Ten. It’s the last heat of the day in the Wildflower Triathlon. Nine. It’s the Olympic Distance Relay Race. Eight. We have been standing around here on Lynch Ramp on the south shore of Lake San Antonio for over an hour waiting to begin. Seven. The 55 competitors in the relay race have been milling about like livestock in a cattle chute. Six. The arms of swimmers in other heats move over the water like a flock of birds. Five. It’s sure getting hot out here. Four. I hope I’m ready for this 1.5 kilometer (.93 mile) swim. Three.
Three months ago, my friend Michelle Micalizio called and asked if I wanted to be on a triathlon team that would compete in the Wildflower Triathlon. Fearing the time commitment and afraid of swimming almost a mile in open water, I stalled for a few days. A couple of days later, Michelle called and said she had signed us up. I would swim; her fiancé Derek Johnson would do the 40-km (24.8 mile) bike ride; and she would run the 10-km (6.2 mile) course. She said our team name was Big Arroyo.
Upon hearing the news, I signed up for two sessions of the Monterey Sport Center’s Adult Conditioning and Technique Training Swim Class—the “master’s swim class” to those in the know. The class—which consists of an hour-and-a-half swim every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday—was full of other people training for the triathlon. Most were doing the full triathlon.
While Michelle trained on her treadmill and I was swimming at the Sports Center, Derek got caught up in long workdays that afforded no time for training. Ten days before the event, I got a call saying that he had finally gotten his mountain bike out of storage. The weekend before the Wildflower, he attempted to ride the 24.8-mile Wildflower Olympic Bike Course, which starts with a grueling mile-long uphill. After riding eight miles of the circuit, he started to place phone calls frantically searching for a replacement.
Just a few days before the event, Derek found a willing replacement for the bike leg: Roger Van Horn, the father of one of Derek’s childhood friends. Luckily, Roger had done this sort of thing before. He had competed as a cyclist in the Wildflower’s Olympic Distance Relay Race twice in the past. Also, a month earlier, he completed the Solvang Half Century, a 50-mile ride.
Now, our scrappy team was here competing in a fricking triathlon. And not just any triathlon—we were competing in the Wildflower Triathlon, a massive two-day competition that includes the Long Course Triathlon, a grueling 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run. The event—which started out as a bluegrass festival in 1983 with a triathlon that attracted 89 participants—is now the largest event of its kind, with 8,000 competitors and over 38,000 spectators.
I arrived expecting only serious athletes stretching and eating PowerBars. Though there were plenty of incredibly fit contestants, the event had a festival-like atmosphere, due to scores of Cal Poly students working as volunteers, and almost continual live music on the festival stage.
Moments before the countdown for our heat began, I had the good fortune of bumping into Mary Gates. Mary, who I know from the master’s swim class, was also swimming in the relay heat.
“We have overtrained for this,” she said, bolstering our confidence before yelling to some friends spectating from a nearby hillside.
Huddled at water’s edge, we waited as the announcer counted down to our starting time. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. The sound of an air horn.
I stood there for a moment thinking how strange it is that I have spent hours training for this very moment. A second later, I plunged into what felt like a fish feeding frenzy. While trying to push through the churning water, I felt someone’s leg hitting my arm and an arm on my head.
After making it about 40 feet from shore, I tried to swim a few strokes of freestyle. I panicked every time I stuck my head underwater and saw the clear water of the Sports Center replaced by a visor of murky green. Without the black line of the Sports Center’s pool beneath me, I felt untethered, like a kite drifting around without a string.
Using a combination of freestyle and occasional breaststroke, I watched as the other swimmers in my heat spread out. Wearing pink swimming caps, the swimmers began to look like a strand of Christmas lights. I thought: Maybe I’m getting delirious.
Passing by one of the floating orange buoys marking the course, I struggled to pass a handful of swimmers. I looked over to see that one was doing the backstroke. I promised myself: whatever happens, I will not do the backstroke.
As I rounded a buoy at the halfway mark, I saw a swimmer paddling over to a lifeguard perched on a paddleboard.
“You guys are all doing great,” the lifeguard said, and I thought, he probably says that to everyone.
There was only 100 yards left to swim. I made myself swim freestyle instead of breaststroke. Eventually, my feet touched bottom. Then I was standing on the boat ramp. Boy, was I dizzy. I hoped that I wouldn’t pass out. There were a lot of people watching. I would have hated to be dragged off by medical personnel.
“Come on Stuart,” I heard Derek yell from somewhere nearby.
I started jogging up the hill to the bike rack to hand Roger the bracelet that tracks our time with a V-chip. At the top of the hill, I heard the announcer saying something about an “amazing time.” “Records could be broken.” I imagined that it was me the voice was talking about. It was not.