May 22, 2011
Memphis in May
A few days before Memphis in May (MIM), I questioned whether the race would take place. The week before I saw what New Orleans looked like from the flooded Mississippi River. And lots of water flowed from Tennessee and above. Memphis and northern Mississippi got all the river water the upper Midwest sent down plus four significant rain falls during stormy weather that included a recorded number of tornados. Flooding along the Mississippi River continued as a lead topic in daily news. The Harrah’s Veranda hotel confirmed they were open for business but the flooding kept customers from coming to the casinos. With the lack of customers, the slot machines went quiet and dark. There was more rain on Saturday when I flew in. And more rain on Sunday, yet the race was still a go. Then came thunder and lightning.
Geography changed in the Mississippi River Valley in the spring of 2011. Heavy rains and tornados pounded Mississippi along with other southern and Midwestern states in three separate major storms over the last two weeks of April. All of this, combined with a heavy snow melt from the Dakotas and Minnesota, created a “500-year flood”.
However, the rain, tornados, and floods did not change where Memphis was located. That was handled by the race director. He decided to move the “Memphis in May” triathlon to Mississippi for the 2011 version. One more rain storm may have floated the entire city of Memphis down river but for now, the only thing that changed locations was the race.
The MIM Tri was held in Tunica County 30 minutes downstream from the City of Memphis proper from its previous location at Edmund Orgill Park in Millington Tennessee, a north side suburb of Memphis. MIM also joined the 5150 ™ Triathlon Series as the fourth stop during its inaugural year.
When flying into Memphis on Saturday morning the landscape looked more like Lake Mississippi instead of the Mississippi River. Hell, the river looked like one excessively wide and overly long lake size wise from the air. The mighty Mississippi with its expanded width, and long sweeping river bends could have passed for a finger lake instead of Ole Man River. When flying in and out of Memphis and looking at the geography, someone could have suggested the farmers change their crops to fish from agriculture.
Memphis is known for great barbecue, music, and Graceland. And because I was in Memphis, before I pulled out of the rental car lot at the airport, tuned into the King’s dedicated music station on satellite radio. Elvis did record some great music. I was amazed I sounded like him when singing in the car to his songs with no one else around. I was nothing but a hound dog except when I became a hunk, a hunk of burning love.
With me focused on triathlons, I always thought Memphis in May belonged solely to the race. Turned out the Memphis in May Festival was a full celebration of Memphis for the entire month of May, just not the one weekend of races during the month. Also, one week out of the month-long the Festival was designated as ‘International Week’ with a new country selected each year. Festival organizers wanted local students to be exposed to multiple countries’ customs, food, and cultures by the time they graduated high school. Belgium was the featured country for the 2011 version of Memphis in May. I also experienced a pleasant flashback and remembered the theme country was Turkey when competing in my first MIM in 2008. At times on my journey, it felt like being in a geographical triathlon emersion program. Learned about local topography, customs on racing gear, local post-race food favorites, and regional race leaders. Left races with shirts that reminded of all the differences in the states and countries I competed in.
When I checked in to the hotel, bikes and triathletes filled the lobby. People stood in line to check-in. Other people waited in line to catch an elevator to their assigned room. Other triathletes headed out for a midday ride to scout out the bike route. Still other athletes returned from a shake down ride to ensure their bikes were race ready. Wet bike wheels rolled across the wood floors, combined with wet shoes, and wet luggage created standing indoor puddles of water. The staff worked diligently to keep everything dry. With the amount of traffic going through the lobby, their efforts were a lost cause.
Dining options were limited. I ordered room service opting for the too large pizza. Then waited impatiently 75 minutes. To pass some time, headed downstairs to the hotel sponsored pre-race Saturday night beer party. Only a handful of guests drank beer and fewer people stayed up late. I expected a few more party goers since 400 athletes competed in the sprint race earlier in the morning but with over 800 triathletes expected the next day, attendance from that crew would be light. Great idea. Poor timing. Over 100 serious elite triathletes traveled to a rural northwest corner of Mississippi in May to race, at least the night before race day. The next day may be different outcome for attendees and servers as more people will celebrate after a race when beer is served for free.
