the power of the seaweedy subconscious
When you’re out on a triathlon course for six hours swimming, biking and running there’s a hypnotic amount of time to ruminate about all sorts of things. For example, during the swim component of a triathlon all it takes is a solid kick to the face to conjure a moment of clarity from the fathoms of one’s seaweedy subconscious. I’ve come to all kinds of conclusions about all kinds of things–but during this course, specifically, I decided: I really don’t want to work anymore. As a point of clarification, I don’t want to report to a job worrying about how many days of vacation I have left for the remainder of the year. I want to sleep-in more. I want my day to slowly unfold. I want to work on my dumb projects. I want to use more than 3% of my capabilities.
As I get older I feel like material things mean less and less. I don’t need or want more stuff. (As a triathlete I understand the paradox of this statement.) More and more I most value time and what I do with my time. Creating experiences. Traveling. Making things. Writing. Enjoying small victories and life’s small pleasures.
most all of my not-being-at-work-time is usurped by constant training so there’s plenty of opportunities on long runs or rides to dream up all sorts of possible trajectories. Taking action and actually implementing any sort of plan is another story. Much like my efforts to succeed as an amateur runner and triathlete, I find myself wanting to push myself out of my comfort zone and do something I haven’t done before. Maybe open a restaurant? Start a gender-neutral clothing line constructed out of recycled textiles? Finally finish writing that musical I’ve been talking about for five years?
Of course, nothing is happening until after my Ironman in Europe is behind me.
this is what happens when I open my big, fat fucking mouth
About four months ago I headed out for my first out-of-doors training ride. For some reason I didn’t have a great feeling about it but suited up anyway. Not even ten feet from my doorstep the free-wheel component of my rear wheel broke just after clicking into my bike. Upon the initial down pedal there was an unexpected lack of resistance resulting in my foot snapping quickly to the ground–significantly tweaking my back. This was exactly 12 hours after bragging about my amazing new triathlon coach. This is why I can’t have nice things.
2015 was a great year for me as I managed to stave off any injuries while simultaneously PR’ing just about every distance I competed in. I’d brag further about certain accomplishments but at this point I can’t afford to have anything else go wrong.
2016 isn’t going so well. The back issue I’m currently having is a little different than in previous years. In the past I would typically experience “an episode” followed by a 2-3 weeks of aggravation and then things would resolve just as quickly as they came. This problem is different. Chronic, lingering acute pain. My MRI suggests that I have some arthritis and some disc degeneration–a very slight bulge, but nothing serious or significant in terms of structural integrity making all of this that much more frustrating. When I had a 2nd opinion/reading on the MRI the doctor kept repeating, “Well, you know, for your age… blah blah blah and for your age… blah blah blah.” I interrupted, “You know, man, you never think you are going to hear those words, ‘for your age…’, but it really stings when you finally do.”
Unfortunately, nothing is working and no concrete diagnosis with any modicum of specificity has been made. Yes, core. Yes, yoga. Yes to all of those things. I’ve seen four doctors, my amazing PT and I’ve even tried acupuncture. It’s tough to mention publicly because everyone has an opinion on what I need to do (or not do). It’s not that I don’t greatly appreciate the help or advice, it’s just… if a fleet of medical personnel can’t figure this out I don’t think anyone can.
I’ll stop whining, but it’s been a major road block in my training and ability to handle the load both mentally and physically. It’s difficult to feel confident and strong when I am constantly doing damage control after a long run or ride. After this past weekend’s warm-up race in Geneva, New York I am extremely worried about being able to finish a full Ironman with just six weeks of training left to go.
I chose Musselman 70.3 as my warm-up race because it filled all of the right criteria: geographically located within a reasonable distance, fell within the six to eight week time-frame leading up to my full Ironman and most importantly, had a punny name. Seneca Lake is one of eleven Finger Lakes in upstate New York (and one of the few Finger Lakes pronounced as you would expect) and is anchored by the charming town of Geneva. As one might suspect from the name of the race, mussels are prevalent in the waters–but only by accident.
