New York #19
July 19, 2009
Sometimes we go places based on a long-term goal set decades earlier by taking advantage of leveraging races with vacations to new destinations. On my 18th birthday over Christmas break, a high school classmate and I boarded the Silver Star Amtrak train in Orlando, Florida and headed north towards Newark, New Jersey. On the train we met Amy Gourley, another high schooler on Christmas break who was traveling with her parents and a younger sister back home to Skaneateles, New York. The town is located at the northern end of Skaneateles Lake in the eastern reaches of the Finger Lakes Region. With her outgoing personality Amy reminded me of Susan St. James in “McMillan and Wife”, an ABC television show from the mid-70’s. In her friendly and energetic voice she talked up the beauty of the lakes, mountains, forests, and region around her home town. We played cards into the evening then the four of us met the next morning in the diner car for breakfast. She planted a seed for me to visit the Finger Lakes Region. Almost 30 years went by. Then Newsweek magazine published a picture of a Skaneateles High School graduate doing a back flip off the downtown city pier into the lake. Though illegal, the law was mostly ignored for graduating seniors to continue the tradition. This reminder of Amy’s description of the area prompted me to do the New York race in the Finger Lake region.
The Empire State hosts some top notch triathlons including Ironman Lake Placid, the New York City Triathlon, the Mighty Hamptons Triathlon, and the Musselman Triathlon. I chose Musselman because of its location in the Finger Lakes Region and influenced by its race reviews describing it as fun, beautiful, challenging, and more. Some of the more included giving away bottles of local wines as age grouper awards.
Geneva served as the host city. It’s located at the north end of Seneca Lake in the heart of the Finger Lakes Region and New York’s wine country. Seneca Lake is the deepest and second largest of all the Finger Lakes. Because of its depth, the lake rarely freezes over in the winter and provides a thermal blanket for the area to grow grapes. Besides, the town where I live now was named after Geneva, New York. I could not pass up a bonding opportunity like this offered at Musselman.
The Musselman website included its sustainability statement: “We want the Musselman to live forever. Triathlon requires clean air to breathe and pristine water in which to swim, welcoming communities, and happy participants. With growing awareness of our impact on this earth, the Musselman Triathlon has made a commitment to responsible race production.” The race lived up to its statement, great reviews and more.
As a runner I enjoyed being comfortable. Steady workouts. Runners’ high. Familiar races. Known competition. Predictable times. I controlled almost everything but the weather. Comfort is one two types of experiences as argued by Tibor Scitovsky in “The Joyless Economy.” The other experience is pleasure. As a triathlete I progressed more as an athlete and as a person than labeling myself as a runner. Taking risks and performing in different races, especially performing well, gave me lots of pleasure. At the Musselman Triathlon I took the risk to go long in a high profile race. A race too that Jeff Henderson, the Race Director, puts on with such zeal each competitor was treated like a VIP customer. Musselman races were a great event to step out of your comfort zone and into the one Jeff provided with great pleasure.
At Musselman I met Jeff. He shouldn’t be an RD. He should be initiating world peace discussions. Jeff sent e-mails out to us before the race highlighting the who, what, where and how to get race ready especially for Musselman. All the items competitors expect to know before they arrive to the race. The information was detailed yet easy to read. He wrote Musselman would be the most important race we would complete in all year if not our entire racing career. Jeff described the race setting, the effort the race staff put forth to put on this edition of the Musselman being the best race ever. He kept us hungry for race day yet full of information to be ready. Each e-mail sent without too many cluttering the in-box. Each one sprinkled with his unique humor. Jeff was knowledgeable about what each racer wanted to know to relieve some of the stress that comes with triathlon competition. He shared the usual stuff then added Musselman signature items. Special things made the annual Musselman suite of races unique: handmade finisher’s medals, bamboo race shirts, combining teaching with physical fitness for kids, and whatever other surprise he decides to include. He made me want to ensure my training peaked for Musselman so I would not disappoint him for anything short of a personal record in my race performance there.
The mandatory pre-race meeting, registration check-in, and optional pre-race dinner were held on the campus of Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Geneva on Saturday. Every volunteer, every race work person, and everyone working on campus was supportive of Musselman. At the pre-race meeting Jeff kicked off the discussion and recognized his mother as the glue to the whole weekend of events. His emotions overflowed as he described in great appreciative detail what his mother did at and for everything that was Musselman. He then presented his mother with a huge bouquet of red roses that would rival the wreath Kentucky Derby Winners get awarded. As a son and father, I squirmed in my seat realizing how much I shortchanged in recognizing what my mother did for me and what Chris continues to do for our daughters.
Between getting race stuff picked up early and a great meal later, we went winery hopping Saturday afternoon along the east side of Seneca Lake to get a taste of the region. Chris did more tastings than I did. My hopping included mostly sitting outside the tasting rooms soaking up some of the most pleasant visual settings in America of rolling hills, deep blue water, rows of grape vines, and lake homes. Chris thought I was missing out on the wine tasting though I came to race first then relax and enjoy the fun afterwards. Our priorities differed but our understanding and respect of each other were the same.
