Friday, May 16, 2014

My One and Only Wildflower Mountain Bike Race

Wildflower Triathlon Festival, as it is officially called, is one of my favorite racing experiences. I first did the race somewhat on a whim in 2009, my first year of racing. A friend was flying in from Louisiana to do the Long course as one of their featured athletes and I wanted to come out to cheer him on. I decided if I was going to be out there all weekend, I might as well race and signed up for the Olympic Course (after dithering between it and the Mountain Bike for a week) when I hadn't run more than 4.5 miles without stopping and had only biked 26 miles one time. It turned out to be a good decision, though, and I had a great time and I was hooked.

I've been back every year and raced every year but 2012 (when my brain injury wouldn't let me even do yoga let alone train for a triathlon). Last year I was barely working out so I put together a relay team and did the swim. My team was awesome but it was surprisingly hard to find team members and my cyclist had a plumbing emergency and had to be replaced at the last minute, which was stressful.

I decided this year I didn't have the energy to put together another relay team and I'm not cleared to do Olympic distance so I just wasn't going to do the race.

But... it's Wildflower!

So once again I dithered. Just in 2009, I didn't have a mountain bike and I would have to take time away from training for my A race to learn to ride one. But at least I was running, swimming and biking the Mountain Bike course distances in training so I knew I could complete the race.

Finally a friend intervened. I had mentioned I was thinking of doing the race to him and he was very enthusiastic about it. The next thing I knew, he was pulling up to my house with a  pickup truck full of mountain bikes for me to try out. We took the smallest one out for a spin and he left me with admonishment that I take it out 1-2x a week to learn to ride it and "See you at Wildflower!"

I went into the house and signed right up. It seems I was committed.

Unfortunately, I was also terribly, freaking busy. So I did not ride at all for two weeks after that, just pool and running. Then I rode the bike up Mount Eden and did okay but it was very close to Wildflower and I had not really been off-road and had only just learned where the brakes are on a  mountain bike [hint: not under the (non-existent) drops].

I vowed to take the bike out that Sunday to some place that I vaguely remembered matching my  hazy understanding of the Mountain Bike course which I had run on parts of four years before.

I went to Lake Del Valle. This was probably a mistake. The place did not match my recollection of the course at all. It was about 10x harder with a ton of loose gravel and massive hills with narrow trails carved into the sides. I thought I was going to die many times and ended up walking at least a mile, maybe more, of the 4.5 miles I "rode" out there. Plus it took me an hour to go that piddly distance.

If the Mountain Bike course was anything like this, it would take two hours to complete! This was not good and something had to be done.

I threw myself on the mercy of some Y Tri-ers and arranged to meet one of them out at Arastradero Preserve that Thursday. (Hi, Anita!) Yes, the day before we left for the race. Anything worth doing is worth leaving to the last minute, eh?

While the terrain was not quite as scary as Lake Del Valle, it was still pretty hard, it must have been 100 degrees F out, and my friend crashed at the bottom of the first serious hill and started bleeding. She laughed it off, but it freaked me out a bit.

I'm still nervous about falling since my own bike crash, because I don't want to re-injure my head. And, for some reason, whether it was because it was so horribly hot or because I have flat pedals and not clip-ins or it was just one of those days, I felt like I had absolutely no power in my legs. So I also ended up walking up quite a few hills that I probably should have been able to ride up.

So, while this ride went better than Del Valle one, it didn't really do much to silence that little voice inside my head that said "you are completely unprepared for this race." It did make me think that maybe, just maybe, I could complete the bike course in 1.5 hours and not two. And I was getting better at shifting at the right time even if I still was having trouble knowing if I was in the middle ring or the little ring of my front crank.

The trip down to Lake San Antonio was pretty uneventful -- I carpooled with someone I had never met but we had fun trading training stories and talking about our kids who are both in High School -- and I got there in plenty of time to unpack, pick up my race packet and eat dinner.

Thanks to the special pass that Coach Dave had, I also got a ride down to T2 (instead of walk) and we also checked out the swim and bike start at Harris Creek and even looked over the first bit of the bike course. This last part was maybe a bad idea because that first part included hopping down a curb and going around a tight corner "off camber". In sand.

