There are so many places to begin my account of this race. But maybe it is important to explain the motivation first. Back in 2003, I cheered alongside Sarah Wall (now Chimi) as she flashed every member of the Fleet Feet Triathlon Team as they crested the last uphill on the run course at mile 12. And I wanted to be out there competing too, and not just because I would get to see Sarah’s chest, though, that in itself would be worth it. The Wildflower long course (essentially a half-iron distance) is the stuff of legends.
So I found myself four weeks ago, talked into racing the long course event for the first time. I signed up as an amateur because I did not think that I had qualified for a renewal of my elite license. I had maintained a pretty convincing level of fitness and all that was needed in my training were a few minor adjustments to include some climbing in my aero bars and speed/hill workouts on the run. Then last Sunday, I went for a 70 mile bike ride with a group of local triathletes who are all beginning to ramp up their training for Ironman Canada. After the ride, I got to thinking....I should really be racing as an elite. I went to the USA Triathlon website and spent an hour reading the fine print on elite qualification. I don’t how I missed it the first time, but there in plain site was my ticket, a one year extension of my elite license if I had a qualifying race in my first year (out of two). I was in!
Arriving in Lake San Antonio, California
After a 13-hour drive that my travel buddy, Ed, and I split into two with a lovely night stay in Redding, CA, we pulled into the campgrounds with just enough time to set up camp and book it down to the pre-race meeting. Two members of the race staff, Dixie and Becky, were fabulous about setting me up with my credentials, race entry, numbers, bib, and chip. They made it so easy! I had a little bit of dinner with the OSU Tri Club, set up my bike and transition bag, and played a rousing game of Uno with Draw 2 Rulz (imagine combining the drinking game Kings and Uno and the penalty instead of drinking is to draw two). Before long though, I was headed to bed and in less than 10-hours, a half-ironman.
Started out cold. Temps in the 50s. I got up to make French Press coffee (caffeine! I had given up caffeine for two weeks leading up to the race) and steel cut oatmeal. I was enjoying my coffee and oatmeal watching the sunrise so much that I lost track of time and arrived late at the transition... which is not actually unusual, as most can attest to.
But, setting up transition was easy. Shoes on the pedals, chain in a low gear, helmet and sunglasses on the handle bars, tongues sticking out of my running shoes, and Cran Razz and Cola Clif Shots at the ready on my top tube (three thie time instead of two like always). I had time to jog out the first mile of the course, an up-and-down paved section that would do well as a roller coaster in an amusement park. It took me a bit to squeeze back into transition which made me a little hurried applying sunscreen (should have a been a little better about this as you can see where I couldn't reach in the middle of my back). Getting into my blueseventy Helix wetsuit was rather quick. And even though, I had been wearing a stocking cap and gloves during my warm-up, the day was rapidly heating up.
I love it when they start races with the Star-spangled Banner. I sang affectionately off-key, trying to mimic the vocal oscillations of the woman singing. Then, after the Elite men went off, it was my turn. I started off to the right side because ever since a bike accident damaged my left shoulder, I always end up swimming left off the course and though it would be cool to use the swimmers to my left to keep me in check. But unfortunately, it didn't matter, because before the first buoy I was dropped by the lead pack and swimming in no mans' land (or lake). I kept a good tempo, but didn't really feel warmed-up during the whole swim. I realized about two-thirds of the way through that there was someone drafting off me (mostly because I kept getting my toes tickled). I tried to trade the lead with her to get a little rest, but for whatever reason, she didn't pick up on that. So, it was with about 200 yds to go that she swung around me and sprinted for the boat ramp. Okay, I figured I'ld catch her on the bike.
