Saturday, May 12, 2012

Wildflower Race Report

I picked this race because I thought a challenging event would motivate me to train harder. I was scared enough to do so because it is insanely difficult. In fear of the bike course, I sought out hills instead of avoiding them . Trail running on a long two hour run became doable because the half marathon is sixty percent hilly trails and I didn’t want to suffer. Or I thought I would suffer less if I trained on trails. I was wrong.

The long course is a 1.2 mile swim in Lake San Antonio, a fifty six mile bike around the lake and a 13.1 mile run. Wildflower is in its thirtieth year and attracts professional athletes from all over the world. They race it like the hills don’t exist. The rest of us mere mortals take a lot longer than four hours to complete the course.

Just getting to the site was a tedious ordeal. It’s six hundred miles from my house. I broke up the drive to two days. This
 long trip gave me a lot of time to contemplate California. California has a huge population but has large desolate areas. The Mohave Desert is dotted with towns like Indio and Desert Center, which made me wonder why anyone would want to live in these sun-blasted places. Desert Center greets the denizens of the highway with dead palm trees that look like ruined columns. Why don’t they ever cut them down? They have been standing for as long as I could remember and are markers of a sad, pathetic looking place.

The freeways seem endless in the Los Angeles area, and seem to start around a hundred miles from the west coast. I stopped in Pasadena for the night in a less tony area of town. I walked around the neighborhood and every block seemed to have a cage of parakeets.

The next day, I drove to Paso Robles. Instead of empty stretches of desert, it was farmland or vineyards. I passed through Lost Hills. The town should probably stay that way. A field of oil derricks graces the area and it is more like a truck stop than anything else.

Despite my long drive up, I decided to check out the bike course the same day. It’s a rural area with winding two lane roads, grassy hills and oak trees. The terror creeped in when I saw the endless rolling landscape. The route is infamous for an incline called the “Nasty Grade” at mile forty. It is three miles up a six percent grade, which means a long, slow, painful climb on a bike. To top it off, the rest of the ride is steep rollers, which would not feel good after a strenuous uphill ride. I was in for an ugly ride and I hoped I would be able to finish it in time.

The next day, I drove to the campground. I sought the Lupine Meadows area, which would be less populated by noisy college students. People just set up anywhere and I picked a spot with a picnic table. Some oak trees provided shade, but most areas were hot and dusty. It gets cold at night, but very warm during the day. I was not feeling good about the camping thing and wished I had stayed at the hotel. This was not fun. I had hoped to find some people that I knew, but I had no cell phone reception to call or text.

I went to another area in the park to pick up my packet and to get some food. I ran into the people that I was looking for. At least I wasn’t totally alone here. We went swimming, then I left. Before I went down the road, I decided to check for my car key. I couldn’t find it after searching my bag. I looked around the areas that I had been at, but didn’t find it. I checked lost and found and no one had turned it in. I was getting panicky. I had no spare and no way to get into my car.

I went to race headquarters since they had a land line phone, to call my motor club service,. A truck would have to come down to the campground. I had to wait by the road for over an hour instead of relaxing before the race. I watched cars go by and wondered if the truck would even show up. Finally, the guy came and opened my car. It didn’t solve the ultimate problem of not having a key, but at least I could set up my tent. I was utterly frazzled, but I came here to do the race and I was going to do it.

The tent set up was difficult because the wind kept blowing it around. I staked one corner and the rest of the tent blew into the car. I lassoed the tent, pounded stakes down while cussing a lot. The sun was going down and I wanted to get it done before it was dark. I threw a suitcase inside to hold the tent down. Luckily, I had practiced putting the tent up beforehand, otherwise it would have taken much longer to do. The charm of camping was elusive to me.

I rushed back down the race headquarter area to get some dinner before the shuttles stopped running. I wasn’t hungry, but I would feel much worse if I didn’t eat anything because I was tired and stressed and I needed the energy. I tried to relax and not dwell on my predicament. If I didn’t find the key, I would have to have the car towed to a locksmith. I needed all my energy for the race and stress would drain it.

I didn’t sleep well, with people coming in and the water trucks going down the road at regular intervals. It was cold, but I managed to stay warm under my sleeping bags. I heard some coyotes, which I appreciated more than the people noise.

When I got up, it was cold enough to have frost on the car. It took me a while to get going. I got down to big transition area and set up my stuff. About two thousand people were doing the race. I started at 9:10. At least it was warmer by then.

I didn’t enjoy the crowded swim. I stayed off to the left because I knew the waves of people behind me would overtake me. A stream of swimmers passed by me, churning up the water. Total time was 54:54, which was my best ever time for this distance. But it didn’t feel like a great swim and seemed go on forever. I was glad to get it over with.

The bike start was crowded with mountain bikers from another race that were all bunched up. Almost right away, I had to climb a short steep hill, the first of many. I didn’t think it was all that bad.

The road left the park and turned north. The wind was rudely blowing out of the north, adding to the difficulty of climbing the terrain and I didn’t make good time .

