Finding my strength at Musselman

“I think I’m going to throw up.”

“You can’t,” my friends said. “The puking tree is all the way back there.”

Yes indeed. Welcome to Musselman Weekend.

This is my favorite race, possibly ever and it has turned into my favorite weekend of the year. I have had absolutely horrible races here. I mean death-march type finishes during half-iron distance races where the heat on the country run course melts every single fiber of my being and I long to sit in a bathtub filled with ice for days on end. I still feel as if I have unfinished business with this half-iron course. And some day, I will return to conquer it.

But that wasn’t the plan this

No, this year, my fifth straight in Geneva, N.Y. for Musselman Triathlon Weekend, I would participate only in Saturday’s mini-Mussel sprint triathlon. This season of working on shorter distances, on speed and on fitness, has me off the 70.3 circuit and racing triathlons for fun and experience. It shouldn’t surprise me how much I can accomplish when I trust myself, when I have fun, when I stop worrying about other people in any way, shape or form. But it still does. And I suppose I’ll keep getting those lessons until they finally sink into my thick skull.

But first, on to Musselman.

One of the things I adore about this weekend is that I get to spend time with fantastic friends. It was at Musselman I reconnected with my college friend Tara. She was watching her friends (now my friends, Staci and Tracy) compete in Musselman one year and she found me as I was wandering around the swim start, looking for a place to throw up.

That 1.2-mile swim in Seneca Lake scares me. Actually any open water swim scares me.

A year later I had more friends who were Musselmen athletes, including John who also shared my need to vomit before an open water swim start. This is where I first learned of his designated “puking tree.” (I’m thinking there might a children’s book in there somewhere.) And over the last five years, my circle of friends at this race has grown. It feels like one big celebration of life, of happiness, of creating the life you want to live and stepping into the strongest version of yourself, the version that you hoped for, but never really believed, existed in real life.

I had no real goals for this race other than to enjoy the experience. Last weekend I raced the sprint distance at A Tri in the Buff and while the run was brutally hot and humid and my swim start was delayed by a sudden panic that I had forgotten how to swim, I still managed to turn in a personal best on the course.

This past week was filled with challenging workouts, including tempo-paced mile repeats and half marathon race-pace runs along with a strength-based boxing working with former St. Bonaventure women’s basketball superstar Jessica Jenkins. (Story on that coming soon!). As I laid on my bed in the Hobart and William Smith College dorm room I realized that my abdominal muscles were so sore that if my life depended upon completing one sit-up, I was in for some serious trouble.

My message to myself. One of the little things which makes Musselman awesome.

My message to myself. One of the little things which makes Musselman awesome.

Hello race morning. I spent much of the time talking to my friend Sue, a relative newbie on the triathlon scene who was experiencing her first Musselman weekend. I tried to keep her calm and positive, which helped me stay calm and positive. To a point. Once I put on my wetsuit, it was all about trying not to throw up.

That’s when my friends found me. Mary, who was also racing, came by along with our cheerleaders for the day, Corey and Marie. They reminded me the puking tree was not nearby and instructed me that that phrase of the day was “Be Boss.” That went nicely with the phrases I had written on my hand to inspire me that day: “Shut up Legs” (courtesy of professional cyclist Jens Voigt) and “mofo” (courtesy of my potty mouth).

By the time I got in the water, I was still anxious, but more confident. When my light blue cap wave started swimming, I stayed back. I took about 90 seconds of lollygagging — doing my aquajog-breaststroke combination until I had found some swim open swim space. With the pack ahead, I was able to start swimming. And I kept swimming. I kept my rhythm for most of the swim with only two real stops — one after getting clocked in the head and the other when a leader from the swim wave behind swam over top of me. But here’s the thing: I got out of the water with other light blue caps. Those who know me understand that this in itself is cause for a happy dance.

Shut Up LegsOn the bike I moved around the packs of riders that seemed to clog the road the first three miles of the course and found my happy place. I looked down at the ridiculousness written on my hand. I thought of my friends. And I smiled. I felt free and fast. My legs kept a solid cadence and I coasted up the gradual hill on the first half of the course. I felt in a groove. British broadcasters Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett were commentating my ride in my head. (And they were both witty and impressed with my performance.)

Then came the somber moment.

I saw the flashing lights of an emergency vehicle ahead and many stopped cars. A cyclists off his bike was instructing us all to slow down and race officials instructed us to move into single file and ride around to the other side of the road. The race had gone under a yellow-flag caution at this point. I glanced to my right and saw every piece of medical equipment from the ambulance on the road. I stopped looking at that point. I knew something terrible had happened. I said a prayer and held on to a few different words: gratitude, perspective, abundance. I was grateful for where I was in that moment and carried on with my race.

The final five miles of the bike course were hilly but I felt steady and strong. Without a Garmin or bike computer I had no idea how fast I was going. I also had no idea where I was in the race, but when I cruised back into transition I was pretty sure I had finished the course in under an hour.

Off to the run with (thankfully) overcast skies. But it was still warm. And it was still a run. And without many bricks under my belt this training session (two if you count last weekend’s race) my legs felt as if they had no pop. Zero. Zilch. Just keep turning the legs over and get to the finish line. That’s all I could do. Well that, and smile. I forced a smile but then it came naturally and before I knew it, I was in the last mile.

The longest mile. Ever.

I am stronger than I think.

I am stronger than I think.

But about 150 meters from the finish line I saw Corey and Marie. And then I saw the finish line. I crossed feeling spent and strong at the same time. I went back to see my friends and cheer in Mary and Sue, both of whom had fantastic races. We ate ice cream and talked with other friends who seemed to be at every corner we turned. Musselman is truly a love fest and the community that comes here is like one big fraternity/sorority. Both in good and bad. By the time we left Seneca Lake State Park we already knew what would be made official hours later — a cyclist on the bike course hit a parked car in the shoulder, went through the rear windshield and did not survive his injuries. It was tragic and gut wrenching made easier to deal with thanks to that loving, laughing, accepting community of Musselman Weekend.

I ended up with a personal best on the mini-Mussel course. I made new friends and shared my love of the event and the town of Geneva with one of my best friends.

And that is largely what this weekend is about. It is about challenging yourself and facing fears. It is about pain and smiles. Competition and camaraderie. Tragedy and triumph. It is about embracing whatever comes your way in that particular moment — good, bad or indifferent — and trusting that somehow it’s all part of the plan.


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