Wildflower is neither and both. There are serious athletes but the air is not heavy with tension. The lighthearted humor helps even the weariest racer find the energy to smile; and you are going to need a positive attitude to attack Wildflower's notorious hills.
The Olympic distance race is not until Sunday so the long-course race on Saturday offers a good opportunity to scope out the scene. I hiked down to the transition area to watch folks coming in from the water and heading out on the bike.
The CourseThe hills at Wildflower are as big as their reputation. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the transition from swim to bike, where athletes face their first climb--Lynch Hill--straight out of the water. Although one rider clipped in with enough time to swig a beer from a fan, most racers struggled to get their feet strapped in while pedaling uphill. I put my bike in a low gear before dropping it off at the transition area and dismissed any thoughts about pre-clipping my shoes to the bike. I would not recommend it unless you have practiced it on an incline.
Lynch Hill is the toughest one on the bike course but it warms you up fast and the rest of the 40K ride has rolling hills that are fun if you can find your rhythm. And the best part about climbing Lynch Hill is that you get to ride back down it into your transition to the run.
The run starts out on a shady bike path offering a cool breeze and a boost of confidence. The markers tick by quickly until you realize they are not marking miles, but rather kilometers. That's when the shady path turns into a sun-baked road with dusty trails and a steady climb to 1,200 feet. The hills are persistent and unwavering until the last half-mile where runners hit the top of Lynch Hill and follow that all the way down to the finish line. Volunteers line the course and their enthusiasm somehow makes the steep parts bearable.
The Transition AreaWildflower is a popular race with thousands of participants each year. Luckily, the event is well organized and the transition area shows it. Racers are assigned their own spot in the fenced area which helps keep racers and their gear under control. The space is large so be sure to take a mental note of your location and use the flags at the end of each row as landmarks. Since there is so much ground to cover within the area don't be disappointed if your transition times are longer than normal.
The Festival AreaIt's a short, but steep, hike from the campground down to the festival area. (The return hike with all my gear following the race proved to be one of the most difficult parts of the weekend.) Vendor tents are set up in the shade so racers can stay out of the sun, relax in the grass and still enjoy the party. You can find anything from food to discounted gear and smaller essentials like sunscreen, body glide and beer.
The CampgroundAlthough camping fees add to the overall cost of the weekend, it's worth it to camp among the pines at the Lake San Antonio campground. You don't have to worry about transportation on race morning and you can relax by the fire when your race is complete. There are group showers at camp that feel great after a hot day in the sun.
Campsites are not designated so get there early to claim your spot and bring your own fire pit as not all the sites have one. Save money by purchasing your camping pass online and carpooling to the event.
If you have the time, stay until Monday. It's a beautiful setting and you already earned your right to hang out, relax and enjoy the atmosphere.