Oh, "off camber" is apparently a nifty Mountain biker term that I learned that day. It means the trail is slanted the opposite way from how you are riding/turning. It's another way to say: You Will Die, Foolish Roadie!

At this point, I started to obsess a bit about the bike and I could tell I was working myself into a state. Working yourself into a state the night before your race is never a good idea, so I decided to ignore that voice in my head saying "You are going to walk the entire course or possibly crash spectacularly" and concentrate on the swim and how much fun Wildflower would be once I made it past the bike. It's not like I could do anything about it now anyway.

So I went back to the campsite, had some dinner, got ready for bed and had a decent night's sleep. Sort of. I did get woken up by snoring. I thought it was coming from the tent next to me, but when I got up in the middle of the night to pee (why does that always happen when you go camping?), it seemed like the snoring was coming from EVERYWHERE AT ONCE. So I dug up some ear plugs and tried to go back to sleep. They didn't help, but I was tired so I did fall asleep eventually and I'm pretty sure I got as much sleep as I normally do my first night of camping (i.e., not much).

At some ungodly hour (damn you El Camino Y Tri Club for turning me into a morning person), I could not sleep any more so I got up and started getting ready for the race.

I rode my bike down to Harris Creek with Coach Dave and we only got lost once. We rode on part of the course so now I had been "off road" on my bike three times and on it five times. At this point I actually knew where the brakes were and was getting reasonably okay at shifting. I also figured out that I could tell what gear I was in by looking at the numbers on the shifters. Oh.

There was a big downhill into Harris Creek and I got my first "I'm Racing!" moment on it. There was this guy ahead of us and first Dave passed him flying by at the speed of light (or so it seemed). The guy had this WTF? look on his face when that happen and started peddling harder as if to say "I'm not letting some old dude smoke me." Then I passed him going not quite as fast as the speed of light, but still pretty fast. He shrugged and gave up trying to catch us. Bwahahaha.

We racked our bikes in T1 and started getting ready. I set everything up and walked from the Swim In point (or what we were told was the Swim In point) to my spot to make sure I knew where I was and put my transition bag in the Shoe Bag box (so it would be back at Lynch when I was done racing as I rightfully didn't trust the wet stuff bag to be back by then) and then I still had over an hour to kill.

I ran around trying to find people I knew to pass the time. I had brought a KIND bar with me to snack on and, for once in my life, I actually ate enough calories pre-race to feel satisfied and not slightly hungry. I decided to put on my wetsuit down by the water entrance so I could go down early and cheer people on who were starting ahead of me and wouldn't have to climb back up that long ramp again to put it on. I seem to be the only one doing that, but it worked for me better than putting the suit on early and baking in it.

Finally, it was time for the mountain bikers to race! Our wave got into the water to warm up and I scoped out the ramp. There was a lot of muck just beyond it and I contemplated coating my feet in it so they wouldn't hurt as much when I ran to T1. But I figured it would all wash off in the swim and it was too gross to stand in so I gave up on that plan.

Now, where to seed myself.

Usually I start in the front. I'm a strong swimmer, but slow. Starting in the front means fast swimmers swim over top of me in the beginning. But it also means I don't have to push myself through weaker swimmers which I find surprisingly hard to do. (I think I worry too much about freaking them out.) Normally I don't mind being swum over as much as I mind pushing past slower swimmers but today I just didn't feel like getting bashed in the nose. I put myself in the middle.

The horn when off and I jumped in the water and started swimming. The water was murky with a lot of suspended particles in it. It was weird because it was clear and not clear at the same time. (You could see how clear it would be if the clay wasn't all stirred up.) I decided it was too weird to think about and consciously stopped looking at it to concentrate on sighting.

Usually I get passed a lot in the beginning and then feel like I'm all by myself for a long time (except for when the dolphins from the wave behind me pass me) and then start passing people as we get closer to the finish. But with such a short distance that didn't really happen. I was with people the whole way and barely passed people in the waves ahead of us (but also didn't get passed by the people behind).

This made it hard to know where I stood because it was so different from my normal experience, but I had a sense my swim was going well if slightly slower than I could go. I thought about hustling at the end to pass a few more people, but decided to save it for the bike. I forgot to look at my watch as I crossed the mat, but I looked at slightly past that and it said 10:55 so I figured I probably made my swim time goal of 10 minutes or close enough.