The Zebra Mussel is a species of mussels native to the Baltic and Caspian Sea. It’s widespread invasive distribution can now be found in Great Britain, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Sweden and throughout the United States from the Mississippi to the Hudson Valley. With few predators the mussels have taken over other bottom feeders consuming necessary algae and nutrients required by native species and fish. On the plus side, they are efficient at removing toxins from the water — so don’t eat a Zebra Mussel. And don’t step on one as they are prone to cutting feet. In the spirit of embracing what one (ostensibly) can’t change, the race organizers made pun use of their situation to name this 70.3.
My first stop was picking up my credentials and packet for the race and attending a mandatory race meeting. I always think a course run-down is a good thing to be privy to especially since “mandatory” actually means “suggested”. My second stop was to scope out the transition area and swim course.
Essentially, in the bathroom there was a sign explaining both where to find the poo-pourri and how to use the poo-pourri. (Pro tip: spray it in the toilet before.)
Whoa! What the hell!? So I knew that the swim was a loop concluding in a channel/boat dock. What I did not know was the abundance of seaweed that would be present in said channel/boat dock. It’s a little difficult to explain the nerves one might feel about an open water swim with hundreds of other athletes kicking you in the face (thereby inciting all kinds of poignant life strategies)–but to add onto the anxiety plate an extra helping of seaweed, that’s crazy-time. I am very happy I took the time to know what was in my future because this could’ve been a really shocking discovery.
I also took a moment to add my name to the “Wall of Mussel”, a retaining wall in the town of Geneva showcasing the hometown pride for Musselman.
Rather than renting an entire place for barely 24 hours of accommodations, I rented a single room via Airbnb, i.e. the home-owner, Jean, lived in the house. Jean’s home was very charming and exactly what I think of when I imagine the general aesthetic of Upstate New York. (Lots of rustic colonial Americana.) She was a great host and was extremely concerned about making sure I had all the quiet I needed for a good night’s sleep. I tried to explain that no set of circumstances could guarantee I would get a good night’s sleep. She also tried to feed me as much as possible–it was a little like staying at my Mom’s. I do have to mention the poo-pourri because I thought it was kind of funny. Essentially, in the bathroom there was a sign explaining both where to find the poo-pourri and how to use the poo-pourri. (Pro tip: spray it in the toilet before.)
I studied my tri-coach’s detailed race plan for my day ahead and dozed off.
looks like perfect conditions for a race
I slept on and off, but feel like I had a reasonable amount of REM sleep before the alarm went off at 4:45 AM. I packed the tri-mobile the night before so my morning prep was limited to that of toasting a gluten-free bagel and activating the Keurig.
My back felt loose as I trudged my bike and gear to the transition area. I had previously made a mental note of my spot so I didn’t have to deal with trying to find my corresponding number amongst the throngs of athletes and bikes.
Body marking is part of the triathlon experience that takes place at every race, big or small. Triathlete’s race numbers are “marked” on their bicep and calf with a Sharpie. (Fancier races will have temporary tattoos.) The athlete’s age is also recorded on the opposite calf. When the volunteer marking me asked my age, I honestly couldn’t think of how old I was. I had to do math. Damn, am I really 44? It’s kind of interesting because during the race you get to see how old everyone is by virtue of it being openly displayed. But age is deceiving–some 38 year old guys look like they are 52, and some guys that are 48 look like they are in their 30’s. Can you imagine if we had to wear our age on our sleeves on a daily basis? That would be terrible.
High of 68°F. Water temps 73°F. Calm waters in what is normally a choppy lake. Cloud cover all day. The race announcer assured us this was going to be a perfect, perfect race day.
