Mark on Monday: Wildflower – A Beginner’s Story

By Mark Cathcart

If you’ve read Alison Freeman‘s overview of the Wildflower festival here on 303 Triathlon, this is hopefully a natural follow-on. If not, Alision provides the “Wildflower 411”.

Wildflower is both the story of how I got into triathlon, it’s was also one of my most fun adventures.When I heard it was coming back in 2018, I signed Kate and I up to race, and late one evening we had a discussion about the race, and how it had gone last time I raced it, back in 2003.

MARK: Why don’t you ask me how I got into triathlon, and what this Wildflower thing is you’ve signed up for?

KATE: Hey Mark how did you get triathlon, and what the hell is this Wildflower thing you’ve signed us up for?

MARK: Well Kate, it’s interesting you should ask. Back in 1998, I was travelling on business to Australia, it had been a 26-some-odd-hour flight from San Francisco, and when I arrived at Melbourne airport, a limo’ driver was there with three names on the board. The Driver said, you’ll have to wait a few minutes, another woman is already here and she’s gone to pick something up from oversize luggage. A few minutes later the woman came walking across the arrivals hall dragging a big box behind her. Her name was Peggy, and in the box, was her titanium triathlon bike. Turns out she was training for Wildflower triathlon. She’d got her whole trip planned out, she knew where she could swim; she’d got the local cycling club to come on Sunday to the hotel and take her out on a ride; and she took a bus to the beach to run along the sea front.I was totally in awe, I was just a workaholic, email geek. By the end of the week she’d got me convinced that Triathlon was this great thing, and she was doing this race called Wildflower, which was the “Woodstock” of Triathlon. To be honest, at that point I don’t think I’d ever heard of Triathlon. They didn’t show the Ironman World Championships on the TV on a Saturday afternoon in December in the UK back then. I’d always wanted to have a go at an Aventura race, so I thought doing a triathlon might be a good way to lose weight and get fit for adventure racing. At that point I was 41-years old, and weighed 280lbs. When I got back to the UK, I did some research on triathlon, and it turned out there was a pool based sprint triathlon race in my home town, St Albans, in late August. I signed up and began a nearly 20-year journey. Back then in the UK there were only 3-long distance triathlons, Bala, Ironbridge, and the Longest Day. There were NO Ironman races at all. The first one didn’t come until 2001, and I was a race volunteer Captain for half Ironman UK 2001. I managed to squeeze an entry into both the 2001 and 2002 ITU World Championships, and as good as those races were, they were really nothing like the Wildflower race Peggy had described.

KATE: So, What about Wildflower?

MARK: By late 2002 I was the Chairman/President of my local Triathlon club, Tri-Force (Herts), and when entries opened up in December 2002 for Wildflower, I managed to get 9-other people to sign-up for Wildflower 2003. TRAVEL EXTRAVAGANZA. Our drawback? We were in the UK, except Martin Barrett, he was in Switzerland. When it came to planning the trip, the logistics were more challenging than the race. At least that’s what I thought at the time. The main problem is that flights from Europe to San Francisco pretty much all arrive late afternoon or early evening in San Francisco. That makes it impossible to arrive, collect your luggage and bikes, and then go rent an RV the same day. Anyone who has flown with a bike knows that dragging a bike box around is no fun, trying to do that with 9-people… yeah. No! What we did was, the Monday before race weekend, Martin and I flew to San Francisco with our gear and bikes. We checked into an airport hotel, and after breakfast headed off in a taxi for our RV familiarization and training session. By lunchtime we were back at the hotel loading up luggage and bikes and then heading back to SFO to collect the others. We hadn’t given 2nd thoughts to pulling up at SFO arrivals with an RV in the post 9/11 era, and only having driven about 10-miles total. It was a mess at best. We picked up Jo Parker, and saw some of the others. It was made all the harder by the fact that even back then few people had cell phones that worked internationally. Eventually we were on the way to lake San Antonio, 2x RV’s and a Jeep. We were all jetlagged from the 8-hour time difference, and we didn’t make it far. We stopped overnight in a Wal-Mart parking lot. We’d been told that you needed to be at Lake San Antonio by lunchtime on the Wednesday or you wouldn’t get a full hook-up for the RV. Next morning, we had a full court press to get there. We arrived around 2:30pm and sure enough all the full hook-ups were gone.

KATE: What happened at the race?

