A month before the race I tore my soleus and a week before the race I came down with a pretty nasty head cold. All my preparation was going down the tubes! I pulled it together though and had an awesome race on the Olympic course at the 2010 Avia Wildflower Triathlon!
Race: Avia Wildflower Olympic Triathlon
Course: 1.5km (0.93mi) swim, 40km (24.9mi) bike, 10km (6.2mi) run
Overall: 2:57:09, 460th/2363 racers (80th percentile), 71st/224 in age group
Swim: 32:25, 1113th place
Bike: 1:21:30, 299th place
Run: 56:08, 926th place
I’ve been training three or four days a week for the last three months in preparation for the Wildflower. It’s one of the hilliest triathlon courses – the Wildflower website describes it as ‘brutal’ – and I wanted to be ready. I’ve been swimming at the gym, running mostly at the gym, and biking to work. My post-race hindsight says that I probably need to step up the training and take it outside, especially for the swim. I’m still fast on the bike and slow everywhere else, but at least my transition times are getting better!
The Wildflower triathlon is held at Lake San Antonio, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The lake and surrounding countryside is beautiful at this time of year, green rolling hills and lush vegetation that haven’t yet been burnt by the summer sun. I had my UC Davis MBA class in San Ramon on Friday and Saturday, did some homework for a few hours after class, picked up my parents from SFO that evening, and drove us all south two and a half hours to King City. Sara and her sister Amelia and my training partner Brad and his wife Jenni met us there at the hotel. We chatted a bit and hit the sheets around 11PM.
We got an early start and headed out for the hour-long drive to the lake. Brad used directions the hotel people gave to him and started to freak out a little when they didn’t match the directions his Droid was supplying. I must confess that I fanned the flames of confusion a little. Hahaha. It was strange that the road we came in on was totally empty, but we made it to the park with lots of time to spare, parked, and started heading down to the main race area.
There are a LOT of people at the Avia Wildflower! 2363 people finished the Olympic length triathlon. 1860 finished the Long course on Saturday and 998 finished the Mountain Bike course. Something like 20,000 people camp at the park during the week leading up to the races. It was crazy, but I have to say the organizers were really good about managing the huge numbers of competitors. The pits were carefully guarded, the swim start was managed carefully to separate the different waves of competitors, and even parking was surprisingly easy.
Brad and I left our cheering squad and setup our pit area, put numbers on our bikes, and had our numbers and ages written on our legs and arms. I was starting to get anxious butterflies and couldn’t wait to get started. I must have checked my gear setup four or five times, making sure the cytomax was premixed, shoes were open, socks were waiting nearby, gels and drinks were neatly arranged at the back.
Of course I missed a bunch of stuff: I had only mixed drinks prepped, no water, which sucked when I came off the bike. I didn’t use any anti-fog or spit in my goggles, which sucked during the swim. I didn’t reset my bike computer, so I had no idea how far I had ridden halfway into the bike. I also didn’t drink enough in the hike down to the pits from the car and while waiting around. Dumb dumb dumb.
We grabbed our wetsuits and headed down to the start. The lake was wavy and the course looked really long. Man what were we doing?! I started trying to get into the zone, repeating my swim mantra “just keep swimming, just keep swimming” from Finding Nemo. Brad and I took a quick dip before the first wave started, had an energy gel (no water, dumb!), and settled in to watch the first start.
With a huge cheer from the crowd the white-capped pros shot into the water and started swimming off in the wrong direction! Everyone was asking “uh, do they know something we don’t?”. All those pros must have been following the one fast swimmer in front who wasn’t looking, and it was a long long time before the group abruptly turned 60-degrees and started heading for the buoy. Wow, for professional athletes that must have been a really crappy way to start a race.
Brad was in the fifth group, starting 20 minutes after the pros left. It was insane but the first swimmers were coming back in to shore before Brad even left! I guess the little detour wasn’t a big deal. I was two waves behind Brad, so he got a nice 10-minute head start. His group started, then the group ahead of me started, and finally it was my turn. I took another quick swim in the five minutes between starts and lined up on the front line on the inside.
My strategy was to go hard from the start to get some separation, stay on the inside line right beside the kayakers to minimize the distance swam, and sight the first buoy fairly often until I could get into a rhythm. At the horn I charged into the water and started ‘swimming’. I use quotes because I wasn’t swimming. I have no idea what I was doing, but I wasn’t doing it right. I was breathing every stroke, my head was all the way out of the water, and my careful training had degenerated into wild flailing. I was doing my best impression of drowning.
