by Scott Tinley, Ph.D
“Well, I came upon a child of God, he was walking along the road. I asked him where he was going and this he told me.”
Woodstock, Joni Mitchell
Meet the new Wildflower, same as the old Wildflower. For thirty-five years and change, multisport jocks and jockettes, tri-heads, dogs, and their families have been habiting the oaken-grove shores of Lake San Antonio. The first week of May 2018 signals the re-birth of an event that predates many of the younger competitors. It is the sounding of another Wildflower Triathlon Festival, the beginning of another season of racing.
It means the end of Winter.
There is something markedly perennial about the event. Historically, if a season would pass without a few nights in a finger canyon-ed tent, your bike propped to an old sycamore, peeing in the dark…well, your competitive season would seem generically-fabricated, austere, corporate. We’d get through it alright but come late Fall there would seem that something had been lost—an important holiday, a regular visit with an old friend—a pugmark that harkened us to something satisfying and necessary in our lives had been triaged out in favor of green ink on a calf muscle.
People come to Wildflower for a variety of reasons. And if you’ve been coming here off and on over the score of its tenure, likely your motives have changed with your waistline and hairstyle. In 1982, the triathlon was second-billed to the Flower Festival. By the late 80s, it was the secret stash of a few cagey pros and Central Coast athletes. And by the millennium, Wildflower had earned its oft-cited title of the Woodstock of Triathlons– that fabled 1969 event on Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York had something for everybody. And if you couldn’t find it, you created it.
It seems that Wildflower has always been that way: if it’s not here then you either make it up or make do without it. Music, course marshals, spaghetti sauce, aspirin, inner tubes, outer-pliers, friends, family, and fanny packs are either packed in, borrowed or forgotten. Of course, the grand expo and advanced planning of organizers and competitors have increased the material comforts of the event. But the very milieu of Wildflower is something to be experienced not consumed, a weekend to do more with less than less with more.
And let us not forget, the over-used Woodstock/WF reference also reminds us how uh…uncomfortable Woodstock ’69 was for its nearly 500,000 attendees. Rain, wind, bad sound, bad food, bad drugs. Joni Mitchell, who never played at Woodstock, imagined an idyllic garden from the comfort of a heated recording studio while the muddy multitudes made do with what they had: ramen, a VW bus, can-do ideology, and each other.
There are a lot of people in close proximity to Wildflower. Campsites and bike racks and campfires are wedged into tight quarters that would qualify as cluttered in other modern spaces. Somehow, the usual tensions of human compaction are avoided. Somehow, those attending the event know to check their egos at the gate. And the event, staged on the European model of a village surrounded by natural space, refuses the notion of suburban expansion. There is no reason to stay in town or to find a campsite away from the centricity of all. We might miss something.
Soon enough the starting gun will give you plenty of time to be alone on the back roads and gardens of trails with the sound of your breath and your thoughts. Between mile 4 and 5 you will be faced with a cottony silence and the sound of your footsteps become familiar friends. Soon enough you will be pinning to return to that mass of men looking for a piece of shade, a hand to shake or a cold beer to share.
For many who have been coming here again and again, Wildflower is a recycling event. You take your experiences and your age and your old sleeping bag and you use them again. And sometimes they appear fresh like the vegetation after a year of heavy rain. You pull out your knowledge of that last big climb and put it to use, sitting and spinning and saving things for the run. And for the swapping of stories that night.
In some ways, the event has taken on a life of its own as if the organizing crew could show up on Friday afternoon, set out a few cones, sit back in their lawn chairs and watch the spectacle unfold. If sport is a kind of drama then Wildflower is its natural amphitheater, an integrated landscape of mutual ensembles choreographed by the elements, Terry and Co. (and the new landlords, Motive Inc.) and by something other-worldly smiling on their direction.
Like anyone else, I appreciate the newness of change and how it can re-spark creativity and passion. I like to get a new bike every five or seven years, a new pair shoes when my old ones wear out, a new job every decade. But the things that count–my family, friends, memories, old guitars and old body parts—they never go out of fashion. Yeah, the good oil and the good wine get better with time and old relationships can be reified with a twist here and a tweak there. The Wildflower Triathlon is like that: to race again for the first time is simply a matter of looking at it from another perspective.
I’ll never finish in the top ten of anything here or there again. But I appreciate completion more and respect all those who have contributed to this Nation of Believers, the flower tribe and children that make the event oh so much more than a race. I hope that next year or in the year 2025 we can all still “camp out on the land and try and set our soul free.”
As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time. He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999. Tinley, an author of 7 books is also a Professor at San Diego State University for as long as he was a pro athlete and still carries the burden of his athletic success.
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