I started pulling off my cap and goggles and tearing my wetsuit off down to the waist when I hear someone say "wipe off your face. You've got a beard!" A beard? Oh my! I can't wait to see the pictures. Not.

I continued the long trek up the boat ramp, hopefully sans beard. The long, long trek. I had decided the day before to power up it, but not run. I think I made it about 3/4 of the way up before I totally pooped out. I dragged myself the rest of the way to swim entrance and the volunteer is directing everyone somewhere else. So much for preparation!

I look at my watch -- it's already over eight minutes for T1. Eight minutes! I have NEVER taken that long in a transition and I'm not even to my bike! Oh well, I can't go any faster and I don't want to give all my energy up here. I still have to bike.

But then I get to my bike and the most amazing thing ever happens. ALL THE BIKES ARE STILL THERE. Okay, some of them must be gone. But most of them are still there. This has never happened to me before. Never. Usually at least half the bikes are gone. I almost panic. Did I mess up and leave in the wrong wave? Okay, that's just silly. Of course I didn't do that.

I grab my bike and rush out to the bike mount and I'm off.

At first it's not so bad. Then we get to the scary part at Harris Creek and that curb we're supposed to jump down. But I just can't. I end up walking down it. I do attempt to take the off camber turn but I go down in a sand. Then I wait for a million mountain bikers to pass me to get back on so I'm not in their way.

The next half mile proceeds like this with me getting off the bike a lot and then letting a bazillion racers go by me before I get back on. I'm getting tenser and tenser and gritting my teeth to just get through it when we're going up a hill that I'm sure I can manage and the little girl in front of me just abruptly stops. I don't have the skills to go around her so I have to stop too.

Something about this experience relaxes me a bit. There are some other people on the course who are overwhelmed by the technical difficulty of it too and this also helps because they are bitching up a storm and we start bonding over it.

The next time we get to a hill were a lot of people are walking their bikes, I have enough advanced notice and I get over to the left and attempt to ride up instead of walk. However, there just isn't room and the hill gets too steep so I end up walking, too. But I noticed that I am passing a ton of people every time I walk my bike.

After that I stop beating myself up about the walking and I just walk when everyone else walks and ride when they ride. We get through the worst of the course this way, trading places over and over. Me ahead when the course calls for walking or road biking skills and a core group -- that I start to recognize and chat with when we pass each other -- ahead whenever the course gets technical.

Finally, we get to the place I was told the course gets reasonable for a roadie and I'm so happy. I've made it. Sure, I still have half the course to ride but I'm done with the hardest parts. It's all mentally downhill from here and I'm close to our camping grounds with friends to cheer me on.

As I am wont to do when I am biking and happy, I burst into song:
Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee, lousy with Wildflower Mountain Bike Course virginity!
(Yes, my daughter is Rizzo in her High School's production of Grease this Spring. LOL)

Now it's a real race. Between me and the people I've been trading places with all day. The people I think of as "The Dudes Who Can Actually Mountain Bike" (TDWCAMB). I pass them on the downhill road parts and I'm able to bike up all the remaining hills when a few of them have to walk. But TDWCAMB kill it on the off-road. Since the route is getting less and less technical, that turns out not to be enough advantage for them though. I gradually put distance on all but one of the TDWCAMB and then we get to Lynch and I go SCREAMING down it. Whee!

And never see any of them ever again, not even on the run. Not until the post-finish noshing pit anyway.

I tear into T2, which is once again full of bikes but that's more normal for me so it doesn't faze me liked it did in T1, rack my bike and grab my visor and a mini-spray sunscreen rube and head out for the run spraying myself like crazy. And checking my watch.

I finished the bike in under 1.5 hours! Yes, it is over the 1 hour I feel like it should have taken me if I'd actually trained for the course. But it's better than I was expecting so I'll take it.

I think about eating a gel and the Gatorade the volunteers offer but ultimately decline. It's only two miles, I think, and grab some water from the aide station. I probably drink too much of it because now I'm a little queasy. I push myself to keep going.

