2011 Avia Wildflower Long Course Triathlon Race Report

The Wildflower Long Course is well-known as a brutal early-season race: 3500ft elevation on the bike and 2100ft on the run! Crazy. The great thing about doing such a hard race as my first 70.3 mile half-Ironman distance is that I will be faster in every race from now on! With little sleep and much less training time available (thanks Charlie) I knew it was going to be a tough race. It didn’t disappoint.

The one and only Wildflower

The numbers:
Race: Avia Wildflower Long Course
Course: 1.2mi swim, 56mi bike, 13.1mi run
Overall: 05:44:51, 367th/1813 racers (80th percentile), 74st/242 in age group
Swim: 38:56, 1:51 min/100y, 885th place
T1: 3:34
Bike: 2:55:33, 19.10 mph, 167th place
T2: 3:20
Run: 2:03:28, 9:25 min/mi, 628th place

2010 was my first year with triathlons. I did the Wildflower Olympic, Silicon Valley International, Ukiah Sprint, and Marin County Olympic races. I improved at each race and for 2011 I decided to move up to half-Ironman distance races. The Wildflower Long Course is the season opener and my “A” race for the year will be the Vineman Ironman 70.3 here in Sonoma County.

In an Olympic length course I would swim around trying not to drown, bike like mad, and use whatever energy I had left to stagger around the run being re-passed by everyone I dominated on the bike. The race is only two and a half hours long so I didn’t really bother with a nutrition plan, pacing myself, or doing anything but hammering as hard as I could at each moment. I would eat or drink whatever I found at the aid stations, didn’t bring anything special with me on the bike, and apart from some crappy runs I guess I did okay.

The difference between an Olympic length and a half-Ironman length triathlon is more than just twice the distance. Olympics are 0.93mi swim, 24.9mi bike, and 6.2mi run. Half-Ironman (HIM) races are 1.2mi swim, 56mi bike, and 13.1mi run (which adds up to 70.3, which is why the Vineman Ironman 70.3 is actually a 70.3-mile half-Ironman, not a full 140.6-mile Ironman, but who’s counting?). The longer distance changes everything. You can’t maintain a 180 heartrate for five and a half hours! I guess I kinda knew this before stumbling around the Wildflower course but I didn’t change my training – at least in a positive way. After Charlie was born I found my legs would take an extra day to recover without as much sleep, so I exercised less, and oh yeah, Sara and I took up drinking again which explains why I still weigh 190lbs.

I did change a few things on this HIM-distance race: I set an alarm on my watch to beep when my heartrate went higher than 170, I brought a zip-lock bag with me on the bike and run with a bunch of Endurolyte pills (for electrolyte replenishment) and some Ibuprofin, and filled a water bottle on my bike with six scoops of Perpetuem as my sole calorie source. You’re probably thinking to yourself that these sound like smart things to do when preparing for a longer period of effort at a lower heartrate, and that I’m sandbagging you when I tell you how unprepared I was, but you’re not taking into account that I made all those changes at the last minute. Yes, I raced with a nutrition plan I had never used before using supplements I bought two days before the race.

Oh it gets better. Three days before the race I realized my wetsuit is too big for me, so I brought Brad’s size-smaller suit and raced in that instead. I had never swam in that suit before. Plus I was riding my new awesome incredible superbike Felt B2Pro that I hadn’t raced on before. Plus I was using a disc rear for the first time. With aerobar-mounted shifters. Oh and I was using new bike shoes with a new style of clip-in pedals. And this was the first race I’ve worn a heartrate monitor and used the Garmin 310XT watch to track my performance.

So pretty much I changed absolutely everything the day before the hardest race I’ll do this year. It wasn’t an awesome plan, I don’t even think it was a very good plan, but it kinda worked out. I mean, I finished, right?

Brad and I drove down to Lake San Antonio the day before the race. He isn’t racing this year, he’s hurt his knee and is focusing on supermoto racing, but he volunteered to be my pit crew and captain of my cheerleader squad. Amelia and Andy are getting married and wanted to spend the day doing something wedding-related. Sara and Charlie weren’t really up to spending six or seven hours out in the sun. No one else loves me, so it was me and Brad.

