Racing the Wildflower Triathlon, a Primer

For over 30 years, excluding last year during the drought, the first weekend in May means a road trip to Lake San Antonio and the Wildflower Triathlon festival. With four different races at three different race distances to choose from, sprint(s), Olympic, and Long Course (i.e., almost a Half Ironman and NOT a 70.3 race), there’s something for everyone. Starting out decades ago as a bluegrass festival with a run thrown in for fun, it has evolved into one of the best standalone triathlon events on the world wide triathlon calendar.

As the drought caused the water level to drop to unacceptable levels, Terry Davis and his staff at Tri California were forced to move the swim start to a different location three years ago, which involved a two mile run after the swim to get to T1 and your bike. With the welcome return of the rains last year the lake level has returned to normal so Tri Cal is bringing the race back in its original form. While some people continued to race at WF even with the modified start, life and other race options have kept me away for a few years but I’ll be back racing it again this year, with a large contingent of local triathletes.

My first experience on the WF course was back in ’94 when a group of five of us went up for a training weekend. Four of us were going to race the long course while I had yet to step up to that distance of running, so I had put together a relay team to join in the fun. We set out to ride the long course and I spent way too much energy early on, didn’t take on enough calories and water and struggled to the top of the big hill at mile 42. Fueled by one spare gel I lagged behind the other riders going back into the park.

After a few minutes recovery time we headed out for a brick run, two in the group setting out to run the long course run while the rest of us would do the Olympic distance run. I struggled with cramping and within a mile fell back, while one of the other runners also started to struggle. We decided enough was enough and turned around and headed back for a beer, the day over.  Welcome to Wildflower, you’ve been humbled; it would prove to not be for the last time in my career.

Since doing the relay that first year, and not including multiple other training weekends on the course, I figure I have over 650 miles of racing on the course. I have parlayed my pre-triathlon racing cycling base into several age group wins in the Olympic distance tri, with multiple other top five finishes, and a third place finish in the long course, finally making it to the podium the last time I did it. That placing qualified me for the ITU World Long Course Championship race in Victoria, Spain back in 2012, a great experience, which I owe to racing at WF.

While happy for the years I’ve been successful I have also had a couple of not so good days and one unforgettable race on the long course, the second worst race of my career. The cramping started late on the bike on a hot day, not a good omen for the upcoming run, resulting in many walking breaks during the run. But between my good results and that one not so good result, I feel like I have a good handle on the course and what it can throw at you.

I know much has been written about this race but I hope the following insights and experiences I’ve had can make your experience, your first or your 30th, a better one. I will focus only on the Olympic and long course events, while some of the information is applicable to the sprint races, I have not done either of them to this date.

Logistics

Lake San Antonio is a 20-30 minute drive from Paso Robles so most people choose to camp or RV it at the site. Sites are first come first serve, they fill up starting Wednesday, and many groups send an “advance” crew to hold spaces for their friends. If you’re racing the Olympic distance race on Sunday it’s just as easy to drive in on race morning, pick up your reg packet and get set up if you can’t get there the day beforehand.

Camping and parking are at the top of the park and you have to ride down to the transition area. After the races are over they close Lynch road to cars and cyclists until the last rider is in, so if you start early and want to leave early you’ll have to walk up through the campgrounds to the top with all your gear. If you plan on sticking around for the awards you can expect to wait a pretty long time, but luckily they have lots of good food,  drink options, and music to distract you while you wait.

The Weather

Race day mornings can be overcast, a bit foggy and cool, usually in the low 50’s but on occasion in the upper 40’s. When the sun comes out you can expect temperatures to rise into the upper 70’s and 80’s on most days, so the longer the race and the later your wave start the hotter it is going to get. Temperatures in the 90’s and over 100 degrees have also been seen, which isn’t easy to train for this early in the year. I was also there one year watching the long course race on Saturday when it was windy, cold, and raining, watching the riders go out and come back shivering, so you need to be prepared with arm warmers, leg warmers, and/or a cycling jersey and vest just in case.