Everyone passed me. I was making very little forward progress, but it wasn’t for lack of effort! I guess I started to panic at how shitty things were going and I thrashed more wildly. Kinda dumb I guess. I kept trying to calm down but someone would kick me or grab my leg and I would bob up and look around. My goggles fogged and then I couldn’t see anything either. The waves weren’t very big, but they were choppy enough that I was occasionally sucking water while trying to breathe.
It wasn’t until I was well past the first buoy that I was able to force myself to calm down. I was freaking out and I needed to focus. I gave myself a stern talking to. I pushed my head and chest further down into the water. I started breathing every third stroke, and I focused on stabbing my hands forward and gliding. Stab and glide, stab and glide, stab and glide, breathe. Suddenly it all came back to me. I turned my head further towards the sky with each breath and started to get away from the waves. I could breathe again!
My goggles were driving me nuts, so I paused long enough to spit into one eye cover and wipe it clean. I don’t know why I didn’t do the other eye, that drove me nuts the rest of the swim. I also figured out that I could use the angle of the sun on my goggles to keep me pointed in basically the right direction, so I sighted the next buoy carefully, mentally marked the angle of the sun, and settled down into a rhythm.
The second and third buoys came and went quickly. I was back in a groove and was passing people. After the third buoy I started to see other colour caps, which meant I was passing earlier waves of swimmers! The last few legs of the swim was hard. My right leg had started cramping when I pointed my toes, so I stopped kicking. That slowed me down but also was super frustrating. Why was my leg cramping? Would I be able to bike? Probably, but what about the run? Had I hurt my soleus again? Mentally this was tough. I promised myself I would finish no matter what, even if I had to walk the run portion.
In hindsight I think the cramp was brought on my lack of water in the morning. I hadn’t drank anything since getting up four hours earlier, and with all the walking and prep I’m sure I was a little dehydrated.
At the last buoy I was starting to feel better and was eating up the arm and shoulder strength I had left. I swam into someone and he yelled “Hey!” It was Brad! He was swimming side-stroke to keep his face out of the waves and looked like he was hurting. “Dude, we’re almost there! Keep it up!” I yelled as I powered off. He looked like he might have grabbed me and pulled me under if I had stuck around. No one likes a drowner, Brad, cut it out.
My swim time was 32:25, which kinda sucked. I’m betting at least 3 minutes was due to my frantic panic from the start and another two or three minutes was due to my cramping leg.
I knew that getting out of the water and running into T1 would tell me if the rest of the race was going to suck. As soon as I stepped up and started running I knew it was okay. Phew! I pulled off the top half of the wetsuit and ran into the transition area. Oh man I was happy my leg was working. I think I had a pretty big smile on my face, especially when I ran by Sara, Amelia, Bekks, John, and Brad’s wife Jenni cheering me on.
My T1 time was 4:35. The pros were in and out in 2-3 minutes, so there are obviously precious seconds being wasted here. I know several of those seconds were spent carefully pulling the wetsuit off my right leg, I always feel a cramp when doing this so I took extra care not to pull anything. I decided to also invest a few seconds in putting on socks; I’ve never biked or ran without them and I don’t know how the pros do it. I need my socks!
Wetsuit off; socks, cycling shoes, helmet, glasses, and gloves on; gulp half a bottle of cytomax; grab the bike; run! At the “Bike Out” gate I jumped on the bike, clicked in, and started powering up Lynch Hill Road. Man, people were riding slowly. Why weren’t they going faster? Why was that guy pushing his bike? Honestly I felt awesome, I powered up the ‘brutal’ hill like it wasn’t even a hill. I was on fire. I had to check myself and dial it back a little, I didn’t want to hit a wall or totally torpedo my run attempt.
I felt great and was powering along in the aero position when I heard a “whum-whum-whum” noise coming from behind me. I didn’t think it was my bike. I also had no idea how I was going to be passed, I was pedaling at 27mph on a flat! I concluded it must be a motorcycle when some uber-fast dude with an all-carbon solid rear wheel flew by me, maybe going 5mph faster. This guy’s legs were gigantic and he must have weighed 40lbs less than me. Damn, I guess I’m not going to win the bike stage.
The rolling hills on the course were starting to take their toll and I was slowing down a little on the uphills, but I was spinning out on every downhill. I need better gearing! My fastest speed was 50-something-mph, which I feel pretty good about. My right leg was fine and apart from a slow burn in my quads I was feeling great. I had mixed the drinks on the bike too strong and my mouth was feeling like it was coated with sugar, at the aid station I grabbed a water bottle and chugged it, but next time I’m going with a weaker mix.