I tried to make up time on the easier northern section of the route that wound east. I passed a fair amount of people. Some sections that looked bad from the car yesterday weren’t all that bad to ride. I eased off when I knew I was getting close to Nasty Grade. The ordeal was coming . It was hotter now.

Nasty Grade was a long painful grind. It’s not that many miles, but it seemed to last forever. I passed more people. It teased riders. When it looks like it ended, it turned and climbed some more. A person dressed as the Energizer Bunny was supposed to be at the top, but wasn’t. Instead, a guy announced that we were at the summit. The ride down was fun, but when I got to the hills again, all my energy was gone. It was miserable climbing again when I wanted it to stop. The lack of sleep, the stress of losing my car key and the heat had finally gotten to me. I wondered how the hell I was going to run. Final time was 4:05:30. At least I beat the cut off by half an hour. This bike course was body crushing and relentless.

I had hoped to have an halfway decent run, but by this time it was getting really hot and I felt bad. At times it was a deep down scary bad. I said to myself that this isn’t good. I started out feeling okay, then felt dramatically worse. I have had heat exhaustion before but this was different, a nasty intense fatigue coupled with anxiety and dehydration. Just when I thought I couldn’t feel any more miserable, another hill loomed. I craved ice and they had none. I ended up walking most of the hills. I went through the hoses that the volunteers had and poured water on myself. It was hard to imagine getting through this ordeal. I was worried about getting the car towed afterwards. It was like an ironman death march where I move feebly ahead, hoping to finish before my body gives out. Quitting wasn’t an option.

Between mile eight and nine I saw a guy ahead that strangely was all one flesh color. Did he have on a leotard? Then I saw he was NAKED. This race has been known to have instances of co-ed nudity, but I had never heard of guys doing this. He offered a hug, but I said “um, no”. I high fived instead. I smiled.

The run cruelly goes down hill for a mile, then uphill the same mile. I kept looking for the reputed cheering crowds at mile ten, but I didn’t see that many people. Maybe, they were off drinking somewhere. Going back up the hill was the worst part of the run to me. I was spent, but I had to keep moving.

The end is after a steep downhill. I actually cracked a smile at the finish line. Final time was 2:57, which sucked, but it wasn’t a surprise. I had a feeling that the run would be very difficult, but the level of misery was unexpected.

I am not sure what to think about this event. At least I can say I finished a very tough race. I wasn’t entirely sure that it was possible to do so. It was interesting, but I didn’t feel like I conquered it. I expected to do it in about eight hours. Anything less would have been miraculous. It definitely ranked just behind my ironman races in difficulty and way more difficult than any half ironmans I have done, including Oceanside. At least now when I feel bad during a triathlon run, I can think to myself that’s “it not Wildflower.”

The finish line wasn’t the end of the ordeal. Now I had to figure out how to leave. I cooled down with some ice from the medical tent and the cold towel that they gave me. I ate what I could because I wouldn’t have time for dinner. A call to my motor club was not helpful. Thank you Allstate for leaving me to fend for myself. The operator kept asking for the address like I was at a business. It’s a freaking park and I am at a campground. A race volunteer suggested a towing company who suggested a locksmith. Getting the car to the locksmith required a tow to Salinas.

Where the hell was Salinas? Wasn’t this town a setting for a John Steinbeck novel? I found out it was seventy five miles north and the only place that I could get a locksmith on Sunday. It doesn’t pay to have car problems in the middle of nowhere. The absurdity boggled my mind. I threw my camping stuff in the car and the tow truck took me to this town. He was kind of chatty, telling me about the weird accidents and creepy people he sees at night. I was beyond tired. He dropped me and the car at a Motel 6 after I gave him $300. This trip was getting better and better.

I have never stayed at a Motel 6, but I found out I don’t get a lot of amenities for $50 per night. The room had no coffee pot nor hair dryer. My hair was not going to look stylish, but at least I could clean thirty six hours of dirt and sweat off of myself and sleep in a real bed. My dinner that night was pre-packaged tuna on a stale bagel. Of course it was 10:30 p.m. by this time, so I couldn’t eat much anyway. I prayed that the locksmith would actually show when I called him tomorrow. This was not where I wanted to be stranded.

A Denny’s was luckily next door so that I didn’t have to rely on peanut butter and another stale bagel with no coffee for breakfast. The motel was in a part of town that had the Monterey Pasta Factory and a Farm Products Processing Plant nearby. The pasta plant was spewing water(I hope) into the air and I didn’t want to think what the Processing Plant was emitting. It smelled vaguely like cow poo, like the odor of a dairy farm when the wind blows the wrong direction.

The locksmith finally showed up and liberated me from this hell hole. For lack of a little piece of metal, I had to pay an extra $600 for the tow, the locksmith, the room that I couldn’t stay in and the room that I was forced to use. This was the trip from hell to the race of the damned. But I can say I survived this ordeal. The hills and the heat didn’t stop me. Plus, I got to see Naked Dude.