ASJ writer Luke Yates takes on the Olympic distance race at iconic event

by Luke Yates

Photo: Alex Felker

Photo: Alex Felker

This weekend I headed down to Lake San Antonio to represent Adventure Sports Journal at the Wildflower Triathlons and compete in the Olympic distance event. The race certainly lived up to its reputation as an extremely challenging, but incredibly fun course.

The morning of the race was warm and bright. Conditions were perfect at the swim start but the day promised to get much hotter as the race progressed.

The swim leg at Wildflower has been modified due to the drought conditions at Lake San Antonio, so the race now starts at the Harris Creek boat ramp.

Fast start
There was chaos as my wave set off, with swimmers battling for position and swimming over each other to reach the first buoy.

As the field spread out, I settled into a good rhythm, and other than a few sighting issues due to the low sun, I had a great first half of the swim. Heading back to the boat ramp was much easier, with the sun behind, and I moved up through the waves ahead of me to record a swim time of 31 minutes.

The first transition at Wildflower is split, with a 2.2-mile run to get to your bike. I exited the water, and quickly headed up the boat ramp and onto the run. It was a difficult start, with a short, steep ascent, immediately after the more relaxed pace of the swim.

Eventually my legs started moving properly and I picked up a decent pace through the sandy, dry lake bed. The heat was already starting to build, but after 17 minutes I was into the main part of T1 and out on the bike.

The bike course at Wildflower is known for its hills and these start the second you leave transition. The route goes straight up Lynch Hill, ascending more than 300 feet in the first mile. I was feeling good and despite some further steep sections, hit the turnaround in good shape. Heading back to the lake, there was a nice tailwind and I enjoyed the fast descents, including a very quick mile back down Lynch Hill.

The bike leg is certainly taxing, with more than 2,000 feet of climbing in total, but coming out of the second transition I was feeling very strong, with just over four miles left to run.

Challenging run
I maintained a good pace through the first mile or so of the run, but then I approached the bottom of Beach Hill. Having trained on the course a month ago, I was feeling confident, but last month I didn’t tackle the hill after a ride. The combination of tiredness and the heat were overwhelming. I was incredibly disappointed to have to walk, but then I looked back down behind me and realised nobody was running. I managed to jog a few short sections and overtook a few people ahead of me, but by the time I reached the top, I was incredibly hot.

The middle section of the run is pretty flat, but very exposed. I have never been in a race as tough as this. At one aid station, I took on some water and poured a lot over my head. I was overheating but shivering at the same time, and it had become a matter of finishing, rather than racing.

The last mile of the run also goes down Lynch Hill, and I was glad of the relief from climbing. I struggled to make the most of the downhill, but finally made it to the finisher chute. I tried one final effort to beat someone in the collegiate race to the line. We crossed together and I finished in 3:02:18.

Fantastic event
I eventually cooled off and was able to reflect on the race.

As expected, it had been incredibly hard. I knew I would be challenged, but the combination of the heat and hills made this race unlike anything I have previously experienced. I really did feel great at the end of the bike, and the course was hugely enjoyable, but the final run was harder than I ever imagined.

I was a little disappointed with my time, having completed another Olympic race in 2:36 just a few weeks earlier. Wildflower is unique in its difficulty though, so overall I have taken a lot from the weekend.

The event is truly incredible and a lot of credit should be given to Tri California for hosting the race. I covered the elite race as a media guest, and their treatment of me, and the pro athletes was fantastic. All of the elite racers I spoke to raved about how well they were looked after. The fields were small, but genuinely world class. It would be great to see more pros adding Wildflower to their calendars.

This is an iconic event, but since the change of course due to the drought, participation has been declining. I would encourage any athlete to race at Wildflower, and I really hope the event grows again in the future. I will certainly be back.

Photo: Alex Felker

Photo: Alex Felker

Photo: Alex Felker

Photo: Alex Felker

ASJ_ProfileLuke Yates is a journalist, focusing on endurance and adventure sports. When not writing, he can often be found training for triathlons or planning his next expedition. His last big adventure was to cycle tour halfway around the world, taking in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada.