I guess most triathletes kinda know about the Avia Wildflower triathlon, but for those of you who want the 30 second elevator pitch...
...as a triathlon geek's dreamy 3 day festival with multiple events, Wildflower is considered the "Woodstock of Triathlon", attracting close to 8000 participants, the majority of whom camp at the race venue for several days leading up to the race, creating what looks like a tent city comprised of spandex-clad ectomorphs...here's a couple videos I shot:
In addition, Wildflower is also considered one of the tougher courses out there, and this holds true for both the Olympic and Half Iron distances (for some flavor of the Olympic, watch my wife's video adventure below)
So as a "big" and "tough" triathlon, I was pretty determined to make a good showing at the Wildflower Half Ironman. Two years ago, the only other time I've done this race, I was fifth overall and fourth in my division, and although this wasn't my "HIGH PRIORITY" for this year (that's coming up in 5 weeks in the land of Hawaii), I wanted to do as well or better than my last showing. After all, who wants to exercise for two years and find out you're less fit?
My wife and I flew down on Wednesday, allowing us three days to camp in the scary wilderness before the Saturday race. Of course, I brought along a few of my highly recommended travel staples - ActionWipes travel wipes (good for cleaning bikes and the occasional ass), Bumblebar energy bars (tasteful alternative to airplane food) and nuun electrolyte beverage (always recommended near hot races) and Solar Synergy from Mt. Capra (high quality antioxidant loading can reduce your rating of perceived exertion during hard efforts so THERE). The scary wilderness also involved hot running showers, VIP access to an RV with full amenities, and several large plastic bags full of fresh food from Wal-Mart. Ah, roughing it.
I've also really been focusing on keeping my body "non-acidic" and grabbed a ziplock bag of Enerprime powder as well, giving myself 1 tablespoon a day leading up to the race.
Since I sent my Specialized Transition bicycle and gear down earlier with one of the Pacific Elite Fitness athletes who was gracious enough to drive down a freakin' HAUL of my equipment, it was pretty easy travel, and the days leading up to the event were filled with the standard triathlon expo-esque hanging around, checking out new products, eating new variations on sugar, talking to old and new faces, assessing whether the legs should or should not be shaved, and trying to handle the nerves and camping food constipation leading up to the big day.
Race morning arrived at 4:30am with car alarms, some college student's loud "pump me up for a race" rock music and a random crying baby. I'm sure that somewhere, masked behind the noise of rising triathletes, were birds singing.
Two hours before the race, I ate a couple salted yams with a dab of peanut butter. For those rabid nutritional nazis who follow my BenGreenfieldFitness blog, YES, I know peanut butter is a no-no according to my testosterone-boosting, fatty-acid optimizing, Russian prize fighter protocol from Bioletics, but hell, you can only find certain foods at Wal-Mart while driving in to camp. Finally, I pulled out my secret weapon 30 minutes prior to the swim start: 2 packets of delta-E energy powder. BOOM!
The Swim: Since it was very cold in the morning, I ventured down to the water as one of the last guys, content to steer clear of the swim entrance and do jumping jacks and push-ups to get my body heat up, rather than spend the first 2 minutes of the swim just trying to deliver warm blood to cold muscles. It worked well at avoiding the typical "breathlessness" and lactic acid through the firehose feeling in those first 200 meters.
I was lucky enough to line-up on the swim start directly next to an incredibly talented team: a blind athlete guided by and tethered to a very fast swimmer. I figured if some guy was LEADING a blind man, he'd probably make a pretty straight draft, so I found their feet and stayed there during the entire swim. As a result, although the swim was challenging, I came out of the water as one of the first 10 competitors, and didn't feel like I worked hard enough to really come out that early.
This was my first race wearing the new 2010 Blue Seventy Helix. For those of you who are already wearing the Helix, I must tell you that it is amazing how Blue Seventy somehow improved on an already perfectly form-fitting suit. This wetsuit absolutely rocks, and for you triathlon fashionistas, it is by far the most superheroish looking suit too (hey, style points count).
The Bike: I used a Zipp disc with a 404 on the bike, and planned on riding the first 25 miles fairly aggressively, since 25-37 miles are mostly downhill. Since it was about 80 degrees, I got my salts by slamming a couple Athlytes as soon as I got on the bike, (and continued to take 2 every 30 minutes for the entire race, along with 24-28oz of water per hour from my CeeGees aero bottle).
Despite my minimal taper of about six days, my hairy legs really felt great on the bike. Within 15 miles, I rode up on the women's pro field, who started 5 minutes prior to my wave, and by the 25 mile mark, was riding into the men's field, who started 10 minutes prior (OK, OK, they were probably the guys who got draft penalties or were 15 year old phenom pros, but it helped fuel my fire)...