The Swim

Every race starts at the same place, the boat launching dock at the bottom of Lynch Road. You line up behind the traditional WF arch, right on the edge of the lake, situated between two boat launching docks; the start is narrow and congested. If you’re a fast swimmer or comfortable being in a close quarter pack then start towards the front and/or on the right hand side. After 50 yards the swim opens up and you can find more open water, but until then if you’re a slow swimmer or fearful, let the other swimmers start in front of you else you’ll get swum over in a hurry. You’ll be in open water once you reach the first turn buoy, at least until you start catching the really slow swimmers, especially approaching the last turn buoy.

About the wave starts, historically the race does not start particularly early (8:00 for the long course, 9:00 for the Olympic race), and goes young men to old me, young women to old women, so yes you older ladies will find yourselves waiting for a long time, and on a hot day you will suffer out on the run. Unlike other races, on the old Vineman course in the Russian River in particular, WF has not instituted a lottery where they rotate the start times year to year, sorry about that.

The boat launching ramp you run up to get into T1 is very coarse concrete and over the years some people have resorted to putting a pair of shoes on the side to slip into. I tried this once and thought it was more hassle than it was worth, but think about it if your feet aren’t “summer tough” yet. It is a big and long transition area and you have to run all the way through it to exit with your bike, so be prepared. Best to mark your rows entering T1 from the boat ramp side and T2 from the bike in side to make it easier to find your way back to your gear.

The Olympic Bike

The ride heads up Lynch road to the top of the park so you are immediately riding uphill in your smallest gear. Mental note to self, make sure you have a low gear for this course! Be patient, try to keep your HR down as much as you can, else you’ll be blowing up before you know it. Once you reach the top of the park you’ll have a few more hills before exiting the park before the out and back section on Interlake Road. For the most part you’ll be on long and rolling up and downhills, at least one of them that is very fast, until a few miles before the turn around where it flattens out somewhat. Then you’ll return along the same route, riding back uphill to the top of the park before the fast descent down Lynch Road to T2, the same last mile that you’ll see on the run.

The Long Course Bike

The long course bike does not head immediately uphill, instead you ride about a mile along the same road that is the start of the two run courses before heading up Beach Hill to the top of the park where you’ll join the Olympic distance bike course until it turns around, where you’ll continue on. Since you’re riding a loop course you’ll have headwinds and tailwinds along the way and hopefully you’ll have a tailwind as you head east back towards highway 101. This section has some long and not too steep climbs and descents; watch out for draft packs along the way before you turn right and head towards the big hill around mile 42. There’s a 2-3 mile ascent before the steep part so keep your cadence up and HR down. Once you crest the hill there’s another slight climb before you hit the very fast downhill section, where it’s easy to hit 50+ MPH, so be prepared for that, as well as some cross winds where you might have to hang on a bit. I’ve seen more than one accident on this section, beware. There’s still a bit of ground to cover before you get back into the park with one last climb back to the top and then the last fast mile downhill, where again you need to be careful, riding under control.

The Olympic Run

All runs head out the same path along the lake, starting out on pavement before hitting a jeep trail for a mile or so, and then back up on the road and down to the low point on the run at mile three. From there you have a two mile uphill with a few false flats thrown in before you reach the top of the park and the last mile downhill. If you’ve overcooked any part of the race your legs will be shot and it will be hard to make up any time, so keep that in mind. Enjoy the last ¼ mile or so when you reach the bottom and through the finish line.

The Long Course Run

Following the first three miles of the Olympic distance run course you then split off and continue running on a wide single-track along the side of the lake. Eventually you veer away from the lake and stream and head inland up a dusty trail and into a series of climbs, the second of which get kind of steep and can be very hot and dry on the worst days. Many people walk these climbs so pacing is very important to try and avoid that and maintain your momentum. Once over the top you run along the ridge for a short stretch before heading downhill where you’ll parallel the road you biked in on. You’ll again parallel the road and head uphill into the campgrounds, wandering around until you pop out on the road on the other side. If you could turn left you’d have about one mile to the finish line but unfortunately you’d be two miles short so you have to turn right for a 2 mile out-and-back section, mostly downhill to start to the turnaround where you are now on the last two miles of the Olympic distance run course. Make it back to the top of the hill and its all downhill from there, but probably not soon enough for many of you.

