Kate's California Dream
by Kate Walsh
If you’re a keen follower of triathlon you’re probably aware of the iconic race that is Oceanside – running for over 20 years, generally the first major race of the year, always gets a stellar pro field. If you’re not aware of any of this, all you need to know is: it’s by the beach in California. Sold!
We had already started planning a family holiday to California over Easter 2023 when I realised that the dates would coincide with Oceanside. With a small amount of shuffling of our route and timings, I was able to put us in the right place at the right time for me to race there. The logistics and preparation for racing not only so far away but so early in the season did give me pause for thought before I booked. Taking my own bike, which we’d then need to cart around 6 different locations for the rest of the holiday, wasn’t very practical, so I’d need to hire a bike which I’d have little or no chance to ride before the race. I’d have done no open water training over winter and probably limited outdoor TT riding as well. Still – remember the bit about it being an iconic race, on the beach in California? Booked!
We arrived at LAX on Wednesday evening, and after two nights just outside LA in Laguna Beach, drove down to Oceanside on Friday morning. With the benefit of hindsight, I would have cut short our first stop and got to Oceanside on Thursday instead. The pre-race admin/faff before a big race like this is always a headache: pick up your registration pack here….then walk half a mile down the road for the athlete briefing….then navigate to the back of the expo to collect your bike…then cycle a mile in the other direction to transition for racking which MUST be done at this specific time…..plus in between all this checking in to our hotel (not nearly as close to the race venue as it looked on the map, because everything in America is SO MASSIVE) sorting out race kit and nutrition, and getting the kids to the Ironkids fun run. I was exhausted by the end of the day and didn’t make the best decisions on a pre-race dinner, based mainly on convenience and tiredness (more on that later).
Having said all that, it was also very exciting to soak up the atmosphere of such a big race. After a long period of unusually bad weather (for California) the sun finally came out the day before the race, and temperatures for race day also looked perfect. The whole town and beach area was completely taken over by triathlon and there was a lot of hype around the pro field, and in between rushing around I was able to see some of the women’s press conference featuring Paula Findlay, Kat Matthews and Chelsea Sodaro. I was too shy to ask anyone for a photo though! I was also relieved to arrive at the bike pick-up to find a nice shiny Cervelo P3 waiting for me (I had no idea what I was getting until the day before) along with a kind and patient mechanic who was happy to accommodate my vague yet exacting specifications on bike set-up. There was no time for a proper test ride, so I had the mile or so ride to transition to check that nothing was likely to fall off, and beyond that left transition hoping for the best.
Unfortunately “the best” was definitely not what I got for dinner that night at the In N Out Burger chosen solely due to its proximity to our hotel, and within a few hours the dreaded symptoms of food poisoning reared their head. I’ll spare you the details but suffice to say I’m pretty sure I didn’t get even a few minutes sleep and when my 4.45am alarm went off (not a fun start time even after a good night’s sleep) I felt so awful I was strongly tempted to stay in bed and sack the whole thing off. However the thought of wasting the astronomical cost of the entry fee, bike hire and everything else made me feel even more sick so I forced myself out of bed and decided that I’d try to have some breakfast and if I was able to keep it down then I’d at least start the race and see how I got on. I did have a little cry in the bathroom as I realised the race I’d trained hard for through the winter wasn’t going to be what I’d hoped for, but after managing to get some porridge and coffee down I headed off to transition with Dan, trying to think positive.
We’d heard late the night before that the swim course had been changed from a beach start to a loop within the harbour due to water temperature, as it was a couple of degrees warmer in the harbour than in the open sea. I had mixed feelings about this: partly slightly disappointed as a big part of Oceanside’s iconic appeal is the run in from the beach at sunrise, but also somewhat relieved, as beside having done no open water training over winter I’d never done a surf entry at all. I’d considered trying to find some time the day before to practice but had decided against it as there had been talk of poor water quality after the recent rain and, ironically, I was worried about getting sick!
After the usual nervous transition faff in the cold, dark early morning (turns out California isn’t that different to Britain in that respect) we seeded ourselves in a queue for the rolling swim start. But before we could begin, naturally we had to sing the American National Anthem. Which we’d also had to sing before the kids race the day before – turns out that what Americans love most, even more than massive road, massive cars and guns, is singing the Star Spangled Banner. Then two canons went off to mark the start of the Pro Men’s and then Pro Women’s race, and soon the age group race was underway too. A benefit of being a distinctly mid-pack swimmer is that the queue to get in took so long, I had a front row view to see the pro’s exiting the water and heading out on the bike.
Then it was my turn to get in. I’d dipped my feet in the day before and decided that it really wasn’t that cold, and Americans must be soft. But at 7am with the sun barely up, it felt COLD. However actually after a night of illness, it turns out some very cold water is actually just the thing to perk you up and after gasping my way round the course, I actually felt capable of tackling the bike course, and I trundled on my new Cervelo. I’d already decided that the only way I was going to get round today was to be kind to myself, not expect too much and forget about any targets. I took the power data off my garmin and just showed the distance and time. There were lots of positives to this, and I got to take in the incredible scenery, sea on one side, mountains on the other. One of the unique aspects of Oceanside is that a large part of the bike course is ridden inside Camp Pendleton, a military base usually inaccessible to the public where all the marshalls were soldiers! There were some punchy climbs, plus a descent with a military-imposed speed limit of 25mph, which we had been repeatedly warned at the briefing we would be disqualified for breaking (85 athletes last year, including Daniela Ryf, suffered this fate). Given my usual granny-like descending, I thought it would be pretty ironic if I was disqualified for speeding downhill, so I was uber-vigilant in keeping an eye on my speed. I also needed to keep my wits about me with the number of other competitors on the road – it’s one of the most popular races on the calendar and clearly Ironman want to make the most of this, but frankly, there were too many people on the road to ride completely safely a lot of the time, let alone at a legal drafting distance. Still, these are really my only gripes from the whole race.
Back into transition, by which time it was getting pretty warm. I’d been somewhat dreading the run, thinking it would be the toughest part to drag myself through when not feeling 100%, and I’d told myself that if I only got through one lap, or even less, I’d be ok with that. But as soon as I got out on the run course the amazing support completely lifted me. Even at the best-attended British triathlons, you can often expect to have long stretches of the run where if you’re lucky you might get a cheery “well done” from a dog walker. Not at Oceanside – the central section around the pier was 3 or 4 people deep along the course, with exuberant Americans screaming “LET’S GO YOU GUYS!!!! YOU’RE LOOKING AWESOME!!!!!!” Even the long out-and-back away from town was lined with people with signs, soundsystems, spraying sprinklers on the course to keep us cool. There was no way I could stop after one lap! Seeing Dan twice on each lap gave me a boost too, and on I trotted, counting down the km until finally the red carpet and finish arch appeared, and I was done. A helpful benefit of the bike company is that they whisk your bike out of transition while you’re on the run, leaving just a neat bag containing pedals and leftover nutrition in its place. So all I had to do was pick this up, and then it was back to the hotel to flop into the hot tub.
It was definitely no PB, but a few weeks on the memory of how ropey I felt has faded and I’m just left with great memories of an amazing race and holiday. Definitely a bucket list item ticked off!