I had a little bit of drama the day before the race. I forgot which hotel I had reserved in King City. This shouldn’t have been dramatic but I had recently – and ruthlessly – cleared out my inbox and had deleted the confirmation email. I called each of the hotels in King City, there are only five so this isn’t a big deal, but each one said they didn’t have my reservation. Oh, plus they’re all booked full. I was freaking out and wondering about sleeping in the car when Brad found the email I sent to him and all was well. If you’re trying to call the Quality Inn in King City, CA, beware that the number that Google Maps suggests is not the number for that hotel.

We had a good drive down, about five hours from Santa Rosa, and spent the evening scraping the decals off my new full disc rear wheel. Kevin at Echelon sold it to me for just $200. Sure it has a section of delaminating carbon, but how bad would it be for the rear wheel to fail while biking along at 25mph? No big deal I say, and besides, think of the $400 I saved over getting an undamaged wheel! I had the usual nervous night’s sleep, eventually waking at 3AM and going over all the changes I had made and wondering if I had forgotten anything. I remembered that the bike was in the highest gear and that I should change it. Two hours later I gave up trying to sleep, woke up Brad and we got going.

Just like last year there was no one on the road from King City to Lake San Antonio. For a weekend with 8000 people racing and 20000 people in attendance it was eerily spooky. We would have been concerned about being lost but I printed out turn-by-turn Google street-view pictures on the map. We got the exact same parking spot that we had last year and didn’t even have to pay the access fee to the park! w00t

We walked my gear down the steep dirt pedestrian trail to the pits, picked up all the registration gear, setup the pit, and it was time to go. I was in the fourth wave at 8:20AM so when the pro women left it was time to get to the swim start. Brad’s suit is definitely tighter than mine so I didn’t skimp on the wetsuit lube. You spray this stuff on your legs and arms to make it easier to pull off the wetsuit after the swim. This worked like a charm. I won’t try to conserve the spray anymore.

Ready to go

I didn’t do any warmup for the swim, just got in the water, peed in Brad’s wetsuit, and splashed around with the other guys in my start. The water was 65-68 degrees. It was nuts how fast I went from setting up the pit to waiting for the buzzer to sound, but it didn’t give me any time to get nervous. I lined up on the second row on the far inside and did the mad dash into the water with everyone else.

Swim start

I swam right next to the dock in the chute into the lake and only had to deter one dude from swimming inside me. Sorry dude, but I’m swimming here.

Swim start

This start was much tamer than some of the Olympics I did last year: no kicking, no elbowing, less drama. I did the same hyperventilate-while-thrashing-and-swimming-without-any-form trick to the first buoy and then settled down and tried to remember what Coach Hermine had been teaching me for the last month.

The start

The first half of the swim my form sucked. My irregular breathing and hard exertion from the sprint to the first buoy messed everything up. I had no problems sighting, I guess I’m good at swimming in a straight line, I just felt “meh”. You know what it is? I didn’t feel the burning drive to push harder that I feel when I’m on the bike. I was thinking about all the things I should be doing and worrying about my breathing too much. I passed my first yellow-cap swimmer from the previous wave maybe a quarter mile into the swim, which was a nice feeling because they started 5 minutes before our wave, and I spent the rest of the race passing yellow cappers and the occasional green capper from my start.

I didn’t get my stroke down and pull with my forearms until past the halfway point. I tried to kick-hook-glide with my feet but it was taking too much mental energy and I reverted to my frantic constant kicking method, which Hermine says is way too fast and way too big. After we turned around and started swimming back up the lake I focused more on swimming on my side and gliding with one arm out while bringing my other arm around. Of course as soon as I started doing this, which definitely was helping me cut through the water faster, the waves – which had been with me before but were now against me – started slowing me down. I would ride over one wave and slam into the next. Maybe both my shoulders were down and I wasn’t on my side enough. Hermine calls this “barging”. I’m a good barger.

