In 2007 I raced the Musselman Sprint as one of my first triathlons after graduating from Rochester. At the time, I was teaching summer school in Philly as part of Teach For America, and I remember that weekend in the Finger Lakes being a much welcomed respite from the horror that was teaching in an inner-city school during a heat-wave – with no air conditioning. I recall thinking at the time that doing the half there would be awesome, since it was a great course and was so well run. On top of a few injuries that followed that summer, I didn’t have time to really train while teaching and going to grad school during the subsequent 2 years, so a serious assault on triathlon didn’t really happen, and it wasn’t really until the summer of 2010 when I was working at University of Michigan that I was able to find a good balance between work and training again, but I still had a few nagging injuries along with a few random ones. 2011 I couldn’t swim because of the whole ‘you’re-going-to-have-your-finger-amputated-scenario,’ for a few months– and training was still limited at best on the whole.
So fast forward to last year, 2012, I’m pretty much in one piece, can actually balance work and training for the first time, and am ready to finally delve into the long course world. I had one massive disaster at Vineman (2 flats plus mega bonk), and one massive surprise (overall victory at MightyMan Montauk). Following those two races, I was hooked and had identified two primary goals for 2013: Qualify for Kona at Eagleman, and throw down a fast time at Pumpkinman in the fall. Eagleman obviously didn’t work out, as I didn’t follow my nutrition plan and paid for it big time, despite perfect pacing on the bike and first 10 miles of the run. Eagleman left a bad taste in my mouth, and I knew I needed a mid-summer goal to work towards. I was lucky that my friend Jen had picked Musselman as her first half, and it reminded me of how much I’ve always wanted to do that race. Fortunately it fit well for Carolyn and I, and we were lucky enough to sign up with just a few spots left before it closed.
Because we all signed up so late, there were limited lodging options nearby, and so we were stuck camping at Cayuga Lake State Park, which was about 30 minutes east of the race. I’ve camped a few times before races – once in Vermont and once in Maine – and both instances were actually pretty pleasant. Small, quiet, wooded campsites with limited neighbors and perfect sleeping temperatures. Cayuga afforded none of that. I’ve spent probably 300 nights camping in my life, and this was easily one of the least pleasant. We were in a field of poison ivy, densely inhabited by more mosquitos and white trash per square inch than a NASCAR race in a swamp. Needless to say, there was music blasting, bros chanting, fireworks exploding and drunk laughter reverberating in our ear drums until well past 2:30 (despite several attempts from both Carolyn and I to ask folks to quiet down). I was kicking myself for not accepting Skip’s offer to stay in Syracuse for both Friday and Saturday night. As I laid awake sweating and waiting for the insanity to end, what could have been a quiet night followed by an easy 75 minute drive suddenly didn’t seem so inconvenient. That lasted at least until 2:44 am, the last I checked my watch.
Shortly thereafter, at 4am, the 15 alarms we set startled me awake. I must have finally dozed off, but the only thing those 76 minutes managed to accomplish was to make me more sleepy. I grumpily got up, made oatmeal and coffee, packed up the car and talked very loudly with Carolyn, Fourth Chris, and Jen – hoping to disturb as many people as possible.
Somehow we miscalculated the time we’d need in the morning, and all of a sudden we only had 20 minutes to warm up, use the bathroom, and put on our wetsuits before the gun went off. Somehow we managed to pull it off and made it out to the swim start with a few seconds to spare. The gun went off and I dolphin dove for probably 200m and got a huge gap on the field. I was up against the buoy line, and was able to breathe right and check for the rest of the field. No one. I rounded the first bouy at maybe 400m and noticed there were at least two guys swimming 50-60m up. WTF. WHERE DID THEY COME FROM? Mystery #1. My best guess is that they turned left at the first instead of the second buoy. Shortly thereafter I got caught by a pack of maybe 5-6 guys. I was having trouble hanging and was feeling really, really sleepy (same thing happened at Buffalo two years ago after not sleeping at all before the race). Weird, apparently if I don’t sleep I feel sleepy. Mid-way through the swim I was alone and pretty far back of the leaders. I was battling the seaweed monsters that were trying to pull me down to the depths of the lake, and I wasn’t really fighting too hard back. A nap amongst the tentacles of seaweed seemed so inviting.
Out of the swim, I asked a few people what place I was in, but no one knew. Coming into transition, one guy responded ‘you’re at least 20th, maybe 30th’. BLABLAM punch to the gut. NOT what I was expecting. In hindsight, I should have known better, but at the time – already feeling sad about my swim – I believed it. Onto the bike I saw two guys up ahead and reeled them in within the first 5 miles. After that though, there was nothing. I couldn’t see anyone, and it was just me against the wind, false flats and long sustained climbs. None were particularly steep, but combined with the wind I was only going like 20mph on 280 watts. I was feeling pretty frustrated that I was riding so hard and not catching anyone, despite there supposedly being 20+ dudes in front of me. My hip was also bothering me from the crash last week, and I was wondering if I was even going to be able to finish the bike. For the bulk of the bike I was pretty lonely and not very motivated. I was still averaging 260w, so not terrible, but I just wasn’t aggressive since I felt like I was completely and utterly out of contention.
