California race festival returns in 2018
In nature’s harmonious cycle, winter catalyzes summer, but California has experienced an endless summer in all the wrong ways. The drought that strangled the state for much of this decade affected everything from agriculture to water-based recreation, including triathlons. Lake San Antonio dropped to just 4 percent of its overall capacity in summer 2015. In turn, Terry Davis, founder and CEO of Tri-California Events, announced last year that the Wildflower Triathlon and its broader festival weekend would end after more than 30 years.
“In the early days, we were probably one of the top three or four events in the world because there weren’t that many,” Davis says with a laugh. “We started out with the largest cash purse in the world: $1,000, winner-take-all.”
But prolonged drought conditions transformed the host waterway into an arid valley. This past winter delivered renewing rains across the state and snowfall totals in the Sierra Nevada peaks that rivaled many records. Lake San Antonio has recovered to
nearly 40 percent of its capacity, an encouraging mark in the late summer. That means Wildflower will return next spring on May 4-6, 2018. We talked with Davis about both the closure and the comeback.
Race directors cancel events for many reasons — weather, permit issues, financial pressures. What was your decision process last year when you announced that Wildflower would end after 34 years?
It's a progression of decisions. Even when the lake is low at the end of the summer like it usually is, you're anticipating there's plenty of rain to fill it back up to levels it needs to be. So that's something you have plans for and you can deal with for one year. Most of the time, the athletes are right there with you the whole time.
What made 2016 different?
We had the additional costs in rebuilding the whole new swim start area, transportation expenses to get people back and forth, and the additional marketing costs trying to let people know that it was still happening. We had to deal with perception. Athletes make their plans to go somewhere else in the same manner of a ski resort that doesn't have snow. If a season doesn't have snow, the skiers make plans to go somewhere else even though they may love your location best. We went from 6,000 athletes down to 4,000 athletes down to 2,500 athletes.
How did you feel when you announced the discontinuation, especially not knowing if there was a future for the event?
I can't say it's the most difficult thing I ever went through, but it's right up there at the top. In 2013, I lost my 21-year-old son to a motorcycle accident. That's definitely the most difficult thing I’ve ever gone through in my life and ever will go through, I think. To follow that with three years of drought and trying to survive that to the point that last year, we felt we didn't survive. We didn't have the resources and finances to be able to carry it through. We had to strip down our operations, all the costs to just keep the company open. We didn't really have a choice.
The good news: Wildflower is back.
We’re not looking at it as Wildflower being back but as Wildflower moving forward — being able to have our 35th anniversary event we weren’t able to have last year.
Triathlon races have proliferated since you started in 1983. What continues to set Wildflower apart?
I think what really sets it apart is the quality of the courses and the toughness of the courses. It's what triathlon was meant to be in the beginning. They're not flat courses downtown in cities. They're out utilizing the natural environment. It's absolutely gorgeous. The community and the camaraderie and making it a destination — you don't go race in the morning and leave. You make a weekend out of it. You bring your family, from your children to your spouse, your parents, grandparents, your friends and neighbors.
What can spectators and athletes expect in 2018?
The first thing they can expect is the great courses we’ve had in the past. We’ll have the long course and the mountain bike race on Saturday. We’ll have a sprint and an Olympic-distance race on Sunday. And then we’re in the process of looking at other great things we can do for not only athletes but also spectators, friends and families. We want to do more for kids and families. We’re going to add some additional music, add some wine tastings, some food events. Maybe a stand-up paddleboard event. We haven't got all that nailed down yet. What we really want to do is make sure the triathletes know it will happen in 2018 so they can put it on their schedule and start making their plans.
Wildflower registration opens Sept. 19, and Davis says race prices will be the same as they were in 2016. Learn more at wildflowertriathlon.com. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.