The swim was long, 1.2 miles is the furthest I’ve ever swam, but I felt comfortable. I didn’t think about drowning like I did last year. There was never any concern about finishing. My goggles slowly fogged but I was swimming such straight lines that didn’t bother me. I don’t think I was executing very well, but by the time I passed the last buoy and was coming back into the start/finish area I was feeling really good. I don’t know how fast I was moving but I know that I could have turned around and swam the same course again. I guess that’s a good feeling for the 2.4 mile swim I’ll face if I ever do a full Ironman. I finished the swim just shy of 39 minutes, which is a pace of 2:01 per 100m or 1:51 per 100 yards.

Swim: 38:56
Rank: 885/1813
Percentile: 51st
Pace: 1:51 min/100y

Coming out of the water

So how does that compare? Well, in the pool with no waves I swim 100 yards in 1:45 after a full workout (no wetsuit). Last year’s swim times at the 0.93-mile length were 1:59/100y in the Wildflower, 1:49/100y in the SVIT, and 1:46/100y in the Marin Tri (in 55-degree bay water). So I’m about the same speed I was last year over a longer distance. I’ll take that, but given that I’m in the 51st percentile for swim times, there’s clearly a lot of room for improvement.

Coming up the ramp

I ran up the ramp into T1, didn’t notice any pain from pebbles or rough pavement like usual (numb feet? adrenaline?), and ripped the wetsuit off quickly. The spray works. Why was I trying to conserve the spray? Stupid stupid stupid. Plus it totally helps to have a wetsuit that doesn’t belong to you. Removal is very quick when it’s not your wetsuit. Socks and shoes went on fast. Grabbed my baggie of pills, helmet, bike, glasses, and I was off. T1 time was a full minute faster than my transition time from last year. Sweet, that’s free time!

T1: 3:34

I ran the bike to the start and hopped on. Brad was there yelling encouragement as I clipped in and started up the hill.

Clipping in

He was also there to witness my almost-crash as I couldn’t get my second shoe clipped in and discovered the bike was in the highest gear.

Oops, wrong gear

He says I came a few inches from clipping a curb, but I didn’t notice.

Off we go

I love the bike section. I was ready to turn on the tractor beams and pass some folks.

Hammer time

The bike is 56 miles long and is “considered relatively difficult”. There’s a 400ft hill right out of transition and a 4-mile 900ft climb called “Nasty Grade” at mile 41. There’s another 2200ft of climbing with the rolling hills and other smaller peaks. I’m a strong biker but I knew I needed to save energy for the run, so I programmed my watch to beep at me if my heartrate went over 170bpm. Right from the get go the damn thing was beeping constantly.

Starting the bike

The ride around the campgrounds and up the first hill were all a blur, crazy sharp turns at 28mph, my heartrate was pegged at 190bpm and I was out of the saddle on every little hill passing people left and right. The watch beeping was driving me crazy so I turned it off. Hahaha. I was having fun.

Charging Lynch Hill on the bike

At the top of the first hill at mile 4 I tried to calm down. I remembered the Endurance Nation Long Course training video, and how they recommended you write “patience” and “discipline” on your forearms if you have problems controlling yourself. I didn’t bother with the body marking, but I knew I couldn’t maintain my pace and still do anything useful on the run course afterward, so I turned the watch back on and slowed until my heartrate dropped. I was still flying, averaging 24mph on the flats but slowing down considerably on the hills. I don’t know if others were using the heartrate monitor as a pacing tool, but a few would pass me back as I slowed down to keep my HR right at 170 on the uphills.

Around mile 10 the headwind started picking up and started slowing me down. I didn’t care, others were suffering more. The tractor beam was in full effect. I stayed tucked into the aero position and kept my cadence between 85-90rpm, shifting down as necessary to avoid the annoying beeping. Miles 19-21 my average speed was down at 16mph with no elevation gain! As the course curved around the lake the wind direction shifted, coming first from the side, which made for some exciting handling with the deep-dish front wheel and full disc rear, and then at mile 28 it started coming from a rear quartering position. My speeds spiked up to an average 28mph for five miles and my heartrates dropped to the low 160s. It felt awesome.

