Road Trip Wildflower Triathlon

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By: Sam Warriner, Triathlon Magazine

If there were a definitive ‘Top 10’ iconic events in Triathlon – Wildflower would be right up there with the likes of Kona, Alcatraz, and St. Anthonys.

Although it’s never had the lure of a World Title, and has never featured in a series as so many of the other iconic events do in times of financial need, Wildflower consistently attracts one of the largest fields in triathlon. The race has been held in central California since 1983, and this year hosted 30,000 spectators and 7,500 participants, the majority camped out around the idyllic Lake San Antonio. It’s commonly referred to as ‘The Woodstock of Triathlon’ and my husband and I joined athletes from all over the world this April to soak up the atmosphere!

The marquee event is the half Ironman, an event I’ve always wanted to race, but Wildflower itself is so much more than that – the festival goes for three days and there’s an event for everybody. From swim clinics and yoga classes, there’s communal stretching, the obligatory pasta party and then of course the racing itself. There’s a kids’ race on the Saturday, an Olympic distance event, mountain bike triathlon and then the race I went over for - The Avia Wildflower Half Ironman.

San Francisco is the closest international airport to Lake San Antonio but with it being school holidays in NZ, Stephen flew in and we chose to spend four days driving the coastal route up from Los Angeles in an RV. I trained on the Pacific Coast Highway when I used to be based in LA so have always thought I’d like to drive it one day!

The flight itself to LA would have to be the easiest of international flights, and I’ve got my routines down to a ‘T’! Air NZ operates evening flights from Auckland, and with it being around 12 hours - you arrive the following morning, albeit a day behind! It’s a sleeping pill when I get on board the plane and I’ll wake up in time for breakfast. Despite this - most RV hire companies stipulate overseas travelers aren’t allowed to pick up the day they arrive.

The size of the RVs in America are a little daunting to begin with, ours was the smallest in the ‘Big Bear’ fleet – at 28 feet long, 10 feet wide and 13 feet high! We had three double beds, a fully equipped kitchen, bathroom with shower and toilet, and comfortable dining area and couch! The roads are wide enough to quickly put your mind at ease though, and never once did our $1,000 bond come anywhere close to a dent. If your perception of LA comes from the TV show ‘Cops’, you’ll be surprised just how quickly you can be out of the chaos and driving on roads as stunning as any in NZ. Just 20 minutes from LAX you’ll hit Malibu and the winding beauty that is the Pacific Coast Highway opens up in front of you. We stopped and fired up the gas stove for an obligatory cup of tea overlooking multi million dollar Malibu mansions and then pushed on to Carpinteria for the first night’s stop off. The State run campsite is located right on the beach, costs $35/night for a ‘full hook up’ for the RV, and with a pool just 500 metres up the road it made it a perfect first stop off.

The following morning we called into Santa Barbara, a vibrant oasis of shops, cafes, and Spanish / Mexican architecture. With ‘honesty parking’ for RVs and 25-cent buses up and down State Street, the city was easy to navigate and you can cover a lot of ground in a short space of time. I’d have to say the oysters and seafood chowder at Enterprise Fish Co. on State Street would be on par with the very best.

Stephen’s main motivation for coming over was to visit the central coast vineyards. We spent the following day driving around the Paso Robles region; with its 200+ wineries we really only saw (and tasted) a fraction of what the area has to offer! We finally made it to Lake San Antonio on the Thursday and a queue had already built at the entrance to the State Park. From a steady trickle of athletes arriving on Thursday, the line of RVs was over a mile long waiting to enter the park on Friday! It’s hard to imagine 25,000 camping triathletes until you’ve actually seen it – but believe me the atmosphere around the park was electric. There are over 500 campsites dotted around the lake; you book your spot at the time of entering with Tri-California Events.

It seems everyone has a ‘banner’ telling you which club they’re from, and all the clubs camp in the same spot year after year. So what you get is a friendly mix of both camaraderie and jovial competition. The course itself would have to be one of the hardest halfs I’ve raced, only St. Croix would top it in terms of bike toughness, but Wildflower’s run is deceptively draining with the majority being on loose dirt tracks. Take only a 23 sprocket for the climbs and you’ll quickly find your run becomes even harder – believe me a 25-tooth sprocket is a must! Lake San Antonio at dawn is a beautiful site, as the sun warms the lake it’s as if a million light rays bounce off the surface and colour the surrounding hillsides gold.

As you enter the water to warm up you feel you could almost be on Monet’s canvas. The first couple of miles of the bike will jolt you back to reality though, with a mile long climb out of transition that peaks at 18% and averages only slightly less. I remember the scenery on the bike course as magnificent, but only because I rode it two days prior – on race day you’re continually working the gears trying to save your legs for the run and you’ll be lucky to notice a single wildflower. Once you’re over the three-mile ‘drag’ at mile 46 called ‘Nasty Grade’ you know it’s time to focus any remaining energy on the run. If you’ve completed the last mile of IMNZ along the lake front and you’ve experienced what got me to the finish line – the crowd sucking you along, then you’ll have some idea of what it’s like to run in a campsite of 25,000 screaming triathlon fans! The tracks were dry and dusty this year, which added to the fatigue but the crowd kept me going to the finish line.

Celebration is a big part of what we do. Whether it’s completing a session you didn’t think possible, or a race such as Wildflower that’s as tough as it gets, we earn it as athletes. And Wildflower really knows how to turn on a party. We were invited to the Inside Triathlon ‘after party’ – as it turned out it was no different to any of the other 100s of parties going on around the lake that evening; a fire pit, beers in the chilly bin, and a bunch of triathletes talking about their experience that day. As you walk from campsite to campsite along the moon lit tracks you really do get a sense of how our sport brings like-minded people together.

Next year will be Wildflower’s 30th anniversary and I know the organizers are planning a real celebration. I think it would make a great ‘road trip’ for eager Kiwis so I thought I’d share my own experiences – if you decide to stray further a field and race overseas yourself this year I’d love to hear your experiences and include them in the magazine!

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