The Journey of Being Last
The Life-Changing Experience of Wildflower Triathlon
Dharamesh Patel, Bib #1269 from Santa Maria, CA
“The journey was long and a humbling experience to say the least,” said Dharamesh Patel about his 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and 13.1 mile run. “The course broke me but that’s exactly what needs to happen to discover what you are made of.”
The swim course started with meeting one of Dharamesh’s idols -Dixit Patel – at the ramp. Dharamesh and Dixit shared stories of events they had done and courses on which they had each crashed.
“Dixit had already completed a full Ironman and shared that this course was tougher,” said Dharamesh. “That was not what I wanted to hear at the beginning of the race.”
The weather was already warm at the start of Patel’s 45-49 age-group wave.
“The water was cool and 1.2 mile swim went relatively easy but, I swam an extra 500 yards because I suck at sighting,” said Patel.
Patel handled the rolling bike course for a long time before he encountered another athlete with a flat.
“She had no replacement tube, no C02, no pump, no levers, and no idea of how to change the tire as I found out,” said Patel. “I gave her everything I had and she asked, ‘What are you going to do if you get a flat?’”
Patel replied, “There will be someone just like me that will stop and give me what they have, hopefully.”
He continued to ride and cross the bridge to the entrance of the infamous Nasty Grade Hill at Mile 42.
“I immediately saw people getting off their bike and walking it up the hill,” said Patel. “I chose not to. For the next two miles, we went up this goliath of a hill and pushed complete strangers up it with our sheer will. Just when we thought it was over, we turned the corner to be welcomed by another monstrosity of a hill. That’s where I meet ShriDev from Palo Alto. He was doing the relay with his family. His 13-year daughter had just completed the swim and his wife was doing the run after he finished the bike. We talked about things old friends would talk about, like college, kids, and beer. We made it up that hill together, and at the top was our reward – mile 46 – a two-mile drop where we hit speeds of 48 miles an hour. The legs were tired even though I had religiously eaten every five minutes and drank a good mix of Gatorade, water and coconut water. We had just completed a brutal 4,000 feet of climbing on that course and the thought of upcoming run started gnawing at me. How am I going to do this?”
The answer Patel got was simple. He just needed to take one step at a time.
“The run course was a good mixture of trail and road but was, of course, hilly. Cramps started coming to the stomach. Did I eat and drink too much? That’s impossible! I had been on the go for five and a half hours now. Mile three is when the thought of quitting reared its’ ugly head. This is when I met Chip from Oceanside, Calif. He was 62 years old. What the hell was he doing out here?”
Chip and Dharamesh continued together for the next six miles together.
“He started this crazy sport only four years ago and had already completed three other half Ironman’s,” said Patel. “I told him this was my first and he started laughing! ‘This is the hardest one you could have picked!’ he told me”
Chip was on the verge of quitting but was only going to quit if the course officials forced him to. Together, he and Dharamesh started cramping going up hills and Chip started to talk about nutrition.
“I’m thinking in my head ‘It’s a little late to worry about nutrition now!’” said Patel. “But I learned a lot from Chip. I learned that someone who sweats a lot can lose up to a tablespoon of salt each hour in this heat. There’s no way you can replace that with Gatorade on the ride. I also learned that coming in last in this particular race was just as good as coming in first as long as you finish. There were dozens of people that had quit after the bike. He wasn’t going down without being taken off the course. He promised himself that. To our surprise, there were a few people behind us. Soon, Chip started to run faster. I told him to go on without me.
Even with cramps on top of cramps, Patel found that the aid stations with all the volunteers were amazing.
“There was so much humorous encouragement,” he said. “I had a few more people pass by me and then around mile ten, I met Hunter Lawless. Hunter was a Wildflower volunteer on his mountain bike. He had graduated from Cal Poly SLO a year ago and had volunteered every year. He majored in Environmental Science but really wanted to go into Human Resources, which was my field. He followed close behind on his bike and we started chatting. I was beyond chatting now but he forced the issues.”
While Patel was mentally drained and wasn’t thinking about the finish line, Hunter drew out the lowest points of Patel’s life – his addictions, his insecurities, his current struggles in family life.
“It was then that I realized I had a bigger purpose out there. I was originally there to aid the athletes but quickly felt a responsibility to get him to the finish line. I became his last source of inspiration and motivation in his final hour. There was no way I was going to let him quit,” remembers Hunter Lawless, 23, Course Lead and SAG Cyclist, Wildflower Volunteer Team.
“And then I shared my comeback story,” said Patel. “For too long, I made too many promises that I couldn’t keep to myself. I failed over and over again. But then I realized that I owed myself more than that. This race was redemption.”
Hunter was quite inspired by Patel.
“One of my dreams is to compete in a triathlon someday and he made it all seem possible!” said Hunter.
Why was he inspired?” asked Patel. “Maybe it no longer mattered. But his reaction was one of awe and admiration that I had taken myself to the depths of life’s insanities and had made it all the way back to having a wonderful life.”
The tenth mile snaked through the campsites, which were now lined with runners who were cheering for the final finishers of the Wildflower Long Course.
“Other athletes who had already finished their races were cheering for me like it was the Super Bowl,” said Patel. “The turnaround came at mile 11 and we were back on the road but facing rolling hills. There was a large row of cars inching along Hunter and I as we made our way up the hill. I asked him why they didn’t just pass me. He told me the course was still open so they had to wait since they went the wrong way.”
And then it dawned on Patel.
“Am I the last guy on this course Hunter?” he asked.
Hunter looked at Patel and told him, “Yes, you are sir, but you are going to finish this race.”
Hunter had hidden this truth for over two miles to save Patel from dejection. The line of cars got longer behind them like a funeral procession.
“This was a funeral procession of the old me,” said Patel. “As I made my way down the final hill and mile, the cheers intensified as we passed more participants heading back to campsites. A group of volunteers started running and walking with me down to the finish line. The feeling coming down that chute was emotional as I saw my friends Diane and Killian and the hundreds of spectators cheering me on like I had won the race, rather than what I was really doing, which was coming in last place. The race director presented me with a prize. She said, ‘It’s a tradition of the Wildflower Experience to recognize the first place contestant and the person that finished last. It’s not where you place, it’s all about finishing.’”
This weekend was one for the books for Patel.
“There were people that became symbols of Karma in my life – the young lady with the flat, 62 year Chip, who was tough as nails and unrelenting, and finally Hunter, the young man that refused to let me quit and willed me to the finish line.”
Two days later, Patel still feels like a truck ran over him, but he’s already starting to think about his next Wildflower Experience.
“I will be back to conquer Wildflower again,” he said. “And hopefully I will finish again — but not in last place.”
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