MARK: LEGENDS. The following couple of days were great. I met many legends of the sport, including Dan Empfield, Emil De Soto and 2003 was the year John Cobbs Bicycles Sports made a big launch at Wildflower. The only problem, it started to rain and never stopped for almost 24-hours before the race. RACE DAY. We were “British”, rain wasn’t going to stop us. There were over 9,000 people racing over the weekend. Come the Saturday morning, race day for the Long Course, it was also very cold. Rumor had it that some people were going to ride the bike course in their wetsuits. While waiting for my wave to start and trying to keep warm, I bent over to stretch, and the seam on the back of my wetsuit split, no time to find tape or glue. After the swim, I headed out on the bike dressed as best I could, red arm warmers, white tri top, and blue Team GB shorts. Yep I looked like a flag. About mile-10 on the bike, it had rained, we’d had hail, and as I plodded along, my front wheel broke two spokes. I don’t know if it was related to how I’d packed and shipped the bike, but I had to stop, loosen my front brake to so the wheel would work but no front brake. I made it up “Nasty grade” aka Heart Rate Hill on the bike, made a right turn, and there at the aid station was Martin. He was riding tubeless tires and had punctured twice. Meaning without a spare wheel or tub, he was out. I offered my back wheel, fearing I wouldn’t finish anyway due to my warped front wheel. Martin shrugged, grinned and pointed. There through the misty rain was a college aged woman, wearing a transparent rain poncho, and just her panties. Completely topless. Martin said he was happy to wait for the SAG Wagon, I pushed on. The rest of the bike was uneventful except the downhill into triathlon which I took pretty much with my back brake full on, with no front brake. The good news, it had stopped raining and was warming up. WHAT RUN COURSE? The mountain bike triathlon had finished, but the rain and the fact that the mountain bike course used part of the trail the run course for the long course race, and had cut it up so badly it was unusable. That meant using the Olympic distance run course. My reaction, no big deal, same distance, twice the fun. Then the realization it meant going up Beach Hill out of transition on the run course not once, but twice. I’ve never been a good runner, back in those days I wasn’t even using a a built-up shoe to compensate for my 2-inch leg length difference. By the time I headed out on the run I was already wasted, come the 2nd loop, it took me 30-minutes to walk up the hill. This wasn’t going to end well. I finished, it was a great race, but boy was it hard. I was 87th in the 45-49 age group, Dan Empfield was 4th. Later that afternoon we hung out in the expo village, it turned into everything Peggy had said. Bands, a stage, great food, just hanging out. The next day while the Olympic distance race, and the Collegiate championships were going on, we hung out; waited for Hanna, and Jo to finish; got massage; eat, laughed, took in more music bands. The whole race experience was fantastic. It was that race that convinced me to stick with triathlon rather than switch to adventure racing. On the Monday morning, we had to set off back to San Francisco and home to the UK. We went back via Pacific Coast Highway. Did the tour around Hearst Castle and drove back to SFO hard, which given the hills and curves on US-1 was pretty epic. We dropped all the luggage and bikes at departures, finally taking the RV back to the rental. The one thing the rental guy had told us was “don’t leave the awning open overnight”.  Due to the rain, we had, to keep the bikes dry while we are sleeping. Yep, it ripped, there went a $500 deposit. I took a cab back to SFO and the Wildflower adventure was over.

[at this point I looked over and Kate was asleep, the question I wanted Kate to ask was]

KATE: So what is your objective for next years Wildflower?

MARK: To have as much fun, with none of the drama, and to beat my 2003 times. 1.2-mile swim: 40:48, T1: 5:3956-mile, bike: 3:38, T2: 3:45, 13.1-mile run: 2:54, TOTAL: 7:22:57


Mark Cathcart took up triathlon in the late 90’s to get fit for adventure racing, which to this day he has never done, and has since taken part in 170+ events. His pragmatic approach to training, racing, and life have lead in from being the Chairman of one of the bigger UK Triathlon clubs 15-years ago; British Triathlon volunteer of the year; a sometime race organizer; The organizer and ride leader for Austin Texas award winning Jack and Adams triathlon shop; doing sometime Sports Management for development and professional triathletes; he has attended all the Triathlon Business International, and Triathlon America conferences, where he usually asks the questions others won’t; moved to Colorado in 2016 and is a co-owner of Boulder Bodyworker

Let’s do Wildflower! … What’s Wildflower?

By Alison Freeman

As soon as I heard that Wildflower was back for 2018 after a hiatus in 2017 due to drought conditions, I knew I wanted to race it. Except that I truly, honestly, knew nothing about the race. OK, maybe that’s an overstatement: I knew that it includes a challenging bike course, and I knew that it involves camping. But for real that’s all I knew.

Which kinda means that I have a lot in common with Terry Davis, the founder and race director of the Wildflower Festival (now called the Wildflower Experience). Yes, that sounds crazy – so let me explain. Back in ‘80s, Terry was working as the Marketing and Events Director of the Monterrey County Parks Department and they were looking for events that would utilize the Lake San Antonio venue outside of the summer months. Terry and his team were busy developing the Wildflower Bluegrass Festival, that would feature – you guessed it – wildflower exhibits and bluegrass music, when a friend suggested including a triathlon during the festival weekend. “OK, let’s do a triathlon,” said Terry. “What is it?”

