Riders in the Storm

Musselman Half-Iron
Geneva, New York
July  15, 2012

I am moving around the house.  Slowly.  Parts of my body hurt.  A couple of parts hurt a lot.  Unpacking is happening.  Slowly.

This part of the process is always a mess.  Mary and I have been doing this for long enough that even if we are scrambling to prep for a race at the last minute we are still relatively organized.  Mary keeps it together with detailed lists.  I have a particular order that groups like items as I pack.  In general, by this point in the season, we don’t forget major items.  (Early in the season?  All bets are off.  Before we’ve got into the rhythm we are quite likely to forget something major.  Goggles.  Helmet.  Bike.)

Unpacking, however, is chaotic.  Departing the race site is a frenzy of activity, all undertaken in a state of distracted exhaustion.  Nothing leaves the race in the same state or often even the same container in which it arrived.  Unpacking when you get home is a slow process of happy discovery, where you gradually cross off items on a mental checklist of things that you had begun to suspect you had lost.  Goggles reappear from the arm of an inside-out wetsuit, the finisher medal drops out of a shoe, the missing sock emerges aromatically from inside a water bottle.

I’ve experienced most of the wide variety of emotional states that accompany the aftermath of a race, particularly a long one and grown somewhat used to them.  Occasionally, however, as now, as I make my way slowly around the house I find myself wondering–a wonder heightened by a general feeling that things on the whole did not go too badly–what the hell just happened to me?

Getting Warm
The day didn’t start off well.  When I got to body marking I couldn’t remember how old I was.  Of course, they were asking for my USAT age which always confuses things a bit.  But I ended up racing a full two years older than I actually am.  Senility?  Denial?  You be the judge.

We’d all been obsessively checking weather forecasts for the last few days; we knew it would be warm but how warm?  Rain was forecast and possibly thunderstorms, but when?

Dawn crept into day with barely any lightening of the sky.  Good, overcast conditions, a few random spits of moisture, perfect weather for racing at the start at least.

For me, the day started with one of those “keep calm, keep calm” moments.  Musselman assigns spots on the racks to all competitors (and tags them with a little nugget of encouragement which is related to some info you supplied when you signed up but which most people could no longer remember).  Unfortunately, no one had assigned me a spot.  I consulted a volunteer and did the best I could; things were definitely a little tight so I was lucky that I had some very nice rack mates (I can imagine that if I had struck a Type A Arsehole or two the conversation would have been less negotiation and more confrontation).  To make doubly sure, however, I went and got the lead referee as she was doing a tour of the transition area; the last thing I wanted was to be in my wetsuit at the starting corral and hear my name over the loudspeaker for a mis-racked bike!  She was great, however; observed that I was on the right side of the rack and in the right number group, made a small note, and then told me how much she loved the skull and crossbones on the downtube.

While still organizing my stuff in the transition area race officials announced that this would not be a wetsuit legal race (by about 0.8 of a degree).  There was a muted cheer from some people across the other side of the transition area.  Presumably this was the voice of those athletes (and there are some) who think that no one should be allowed to wear wetsuits under any conditions because it allows people who aren’t “real” swimmers (i.e. didn’t snap towels at each other’s privates in a college swim locker room) to a) not drown, and b) thereby threaten their podium spots (which I do all the time).  Personally, I’m quite happy to forego my wetsuit if the Phelps wannabes agree to ride steel fixies and run barefoot.  After all, that’s what real cyclists and real runners do.  But maybe it is better simply to go with the comment uttered by one guy on an adjacent rack when he heard the cheer: “Fuckers,” he spat.

Regardless of the joy experienced by the chlorine-pickled, there was considerable debate among everyone else about whether to wear a suit or not (in a wetsuit illegal race–subject to a certain upper safety temperature limit–you can still wear a suit as long as you accept that you are not eligible for awards).  My own inner torment and soul-searching lasted approximately 10 seconds.  Reluctant as I was to forego what would have been sure podium spot, I saw no reason to prolong the swim portion unduly.

Getting Wet
One of the distinctive features of the Musselman swim is that despite the fact that we were repeatedly told by race materials and announcers that Seneca is the deepest of the Finger Lakes, the start of the swim is so shallow that you have a good 100m (more if you want to risk slashing your feet on the Mussels) in-water run to get the blood pumping.

