I think I understand the Wildflower magic now.
Last year, I loved the race. I fell head-over-heels for triathlons, and I had one of the most magical, expectation-blowing races I’ve ever had in any corner of the sport. But I didn’t feel any particular pressing need to go back. I said several times that the one thing I knew I wouldn’t do this year was Wildflower. There are a lot of races out there; why keep going to one that’s so hard and hot and logistically complex?
This year, I spent more time on the other side of Wildflower — as a spectator and cheerleader, a jumping-around-er and a “here-you-can-have-my-windbreaker”-er — than I did racing, and from that side, I get it. Standing by the finish chute for an hour watching people sprint to the end and limp to the end and grab their children by the hand and jog the whole family to the end, I kept yelling to anyone who would listen, This is the most fun I’ve ever had!
And it was … possibly because I wasn’t really racing.
Team Brew Masters by jkoshi on Flickr
Racing isn’t really what this Wildflower was about for me, but let’s get it out of the way anyway. I was swimming the first leg of the Olympic distance relay, with Pete biking and our friend Jess tackling the run. We camped with the Golden Gate Tri Club, where once again I had no problems sleeping through most of the night, save for an incessant need to pee that I managed to put off actually doing until it was light out. We got ourselves out of the tents around 7, and had “first breakfast”: bread and peanut butter for me, plus some luxurious campground coffee made by Jess and her husband. I hardly ever drink coffee before morning workouts, but with nearly four hours to kill before my start, I figured it couldn’t hurt.
It was cold, gray, and windy — windy enough that leaves were pelting the tents at the campground, windy enough to send up big dust clouds — and, more than anything, confusing. Wildflower is hot and sunny! Yesterday was 90 degrees! Pros couldn’t wear wetsuits! What is going on? I actually wanted to get my wetsuit on sooner just to stay warm.
Just as last year, I remember thinking I’d be so bored waiting for hours in transition — and, just as last year, the time flew by in a steady rotation of saying hi to people, braiding hair, and cycling through the porta potty line. A bunch of TAGers were worried they would be cold on the bike, so I doled out all the warm clothes I had in my bag. Around 10, I wriggled into my wetsuit and headed down for the women’s wave starts.
From the boat ramp, it was clear that the wind was chopping up the lake. I saw a lot of people drift way to the left, and the kayakers had the course boxed in pretty tightly. I remember saying to my coach, “This is going to be really slow, right?” and him nodding hard.
During the warm-up, the water felt amazing. I do love that lake, even when it’s about to beat me up. Since the relay start was co-ed, I wasn’t sure where to put myself and ended up about 2/3 of the way back and as far to the right as was physically possible. I probably should have started further up, as it turns out, but no harm done that the lake wouldn’t have done anyway.
The first stretch, coming out past the boat ramp, was fairly unremarkable — a little contact, a little kicking — but as soon as we hit clearer water, the waves picked up. I breathe to the right, so it constantly felt like my left cheek was being slapped, and I was having to pull fast and hard just to get my head up far enough for clear air to breathe. I’d been legitimately afraid of being the last person out of the water, but it quickly became apparent that a lot of people were having very rough days. I passed a few that were just floating and looking worried, and I tried to say “you’re good!” but couldn’t manage it without a mouthful of water, so I kept plugging along.
Sighting was … not an option, really, but the clockwise course is a pretty easy one for me to stay on, so I just kept bobbing and diving through the waves, trying not to get seasick. (I heard later that a bunch of people puked in the water, and I don’t even want to think of what I might have swallowed.) I was, honestly, incredibly grateful for all of my terrible, tide-battling swims this spring. I knew I could keep making forward progress, and I knew I’d get to the buoy eventually, if I just kept bobbing and ducking, bobbing and ducking.
The short stretch between the two far buoys was hilarious — there was really no way I was staying on course, so I just went where the water took me — but after that, we picked up the wind going the other way and had a somewhat easier ride back to shore. As I approached, I could see a 3 at the end of the clock and had no idea if that meant 33 or 23 or 43 (I was wearing a watch but hadn’t bothered with the logistics of looking at it). It turned out to be 33, and with the short, steep run to the top of the boat ramp — a .1-mile journey that I swear must have spiked my heart rate into the 200s and left me with a stomach cramp — my final time was 34:03.
A couple of remarkable things: that was 1:43 slower than my Wildflower swim last year, but it placed me substantially higher (804th overall this year, 1325th last year). It was faster than my Napa swim, which was in much easier water. And it’s maybe the first open water swim race where I felt not even a second of panic, even though by all rights I should have. I had a moment early on where I thought, “well, this is gonna be reeeeeeeal shitty,” and I think acknowledging that let me let go.
After that, the hard part of my day was over. I stood with my coach for a while to cheer the last few TAGers in out of that roiling lake, and I asked him if he thought after that I could handle the ocean swim I’ll be doing for Santa Cruz (he laughed and told me that after that, I should sign up for an Alcatraz crossing). I kept my watch going so we’d have a vague sense of when Pete should be back, and he biked an impressive 1:36 in some rough winds. Jess took off (to kill the run with a 10K PR in the 47s, netting us 11th of 40-something relays in our division) and I went out to the finish line with my camera to try and get pictures of the TAGers finishing.
And that’s when I really fell hard for Wildflower.
One of the other TAG captains told me later that if this year’s Wildflower had been her first triathlon, she probably would have never done another. Kristina blogged something similar. And I can’t say I disagree. I know a lot of people really struggled. Plenty of time goals came and went — including mine — and that can be tough to swallow after all that training. A few folks in my group didn’t make various time cutoffs and were pulled off the course, and while they’ve taken it in stride (and are already plotting next races), it couldn’t have felt good on the day.
I think that’s part of what made what I saw at the finish line hit so hard. This wasn’t a race you can just show up and do. You have to fight for Wildflower, and shockingly often, Wildflower wins.
But sometimes, you win.
Sometimes you get to tear down that chute and hear the announcer say your name and smile.
Sometimes you high-five every single person you see.
Sometimes you don’t want to ever take that medal off.
Sometimes you can’t believe the sweet relief of being done.
I can’t really even talk about some of the things I saw in the finish chute without tearing up. Two of my teammates running in side-by-side, stride-for-stride, smiling big. Another one with an injury that had kept her from running for several weeks, nearly getting passed in the finish chute and putting on her “oh hell no” face and sprinting it in ahead of her pursuer. My friend’s relay teammates jumping into the chute, helmeted and capped and goggled, so they could cross the line together.
I love this sport. I love this group.
And I love this stupid race, even though it so rarely loves anyone back.