Kinsey and I unclipped and headed for the campground showers, satisfied that we had moved enough blood to keep us going for a second long day in the van, en route to the 35th annual Wildflower "Experience." The so-called Woodstock of Triathlon was back after a year's hiatus due to the Southern California drought of 2017. Knowing two of our Bend friends were going to be there and given the race's reputation, Wildflower was a must-race for our 2018 seasons. Kinsey would be competing in the headline 70.3 event as a professional debutante on Saturday and I'd be in the Olympic race on Sunday.
After a solid day and a half on the road, we made it to the campsite at San Antonio Recreation Area and thanks to Kinsey's VIP status as a pro, we were given a convenient campsite not far from the race festivities. Not long after, our friends Curtiss, Devon and Brent rolled up as well. Sharing a campsite with friends we'd been training with in the Juniper Pool was a new and welcome concept to us.
After a surprisingly restful night's sleep in the back of our venerable Ironvan, I roll over around 7:30 to light the camp stove and throw some coffee grounds in my handy French-press go-mug combo. Most campsites around me were deserted. Kinsey and the rest of the 70.3 athletes would plunge into the lake in about half an hour to kick off their race.
Mug in one hand and second breakfast in the other, I strolled over to to top of Lynch Hill where I'd get to spectate athletes rolling through their first few miles of the bike course after an abrupt climb out of T1. Within minutes, Kinsey rolls through at a pedestrian pace. Something's wrong. I dashed across the street to see what was up. She dropped a chain. "Ref, can I help!?" I wanted so badly to see her succeed but I knew accepting any form of outside aid could result in penalties. The man with the "Event Staff" shirt on gave me a shrug and Kinsey quickly waved me off and fixed it herself. She said something like "it's gonna happen again" as she pedaled away, chasing second place. With little else to say, I yelled, "shake it off, forget about it and go!" I wouldn't see her roll back through for another two hours. She hadn't dropped a chain in a while and I was hoping it was just a fluke. Flukes seem to happen with a lot more regularity on race days. When the pressure's on, your bike feels it, too.
I spent the rest of the day getting in a quick run to keep the legs warm and catching site of Kinsey and my other friends during their long course progression. At mile 55 of the 56 mile course, Kinsey cruised through with what I swear looked like a smile on her face. She wasn't first, in fact over 10 minutes back (Heather Jackson, another Bend local, was on the podium at Kona last year and was in a league of her own at today's race far out front), but was making great progress.
I didn't see her again until mile seven of the run where she had dropped from 3rd to 5th but kept everything together, racing smart all the way through to the finish line. While her body took a beating at her first major event of the season, her beaming face (not to mention payout) after the finish line made the 14 hours of driving each way worth it.
I found myself quite alone at the campground once more that evening. Curtis and Brent also had successful race days and were enjoying the awards ceremony down the hill with Kinsey and Curtiss' girlfriend, Devon. Meanwhile, I walked over to the edge of the campground where the clearing met with sagebrush and whittled down two sweet potatoes before cubing them on our mini cutting board and throwing them into some butter and salt. The sun's light was failing while I ate silently and alone, contemplating my task ahead at tomorrow's dawn, taking sips from a saucepan of heated bone broth.
* * *
Standing feet below the red banner, the familiar lead filled every muscle fiber from toe to finger. Despite a thorough warm up of burpees, lunges, and an array of carefully selected warm-up exercises, (at one point, weirdly, someone complemented my "picture perfect" air squat form) performed to get every range of motion familiarized, every joint lubricated, and every muscle firing, very little could prevent the feeling I assume every triathlete gets those 10 minutes prior to the gun. Curtiss was standing near the sidelines at the bottom of the boat launch, assuring me that the feeling would be gone by the first buoy.
A dash, a dive, and a deluge, the race was on. While that first, frenzied 200 meters was crowded and obnoxious, 90% of the field dropped back after the first turn. Five minutes in, and I was one of the few left that was able to hold the aggressive tempo. After so many thousands of meters training with my group, I felt like the strongest open water swimmer I'd ever been.
Settling in and keeping my focus, I found some feet to swim on, even finding the strength to accelerate when he did to keep up. Then I heard shouting and the safety kayaks were much closer than usual. I'd been sighting pretty regularly to keep an eye on the buoys ahead and the pink cap bobbing in and out of sight that lead me, but something wasn't right. For most of the swim, it's very difficult to hear any noise other that one's rhythmic breathing and lapping of small waves over the crest of the crown. We'd both made the same mistake and sighted the wrong turning buoy. I had to make a sharp left turn to go back towards the correct orange, triangular-shaped "dorito" before hanging another sharp right and getting back on course. I'd lost about 30 seconds but I did my best not to let it bother me. Every race has a variable element that you didn't plan for. I figured this was it and the rest of the day would be smooth sailing.
Only the collegiate waves started ahead of us and I passed undergrad after undergrad as I clawed my way back up towards the position I'd lost hold of after my faux pas. Still, there weren't many pink caps nearby so I must not have lost too much time within my group.
Before me stood a hillside lined with cheering spectators, T1, and the ribbon of state park road that lead up and out of the transition area. The next ten minutes was a blur of climbing and pedal smashing before I finally crested the hill leading us out onto the main road where most of the out 'n back bike course lay.
The Monterey County roads hugged the rolling hillside, searching for a stretch of flat prairie, but over the 40 kilometer course, none were found. I let myself work a bit harder up the hills, pressing above my threshold only just so, knowing that physics required a downhill slope of equal measure at some point...right?
With less than 10k left on the bike, I overtook one of the few guys that beat me out of the water and didn't see him again until after the finish line. Carefully clutching my brake levels at the bottom of Lynch Hill, I went from 45 mph to the mount line within a minute.
The run course had been described to me as "five miles of uphill, one mile of downhill" and that is about as accurate as it gets. Breathing in or out with every step, I donned my visor, shades, and race belt. I attempted to down a Picky Bar, more out of obligation than actual hunger, over the course of the first mile. While it didn't hurt, I think I've gotten myself to the point where my tank can stay full enough to race for at least 2 hours without too much extra nutrition.
I continued to pick off racers from the collegiate wave as I made vain attempts to regain my breath and find a rhythm. Plunging straight into a run that led me up a long, long hill after an hour of hard riding does not allow one to regain control of such things as respiratory rate if you want to stay fast.
With two miles left, a searing pain was developing in my left foot. A silver dollar-sized blister was crying out louder than the pain from my legs. Then a runner past, looking fast and strong. If I was ready to dig very low into the depths of my capacity for suffering, maybe I could limit the time he was putting on me, but with each attempt to press the gas pedal came even more ferocious screams from the open wound now dominating my thoughts.
With less than a mile left, the Lynch Hill descent was the only thing between me and the finish line. I was passed again. The last mile was more or less a controlled fall and not the time to be getting passed, but the added gravity and pace, reaching 5 minutes per mile at times, did not help the situation in my foot. Gritting my teeth and telling myself it is only cosmetic pain, I pushed forward, knowing that if I let up even a bit now, there was another racer that would have been happy to take my second place age group finish away from me.
Bloodied and bruised, the long van ride home was a lot more painful than the way down, but less than an hour into the drive, we were already talking about the plan for next year's edition of Wildflower.