So that’s how one of the most iconic races in the triathlon world was born – spearheaded by a wonderful fellow who didn’t know what a triathlon was, and who to this day has never participated in one. The race has grown from 82 participants in 1983 to 7,500 participants at its peak. But the Wildflower Experience is more than just a single race – the weekend includes triathlons on both Saturday and Sunday of various distances, live music, food trucks, wine tasting, retail vendors, and family events including a Friday night kids’ fun run.

While a two-day, multi-faceted weekend of activities already sets the Wildflower Experience apart from other race experiences, what makes Wildflower truly unique is the venue itself. Lake San Antonio is thirty-five miles from the nearest city. Thirty. Five. Miles. Thirty-five miles from the nearest Motel 6. Thirty-five miles from the nearest Target or Walmart or major grocery chain or anywhere that sells gel blocks. Which raises the question of how on earth does Wildflower host tens of thousands of participants and spectators for this incredible weekend?

Turns out, Terry and his crew spend months creating a temporary city at Lake San Antonio solely for the Wildflower Experience weekend. They build out infrastructure including restrooms, parking, medical facilities, and transportation to move bikes and people from camping and RV sites to the expo and race venue. They bring in water and massive tents for the pasta party and temporary housing for the 1000 students from nearby California Polytechnic State University who comprise the majority of their volunteer staff.

What Terry’s crew doesn’t build, however, are temporary four-star hotels. Instead, 80-85% of the participants, along with their friends and families, are camping or RV-ing it up in the area surrounding Lake San Antonio, creating a sprawling make-shift city comprised mostly of triathletes. This is why the Wildflower Experience is often referred to as the “Woodstock of Triathlon” or the “Burning Man of Triathlon” and this is why I am SO EXCITED to head to the Wildflower Experience this May.

Just picture it: thousands upon thousands of triathletes and their sherpa crews, hanging out and listening to music and discussing how much time they spend in zone 2 and whether they train by heart rate or pace or power or feel and the weekly workout that increased their FTP by 10% and the swim drill that instantly shaved five seconds off their 100m pace and the merits of living solely off of gel blocks versus a strict keto diet. I mean if this doesn’t sound like heaven to you (and sheer hell to my husband) then you have a much more balanced approach to triathlon than I do.

So, maybe this Triathlete City is heaven and maybe it’s more like an asylum for uber-fit individuals. Either way, it’s also temporary home to the pros who take part in the Wildflower Experience – pros like defending champs Jesse Thomas and Liz Lyles, who could conceivably be in the camping spot right next to yours. You could give Jesse some suggestions for new Picky Bars flavors, and ask Liz some advice on the best way to handle “Beach Hill” while you cook your pre-race breakfast over a shared campfire. I mean, if that’s not a unique racing experience, I don’t know what is.

Great Things To Know About the Wildflower Experience

DATES
Saturday, May 5th, 2018
• Long-course (70.3) triathlon
• Off-road sprint distance triathlon

Sunday, May 6th, 2018
• Olympic distance triathlon
• Sprint distance triathlon

THE LONG-COURSE RACE
• 1.2 mile swim; 56 mile bike; 13.1 mile run.
• The bike course has 3600 feet of elevation gain, including the climb up “Beach Hill” right out of the gate and “Nasty Grade” at mile 42.
• The run is partially on roads and partially on trails, including some nice, challenging hills.

THE OLYMPIC DISTANCE RACE
• 1.5k swim (0.9 miles); 40k bike (24.8 miles); 6.2 mile run.
• The bike course is challenging, including “Lynch Hill” and “Heartrate Hill.”
• Like the long-course route, the run is partially on roads and partially on trails. And, you know, hills.

THE OFF-ROAD RACE
• 0.25 mile swim; 8.5 mile bike; 2 mile run. And, you guessed it, hills.

THE SPRINT DISTANCE RACE
• 0.25 mile swim; 20k bike (12.4 miles); 3 mile run.
• The Sprint is new for 2018 and course details are not yet available. I’m assuming there are hills.

SPECIAL BRAGGING RIGHTS
• Wildflower Squared: Long-course on Saturday + Olympic distance on Sunday!

LOGISTICS
Keep your eyes out for a future 303 Triathlon article with a “How To Wildflower” primer. For now:
• If you want to book flights, the closest major airport is San Jose; San Francisco and Oakland are also decent options.
• Pro Bike Express is offering bike transport plus will bring your tent and sleeping bag for you. Sign up here to reserve your spot!

REGISTER FOR THE WILDFLOWER EXPERIENCE HERE!