Five months ago, I signed up to do the ½ iron distance Musselman Triathlon in Geneva, NY on July 11. This was recommended as a first race by my companion and fellow TI Coach Shane Eversfield since it is well-organized, eco-friendly, and is set in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of NY. I have a swimming background, and coach many triathletes on swim technique, but this was my first official triathlon. This is how it went, from start to finish:

It is the night before Musselman and I am wide awake. After a few fitful hours, I am awakened in the middle of the night by an alarm. Now 4:30 AM is not technically the middle of the night (and really turns out to be late), but it’s the first time that night where I feel I could easily fall back asleep if I don’t get up. Reflecting on the knowledge that many racers perform well in IM distance and longer on little to no sleep, I figure I only have to do half that distance. What the heck, I’ve come this far; I might as well get up.

While I’m accustomed to swim races, the sheer amount of gear involved in racing a full triathlon is a challenge to my casual style. This attitude allows for flexibility in terms of necessary gear, but there are a handful of extras you would regret leaving behind (fuel, sunblock, helmet, shoes, bike, etc). As it happens, after packing the car, mixing fuel, and running back into the house twice for missing items (mine), we are on the road to the Musselman parking lot a bit later than planned. We carefully unload the car and reassemble bikes and gear (so much stuff!!), and by the time we are at the center of the circus, I have 5 minutes to roll in, find my spot, and set up in my transition area. Due to the snowballing effect of being late leaving the house, setting up transition actually means throwing down the bike and grabbing essential gear before being asked to exit the now-closed transition area by an apologetic volunteer. Into the bathroom, into the wetsuit, on goes the watch, and I am already being corralled into pretty in pink Wave 3. I admire the fresh mani pedi war paint of the group as we wade into the warm, grassy waters of Seneca Lake (a balmy 76 degrees F according to Musselman Race Director Extraordinaire Jeff Henderson), and as always, am in awe of my fellow competitors, several of whom have never done a 1.2 mile swim in a churning mass of bodies in OW.  Last minute encouragements, good luck- you too, don’t think just swim, you’re ready for this, nothing left to do but… GO!!! 

We lift off into shallow waters, legs hovering above the notorious invasive zebra mussels this race is named for. The crush of bodies and adrenaline soaked water annihilates any illusion of personal space and the merge surge begins.  Muddy mermaid vision gradually gives way to the increasing blue-green clarity of depth at the second buoy, and the democratic chaos of the start stretches a bit and settles into the refined arts of drafting, passing, and maintaining position. I am slightly further right of the buoys than I’d like to be, so I adjust my course and give thanks my goggles aren’t leaking or fogging. The wave starts are staggered by mere minutes, and it isn’t long before we come upon a few determined green caps, with blue caps in hot pursuit. About halfway through this rainbow salmon run with bodies all around, I feel my right hand slide through something soft, small, and yielding and I know that my watch has come undone. Lurching to a stop, I turn around in time to see its detached suspension in the boiling water, oddly peaceful looking as it starts the slow-motion fall towards gravity. Admiring its beauty, I snatch it before it’s lost and stuff it down the front of my wetsuit. Back into the fray and onto the homestretch, we are staring into the sun as we turn left toward the boat launch canal portion of the swim. I am on one pair of feet before they pull away, and find myself weaving left and right and squinting in to the sun before another passing blue cap offers a solution to my sighting crisis and an inviting ride into the canal. Once in, towering trees shield the glare and the pace picks up as we hone in on the carpeted exit. Clambering to my feet and tearing off my cap and goggles, I hear my name and see Terry standing on the pier as a spectator. I am momentarily aware that it’s a unique moment of switched roles in our relationship, as I have stood many times and scanned swimmers exiting the water in anticipation of seeing those I came to support. I shed my amphibious skin on the move, and Beyonce dances us to transition via the sound system, announcing that "if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it!" My swim split hovers just under 40 minutes- not my fastest, but it felt really good.

Coming into T1, it’s apparent how much time can be lost due to inadequate organization. Where are my sunglasses and sunblock? Will the sunblock stay on since I’m applying it wet? Now my contorted face is drawing concerned looks from my neighbors as I spray the alcohol-based product on my chafed neck (which I neglected to lube up in my rush to the starting line). Ok ready to go! Except now I’m half-way to the T1 exit shute with no timing chip (removed with the wetsuit)! By the time I clatter down to the bike mount line, I have been passed by everyone who entered T1 with me, and many more who exited the water after me. And I am doing so while my extra electrolytes, IB, anti-fatigue capsules, and watch are waiting patiently back at transition. Too late now- I will check in with them later when I come back for my running shoes.

