Thursday, May 10, 2012
“Long” is an elastic term.
Case in point: Seventy-plus miles of swimming, biking and running – covering about the distance between Monterey and San Jose – is not long for some, since it’s the kiddie meal equivalent of an Iron Man’s 143. For others, though, the signature race of the Avia Wildflower Triathlon weekend is a seemingly endless odyssey into pain and self-cursing, a double serving of the Olympic Triathlon distance plus a steep 6 miles or so extra.
Similarly, many think 30 years is a long time. Not Wildflower founder and director Terry Davis, though, who toasted three decades of the Wildflower Triathalon last weekend at Lake San Antonio on the southern border of Monterey County. On stage at the festival grounds he acknowledged God and hard work had a lot to do with the event’s staying power – and that it passed by in a blink.
“Year one feels like yesterday,” he says.
According to triathlete legend Scott Tinley, year one (1983) of the bluegrass-heavy, money-losing event was more “about camping and flowers and nature stuff.” It was also so far back that Nazi war criminals were still being arrested, Microsoft Word was a brand new program, Ronald Reagan was a first-term president, and Davis says he couldn’t even spell “triathlon.” In between, a water-ski jump show helped make the race solvent in 1985, shorter and longer distance events were added and attendance swelled to 30,000. For a time the event served as a qualifier for the esteemed Ironman World Championship, and it also earned Race of the Year from USA Triathlon and adopted the informal title Woodstock of Triathlons – which actually sells Wildflower short, since Woodstock only happened once.
For me, just the wait for the start of the 2012 long course seemed unbearably long. What came on the bike leg of the race, though, gave the word new definition. (The 1.2-mile swim passed rather quickly, albeit lengthened a little by the fact that I was the only one of hundreds of racers who was wearing a restrictive surf wetsuit rather than a thinner $150 “tri-suit.”)
A sharp uphill a mile in and offending winds promptly stretched the first five miles of the bike to tortuous lengths way too early in a race that would delve deep into the dusty afternoon. By the time I reached the climb that covers miles 40 to 45 – and about 1,000 vertical feet – my right leg was a twitching alien life form. The rise’s cruelest quality might not be the heat or duration but the timing, wedged toward the end of the ride and followed by more climbs – not unlike the biggest hill of the run – and preceded by a buffet of other lows and highs.
“For all I read about the hills at Wildflower,” 10-time Ironman Ben Grieb told me after the race, “I didn’t realize there were so many stingers – a couple hundred yards uphill, a couple hundred down. They really make it long.”
Fortunately the experience is long on inspiration. Seeing a 17-year-old young woman streak by is an effective form of motivation, as is seeing a Team in Training racer flying by with his left arm in a sling. Grieb did the race with two torn meniscuses, at age 65. The Cal Poly volunteers at the aid stations – at times doing the wave, holding signs and generally shaking the udders off their cowbells – provide all-natural uppers too, and cool-downs with help from a garden hose. One even took a more unconventional run at all-natural inspiration, sitting in a chair in the middle of the trail near mile 10 and standing to reveal nothing but nudity as runners grunted by.
“This is to help you,” a student in a bikini told us by way of warning as we approached. “To help you want to run really fast.”
At the top of the mile 45 hill – or what’s called “Nasty Grade” among racers – a white bearded man in a woman’s wig and a black cocktail dress presented his own version of rah-rah, flanked by a man in a bunny suit with a drum. Hard as it was to mount that mountain, it was harder not exchange a smiling high-five with both.
The setting provides inspiration as well, albeit for just a moment before its topography brings you back to the insanity of biking three and a half hours and running another two and a half: sweeping green and gold meadows interrupted only by knowing oaks, a red-tailed hawk fanning out its tail feathers, vineyards running from the road in leafy formation, the alluring azure lake itself and the wildflowers that gave the race its deceivingly peaceful name – soft yellows, cool blues and fiery reds. San Antonio Lake is, after all, a Monterey County park.
“It’s the most beautiful park in the world,” Davis said Saturday beneath a rising super moon. “Especially for triathlons.”
There was nothing pretty about my effort, but then again I don’t belong in the company of serious folks like 32-year-old pro winner Jesse Thomas of Springfield, Ore., who came in under four hours (3:58:59). On my borrowed bike, with my borrowed helmet, I was the only guy in the entire race without $100-and-up clip-in shoes.
A supermarathoner friend had told me the last 10 miles were “all will,” and she was totally wrong, at least in my case. It was more like the last 30. But even as my right leg tightened into a wad of quad and hamstring cramps as early as mile three of 13 on the run, and my left knee started singing its own shooting-pain anthem by mile 9, they were ultimately drowned out by simple mantra: Just make it to the next Gatorade table. Even the most fiendish challenge for an overmatched madman, it turns out, can be conquered by merely staying in motion.
It’s a version of the lesson learned by hundreds every year down in south county, and one that lasts forever, which, no matter how you slice it, is an awfully long time.