Onto the Bike
I transitioned like a rockstar! After eight months off I figured I was a little rusty, but everything came back to me as I went through the motions of de-wetsuiting and helmeting. At Wildflower, you actually exit transition and ride over the blue carpet and through the finish shoot. After that, the course proceeds over the same roller-coaster mile that I warmed up on and then heads up a mile-long steep incline called Beach Hill, before proceeding onto the bike course that has an elevation profile resembling a heartbeat on an ECG. But, I made it up, and to my surprise caught two women on the climb. The problem was that I rode the next 10 miles trying to get warmed-up and comfortable on the bike... it just didn't really feel right. And then, it clicked. I shifted back a little on my saddle which I think allowed my to stretch out my legs more in the pedal stroke and generate more power and efficiency and I started to fly. Even with a head wind on the fastest part of the course (a ten-mile stretch with a net downhill and lined by beautiful vineyards), I was moving. Before long I could tell in the distance that I had two more women in site. Then just before Nasty Grade (a heinously long uphill at mile 40 that is also covered by some of the worst pavement I've seen on a bike course), 21-yr old Kat Baker from Australia passed me and I vowed to hang with her as both she and I passed the two women I had spotted earlier.
Nasty Hill is followed by a series of uphills and downhills, one of which has pavement that is so gloriously smooth. And with the wind at my back I held my position in the aero bars as my speed climbed to 46 mph! Around mile 51, I was climbing a short steep incline back into the park when a spectator started sprinting alongside me. He said "you are doing great. There are two woman just ahead of you and both look as if they are hurting. And, you are looking awesome." And you know how good that makes you feel after the end of the bike leg :-)
On the Run
I hit transition in 9th place, just behind Kat Baker and Angie Naeth (ironically, a fellow MU tiger track athlete whom I had run, biked, and cross-trained with when we were both injured in college). My legs carried me past both of them within the first two miles (on the roller coaster, again). Then the course winds along a dirt trail that is marked by knee-crunching downhills, ankle-twisting turns, and uphills that forced me to walk a couple of times. It was in the midst of this that I caught and convincingly passed Alexis Smith, something I hated to do because she is one of the nicest women on the pro circuit. Eventually, I came to miles 6-8, possibly my favorite part of the whole course, as it winds through the camping areas and people line the course to cheer. It was at this point that I really started to put some distance on the field behind me. I also passed the OSU team at this point...my new tri training partners. I think they were more than a little surprised to see me so far up, as they later told me, many times, with words like "we had no idea" and "wow". I guess I just don't brag enough :-)
After the campgrounds, i hit a mile long downhill that I didn't really enjoy because I was watching all the pros ahead of me ascend back up this same hill. And sure enough, about 50 yds past the very bottom, was the turn-around, and I had to head back up this mile+ long uphill. Even though at this point I was ready to be done, Chuckie V saw me (he is coaching Angie) and told me I had 6th in the bag and that I was making it look too easy. I also tried to imagine Sarah was at the top of the climb ready to flash me her boobies and that made me smile through the tired. After that climb, the last mile is a screaming downhill, done alongside later competitors whizzing down the road yelling out "You go girl!" What a way to finish! I hit the blue carpet, for the second time that day, in a full sprint. When I saw my time as I crossed the line I gave a fist-pump that would put Tiger Woods to shame.
Lots of smiles. Chatting with old friends including Kirk Nelson, Number Two (Nick Salazar), Tool (Andrew Maxwell), Kelly Couch (who finished 4th!), Angie Naeth (figuring out she had been the one grabbing my toes in the swim). Oh, and getting drug tested by the USADA...that was fun. And major props to the organizers of the VIP tent for the chocolate fondue fountain. Props also to Kelly's husband who bought me some Fat Tire and Team Clif Bar for bringing their Margarita-cycle (essentially a spin bike with the drive train hooked up to a blender attachment....ingenious). Major props to Splish for my beautiful monarch butterfly suit that everyone loved on the course. Oh, and I won enough money to buy a wicked cool cyclocross bike!!! It was my highest finish ever in an elite race and now I am seriously going to have to consider competing in a 70.3 race (maybe Vineman) to qualify for Clearwater again (and not sprain an ankle this time).
As soon as I can get my hands on some pics, I'll put them up. I promise.