Eventually we did actually get to start swimming.  I heard a lot of people afterward describe the swim as really choppy but it honestly didn’t seem that bad to me.  There were definitely waves, the product of a brisk onshore wind, but nothing that freaked me out.  The swim in fact confronted me once again with a fact that has come as a great surprise to me: I really enjoy open water swimming.  (My lack of enjoyment of pool swimming continues unabated).  I’ve certainly had my freakouts, large and small, in open water swims, but my general level of comfort comes from a couple of sources.  My first ever open water swims, in my first ever triathlons, were in pretty horrendous conditions.  The swims for both Rumpus and Kinetic back in 2010 featured howling winds and vicious unpredictable cross-chop.  That baptism of fire has made anything less atrocious seem a gift by comparison.  But the other thing is that I enjoy trying to relax into the conditions; I try to get a feel for the rhythm of the swell and adjust my stroke and breath timing to match; when it works well it is like being rocked to sleep in a hammock.  Trying to fight and flail your way through a swell is the worst thing you can do.

Today there were certainly times that this didn’t work, and the swell was occasionally big enough that for the first time I had that roller-coaster feeling of the bottom dropping out of the world.  I would think that I’d timed my breathing right, and then suddenly I was falling.  I’ll also admit that as a bigger guy I’m not going to get thrown around quite as much as the guys and gals who weigh a buck ten soaking wet.  I consider this my compensation for watching them lope away from me while I suffer like a bastard on any run with a more than casual uphill.

All-in-all, however, I felt really comfortable with the water conditions.  The weed conditions were quite another matter.  Holy crap but there was a lot of the stuff out in the lake.  At some point I swam through a Sargasso Sea and ended up with weed on my goggles, trailing from my feet. . .I’m pretty sure over the course of the swim I added a couple of extra servings of vegetables to my daily allowance.

The swim wasn’t all plain sailing (or even relaxed bobbing) by any means.  I really cocked up the sighting on the first leg and headed off on a curve toward the interior of the course before almost colliding with a kayak.  Managed to swim a little straighter after that, however.    I also tried to be a little strategic, catching drafts off swimmers passing me.  But I felt smooth and relaxed through the whole thing; unlike when I did Musselman in 2010 when the water temperature had been cooler, I didn’t feel as if I overheated when I hit the canal. Maybe I just wasn’t exerting myself enough.

Getting Wetter
One of my goals for this race was to really get my transition times down.  Last time I did this race I’d obviously been trying to work on my memoirs while in transition. . .using a quill pen and parchment.  This time, I concentrated on just knocking out a passable short story.

As always it was a relief to be on the bike.  This is a pretty flat course; with one short exception all the climbing is gentle grade, false-flat kind of stuff; fortunately I got a lot of practice at that riding the Cedar Point course a couple of weeks ago.  I passed a lot of people in the first couple of miles, and then consistently picked off people over the next 20 miles.  There were a few spits of rain, but the road was dry and the temperature pleasant.  The southerly headwind was annoying, but not too bad.

Finally, we turned north; I knew from last time that this was a long stretch that trended downhill, and with the wind behind us I was ready to fly.  As I put my head down and the bike picked up speed I saw with delight that the road had been freshly paved.  Sneaking a glance ahead I saw a long black ribbon extending into the distance until it seemed to merge with the sky.

Wait.  That can’t be right.  The sky isn’t supposed to be that color, right?

It was at that moment that I knew we were going to be in for some special treatment.  It was a strange sensation, barreling down a perfectly smooth road in a pure bliss of speed into what was looking increasingly like Armageddon.  The gloom grew deeper.  The first rumbles of thunder.  Then the dull flare of lightning.   Distinct streaks of lightning.  Streaks of lightning that I seemed to be able to see hitting quite close.  An optical illusion, right?  Lightning and thunder very close together: ixnay on the optical illusion, then.  A few big splattery rain drops, then abruptly the world disappeared.

I’ve ridden in heavy rain before.  But nothing like this.  And certainly not accompanied by the danger of imminent electrocution.  This was no ordinary thunderstorm; this was real Wrath of God stuff.  In fact, this is what God pulls out when he decides to employ the word “Smite.”  Within seconds of the rain starting there was so much water coming down that I was losing track of the boundary between my body and the atmosphere.  Water was cascading off every part of the bike and me; the bike itself felt as if I was trying to push it through a river crossing and I was trying hard not to think that I was sliding along on skinny, very slick tires.  More thunder and lightning in a black sky above a black road.  The rain was just at that point where it is about to turn into sleet and every exposed patch of skin had turned a bright pink from the pounding.