Nothing hurt on the bike, the whole time. As a bit of an experiment, I upped my calories just a smidge, and averaged close to 375 calories per hour of a mix of GU Roctane and GU Chomps, about 50 calories more than usual. This higher intake felt like it really helped, especially as aggressively as I was riding (I switched to 200 calories per hour on the run, from sickeningly sweet aid station gels - once again highlighting race director's needs to get the far superior GU gels on more aid station tables).
So for my division, I was in first place coming off the bike, and had a 4 and a half minute lead over the nearest competitor. My total bike time was a 2:34:36 - one of the fastest splits of the entire race - but I really didn't "push outside my limits", knowing I would need to tackle a very tough run course afterwards. For those of you who wonder what "push outside my limits" means, it means that you should feel like you're sustained maximal pace at a high cadence, without the legs feeling rubbery or without feeling like you're mashing gears. Incredibly qualitative. Look for more quantitativeness when I get my Powertap in a couple weeks. Thanks to Specialized, I was also outfitted with a shiny new aero helmet, which goes very well with the best optics on the planet from Zeal Optics in Boulder.
The Run: In my build-up to my big Hawaii 70.3 race in June, I've built up every part of my fitness EXCEPT that final long endurance kick. For you physiology buffs out there, this would be the ability to hold a "Zone 4" muscular endurance effort for longer than an hour. Based on this, I knew I would need to run the extremely challenging Wildflower course somewhat conservatively up to mile 9, where I could put in a final 5K kick. For me to qualify for Kona in 5 weeks, I will need to be able to put in this final kick closer to the 10K mark.
Unfortunately, running the first 9 miles of Wildflower conservatively is a big joke. Multiple dirt trail stretches literally take you straight up the sides of hills that you'd expect in a brutal 5K cross-country race, and not in a triathlon half-marathon.Tracing your fingers over an elevation profile on a map and planning to stay aerobic can become a pipe dream when faced with the actual course. So despite attempting to maintain a relatively aerobic state, I repeatedly had to dig very deep to even "keep moving". A run-walk protocol might have been prudent in this scenario, but each uphill was followed by a steep downhill, making it very hard to "walk".
At mile 8, my cadence slowed, I started to suffer, and my pace dropped from a 6:45 to a 6:55. At this point, I was passed by the eventual division winner, who ended up besting me by 4 minutes. When he passed me, he was really moving, and I knew my goose was cooked, since the final 3 miles are the most difficult part of the Wildflower run course, due to a very long uphill climb.
From here, my strategy was to "hold off" getting passed again. It took some serious pain. Like finger-tingling, blurry-vision, head-pounding pain to maintain anything close to a 7:20 minute shuffling pace as I climbed the final hill before the descent to the finish line. Near the very top of that final hill (embarrassingly, smack-dab in front of my Avia running shoes sponsor rep) I slowed to a walk for a good 20 seconds, which I truly believe kept me from passing out, but probably didn't look good in a pair of sweet racing flats.
The final 1K of this race is straight downhill - like, straight downhill. It hurts like a sledgehammer hitting your metatarsals, but you just let your legs turnover while gravity does its damage. At the bottom of the hill is a final 300m flat kick to the finish line, which I managed to cross at the 1:32 mark, for a second place division finish, ninth place overall (although top ten overall sounds nicer), and a 4:37 total time.
Awards video (keep reading too, because yes, there's more):
With my current fitness levels, I couldn't have pushed any harder in this race, and don't feel like I made any "tactical" errors. I'm where I want to be at this point in the season. This was a fantastic test to tell me exactly where I need to be in 5 weeks for Hawaii 70.3 and my final push to that race will involve two to three "4x5K" progression runs at a faster pace for each 5K, with at least one of those being off the bike.
After the race, for recovery, I popped 8 Recoverease, hopped in the cold lake, then spent the entire next day chasing my smoking hot wife around the Olympic distance race course and breaking multiple state laws of California driving back to the airport.
Life's a short adventure, so be certain to live your dreams. Sometimes they hurt, like this race, but hurt usually feels good in the end. I don't know if that's shallow, deeply meaningful, or just the product of writing race reports on an airplane, but take it for what its worth. Thanks for reading, and please visit my sponsors via the links on the right and buy stuff from them because if it wasn't the best I wouldn't use it. If you want discounts and stuff, just e-mail me.
P.S. Speaking of the good stuff, during Wildflower, I tried the new Scape sunscreen that I talked about in podcast #92 from BenGreenfieldFitness.com. It's the same stuff that Craig Alexander (Ironman triathlon world champion) uses. I bigtime recommendo - no embarassing sun marks after the race, no stinging of the eyes, no washing off of the sunscreen during the swim, no "hot skin reduced cooling" effect, and 50+ SPF to boot. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with the title "Sample Pack" and they'll send you some with FREE shipping.