Miles 30-40 were great. I dropped and gapped the small group of riders who had been passing me back on the hills and settled into a groove. My hydration plan was working well – a sip from a bottle with six scoops of Perpeteum every few miles, one Endurolyte pill every 20 minutes, water to wash each down – and my legs were feeling good. I could tell that I didn’t train enough because my crotch was getting a bit numb from the rough road. More training calluses that area up. My quads were good and my back/neck felt fine.

Nasty Grade starts at mile 41. It’s a four-mile climb that rises almost 1000 feet. My average speeds for the four miles were 11.6, 7.5, 10.4, and 14.6mph, which felt super slow compared to the first 40 miles of the course. It’s clear that my 190lbs will never be competitive climbing hills. Kevin from Echelon caught me at mile 42 and squirted past me without much effort.

Top of Nasty Grade

I pushed on and was surprised to only be passed by four or five riders. The guy dressed up as the energizer bunny was banging his drum just before the false peak of Nasty. I gave him a cheer as I went by. The spectators and aid-station workers are what sets Wildflower apart. This race is so well staffed and has so many people out on the course cheering it’s hard not to feel like a pro competing in some world-class race.

Coming into T2

The downhill was awesome. I topped out around 48mph and went back around two guys who got me on the uphill. The carbon SRAM S80 front wheel and carbon HED disc make such an amazing noise at these speeds it’s hard not to wish for drops on the handlebars. As soon as you hit the bottom of the downhill there’s another uphill waiting, and after that, another. The course doesn’t stop rolling up/down at all.

Flying downhill

As I came into the transition I knew I was getting tired, but my quads felt much better than they usually do after I go crazy on a long ride, and my stomach was awesome, so maybe the nutrition and pacing plan were good ideas.

Bike: 2:55:33
Rank: 167/1813
Percentile: 91st
Avg Speed: 19.1mph
Elevation: 3506ft

Comparisons are hard because I’ve never raced with so much elevation. The 2010 Olympic-distance Wildflower has 1000ft of elevation and is only 24.9 miles long and I averaged 18.3mph on that race, so that’s a dramatic increase. I had a faster average speed at the SVIT and Marin Tris, but those only have 500ft elevation and are half the distance. I think the biggest datapoint is my position relative to everyone else: 91st percentile baby! That’s my best bike performance to date.

I ran my bike into the pits and felt the familiar heavy feeling in my legs. Switching bike for running shoes and getting out onto the run course took 50 seconds longer than last year. Damn, the minute I saved in T1 was pretty much lost in T2. Oh man it was going to be a tough run.

T2: 3:20

I staggered out of the transition area and started on the run course. Right after the timing mats there’s a short ten-step staircase. I had to use the handrails. Oh man it was going to be a tough run. No problems though, I’m a tough guy.

Strutting on the run

The first two miles were mostly flat. With a bathroom break stop I averaged 9:15min/mile. That sucks. My quads were hurting, my legs felt like lead, and I just couldn’t find my rhythm. At mile 2 I had to walk a short 100ft hill. Oh man it was going to be a tough run.

The course goes uphill for 300ft at mile 4 and I was reduced to walking again at the steepest part. I “ran” a 12:34 mile. This was my low point. The hills were painful and the dirt trails weren’t helping. I wasn’t prepared for how much energy the dirt saps from you. There’s no solid push available, just a springy surface absorbing whatever I had left in my legs. I hurt. I can’t use enough adjectives to describe this part of the run, but here’s a noble attempt: difficult, hard, tough, challenging, frustrating, painful, scary, overwhelming, hurtful, degrading, brutal.

After the crest of the hill I forced my legs to start moving again. I didn’t walk the rest of the run. There must have been some downhills but the only ones I can recall were steep and more painful than the uphills. It seemed like the whole damn thing was uphill. According to the 310xt I had fast moments every mile, logging top paces in the low 7 min/mile range to my finish-line 6:48 min/mile sprint, but I don’t remember feeling fast at all and my average times were 9-10 minutes/mile.