How do you cope with a situation like this?  Try not to think about it.  Most people are actually very good at this.  When a truly appalling situation rears its head they are quite capable of checking out.  Mitt Romney might actually become president?  Oh look, it is the final of Cupcake Wars!

I tried to make myself as small as possible on the bike.   I tried to take myself off to my own Romney-free Cupcake place but all I could think of was that this torrential rain on a new seal was really going to mess up the bike (sure enough: it left a fine coating of black silt over everything).  And that I hoped Mary knew I loved her.

My friend Rich was obviously thinking along similar lines (and told me I had to put this in my blog): he was thinking that when the lightning hit he hoped that he died instantly before he crashed and that his wife Janet got all the money.

There weren’t many good options.  There were trees under which to take shelter.  Possibly the only idea dumber than biking along an exposed road in a thunderstorm.  You are supposed to seek shelter in a nearby ditch, but the land on either side was almost perfectly flat.  People later assured me that there were houses nearby but I didn’t see them.  I couldn’t see much of anything actually.

Water poured down the inside of my glasses and I was completely blind.  I pulled the glasses off, tried to stuff them in my helmet and then remembered I wasn’t wearing that kind of helmet.  Whose idea was it to wear this aero helmet anyway?  Because the water hitting it was deafening.

The problem was, I ride with prescription inserts in my glasses.  But looking at a blurry world was still a lot better than seeing nothing at all.  I could see the shapes of people enough to avoid them.  My brakes were still working well, so when we came to the steeper downhill portions I didn’t slow down much; I wanted to get out of this as soon as possible.  Seeing blurry shapes also helped me avoid the two women who decided that the downhill would be a good time to get off their bikes (a sensible decision) and walk in the middle of the road (a fucking stupid decision).

Finally, we took the sharp turn on the shore of Lake Cayuga and headed north, gradually leaving the rain behind us.  I didn’t want to think too much about what we’d just been through, there was still half the bike course to go.  I propped my sunglasses up on the aerobars to dry them out and pushed on.

The long miles of false flat back up to the ridge were good for me.  The last time I had done this I got angry and frustrated here, feeling like I was riding badly.  Now, I simply dropped into some steady tempo riding and steadily passed people.

Some ripping downhill back to the shores of Seneca and we came to the part that Mary had nicknamed Paris-Roubaix: a couple of miles of broken (smashed) pavement.  Last year I’d ejected two water bottles here and also knew that most people slowed down at this point.  But as with the famed cobble-strewn race, the way you ride this kind of terrain is to pedal a big gear so that you are on the edge of mashing; you are trying to clip the tops of the rough stuff rather than slam into the low points.  So we came to that section and I dropped the hammer.  I rode the entire section consistently at a shade under 19mph and passed 30 people (counting them was a way of taking my mind off the pounding; my only other option was to offer up consistent prayers that I didn’t flat, but my decision to leave the Gatorskins on the bike began to seem like a Very Good Idea).

After this section, I knew that my bike time overall wouldn’t match Kinetic, but I still wanted to bring it in under 3; so I locked into steady tempo for the final segment, watching my average piece gradually creep up to the magic 19mph (the course is closer to 57 than 56).

Staying Wet
I took a brief moment as I got off the bike to congratulate myself on not having died, then got out of there as quickly as possible.

There isn’t much to tell about the run, really.  I started off much too fast (I feel way too feisty out of transition), running almost a minute faster than my survival pace.  There was no rain, but the humidity was smothering at the start of the run, which for me personally saps me more than pure heat.  I had also forgotten just how hard the first half of this run is with the gradual climbing.  I ran until I could feel my HR getting up there and then walked everything other than the smallest uphill.  Nutrition on the bike had been great and I thought that so too had the hydration, but I was taking two cups of water at every age station which was producing no sloshing.  It was as if the stuff evaporated as soon as it hit my insides.

But by the time we worked our way back down to the flat I still felt as if I had energy left, and I ran consistently through the final part, with enough left for a bit of a final kick (or at least it felt like a kick to me, god knows what it looked like to the spectators!).

The Reason I Became a Humanities Major
I had a brief, glorious, period when I thought that I’d nabbed a PR, but then realized that it was because I couldn’t do math when trying to subtract my wave start time.  My goal had been a PR, and my stretch goal had been to bring it in under 6 hours.  I achieved neither.

