As the blistering summer sun beat down on what was left of Lake San Antonio and the golden hills surrounding the ever-shrinking body of water, junior software engineer and Cal Poly Triathlon team President Jake Pickett leaps from the cool reservoir and sprints off into the distance.
“I’ll be able to finish the race,” Pickett thought to himself. “I’m not going to drown this time.”
Still sopping from his mile-long swim, Pickett sprints down the two-mile long trail and toward his carbon-fiber TT bike which waits patiently for him at the second transition of the race.
Now dry from the sun’s relentless rays, he quickly hops on his TT bike, firmly grips the rubber surrounding the light-weight frame and speeds off through the rolling hillside just moments ahead of the pack of thousands of triathletes behind him.
Pickett bobs and weaves through the 25 mile-long trail with confidence. It’s his favorite part of the race and, for Pickett, much easier than the other three legs of the grueling Wildflower Triathlon.
As he approaches the fourth and final transition of the race, Pickett’s body his physically spent. Pickett parks his bike and dashes down the final four-mile portion of the triathlon with the thought of crossing the finish line motivating him every step of the way.
Just before the end of the race, Pickett comes to the most treacherous portion of the run: a one mile uphill climb. Just as he starts to think about giving up, he is showered with cheers from the race’s volunteers, many of whom are current Cal Poly students and alumni.
“If you were racing in a Cal Poly kit, it did not matter who you were, the volunteers were going to cheer for you,” Pickett said. “The race itself was so hard and a brutal course, but it made it 10 times better having those volunteers there cheering for you.”
With the motivation of his fellow Mustangs behind him, Pickett musters up the energy to propel himself across the finish line, successfully completing one of the most important races the Cal Poly Triathlon Team competes in.
This is Pickett’s favorite memory of the Wildflower Triathlon, one of the largest events of its kind in the world. At its peak in 2007, it attracted more than 7,000 athletes from all corners of the globe.
Wildflower is also the apex of the Cal Poly Triathlon Team’s season.
But it has been cancelled for 2017.
A victim of the drought
Tri-California Events, the organization that created Wildflower, announced in October 2016 that the iconic triathlon would not be held in 2017 because of California Central Coast drought conditions.
“Even though we were able to produce quality events in 2015 and 2016 with an alternate swim, run, bike, run course and the weather was good on race weekend, we were not able to attract enough triathletes and families to make the event economically feasible,” Tri-California Co-Founder Terry Davis said in a statement on the company’s website. “This also affected the exhibitor, sponsor and camping revenue. The financial losses are too great for us to do the event without the water levels high enough to have the event all in one location.”
In 2014, the world-renowned triathlon was forced to change its location and format from the standard swim-bike-run to a modified course format of swim-run-bike-run because Lake San Antonio was so low. Now, despite the heavy rain from this winter, the water level is too low for even a modified race to be possible.
With this year’s event cancelled entirely and speculation looming of when it will return, the Cal Poly Triathlon Team was forced to find a new race despite their love and affinity for Wildflower. Though the team trains for the other races year round, Wildflower is usually the culmination of their season according to Pickett.
Looking for alternatives
Though drought conditions on the Central Coast are still harsh, the rest of the state received much more rainfall comparatively. Because of this, the team looked to the HITS Napa Valley race as their substitute.
“Since Wildflower is gone, we wanted to replace it with a race that people could basically work up to and train up to but there weren’t really many options for a race,” Pickett said. “HITS in Napa Valley was the next best option for a race, so that’s going to be April 7 and 8.”
Wildflower usually takes place the first week of May, which means the triathlon team’s training time was cut by a full month. According to Pickett, this not only shortens their time to prepare, but leaves the team with an extra month of dead time after their final race of the season.
It’s tough for any team to cope with a monumental change in their season, but Wildflower is much more than just a race to the Cal Poly Triathlon Team.
“Having so many Cal Poly volunteers and having that be kind of our home race will definitely be lost,” Pickett said. “Going up to Napa Valley, there’s not going to be that support, so it’s just a regular race.”