What I remember vividly was the aid stations. A dozen or more people at each one, spaced about a mile apart. I spent the first half of the race just thinking about the next aid station. The crowds were awesome, yelling, cheering, offering Gatorade and water, even splashing you if desired. I didn’t find the promised topless aid station, but that actually kept me pushing to run one more mile. The energy these spectators had was infectious. It really helped and I said thanks to folks at every station.

I came up on a very fit looking guy around mile 5 who was wobbling so badly he could barely walk. He had 47 written on his leg, so he had made up 35 minutes on me because his wave started that long after mine. He had obviously bonked pretty hard. We chatted a bit and I gave him some Endurolytes before pushing on. I hope he finished.

Miles 6-8 were okay. They were mostly flat but on dirt, so not as good as the paved opening section. The 9-mile marker is at the top of a 100ft hill and I mistakenly thought the aid station was a turn-around point. Nope, it’s the lip of a bowl that drops 150ft to the turn-around point. It was nice to run down the hill, but only if you ignored the pained looks on everyone’s faces as they ran (or walked) back up. To add insult to injury, I didn’t realize the wind was blowing straight down into the pit until I turned around and felt like a parachute had opened up behind me.

By mile 11 I was hurting. Something was wrong with my left leg and it hurt every step. I developed a stitch that wouldn’t go away, just moderated some when I changed my breathing. The last 100ft hill to mile 12 was a challenge, but I was so close and there’s no way I wasn’t going to finish.

Coming down the chute

The last mile is a 300ft downhill that should have felt nice, but I was now in serious pain.

Almost there...

The finish was magical in that it signified the race was over.

Painful finish

Unlike the swim, I didn’t think I could run another half marathon. I wasn’t sure I would be able to walk back to the car.

Run: 2:03:28
Rank: 628/1813
Percentile: 65th
Avg Pace: 9:25 min/mile
Elevation: 2105ft

Finished!

The comparison to my prior performances isn’t good. My run pace steadily dropped last year from an average 9:02 at the 6.21-mile Wildflower Olympic (with 518ft elevation) to 7:45 at the 6.21-mile Marin Tri (with 236ft elevation). I average 7:30 over the mostly-flat 8-mile run to work. Still, despite walking and the pain and suffering, I ranked in the 65th percentile for finishers. Not as bad as my swim!

Finished!

Overall: 05:44:51
Rank: 367/1813
Percentile: 80th

finish_certificate

My stretch goal for the race was 5:30, and my soft goal for the race was sub-6hrs, so I suppose I succeeded. I wanted to have a stronger run, but I only have myself to blame for not training hills (seriously, what was I thinking?), not running after biking (I mean, how dumb can I be?), and going too hard on the bike (duh). Unless I seriously hurt my leg I know I’ll do better at the Vineman 70.3 and maybe even have a shot at finishing under 5 hours.

Done baby done

I want to come back and do this race again. I’m sure I can find 15 minutes and get under 5:30.

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5 Responses to 2011 Avia Wildflower Long Course Triathlon Race Report

  1. Tom Merala says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’m signed up for my first Wildflower (actually first Tri), and am doing the long course. I’m going to use your publication as a training tool. I love hills, both on bike and while running, but I’m hoping I didn’t sign up for too much. Thanks for the posting, and also for the suggestion about not pushing too hard on the bike.

    • Scott says:

      Hey Tom …I am doing the same…first tri and doing the half iron man. I also hope I did not bite off more than I can chew!

  2. Jon W says:

    Nice race recap Will. I’m 6′ 185 and will be taking on the hilly course for the first time this year. Thanks for the insight.

  3. Scott says:

    I have seen conflicting numbers regarding the elevation of the bike course. I saw one person site it at over 5000 feet (which does not seeem right) while others are closer to your estimate…3500 Feet. When I looked at the elevation chart, 3500 seemed about right. Any feedback on this Will? Thanks for the great recap!

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