, however, and let myself just rip down them. On one in particular people around me were calling for me to be careful and slow down, and I just kept thinking that you can't! One thing I know is how to run down hills, and you can't hold back!

It was really warm by this point, too. Thanks to the late start I was running right in the middle of the day, and temps were reaching the mid-80s. I understand for many this isn't all that hot, but with the mild weather we've been having I haven't much time to acclimate to warmer temps. Fortunately the aid stations were great and had plenty of water and hoses at a few to spray us down. I took full advantage every time! 

The volunteers are also what makes this race so special. The majority are students from nearby Cal Poly University and for them it's like a huge party. They were easily the most enthusiastic volunteers I've encountered at any race! Another "tradition" is for some of the volunteers to be, ummm....nude. Apparently they'll just hang out at aid stations sans clothes. Not really sure what the reasoning is, but I can't say I'm all that surprised. So with about 8 miles under my belt and no naked encounters, I thought it might just be an urban legend. But then I rounded a bend and bam! Naked lad, hands held out for high fives. As I approached I raised my hand only to pull it away at the last second, unsure of just how clean that hand was : / He was blatantly drunk (which is probably to be expected), but looked like he was having a good time. Certainly a memorable part of the race!

I was fading in the second half and struck up conversations with some of the people around me to commiserate. It seemed everyone was struggling so it was nice to not be alone. Running through the campground was a great boost, too as everyone was out cheering. Team in Training has a big presence at this event so it was fun and a little nostalgic to hear everyone yelling "Go TEAM!" At mile 9 we arrived at "the pit" a mile-long out-and-back that is a gradual downhill on the way out, but then turns into a nasty uphill for tired legs. Long before I reached this point I stopped caring about my time. I knew I was going to be off from where I'd hoped, and I honestly didn't care. I wasn't focused mentally during the run and my body was just too tired to push harder. I gave everything I had left to get to mile 12, knowing that the last mile was down Lynch. I let my legs fly and when I entered the chute I did my best finishing kick, savoring the cheers around me and finishing feeling proud.
run time (13.1 mi): 2:18:02

I was pretty exhausted, so all I wanted to do was head to the team's trailer and sit down. My body was definitely fatigued, but nothing specific ached except for my feet. I knew I had some nasty blisters because I'd felt them on the run, and my toes were bruised from the steep downhills. I met up with everybody and we shared congratulations and shared stories of from our day. Then we headed down to the dock to take a post-race dip in the cool water - it was glorious!
hahahaha possibly my favorite race pic!
 post-race soak!

total time: 6:38:59

After hanging out for a while we decided to head up to the expo to check out the merchandise and get something to eat. I snacked on a strawberry gelato while we shopped which totally hit the spot. While my friends were chatting at one of the booths my other friend and I were talking with a vendor about the race and the question of who'd won came up. I piped in and said that I was pretty sure defending champion Jesse Thomas had won again, and right as I said that, I see a guy walking by with aviators on. If you know about Jesse you know he's known for racing with oldschool metallic aviators on; it's sort of become his signature thing. And wouldn't you know it, there was Jesse Thomas 20 feet away from me! I think he might have heard because he glanced our way. Meanwhile I grabbed my two girlfriends to let them know, and then off we were to try and meet him. 

We hovered like little schoolgirls while he gave an interview, and when he was done descended on him to take a picture. He was incredibly nice and humble and seemed extremely genuine. He's a phenomenal athlete that still up and coming, so to win Wildflower back-to-back is really impressive. He's not too bad on the eyes either ; ) We squealed and freaked out for the next half hour while recounting the encounter with anyone who'd listen. No doubt about it, one of the best parts of the weekend!

After calming down from our Jesse encounter we grabbed some food and hung out for a but while we ate, and then I somehow was talked into walking back up instead of taking the shuttle. Bad idea. The hill was steep and long, and my legs were not too happy since they thought they were done for the day! But we made it and headed back to the rental where a nice hot shower awaited. I was left with a nice little sunburn as a souvenir - and I even put on sunscreen! Gotta work on that : /
ready for a nap!
these have now turned into sweet tan lines

All in all I couldn't have asked for a better experience at Wildflower. I'm proud of myself for completing such a challenging course, regardless of what my times were. I also had a fantastic time hanging out with my team and cheering each other on. Wildflower surpassed my expectations and was every bit as amazing as everyone said it would be and then some. It was the hardest triathlon I've ever done, but you can bet I'll be back : )


  1. Congrats Rachel on a great race. Your RR makes me want to go sign up for Wildflower right now. Hope you are fully receovered and are getting ready for IMCDA....only 6 weeks to go :-)

  2. This sounds like a great race and great prep for your Ironman! Congrats on a strong race on a really tough course.

  3. Congrats on finishing such a tough race! This will definitely be good practice for the beast course at CdA!