If triathletes chose hotels for race convenience, then the Harrah’s Veranda Hotel would be everyone’s choice. The transition area was set-up beside the Veranda. The swim start was right behind the hotel. Once the transition opened up Sunday morning rolled out of bed and into the race area. Racked my bike and laid out my bike and run equipment. It was great. Instead of lying out on the ground, laid back on my own soft bed. Instead of waiting in the porta potty line, stepped into my own restroom. From the hotel room window I overlooked swim course. As I left my room to head outside to warm up for the race, one of the pro triathletes quickly walked down the hallway. Unabashedly in a New Zealand accent he asked everyone he saw if anyone had an extra swim skin he could barrow. The zipper blew out on his suit. Not sure if he found one or if he swam in a back-up suit. Looking at the results afterwards, he found some speed to do pretty well in the race.
The rain started with a light drizzle when I stepped outside and started my warm-up. The rain came down harder when putting on my wetsuit. The Memphis in May race continued as a time trial start at its new location. This was the same format as we competed in three years earlier at MIM. A wave start would’ve overwhelmed the lake at its narrow points for the 800+ size of the field. As I joined the snaking line with the other male 50-54 age-group triathletes to the starting point we saw lightning then heard thunder. Still, we slowly shuffled to the lake as competitors took off into the water at three second intervals. As soon as one racer entered the lake to start his race, the next triathlete in line stepped forward for the signal to go. The starter’s instructions were simple. Enter the water three seconds apart. Count ‘One Mississippi’, ‘Two Mississippi’, ‘Three Mississippi. Everyone got it.
The lightning continued. Everyone in front of me went off without hesitation. Crazy. Not sure why no one stepped out of line. As a kid swam at an outdoor public pool, the lifeguards always cleared the pool at the first sound of thunder or sight of lightning. Later though, when I swam masters swimming outdoors year-round, the coach shorten the interval, or rest at the wall when a summer thunderstorm came through the Valley of the Sun during the monsoon season. He would order us out of the water when the lifeguards looked more worried about getting fired for lack of enforcement than one of the swimmers being electrocuted in the pool.
Never thought not to jump in and swim. Hell, I PR’d in a nasty thunderstorm when running a 1500 Meter Run in metal spikes at a night track meet. The sky lit up like daylight followed almost immediately with a loud thunder crack. Scared shitless but knowing I was having a good race, took off for the finish line covering the last 300 meters in 45 seconds.
When I stepped up to be next in the water, mentally thought: ‘One Mississippi’, ‘two Mississippi’, ‘three Mississippi’. Then took a couple of steps and dove into a skinny unnamed lake. The lake water was spring fed and clean but with so much rain and the churning from all the triathletes already in the water it was difficult to see anything underwater.
Swam north along the long side of a rectangle shaped course for 500 meters. We turned right at a buoy for 200 meters, then turned right back towards the start, then turned left into a narrow canal for the final few hundred meters to exit near the transition area on the other side of the Veranda Hotel.
The rain came down harder after I stepped out of the water 23 minutes later. Came out of the water in 3rd place with a quick transition. And then we rode in the rain and lightning.
The bike course was flat, smooth, wet, slick, and fast. The water hit us harder as we sliced through a curtain of raindrops. Much of the bike leg took place on the Old Highway 61. Its historic nickname was the "Blues Highway". An urban legend story stated many famous “Blues” musicians such as Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and B.B. King traveled north out of the Mississippi Delta on US Highway 61 to Memphis and right down to Beale Street to play and record their songs. And a few hundred miles up-river, Highway 61 was part of my daily commute between work and the townhouse I rented out.
After a few short twisty-turny maneuvers, we turned right heading south onto Old US Highway 61 and right by the tall Harrah’s Water Tower. Its white colored blended into the rain and clouds so it looked like a blue logo’d fishing bobber in a flat and flooded Mississippi Delta. The road was closed to vehicular traffic. Each trailing bike stayed close enough to know when to turn on the counter-clockwise course through the Mississippi countryside. Lucky for us most of the racers tucked in to stay aero while spraying up blinding rooster tails from the slick and tread-less tires of some aggressively piloted fast bikes. Dropped to 8th place getting unceremoniously roster tailed by my peer group. Felt the Memphis in May in Mississippi was held in one of nature’s newest swamps in the south.