I did however achieve a substantial course PR, and in most areas raced Musselman a lot better than I did two years ago.  More importantly I’ve been consistent this year, as you can see:

  Swim T1 Bike T2 Run Overall
Musselman 2010 47:03 5:33 3:09:41 4:26 2:15:41 6:22:24
Kinetic 2012 41:01 3:30 2:54:17 2:21 2:20:58 6:02:06
Museelman 2012 41:36 2:34 2:58:39 2:08 2:20:17 6:05:07

I’m swimming and biking a lot better this year.  And I seem to have got my transition shit together.  The notable difference between now and then is the run, but I expected that.  In 2010 I ended up (often not by choice!) doing a lot of very hot and very hilly long runs which helped prep me for what is still my best ever Half run performance.  I probably lost a couple of minutes because of the thunderstorm.  On the upside, I didn’t die.  And I had a better day than some of my team-mates who are much faster than I.

The Perfect Combination: Geneva and Team Z
I love this race.  On the one hand it is just so quirky.  It is the poster child for how to turn an invasive species into a cute and cuddly mascot.  What other race actually gives you useful stuff in your swag like peanut butter and shampoo (along with the inevitable crappy gel flavor that Hammer can’t get rid of any other way)?  The run course was lined with ordinary residents standing on their porches and applauding.  Some were picnicking on their lawns.  Many of them, mercifully, had their hoses out (and they were well-schooled, asking the runners first if they wanted to be blasted).  There was music along the route, but here again it was not what you might expect.  In one section it was a blues duo (really good) playing from their front porch.  In another place there was a damn good accordion player giving us a Mariachi serenade, music that echoed eerily through a tunnel under the roadway but which called me forward from half a mile away.

When it comes to music calling you forward, what can I say about Team Z?  Lining the finishing stretch, I could hear their cheering from the better part of a mile away; as the course took its deceptive twists and turns near the end, a finish line that never seemed to grow closer, and in fact seemed to have been moved to the next county, the cowbell and vuvuzela told me that there was an end to this.  But when it comes to this team, as good as it is to receive, it is far more fun to give.  When I finished I was fatigued, wobbly, starving.  But it is amazing how a quick blast of food and a brief sit down can re-charge you when there are team mates still out there who need your support.  We had several people who finished well after the cut-off, in fact well after they had packed down the finish line.  But we made them feel like rockstars, forming a green arch along both sides  of the trail with arms locked above them.  At one point I turned to the person next to me, and said, “This is the best part of my job!”

Well, that and not dying.

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8 responses to “Riders in the Storm

  1. I’m glad nobody got struck by lightening. Rich is so funny and sweet – that’s why I love him! I’ll tell him you included what he said in your blog.

  2. Thanks for the cupcake analysis — priceless! Congrats on a great race. If you’re not careful, at the rate you’re going, you’ll turn into an actual swimmer.

    • That kind of comment will only encourage people, by which I mean mainly Mary. No one is more surprised than I about the open water thing, although Coach Ed did warn me that I might start to see the charm of the open water. But as my weakness I’ve worked on swimming this year, and it is nice to see a bit of pay off for that.

  3. I so love reading your blog. This time it was referring to a race I was not only at, but actually racing in. I felt almost the exact way you did, minus the dying. Can I just repost your race report as my own? Although I never once thought of Mitt or cupcakes, oh and your times were way better.

  4. Tell me Mark. If you get hit by lightening whilst on a bike, and manage to stay on, do you have to jump clear of the bike to avoid grounding all that pent up charge in the frame? (it works with cars apparent).
    ps yr comment about thunder storms and trees reminded me of a certain camping trip last millenium…

    • I think if I got hit by lightning under those circumstances I would just have to keep riding forever. On and on into the sunset.

      Seriously, while we had some discussion about the insulating properties of rubber tires and carbon bikes, a more scientifically-inclined friend of Mary’s pointed out that probably all that was outweighed by the fact that we were biking through an inch of water and through a completely liquid atmosphere.

      • 🙂 I guess convering all that lectrical potential energy to orward momemtum is out of the question. I can just see the official…’Sir, you were disqualified for use of electrical power on your bicycke. The ambulance will be along in a minute.”

  5. Great write-up! I enjoyed the swells more last year than the chop this year. Must have been the lack of a wetsuit! And remind me not to borrow water bottles from you – aromatic or not!

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