There were about 10 miles left in the bike ride and the rest of the route was pretty much a flat shot back to transition. Ready to crank it up for this last bit, I shifted my chain into my big ring only to have it pop over the top and get tangled in my spokes. For the second time. In the rain. Shit.
I stopped, got off my bike and gently worked the chain back onto the ring. “Survive and advance,” I thought. Just like the NCAA basketball tournament. Survive and advance. You don’t need to win a game by 20 points to move on to the next round. You only need to win by one. In this weekend, I didn’t need to post a PR. I only needed to get to the next leg of the race.
Welcome to DoubleMussel at Musselman Weekend. Musselman is a triathlon race in Geneva, N.Y., so named for the invasive zebra mussels which have invaded Seneca Lake. Saturday features the mini-Mussel — a sprint distance triathlon. Sunday hosts the Musselman — a 70.3, or half Iron Distance race. Those who want some extra challenge (or suffer from temporary insanity) can register for the DoubleMussel — doing both the sprint and the half Iron on back to back days. I wanted to see if I could do the DoubleMussel and I knew there was something important the race had to teach me. Let me walk you through it.
I was more anxious than nervous for Saturday’s sprint, a brand new race-day feeling for me. The 750-meter swim took place in a canal with a tail wind, meaning there were no waves to deal with. I felt smooth and strong the entire distance, until about 50 meters from the swim exit where I got punched in the head by a fellow swimmer. I stopped to gather myself. I started swimming again. The swim exit was getting closer. Closer. Closer. WHAM! A strong kick to my jaw. Are you freaking kidding me? Shake it off, I thought. Shake it off. My swim still felt good, smooth and strong. Let go of the negative thoughts. No one whacked you on purpose. And if they did, karma would take care of it.
Off to the bike where my plan was to ride like mad to catch up to my friend, Mary, who started the race 12 minutes ahead of me and was a faster swimmer. It dawned on me, about halfway through the bike, that I was probably trying to make up at least 15 minutes. Perhaps pounding out the bike wasn’t such a good idea with the half Iron tomorrow. But alas, I kept at it and caught Mary in the final mile and we cruised back to transition together. She patiently waited for me to start the run. I wasn’t in that much of a hurry. Which was OK. Because she wasn’t in a hurry on the run. We had wanted to cross the finish line together so we took the 5K run nice and easy, alternating a job with a walk in the blazing sun and hot temperatures.
The combination of the race and the hot weather took a bit out of me. I napped in the afternoon and continuously drank water and sports drink to hydrate myself. Then began preparation for Sunday’s race. And I was nervous. The weather forecast was not looking good. It wasn’t just that it was going to be warm. The humidity was described as “oppressive” and the phrase “widespread thunderstorms” popped up quite a bit. I started the what if game. What if it starts to thunder while we’re in the water? What happens if it downpours on the bike? What if I’m too scared during the storms, out biking or running in the middle of nowhere? What would people think of my times?
I was staying with Mary and her daughter, 5-year old Cassie, in the dorms at Hobart for the weekend. God bless her soul as she listened to my what ifs patiently, cracked a joke and got me to refocus.
Sunday. Race morning. The announcement came over the loudspeaker: The temperature of Seneca Lake was 78.8 degrees. That meant this was not a wetsuit legal race. However (and this is a key however) wetsuits can be worn up to a water temperature of 84 degrees. The official USA Triathlon rules state that you can wear a wetsuit when the water temperature is between 78 and 84 degrees but you will not be eligible for any awards. So I gladly encased myself in neoprene and decided to take the swim slow and easy so as not to overheat.
My wave started and I was ready to go. I didn’t have as clean a start as I did on Saturday, but got into a groove and out to the first buoy. Only I got a bit disoriented. I thought I was at the turn buoy and was momentarily lost on the course. A kayaker helped to set me straight but as I looked at the next buoy, waves started to crash into my face. I treaded water. I breast stroked. I had a few kayaks come over to make sure I was OK as inched my way toward the turn buoy. I thought that when I turned to swim parellel to the shore the waves would be better. I thought wrong. It was rough and I was concerned. I started to feel seasick. Just get through it. Suck it up and get through it. I started to alternate between breaststroke and freestyle. Eventually I made it to the next buoy. Eventually I started swimming all freestyle. It was slow. My stomach was still queasy. But I was making forward progress.