At one point in the ride I was passing another rider uphill and asked him “Hey, how far have we ridden?”. I didn’t look at the rider before asking, I just gasped it as I rolled by. He yelled “Will!”, and I swear I thought Brad had somehow passed me in the pits or something. I almost fell off my bike. It wasn’t Brad, thank goodness, the second guy I randomly ran into on the tri was the only other person I knew who was doing the tri: Mark J, a friend from b-skool. I slowed down and we chatted for a few minutes before the motorcycle police pulled up and I took off trying to avoid a penalty. Little did I know that these few minutes would come back to haunt me.
With one exception, the only dudes passing me were super fit and were riding awesome bikes. I didn’t get his number, but there was one guy on a total rat bike that was stalking me and just floated past uphill. It was funny because I would shoot back past him on the downs and flats, but I couldn’t make it stick. Clearly I need a better bike!
I struggled to stay with Mr. Rat Biker on the last uphill and hammered down the other side. Sorry to everyone who was coasting down into the pits, but come on slowpokes, this is a race, coasting is not kosher! Plus, if you are going to coast and ‘rest your legs’, get out of the way! Steer your stupid coasting bike over on the far right side of the road. Unless, of course, you’re a big fan of a 50mph enema.
I finished the bike section in 1:21:30, which I think is pretty good. It puts my average speed at 18.3mph over a course with 4438ft of elevation change (2219ft up, and 2219ft down). I think I did enough hill training, but just imagine how fast I would have been with a better bike!
I rocketed into the pits and quickly changed into running shoes. My T2 transition time was 2:31; the pros were in and out in 0:50-1:30. Not good, not bad.
Just like in the Pacific Grove sprint triathlon I did in Monterey, when I got off the bike and started running it felt like my shoelaces were tied together with bungee cords. I was slow. Really slow. The only good thing was that everyone else around me was slow too.
I was passed by some fast guys, and then a guy named Giovanni slowly ran by and I decided to try to hang with him. I picked up the pace and turned into his shadow. After ten minutes of drafting I thought it would be a good idea to introduce myself and make friends. We chatted between gasped breaths and soon added another to our posse, a girl named Erin racing in the collegiate class from Oregon. The three of us ran together for a good twenty minutes, we even decided to form a team and came up with a name “Team What Are We Doing?”, but when I hit my second wind on one of the long uphills I split and focused on my own race.
I’m very proud that I was able to maintain a constant (but slow) pace and that I didn’t need to stop. There were a lot of casualties resting at the side of the road squeezing their calves and quads. It was a total bummer that the topless aid station is only for the long course! The girls with garden hoses spraying us down were probably better for our survival though.
On the long downhill back into the transition zone (and to the finish) I was stretching out the length of my steps and trying not to fight the motion with my knees when someone in my age group passed me. Getting passed is a fact of life, especially when you run as slowly as I do, but being passed by others from other age groups is much less meaningful: they’re either much faster than me and they technically passed me a long time ago, or I previously passed them on the bike or swim and I probably have them beat unless they horizon me.
But when someone in your age group passes you, it’s a real pass. They started at the same time you did and if they beat you to the finish line they beat you. So when this dude ran past me on the downhill with a “33” written on his leg, I was being pushed back a spot. I called him a mother-f’er and he laughed and said “see ya later” and ran faster. I dug deep but just couldn’t hang with him. Downhill just isn’t my forte.
I let him go but kept beating myself up about it. When we hit the short section of flat before the finish line I noticed he was slowing down. Oh it was on! I poured it on and caught up to him with a tenth of a mile to go. Instead of tipping my hand and starting a footrace, I drafted as quietly as I could and hoped he didn’t look back.
A hundred yards from the finish I gave it everything I had, applied a decisive pass, and had a nice cushion on him by the time I hit the finish. It was awesome to hear the cheering squad yelling my name as I finished.
My run time was 56:08 (9:02 pace), which sucks. Even for a hilly course I should be something like six minutes faster over the 10k. I definitely need to focus some of my training on the bike-run together as a pair. The run section is probably the area where I could make the biggest gains.
My finish time was 3:27:09, which when you subtract the 30 minutes to account for my starting time, means I finished in less than three hours! 2:57:09! That was good enough for a 460th place finish out of 2363 other finishers; top 20th percentile baby! w00t!
I took my time eating in the recovery area and met up with everyone in the stands waiting for Brad. He had looked pretty rough coming in from the bike section and everyone was a little concerned he wasn’t going to be able to finish. He came running in looking good and finished with a time of 3:55:37. Not bad for his first attempt, and we’re already planning our next race.