Though the team won’t be able to bring volunteers and fans with them, they will preserve some of their other Wildflower traditions, according to psychology senior and the triathlon team’s swim coach Nicole Sample.
“We have the big team dinner, which is just carbo-loading,” Sample said. “We have a lot of the older members, the officer core, hand out a little special something to people on the team. We watch a little skit put on by the student head coach and the club president. After that, we do a fun little mile run, but it has a fun twist to it.”
Sample did not reveal what the items are or what the “fun twist” was, explaining that they are long-running secret surprises for the triathlon team solely for team members to know. Fortunately for the team, these aspects of their traditions should be easily adapted for HITS, according to Sample.
A Woodstock-esque scene
One Wildflower tradition that cannot be replicated is the festival-like ambience of the race, which is widely referred to as “the Woodstock of triathlons.” Because Wildflower lasted an entire weekend, the team camped in the middle of the course, roughly one mile from the starting line. Their campsite was surrounded by hundreds of other tents as dozens of notable collegiate triathlon teams, such as UC Santa Barbara, University of Oregon and Stanford, came not only to compete, but to share the experience.
“We are usually just with our team around the fire, but we are willing to include anyone from the other schools,” Sample said. “A lot of the time, some of the other schools have less than 10 people competing, so they’ll come over and join us. We’ve met a lot of people.”
Just outside the mass of campsites sat dozens of vendors, though in recent years the numbers of business that made the early-summer trek dwindled.
“A lot of people stopped signing up for it and last year was just kind of really sad to go there,” Sample said. “You didn’t see as many bikes in transition, the vendors don’t really go there anymore and it was just kind of dead.”
The triathlon team will miss their home-field advantage at Wildflower, but Pickett said there are reasons to be excited about HITS in Napa Valley.
“Having it in Napa, the lake is full to the brim,” Pickett said. “It’s the first time in, like, 10 years that they’ve had the spillway going. So having a full lake and an actual triathlon where it’s actually just a swim-bike-run will be kind of cool.”
Lake Berryessa, nestled at the edge of Napa County’s breathtaking wine-country, is more full this year than it has been in the past 11 years, according to multiple reports.
In addition to having a full lake, the number of athletes at the HITS Triathlon has increased every year since its start in 2011. This year, the race already sold out and is projected to have a larger turnout than Wildflower had in recent years.
“Last year, I don’t know the exact numbers, but I want to say there was about a thousand athletes at Wildflower as opposed to the 7,000 that [Wildflower] had at one point,” Pickett said. “HITS in Napa should have several thousand athletes, which will be cool for people to experience that.”
Even though HITS is roughly 230 miles farther from San Luis Obispo than Wildflower, Pickett said the Mustangs have the most participants of any collegiate triathlon team attending HITS this year.
“For Wildflower, we usually have about 80 or 90 people going from just our team,” Pickett said. “At Napa, I think they said we have 47 people registered to race from our team and there’s probably another 20 people that are going to just go up to support and spectate.”
While the atmosphere of Wildflower can’t be replaced, the team will still be able to camp near the starting line of HITS. They will be surrounded by some familiar faces, as other teams that used to race in Wildflower, like University of Oregon, will be camping there with them.
Wildflower will always hold a special place in the history of the Cal Poly Triathlon Team, but they appear ready to make the transition to HITS for years to come, should Wildflower take an extended break.
“Assuming that it goes well this year, which it should, we will plan on doing it every year,” Pickett said. “If Wildflower ever does come back, and I hope it will, we will definitely be back.”
Correction:Due to a miscommunication between Mustang News and Kaori Photo, the featured photo was initially used without Kaori Photo’s direct permission. Mustang News now has permission from Kaori Photo to use the photo.
Correction: A previous version of this article said HITS had 7,000 attendees at one point. It has been corrected to say Wildflower had 7,000 attendees at one point.
Correction: A previous version of this article included a quote from Jake Pickett that implied the Triathlon Team does not train for other events besides Wildflower. It has been corrected to say that the team trains for events year round with Wildflower being an important piece of that training.
Correction: A previous version of this article based the lead on the standard measurements of the Wildflower Triathlon. It has been corrected to reflect the modified format the race has been using since 2014.