The run course is usually where I overtake the people who have passed me on the bike, but that doesn't happen today. In fact, I'm getting passed! Oh, those are just elite athletes from the Long course. It's okay if they pass me. I push myself as much as I can, but my legs feel dead. (More bricks. More bricks.)

I had been told that the course was 1 mile of uphill out, turn around and run mile downhill back to the finish. I have no idea who told me that but they are a BIG FAT LIAR. It's a very hilly course with an enormous uphill on the way out but with plenty of other hills too.

At the .5 mile mark, I see Coach Dave! My secret goal was to catch up him on the run. I know thatt wasn't a terribly realistic goal, but I was hoping I'd at least see him. And there he was! "I'm coming after you!" I tell him. He laughs. I'd laugh too but I'm not sure I can spare the energy.

I get to the turn around and I remember that queasy feeling from T2 so when I grab water I just wet my lips, swallow two sips and pour the rest all over my head and neck. Instant air conditioner! I swear I felt my body temperature drop 2 degrees right then and there.

I head back and, while that enormous uphill is now a fast downhill, those other hills have their uphills that are starting to get to me. I find I have to walk more as I get farther along. I am starting to peter out and I can see that I'm not going to make my "under 2 hour" original time goal (that I set when I thought the bike course was easier) but it's going to be close. (Freaking endless T1. Grumble, grumble. Grumble. Too much unnecessary walking on the bike course. Regret. Regret. Regret.)

I get to where there I have to run around to the finish line and I am totally beat. I wonder if I can keep running, but as I round the turn into the finish chute people are screaming for the finishers like it's an Ironman and I get a burst of energy. I hear Coach Christy's voice in my head saying "sprint to the finish!" So I do. Sort of. I might even make my 27 minute run time goal! (Almost.)

I "sprint" to the finish line and I raise my arms in triumph! I even remember to hold them up for an extra second or two for the benefit of the photographers. There are at least 5 photographers waiting at the finish and they all snap a picture. I am bemused but, hey, maybe I'll finally get a good finish line picture. (Ha.)

I wander around looking for food and drink and friends and I see some of my "pals" that I met on the course and we compare notes and collapse on the chairs. At some point I realized that I did the whole race drinking only water. Oops. That was dumb.

I had gels with me on the bike but I don't really like gels. They had Gatorade on the course but I don't really like that much either. My original plan was to use them "as needed." But with no definite plan and not really liking my choices, I ended up not using anything. Lesson learned: have a definite plan and bring stuff I actually want to eat.

While we're recovering, Jesse Thomas comes in to win his fourth Wildflower Long and now the cameras and screaming crowds make more sense.

I think about waiting for more elite finishers, but I am just exhausted, so I go check out my results. It turns out I did make my swim goal -- I beat it by eight seconds! And I was 3rd in the swim! (Except once they fixed all the timing errors and the last two people finished it turned out I wasn't. Darn.)

The rest of my results were not bad. Basically middle of the pack in my age group, except for the bike. My bike sucked, of course. I was last of the people who had finished by that point. But there were still two women out on the course so I wasn't even last in the bike.

Still... there is work to be done there even if I never mountain bike ever again. I know biking is the weakest of the three sports for me.

As for my personal goals, I only missed my run goal by 57 minutes and beat my T2 goal by 1:07 minutes. And was first in my age group in that. Too bad transitions aren't their own sport. I'd be on the podium almost every time. T1, it turned out, when I checked my Garmin, was .36 mile long -- longer than the swim! So my almost nine minutes made more sense when you consider that. But 5th in my age group is actually a very bad result for me. It's been ages since I haven't been top 3 in transitions. I know I need to work more both on overall fitness and on my run and that would have helped with T1.

So here are the stats:
TimeAge GroupGenderOverallSwimRankT1RankBikeRankT2RankRunRank
02:07:098/12108/140 205/40409:527/1208:525/1101:18:359/1101:531/11(!)27:577/11

So the big question is: will I do this race again? I did enjoy myself in the end, but more in a I'm glad I didn't wuss out, character building way. I am not really a mountain biker and I did not really enjoy learning to mountain bike. So I think this will be my first and only Mountain Bike race. I do reserve the right to change my mind at a later date though.
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