Renee Hamilton (above) competes with the Cal Poly triathlon club and raced in the Olympic Distance event at Wildflower, an annual triathlon held last weekend, at Lake San Antonio.
Renee Hamilton (above) competes with the Cal Poly triathlon club and raced in the Olympic Distance event at Wildflower, an annual triathlon held last weekend, at Lake San Antonio.

Renee Hamilton is a history junior.

Wildflower 2012 — the Woodstock of the Triathlon Community.

As we pull into the campground entrance at Lake San Antonio on Friday afternoon, my fellow triathletes and I are in our element. Cyclists dominate the roads, warming up for the big races ahead. Three of us have been squished together in the cabin of a small Tacoma for the hour-long drive to the lake. There is not much room to stretch out, considering we also have five race bikes, two tents, three sets of race gear and an unprecedented amount of fuel (food) to get us through the next couple days.

This year more than 900 Cal Poly students came to volunteer for the weekend. Many come to cheer on the athletes, party and generally have a good time. I would say this is a pretty well-known fact. However, what most people at Cal Poly don’t think of when they hear “Wildflower” is the team of 80 or so athletes who devote more than 10 hours a week during the entire school year to training for this event. The pain, the suffering and the intensity these athletes experience on race day starts long before Wildflower.

The Cal Poly Triathlon Team is the biggest sports club on campus and was recently awarded “Sport Club of the Year” by Associated Students, Inc. Coming from a mixed array of sporting backgrounds, the members of our club fuse together to train roughly six to nine times a week for several collegiate triathlons, which culminate in our USA Triathlon (USAT) Nationals race as well as Wildflower.

For those who have never volunteered at, raced or even heard of Wildflower, Saturday’s event features a Mountain Bike Course (400 meter swim, 9.7 mile bike and 2 mile run) and a Long Course (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and 13.1 mile run). Sunday’s event, in which most of our Cal Poly triathletes participate, is the Olympic Distance race (0.9 mile swim, 24.8 mile bike and 6.2 mile run). Known for being one of the hottest and hilliest courses in California, Wildflower has a reputation of one of the most challenging triathlons in the U.S. This year, I took on the Olympic Course for the second time in a row.

As a Cal Poly triathlete, I will break our Wildflower weekend up into three different parts.

Part 1: We cheer.

Saturday morning we wake up around 6 a.m. with the sun.

Our brave long-course athletes are preparing for their race. As the racers prepare their spots in the transition area (the place where athletes go to switch out belongings between each leg of the race), the rest of the team treks down to the start of the swim course to cheer them on as they exit the swim. After picking up our packets in the expo, the other Olympic Distance competitor and I head back up to the campground to cheer for our racers (and others too) on Mile 8 of the run.

Part 2: We feast.

Once all of our long-course athletes have finished their race (imagine a seven-hour workout), it is time for us to eat the amazing food our team parents kindly prepared for us. After dinner, we take a team photo and then engage in a traditional team run around the campground to get ready for the next day. During this year’s run we were even paid a nice visit by Long Course winner Jesse Thomas. As the night rolls in, we get to bed early, but I am usually too excited and nervous to fall asleep right away. I visualize what is to come the next day and run over lists in my head of everything I will need for my race.

Part 3: We Race.

We wake up at 6 a.m. once again. We eat promptly so we can digest our food before the race starts at 9 a.m.

We put on uniforms, double check we have everything we need in our transition bag and bike down to the lake marina. The area is full of racers, volunteers and spectators, and I can feel the excitement building inside of me.

We set up our transition stations, get our race numbers written on our bodies, go to the bathroom one last time, then slip on our wetsuits and head down to the boat ramp for the swim start. As the race announcer prepares us for the hours to come, we were told Ironman World Champion Chris McCormack and Julie Moss (famous for crawling across the finish line at the Kona Ironman Championship race in 1982) are joining the racers.

Then, it’s time. We holler out our last team cheer in the remaining minute before the start.

Ten, nine, eight … three, two, one. Go! The water is a flurry of legs, arms and white water as swimmers push and shove their way to the front of the pack. I have to keep my head out of the water (to avoid the misfortune of being kicked in the face) until the pack breaks up and I have a clear area in front of me. Then, I’m able to speed up. The buoys seem so far apart, and halfway through the swim I feel like I have been swimming forever. Finally, I see the last turning bouy and make my way to the shore. My arms are tired and my heart rate is high. But as I drag myself up the boat ramp, I hear my teammates cheering for me as I run to transition.

I strap on my helmet, slip into my bike shoes and grab my bike. Go time! I try to slow my heart rate as I begin the ascent up the dreaded mile of Lynch Hill. When I finally make it to the top, I am exhausted, but I steady my breathing and carry onward. The hills are rough, but I use the downhills and flats to my advantage. As I pass by the volunteers I hear cheers for Cal Poly. I see my teammates go by as I encroach upon the turnaround. By the last uphills of the bike course, my legs are worn out and I still have an hour-long run ahead of me.

OK, this is going to be the hard part. When I get into transition, I hoist my bike back up on the rack and grab my running shoes. It is now 11 a.m. and 82 degrees, and I am exhausted. All I think about is moving one leg in front of the other. It takes every effort I have just to do this. When I hit the long hill at Mile 3, I decide to walk since my run would be about the same pace as my walk at this point. I need to conserve my energy if I am going to finish. All I can think about is how much I want to quit the race and sit down in the shade. But I carry onward. As I reach each aid station, I force myself to keep going and the volunteers’ cheers make all the difference.

When I finally reach the last uphill, my teammates are there once again to cheer me on. This is it. All I have to do is run the last mile down Lynch Hill. I can do that. I feel out of control as I hurtle myself downhill. And as I reach the last turn of the hill, I hear the announcer and enter the finish chute. Most people sprint this last portion of the race, but I have one pace left: slow. I finish in 3 hours and 15 minutes. I’ll take it! The only other time I have felt so relieved was when I ran under the finish arch at last year’s Wildflower.

Wildflower is ironic. For being such a painful race, I will always think of it as my favorite race. At the end of the day, I forget the pain of those last 6.2 miles. I remember how pumped I felt cheering for my teammates racing the Long Course. I remember the cheering crowds and the passing athletes telling me “Good job” and “You can do this.” I am inspired by the disabled athletes that are missing limbs and are not only still able to race, but annihilate me on this course. Most of all, I love the positive, motivating and uplifting atmosphere of Wildflower. Even though this course puts me through so much pain, I just can’t stop racing it.

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