Final Thoughts

I think that covers the basics of what you’ll encounter and here are a few thoughts or suggestions on training for the race and getting ready on race day, in no particular order.

  • With only five minutes between waves it’s very hard to get in a good warm-up swim beforehand if you go off behind the wave that just started, which I hate. Options are to keep running around before you suit up or jump in the lake at some other point to warm up. Opposite the race finish, along the lake edge, outside the transition area, there’s a small dock which you can walk to from T1 and jump in for a swim. If you really need to warm up in the water beforehand, this is your best option to do so at your leisure.
  • The focus of your bike training for these races needs to be in the hills, you cannot be too strong on the bike. There’s lots of time in the aerobars on both distance tris and you need to be comfortable descending in the aerobars else you’ll be getting passed by a lot of riders. You need little gears for the climbing and some big gears for the descents.
  • On the long course bike as your approach Beach Hill, switch into your little chain ring early. I have seen so many riders wait and struggle with this, many of them dropping a chain or weaving back and forth before they get it right. Lots of momentum is lost here and its dangerous for those following too close behind.
  • Once you’ve established your training strength on the bike and have the distance in your legs for the run, I’d switch over to running hills in training so you get used to running up and down hill to toughen up your legs. Even the Olympic distance course will test your legs, more than likely because of poor pacing on the bike or going out too fast at the start of the run. Hill repeats on the run are a must in training, more beneficial than speed work on this course for most people. Train long, hard, and in the hills if you can.
  • If you’ve never done this race before and can do a training day or weekend on the course, do it. The campground is not busy in March or April so you can just drive in and camp without reservation or just do a day pass. If you’re racing long course then ride the entire course but you can probably get by with a short brick until the run hits the dirt, then turn around. If you stay overnight then run most of the run course, but beware that not all the campsites are open so water may not be available on the course. You can set bottles out beforehand if you know where to put them or carry what you need; practice your hydration and nutrition!
  • Make sure your race tires are fresh and up to the task of the fast downhill sections, you do not want any problems to occur on this course because you rode an old set of tires. When in doubt, swap them out!
  • I tell athletes that you need to remain calm the first 20-30 minutes on the bike course so you don’t overcook your legs and wind up hating life the last 15-20 miles on the ride. The climbs coming out of T1 will definitely get your attention and raise your HR higher than you’d like or higher than your Coach has warned you to stay under. After that you can set your own pace, but take it easy to start, begin taking in calories when you can, and you’ll have a good ride and a more positive experience.
  • On all the rolling hills make sure you finish over the top of each hill, don’t just sit up as you approach the top and relax. Doing that is a sure way to lose a lot of momentum for the next downhill section and you’ll get passed by a lot of other riders, don’t do that.
  • If you go up to the lake for a training ride there’s a store at Lockwood, at the intersection of county roads G14 and G18 where you can top off your fluid. There’s also the Bee Rock Store towards the end of the ride where if you’re completely out of fluid you can refill there and get some snacks if you’ve burned through those.
  • Wildflower rewards patience and hard training, and will punish you for not taking on enough fluid on hot days, or enough calories on any day.
  • The run will take you longer than you think, don’t be arrogant and think you’re going to conquer it and the times from last year look soft. They are not, the course is hard, period.
  • I’ve mentioned more than a few times that you need to train in the hills, which most people take to mean focus on running hard uphill only. There are more than a few downhill sections, besides the last mile, where you need to work the turnover of your legs, so throw in a few training days in the hills where the focus is downhill and you’ll be rewarded on race day.

Basically I’m saying that you need to train hard, practice on the course or on terrain with similar elevation changes, and possible climatic conditions, train your race pace with proper hydration and nutrition and you’ll get to the finish line. That’s basically the recipe for success in all the racing we do, but nowhere is it more important than on a hard course, and Wildflower is definitely one of the harder courses.

When you finish, regardless of how you feel, you will know that you tested yourself and that hopefully you raced well and met your goal. If not then there are lessons learned and you’ll have to vow to come back again and give it another shot, a year older and hopefully a year wiser.

I hope this helped, enjoy, train hard, race smart!

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