Somewhere along the paved slope of a road known ruefully as Nasty Grade, my wife Erin gasped these words over her handlebars. It took a minute, but the other dozen riders us–hypoxic and churning the pedals up the steep central Californian road–finally realized she was joking, and laughed. We’d been thinking the same thing: How can she possibly have enough breath to tell a story right now?

L to R: Christina Liebner, me, Erin Lopez

L to R: Christina Liebner, me, Erin Lopez

The ride was part of a three-day training camp with the Oakland Triathlon Club, a get-acquainted weekend with the drought-stricken landscape in California’s Monterey County. We will compete in the annual Wildflower Triathlon on May 2. The race is known as one of the most difficult; club member Trish Sampson once told me, “I’ve never done Wildflower and said afterward, ‘That went well.'” Coming from Trish, an Ironman Arizona finisher and four-time competitor in this race, it explains a lot about why the rest of the club wanted to preview the course.

This year promises to be especially challenging. When Erin raced it five years ago, there was water in Lake San Antonio. Now, about ten thousand athletes will swim in what’s left of it–a puddle by comparison, located 2.2 miles from the swim-bike transition area. It means that the 10K run usually reserved for the race’s final leg will be split in two: 2.2 miles before the bike, and 4 miles after it. And the general heat, hills, and pre-race hype will be the same as always, stoked by the mass of athlete campers who pitch their tents and fill the valley with our sport’s answer to Woodstock.

Dear Rain Gods: the lake goes here.

Dear Rain Gods: the lake goes here.

But for now, over a month before the race, the location is all but a ghost town. Our group of twenty-two athletes came together in four cabins along the dry lakebed, pretty much isolated from civilization except for another tri team further down the hill, a herd of deer, and a pack of coyotes who visited the camp at night. (The wild pigs, subject of a stern warning on the campsite fence, must have heard about triathletes’ legendary appetites in general, and our fondness for bacon in particular.) In short, we had one of the most popular triathlon courses in the world almost to ourselves.

Without its water to attract a boating and fishing crowd, the lake’s industry is in hosting triathletes: the swim course is already well-marked with signs to the shore, a map, and buoys. When Erin, Chris, Jessica, and I swam on a sunny Friday afternoon the water was cool but not uncomfortable; Saturday was cloudier, however, and the water was downright cold. I’ll at least pack earplugs with my race gear next month, but will probably skip the neoprene cap. Either way, expect extremely poor visibility underwater, and watch out for some quicksand along the shore. (Seriously!)

The Olympic course bike is very rolly, with two more significant hills just short of midway–though not nearly as painful as Nasty Grade on the long course. After the those two big ones on the way out, expect a smooth, slow, aero-bar-friendly descent to the turnaround, and an almost exact (smooth, slow) uphill on the way back into the rollers. The road is a little rough in places, but there is no need to fear the descents as long as your water bottles are secure.

And the 4-mile run… Well, after the short stretch of rolling road out of T2, there’s a hill. It’s called Beach Hill, and you’ve got a mile of sharp, steep switchbacks to play the rhyming game with that name all you want. And you will want. My advice: When you first see people running 200 hundred feet above you, you’ll know it’s right around the corner. Don’t get intimidated, and give your legs a few minutes to get used to the grade. Find a rhythm, and keep your mental composure. After you top out, there is a long downhill followed by more trail rollers–but by that point, you will probably be able to hear the finish line.

Although for us, last weekend, the only sound was the wind. Maybe helped along by this isolation, what struck me again about OTC is the speed of connection between people and the overwhelming friendliness of our group. Of course, we could bond over our shock at the dry lakebed, Nasty Grade, Beach Hill, and the joy of eating so many good meals. In fact, we hardly needed to talk about anything else. Yet aside from the particulars of conversation (which are plenty often arbitrary, anyway) there is a basic affinity that I feel comes from OTC’s best asset: its people.

And that’s why, as Erin and I made the three-hour drive back to Oakland on Sunday afternoon, just about every story we told started with, “One time, at tri camp…”

Thanks, OTC and Chris Van Luen, for a great adventure!

Thanks, OTC and Chris Van Luen, for a great adventure! (Photo by Jessica Russell)

(Photo by Jessica Russell)
(Photo by Jessica Russell)