Out of the water it was my second slowest 1.2-mile swim ever. I didn’t care. I was out. And back in transition, the consensus was that it was hellish swim. “I’ve done two Ironmen and that swim was harder than any of them,” said one woman. I felt better. It wasn’t just me who was having an off day.
BOOM! Cue the thunder. Just as I started to get my bike together came a huge thunder clap. This was going to be an interesting ride. I started out on my 56 mile journey in an easy gear, letting my stomach reorient itself from the wavy swim. The rain started as a light sprinkle. Then picked up in intensity. During the course I was caught in downpours three separate times. Deciding against wiping out Tour de France style on slick roads, I eased up on my pace trying to stay with a feeling of control. I passed the second aid station, changed out my water bottle for a fresh one and then heard a grinding sound coming from my feet. There was my chain on the wrong side of the big ring. Are you kidding me? It’s pouring rain and now this? Ah, but this happened just a few weeks ago when I rode the Tour de Cure with my friends Tracy and Staci. With their help I figured out how to get my chain back on. Knowledge is power. One of my fellow riders asked if I was OK and I said I was. (Thank you for asking kind sir!). The chain was back on and I was on my merry way.
This was a lesson in persistence. I could quit. I could obsess over the fact that my time would, well, suck. Or I could just keep going, just keeping moving forward. Survive and advance. That’s what I did.
I’d like to say I laughed it off when my chain popped off for the second time. But I didn’t. I’m pretty sure I took the Lord’s name in vain out of frustration. It happened about 100 yards away from a volunteer who was directing athletes around a corner. Again, I got off my bike to put the chain back on, deciding that no matter how much I wanted to hammer the last part of this god forsaken bike course I would not gear back into the big ring and risk another chain drop. I passed the volunteer who was now on the phone and I overheard his conversation.
“I called bike support because there was a breakdown but she must have fixed it herself. She’s flying past me right now.”
And THAT made me smile. Trust me, I will never be mistaken for a bike wrench, but I was able to take care of myself. It wasn’t pretty. I don’t really know how to fix the problem so it doesn’t keep happening. But when I needed to get myself through a difficult spot, I did. Persistence. Survive and advance. And every so often, that attitude will surprise strangers, in a good way.
By the time I arrived back at Seneca Lake Park for the run, the rain had stopped, replaced instead by that oppressive humidity. Grateful for small favors, Mother Nature provided overcast skies so at least the sun wasn’t beating down on me. I trotted along without my Garmin or any watch. My only goal at this point was to finish before 3 p.m. I ran from aid station to aid station, taking full advantage of the water, flat Coke, salt tablets and pretzels. I walked a few of the hills and all of the aid stations, but ran everything else. For the first half of the run I eschewed anyone who said “good job” or “great run.” Good job? Great run? I don’t deserve that. I’m not doing very well from a performance standpoint. I’m barely going to be an official finisher.
But I pulled myself out of the negative gremlin think tank quickly. I kept moving forward. I wasn’t in this to set a PR. I wasn’t in this to prove anything to anyone else. I was in it because it was hard. I was in it because I wanted to learn something about myself. I was in it because I needed to push the boundaries of my comfort zone in a monumental way this year. I didn’t need to go fast. I needed to endure.
On the run course I discovered many people were having crappy days. They had multiple flat tires and severe dehydration. I wasn’t alone in my survive and advance mentality. I crossed the finish line (with plenty of time to spare by the way) and threw my hat in the air. I hugged the random volunteer who placed my finisher’s medal around my neck.
The DoubleMussel reminded me what embracing the journey looks like. The goal was the finish line and the way to it was was littered with challenges. Everyone struggles. Many give up. But in the end, the finish line isn’t about a destination, it’s about learning a little bit more about yourself and seeing that possibility is only limited by your own beliefs.