I set up my area and remarkably did not forget a single thing. I put on my wetsuit and headed to the swim start to get acclimated to the water. Swim conditions are seldom mentioned in race reports. Maybe this is typical because a body of water is just a mechanism for which to be able to swim a few miles. It’s not like I’m expecting, “OK, first you’re going to swim through a tube that’s going to shoot you out into a river rapid, from there you’ll go down a super steep water slide into a hot tub full of San Pellegrino…” But, I personally want to know things like, is the water choppy? Is it shallow? Is it full of fucking seaweed?
I present to you my detailed account of Lake Seneca. I mean Seneca Lake:
First, the initial part of the beach is laden with sharp mussels and rocks but then transitions to sand. It’s initially very, very shallow. The first wave of athletes walked at least 50 yards before swimming because it was just too shallow to swim–knee deep at best. Some people walked for 100 yards before plunging in. As the depth increased so did the seaweed. (Lakeweed?) The water was clear enough that it kind of felt like free diving… I tried to imagine I was swimming in a coral reef which actually made me pretty relaxed. Finally the depth dropped off into deep water and that’s when that thing in my head went off… Exit! Exit! Exit! I know there must be some weird thing buried within our DNA that sends all kinds of messages to our brain to stop… doing that thing that is going to kill you. Obviously I ignored the message and got on with it. I made it to the first turn and started to cross over. For me, it’s all about getting to the next turn and once I’ve done that I know I’m golden. I actually sighted this swim well only really getting off track just a tiny bit once. I also made some advancements such as boldly taking the inside track, instead of the safety of a longer, less traveled path, and I even drafted (swimming on the heels of another swimmer). As the swim concluded in the channel the seaweed wasn’t that bad, actually. It was just really weird having lakeweed all up in my face.
I beat my previous 70.3 swim time so I was feeling pretty good. My back felt pretty good. Onward!
One day while I was stretching on her floor she said, “You know… you’re really a professional athlete at this point.” It was the most mom thing a mom could say other than don’t forget to use the poo-pourri.
My T1 time sucked. I forgot to unzip my wetsuit getting out of the water so I was grappling with stripping down. It was also pretty cool so the wet chill had my fingers slightly numb. I had my nutrition semi-planned out (GU blocks, rice potato cakes, Scratch hydration, salt tabs) but for some reason forgot to consume anything before getting on the bike. I stuffed the back of my tri-top and was off.
Damnit! Just before exiting the transition area I realized I forgot my sunglasses. +1 minute.
I started strong on the bike and was feeling super confident
crushing doing better than my pokey average pace. I didn’t feel like I was over-exerting my perceived effort — everything was just clicking. Some things I need to work on, fueling without stopping. I need to figure this out because I realized 20 miles had passed and I hadn’t hydrated or fueled much. I finally stopped to spastically eat a potato-rice cake but somehow got a piece of something lodged in the back of my throat. For three miles I was coughing and choking on carbohydrates. My eyes were tearing up and I had snot dripping all over the place… it was terrible.
And then… a giant squall line of storms rolled through, each one crazier than the last.
I once read that there is no such thing as a perfect race day–something will always go wrong but it’s how you cope and handle the imperfections that determines the outcome of your race. The way I handled the imperfections of riding in a downpour of rain with 20 mph+ gusts of wind was to loudly scream into the piercing daggers of rain, “What the fuck is this shit?!” Cameras, GoPros and smart phones are forbidden on a triathlon course–but I so badly wished I could’ve somehow shared the experience of riding 36 miles in torrential rain with gail force winds. Words are failing me, but it was one of the toughest bikes of my life. The course itself was not tough. The weather–which everyone was subjected to-made easy descents figurative ascents. It was emphatically uphills both ways.