At mile 35 though I saw Carolyn’s parents, and they told me I was in 7th, only 6 minutes back. I figured they must have miscounted though and so their time estimate was also off – I thought I was probably like 30 minutes back and still in 20th. I was extremely hot, tired, and uncomfortable. I was having trouble staying in aero because my back hurt from sleeping on the ground, so I was standing and sitting up a lot – despite knowing I was giving up tons of free speed. Around mile 40 I heard two separate spectators say that I was in 7th and 5-6 minutes back. OH SHIT, I’m still in this. Also, why did that guy lie to me? Mystery #2. At anyrate, that was the boost I needed. I blasted the surprise Paris-Roubaix portion of the course (the 5 mile segment through the park that plays loose and fast with the definition of pavement), and kept the pace high all the way to finish.
Starting the run, I got a time split that I was now only 4 minutes back and still in 7th. I beat one guy out of transition, and could see two more in front of me. Top 5 was within reach (my pre-race goal), and a podium spot was possible. I figured there were two guys in front of me that I really had to worry about. Doug Maclean, a pro who Skinny Chris had told me was really legit, and former d3 stud and collegiate rival Matt Migonis, who in the past was capable of putting 1-2 minutes into me in a 10k. Before the start, he’d told me that he’d spent the better part of the last year injured and barely able to run, so I figured I might be able to outrun him for the first time in the history of running. With some quick math I figured I’d just shoot for 1:20, or at least run that pace until I’d moved all the way up.
Unfortunately for Matt, he twisted his ankle early on and had to drop out. He told me that I was looking the best of anyone, and that I could win. That fired me up a lot, and I picked up the pace from steady to full-on-unreasonable. I had my running legs for the first time in ages, and I was moving pretty good, and reeling guys in. The gap was dropping – 3:30, 2:50, 2:30, 1:55, 1:25 and I was feeling good. (thanks to Mary Eggers and the aid station volunteers for the splits). By the top of purgatory hill around mile 7 or 8 (a long sustained dirt road climb baking in the sun), I’d moved into 2nd place. Came through mile 8 in around 47:20 – 5:55’s. At the top of the hill I did a quick check as I saw Doug turn right – 25 seconds up the road. I started to taste it. I wanted to win.
Coming down the steep downhill shortly thereafter though, I was pushing hard, and my hamstring locked up. Not a twinge, not a cramp. Full on lock-down mode. The aggressive (read: out of control) early pace caught up to me. I’d nailed nutrition and hydration – this was just straight up overexertion. I stopped completely. I couldn’t even walk. WTF. A few spectators asked if I was ok, and encouraged me to ‘just keep going’. If only it was that easy. I tried massaging it, but it freaked out more. I tried walking slowly. Freaked out more. Tried jogging. EXTREME freakout. I tried to stay calm, but I saw the potential win, the podium, top 5, top 10, finishing slowly slipping away. Finally after covering about 50 feet in 4 minutes, it released a bit. It was still really tight and felt tender, but I was able to slowly start shuffling again. At the top of the next hill, I saw Carolyn’s parents for the first time on the run, and they told me I was “only” 3:55 back (not having known how close I’d been). That was a blow I didn’t want to hear. I tried to stay positive. I knew the same thing could happen to Doug – these races can change in the blink of an eye – so once I felt like the leg was ok – I started pushing again and ran fairly hard to the finish. I couldn’t go back to beast-mode or the leg would have spazzed, but I was able to keep a solid turnover and was firmly in 2nd. I crossed the line, congratulated Doug, swapped horror stories, and agreed that the wind, heat (mid 90’s by the start of the run), and course made for a tough day.
The race itself was great. Fantastic volunteers, the best aid-stations I’ve seen, and a challenging, fair course. But the post race experience at Musselman was pretty epic. Tons of free stuff – free tshirts, flip flops, nalgenes, tons of fresh fruit and bbq, a solid prize purse and an efficient and smooth awards ceremony. One that every race could learn a thing or two from.
Despite being in the midst of a huge training block, and doing a hard running race last weekend, Carolyn ended up 3rd overall behind two very legit girls. Our friend Jen managed to win her age group in her first half – so it was a good day for our group. Jen and Carolyn had the two fastest run splits of the day, and only a few guys ran faster than them. Carolyn and I headed home feeling pleased with the effort, but not complacent, both knowing that we each wanted a bit more. Mostly I was surprised with the day. Long course is a funny animal. I felt terrible for the vast majority of the race, but because I never sat up completely on the swim or bike, I stayed in contention, and I was able to execute on the run – going from an also-ran to fighting for the W. That’s something I’ll definitely take with me in my races moving forward. It’s a long day, and lots can happen.
Overall the effort was bittersweet, and I felt like I was painstakingly close to a big breakthrough race. But it wasn’t to be. I have a few shorter things over the summer, and Pumpkinman will be my next half in early September. The next time I can make Musselman work with my schedule, I’ll be back. And it will hopefully be sooner than 6 years from now.