Settling into an easy spin cycle, I am grateful that I have grown accustomed to a modest approach. As long as I have a bike, a helmet, good fuel (thank you Hammer), sunblock, tire change gear, and enough water until I see those aid station angels, I’m pretty well set. The weather is warm and mercifully beautiful, which means simple clothing, a cooling breeze on wet skin, and the anticipation of a dry, temperate ride.  Spinning along through rolling countryside with sparse traffic, the miles slide by along with passing cyclists and I enter a time warp. Being passed on the bike is not new to me and is of no particular concern. Before I was gifted a sleek Cervelo P1 in April by my generous companion Shane, I was the owner of a solitary years-old hunk of metal which took me on bikepacking trips through Washington, NY, and California. On a solo jaunt down the Pacific coast highway with that beloved hunk of metal and 50 pounds of gear, I recall many an incline where the only forward progress I made was the distance of a single pedal stroke. Compared to my townie, this Cervelo is a Ferrari. However, the combination of a deeply ingrained sightseeing attitude, watch-free wrist, and the awareness of pacing for an upcoming half-marathon comes to a shocking conclusion when I finally pull into T2. Can it really be possible that I am a mere 20 minutes from missing the bike cut-off and have been tooling around admiring the beautiful Geneva countryside for over FOUR HOURS?! OH MY GOD!! As I fumble into my racy lightweight Newtons, my previous desire to lie down and nap evaporates into panicked focus. Slow is one thing, but trotting onto the run course I leave behind me a transition area that is as filled with bikes as if the race is already over.  I am hoping it isn’t over yet for me, since I have 2 hours and 45 minutes left, and my only previous time for a half-marathon is from the relay run leg of Tupper Lake Tinman Triathlon two weeks prior in near-perfect overcast 70 degrees F- at 2 hours 39 minutes.

How am I going to make up this time? I am NOT a runner. The day after Thanksgiving 2009, I trotted my first tentative steps in a cheapo pair of Marshalls running shoes. I did not call what I did for 20 minutes that afternoon "running". My theory on this was that a plodding gait with an intensity level slightly above walking is not categorized as "running", especially when afore-mentioned plodder is limping from a persistent old leg injury from a car accident, is attired in jeans, and has a belly full of turkey sandwich. But as a self-described non-runner, it seemed a harmless experiment in testing the basic principles of Chi Running founder Danny Dreyer, who encourages starting slow and low-volume in order to relearn technique principles (such gently leaning into gravity, landing lightly and mindfully on the mid-foot, and sourcing power from the core).

Plodding through the first mile of my first half-iron at my usual 12 minute mile pace (courtesy of my own slow self, not Danny’s philosophy), I have no margin for error. Thanks a lot, Chi Running- because of you I had the confidence to work my way up from being a gimpy-leg non runner to tackling a half-iron triathlon and am currently facing potential non-finisher heartbreak! Fully committed, I push aside my doubts and just move. After struggling through the first two hot, slow miles watching what appears to be the entire field pass me in the opposite direction towards pizza and ice cream at the finish line, I reach salvation at the mile 2 aid station. Electrolytes? Yes! Hammer gel? Yes! Ice? Oh yes, put it right into my cap! And there is a woman who vaguely resembles my mother leering cartoonishly out onto the course yelling my name and encouraging me to push onward (it is later confirmed that this was indeed her, not a heat and fatigue-induced hallucination). Thank you race volunteers and cheering spectators! With a drummer thumping us through a pedestrian tunnel and a raspberry Hammer gel down my throat, my senses are sharpen. My body feels lighter and I do not falter on a quick, steep climb up to street level. The course meanders through the city and into residential neighborhoods and in my measured urgency to make up time, the impossible happens: I start passing people. Offering words of encouragement (as much for my benefit as theirs) and pushing my pace, I feel buoyed up by fellow runners and aid station angels. With my new friend Mr. Watch I need to set goals if I’m going to make the cut-off: Mile 4 before 1 PM. Done! I can hardly believe it- I am moving faster today in hotter temps than I’ve trained in, and feeling GREAT. I accept it and keep moving with an acute sense of gratitude for the beautiful weather, inspiring company, and a cooperative body. Nothing is a given- had this been 4 days earlier, it would have been 95 degrees, humid, and the first day of my moon cycle.

Although triathlon is not technically a team sport, the feeling of camaraderie is palpable throughout race day. As Terry aptly describes in his blog, it is telling that the biggest inspiration comes from the final racers, some of whom are unofficial, as much as from the first finishers. Everyone has personal goals and motives, but we are all out there to accomplish something, whether it is a PR, race tune-up, stress relief, Aquabike, or simply enjoy companionship. The last several miles of the run, during which I am accompanied by race volunteers, fellow runners, and my parents and Shane on their bikes, are interesting. I feel great until Mile 9, at which point I work through a few tired moments and carry on, and have a chance to appreciate the anticipation of a finish while balancing the awareness of the line which separates the possible from the impossible.

Upon crossing the line, I am overcome more by inertia than anything else. After 7 hours 23 minutes of continuous movement, it is finally time to stop. It is suddenly over, with all those weeks and months of training culminating at this event. As I hug friends and family in jubilation, people continue to cross the finish line. As I lie in the grass drinking Recoverite with a medal around my neck, the race announcer is calling out names of every finisher. Over an hour and a half later while we are organizing our belongings from transition, the last official racer is cheered across the finish line. Even as we roll our bikes towards the car from the broken down finishing line, there are people out on the course, undeterred by the dwindling presence of external support. Witnessing the dedication required at every stage, from the elite top finishers to the last indefatigable soldiers, it is easy to recognize that this is more than a race, it is a mission and a prayer to our higher selves.

If I could do the race over, I would certainly change a few things. Getting up earlier, putting on the sunblock and watch more carefully, and plotting out a more efficient cycling approach would likely be in order. Although I am proud of finishing, I mention this to Shane and he smiles, saying, "Well, that’s why people keep coming back- to see what they can do differently". We shall see…

Thanks to all the other co(m)petitors, race volunteers/organizers/support crew, Hammer Nutrition, Chi Running, Joe and Cindy Drexler, Shane, my family, and the Fates. Without you, there is little reason to show up on race day.