The last few miles cleared up and I could hear a woman’s voice from behind me say, “keep it up you’re doing great!” Because everyone is branded with their age I couldn’t help notice that she was 60. 60!!! Not a few minutes later I heard a creaky 10-speed frame from 1986 zip by… dude was 68! How awesome is that? I was just happy that I was able to pass a legit Amish horse and buggy. Not to downplay age-groupers getting it done, but my bike still sucks. Not my actual bike, my ability to ride a bike. Or maybe my bike sucks, too. There is something I’m still not getting. If one were to look at my times from this race they would be mystified why I had a 3:30 bike time, but then averaged a 8:05 pace run. “Did he flat four times?” The muscle is there–somehow I’m not engaging it. Clearly, I still don’t know what I am doing. [Side note: my coach’s tri plan was to stay within certain HR zones during specific parts of the course… sadly, my HR monitor died about 10 miles into the ride.]
I was very, very happy to get off the bike. My back was tight. My ass was killing me. I kept thinking, “How in the hell am I going to survive twice this distance?!” When I returned from the ride I could barely walk my bike, much less run to the transition area. I really wasn’t sure if I would be able to complete the last leg. My T2 time was off the charts… I joked to some people around me, “Anyone want an omelette?” No one thought it was funny. I peed. +2 minutes. I stretched myself out. +5 minutes. And then somehow managed to shuffle out of transition. +2 minutes.
The path leading out of transition ended with an option to go left or right. To the right was a banner that read FINISH. So logically, I ran to the left. “Why am I not seeing any runners, am I that far behind?” I stopped and there was a guy behind me. “Is this the right way?,” I asked.
“I don’t know… I was following you.” D’oh! What the shit, man! No one should ever follow me.
I peeled off in the opposite direction and I could hear the guy behind me say, “don’t stress, keep your pace!”
Despite running an extra half mile, I aced the run which was a very challenging course–probably the toughest half-marathon I’ve ever run. I managed to run the whole course not having to stop or walk even up some of the tougher gravel “roads”. I sprinted out the finish but felt a little defeated knowing every time my watch beeped I should’ve been a 1/2 mile closer to the finish. Is it me? Can I not follow signs?
After crossing the finish line I found an ice bath knowing I was in for some pain. Fellow ice bathers shared their race stories and a woman commented on my red toe nails to which I replied, “Well, if you’re going to shave your legs, you might as well go the whole way.” Finally, a laugh. I mentioned running an extra half mile and one of the gentleman said, “That happened to me too!”
I stretched out on the grass before gathering my crap. I didn’t stay for the festivities… I was tired and I didn’t really have the race I wanted. I was hoping to PR and get under six hours which I really should’ve been able to accomplish at this point.
on the bright side
Jean was gracious to give me a late check-out so I could stretch, spray some poo-pourri and shower before my long drive home.
But, my head was… is full of worry. On the one hand I was able to complete this half–my warm-up/test race. But I didn’t feel like I owned this 70.3 like I owned my half from last year. Because of my back issues and related setbacks, I feel like I am behind. I am doubting my ability to do this. I think if I was stronger on the bike, even just a little stronger… I might have a shot. Having to spend so much time getting my back to cooperate… I just don’t know.
On the bright side, I fueled and hydrated well during the race avoiding any cramping. Additionally, I maintained solid energy throughout the race with negative splits on the run. So there’s that.
my mom thinks I’m a professional athlete
My mom’s husband passed away from cancer this past May. I went to visit her and during my stay found time for some workouts–a few light swims and runs. One day while I was stretching on her floor she said, “You know… you’re really a professional athlete at this point.” It was the most mom thing a mom could say other than don’t forget to use the poo-pourri. But it is interesting… this notion of perspective about what people do, how they’re perceived and how people see themselves. Most of my friends are athletes and if I had to rank my abilities to theirs I would put myself on the very bottom. I am most certainly nowhere near the strata of my peers much less a professional athlete.
I love the sport. I love my coach. I love the journey… but ultimately, my back is what it is. And as one doctor said, “For your age…”
Maybe 2015 was my year.
But then again who knows–maybe in 2040 I’ll be that guy who’s 68 passing the guy that’s 44 (but looks 36).