For the run leg, we exited the transition area at the same point as the bike exit. If we raced anywhere other than in the Mississippi River Delta area, the course would be considered flat. We run over a quarter mile incline over the parkway going straight at the Harrah's Casino. We continued around its imposing water fountain in front of the Casino and retraced our steps but turned right on to the levee gravel road for another quarter mile down a service road to Southern Celebration Boulevard. We ran through a short tunnel of an overpass, then into the limo parking lot, and turned left onto Old Highway 61. The course was flat, wet, and fast. We could now spot any close competition in front of us as the leaders doubled back at 180 degree turnaround. Recognized Ron Gierut as the same guy who won our age group when racing at MIM in 2008. Trailed him all the way back towards the Convention Center, onto the host hotel, beyond the swim start and finally at the finish line located next to the swimming pool.
Near the end of the run passed race acquaintance, George Van Meter. He aged up since I met him two years before in Alabama at the USAT national Age Group Championships when we ran head-to-head in the same age-group. We talked briefly between our gasps for air near the finish line. He was using MIM as a warm up race for Ironman Brazil the following weekend. It must have worked out fine, as George qualified for Kona there.
I closed in on the finish line and picked up my pace. I out swam Ron. But he crushed me on the bike leaving me in his rooster tail somewhere out on Old US Highway 61. I clawed back all but 17 seconds on the run. Three years earlier at the same MIM race but in the old locale, he easily beat me by 3:15.
Competing in the rain can be miserable. Being a volunteer in the rain will always be miserable. But the MIM volunteers were great during the whole race. They performed their responsibilities in soaking wet clothes. They cheered every competitor on at the aid stations, road crossovers, and turnaround points. They energized us on with high fives! They kept us motivated to keep running. The volunteers flashed us sincere smiles to celebrate our effort every step of the way. They provided encouragement to keep us determined to finish. In hindsight, we competitors should have thanked the volunteers more for serving up drinks, food, and everything else they provided to us. They endured continuous downpours, lightening, and crazy triathletes who competed out in the middle of nowhere under flooding conditions. The volunteers showed more determination to serve the triathletes than almost any other volunteer activity they took on before. Thank you volunteers. You were awesome!
MIM again provided a great post-race celebration, better than when racing in 2008. The celebration took place in a large tent protecting us from the rainy weather. We dined on great tasting barbecue prepared on site by the Harrah’s cooking staff. And as expected, Elvis showed up after the race to entertain us in the tent.
The Veranda Hotel staff of servers from Harrah’s offered up great southern hospitality. Both in friendly service and the food prepared by the cooks and servers. They provided a delicious spread of food, especially the smoked barbecue meat selection. I also received some inside help from the mailroom staff to get my bike shipped off to the next race in Oklahoma. An employee helped work with me to print off the shipping label to attach to my bike case for its journey to Oklahoma City. She helped me get the bike packed up, labeled, and shipped out the next day. What was such an easy process at the carrier’s retail offices, always turned into something much more difficult at home or a hotel.
During the post-race celebration sat at a table with a woman who competed in the race. Her husband ran marathons. He qualified for Boston. She worked at NASA. She attended many space shuttle lift-offs at Cape Canaveral. Shared with her my awesome experience of watching, then hearing it 30 seconds later and then getting hit with the shock wave of the rocket thrust of the Columbia shuttle take off in the spring of 1994. We both agreed every American should witness a rocket take-off sometime in their life. We talked about the pending launch would be the last one in the NASA’s Space Shuttle program. She said NASA initially planned for a 4th of July launch date as a symbolic gesture of celebrating the birth of our country. Unfortunately, since the second to last launch was delayed, NASA pushed out the final flight of Atlantis and the entire program to July 8th.
On the way back to the Memphis International Airport I drove by Graceland, Elvis Presley’s house. I wanted to take a tour but missed the cut-off for the day. The same thing occurred when in Memphis back in 2008 for that year’s version of MIM. At least he came to the race as a spectator this year. He raced back in 2008. I figured the older Elvis was out of shape this year.
On our flight out Memphis the sun shone at an angle that reflected off the at least twice as wide from normal Mississippi River looking like a science fiction laser death ray. The residents were resilient. In time, they would rally and recover from a “500-year flood” in the Valley. Some outsiders may think that was stranger than fiction but never discount the motivation of people’s will to live and thrive in what they call home.
Results: 58th overall. 2nd in age group.