The first weekend in May for me has always been the true start of the triathlon season. Yes I know that many races have already been run all over the country (and down in the southern hemisphere), but you’ll have to excuse me for being a little west coast centric, having lived here for 35+ years. For us long time racers, the race weekend up at Wildflower has historically been the first “A” race of the year, the focus of an athlete’s attention since January.
This weekend up at Lake San Antonio, CA, marks the 32 running of the Wildflower Triathlon, so for us old timers, southern and northern Californians alike, we’ve met there in kind of the middle ground to do combat. With the proliferation of races these past 10-15 years, many other options have turned up and filled in the calendar, some even earlier than Wildflower. I’m sure everyone reading this that’s not from the southern California area has their own local go-to race or early season race they gear up for, as you’ve laid out your races for the year.
The thing about these early season races though is the ocean water temperature. I know lots of folks swim in cold water all year long, hovering in the low to mid 50’s, but I personally do not enjoy long swims in water much below 60. Sure I’ve got on a nice wetsuit and I wear a neoprene cap under my race cap, but I’m still not a happy camper with water temps that cold.
I have done the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon when the water was about 55 degrees and I couldn’t feel my hands and feet by the time I finished the swim and had to run to T1, a mile or so away; just trying to pull on my running shoes was a struggle. The west coast colleges have their own triathlon club competition and the local race here at UC Santa Barbara is held in March. One year the water was around 53 degrees and I got an ice cream headache on the bike, which morphed into a migraine by the time I got home.
Which leads me to the question; do we not race to have fun? Are numb feet, hands, and ice cream headaches fun? I’ll answer for everyone here and say no, so I avoid the early season races, help out or volunteer when I can, and wait awhile for the water temperature to come up a bit.
Modern technology has given us a lot of tools to help track weather patterns and ocean temps, and there’s one website that gives the ocean temperature at the end of Santa Barbara’s Stearns Wharf, about a quarter mile out. On windy days you can see how the wind blowing across the tops of the water draws up the deeper colder water and the temperature drops, sometimes by 5-10 degrees with the changing tides. If you were happy seeing 63 degrees on say a Tuesday afternoon, looking forward to the Nite Moves 1k swim Wednesday night (a locals regular event), but it was windy all day, better check the ocean temp reading before deciding to switch to your sleeveless wetsuit or to trunk it, versus keeping your long sleeve suit handy.
Of course I always have the option of just driving south to race in warmer water, as the ocean temp can easily be 5-7 degrees warmer down in Malibu, about 60 miles away. Santa Barbara’s weather pattern here, even though we’re considered part of southern California, is always a bit cooler and different, on the edge of the central coast ocean influence, which tends to be on the cooler side, versus what people consider the southern California temperature influence.
As such the water temperature here and points further north tends to be cooler, even in the dead of summer. I might be 80 degrees at your house, but as you head to the coast the temperature can easily drop 10+ degrees, so now you’re standing at the beach with a cool breeze blowing over you, with your t-shirt on, wondering about going in for a swim.
I guess part of my issue is that I grew up in Long Island where by early June the ocean was warm, like 70+, and stayed there all summer. The weather would get hot and muggy and people would swarm to the beaches for relief, going in and out of the water all day. I was shocked when I moved to California and found the water off the coast of Santa Barbara was much colder than that in NY.
But I digress, and back to my original topic, the start of the triathlon season as most of us locals know it…
Races with dates in late April and early May are really ideally placed to help jumpstart your year’s training program. If you’re training for a long course race and are planning say a 16 week training program, they usually begin around the first week in January. If you ended the previous season’s racing and training with 4-6 weeks of unfocused training as I like to prescribe, then start an easy off-season training regime to rebuild, strengthen, and address any physical injuries (hopefully the 4-6 weeks off helped with the “mental” injuries!), work your way through the holidays, the next thing you know it’s January and your training begins. I find there is no better motivation then that not-so early race, like Wildflower, to get my attention and to get me out and training with consistency again.
Wherever you live, whatever the weather (and ocean temperature) that you have to deal with, having a race right around this time can be a great stepping stone to get you ready for the big races to come. And for some, where maybe the 70.3 Oceanside or Wildflower Long Course are their “A” race for the year, I hope you had a great race in March and had a great race today.
Let the tri season begin!