Jeff took a lemon of a situation and made lemonade. Sweet and tart, fresh and tasty, sharp and safe. Musselman is a way at mocking the now legendary zebra mussels that migrated from the oceans through the St. Lawrence waterways to freshwater lakes throughout the east and into the Midwest. The mussels serve as huge filters by consuming algae and there by cleaning the lakes’ water to a depth of clearness not seen in years. The side effects are the shelled creatures have sharper edges than the razors in your shave kit. They cling to all things rocky. To maximize safety, Jeff made sure his race started in a sandy bottom area of Lake Seneca.
Over 700 people signed up for the Musselman half ironman distance triathlon. The distance of each discipline included a 1.2 mile swim, 56 miles of biking, and 13.1 miles of running. At stake were the usual bragging rights but this race also served as a supplemental qualifier to the World’s Long Distance Triathlon Championship race scheduled for Perth, Australia later in the fall. As always, I’m nervous of the pending race. I’m racing on only eight (8) days of rest since my first race of the season. This is also my first race of more than Olympic distance – a half ironman is 70 miles total compared to an Olympic distance race of 32 miles, over twice as long -- in three years. My training was all building in distance through June then switched to taper and speed workouts in July.
We arrived under cloudy skies to Seneca Lake State Park that served as the base and transition area at 6am for the 7am race start. Less time than my preference to get checked in, warmed up, and race ready. But the RD and all the volunteers continued their same outstanding efficiency on race day we experienced during registration. The flow of sign-up to participants’ meeting, to meal, to race day set-up went so smooth. I passed through body markings, race chip acquisition, and bike racking thinking something was wrong as it went too smoothly and quickly. I shared with Jeff afterward all other race directors should adopt his race formula.
I lined up in the 6th and final wave of the morning with New York, being #19 on my triathlon quest of doing a triathlon in each state. The race started in Seneca Lake with the course taking us into the Cayuga-Seneca canal that connects the same two named lakes at their northern ends. It’s a shallow water start on a sandy bottom. We swam three sides of a rectangle in a counterclockwise direction for 1000 meters then the remaining half mile in the canal. We enjoyed a mild current to the boat marina exit.
Then Jeff Henderson got personal in the transition. On the bike rack was a pre-printed sticker between the bike’s handlebars with a personalized message, “Good luck Dad! Love, Hayes & Caroline.” Those were not random names but those of my two daughters. What a surprise and nice touch. The bike leg got off to an excellent start.
The bike route took us over picturesque rolling hills from Seneca Lake to Lake Cayuga and back. Up and down. Never too steep, never flat enough. We played peek-a-poo in seeing the two lakes from low mountain peaks. Signs along the roads the entire way chronicled Revolutionary War hero General Sullivan and his army’s skirmishes which conquered thousands of unfriendly Iroquois in the area that supported the British. General Sullivan historic markers outnumbered mile markers along the course.
We raced over good road conditions. No pot holes. Minimal chip sealed surfaces. No sandy patches. However, a handful of spare inter tubes and sew-up tires were struned about the course. And I noticed a relatively new phenomenon to the road clutter, “triathlon tumbleweeds”. The mesh, no spill strainers that bounced out from the Profile Aero drink system bottles. I started seeing these during most races when biking. The debris field reduced the chance of getting lost on the bike courses.
About halfway through the bike leg I heard a distinct yet dreaded sound of a bike equipped with a disc wheel coming up from behind. Its low rumble sound rolled by with the rider’s leg marking informing me of being passed by someone in the same age group. From that point on, I was chasing him for an age group wine bottle award. Thought I could catch him on the run. Turns out we never saw each other until a year later at Ironman 70.3 Rhode Island when he passed midway through the bike leg on that course.
What is cool about triathlon bike courses is riding in places we would not be allowed to ride on or go there for any other reason than racing. On some courses it’s riding on historic pavement like Lake Shore Drive (Chicago), Route 66 (Oklahoma), or Interstates (Indiana) that in normal use prohibit bike riding. At other races it’s riding on the wrong side of the road (in Australia we rode on the right side of the road on certain sections). At another race we rode over a sky high bridge spanning a canal (Delaware). At Musselman, we took a quick time travel trip through history. We rode on little used side roads between Finger Lakes passing horse pulled buggies carrying Amish on their trips to Sunday morning church. We pedaled on county roads so far off highways crows would get lost following them instead of choosing to fly over the cornfields. We also came flying fast down a steep and mile long hill onto some old and abandon streets at an out of commission US armed services multi-use facility. Talk about reinventing identities. What we rode through started as the United States Naval Training Station Sampson in 1942. After WWII plans were to change it into a state park but it morphed into a state hospital. Then it became the Sampson Air Force Base at the onset of the Korean War with some parts split into the Seneca Army Depot. Later on during the Vietnam War period it became the Sampson Army Airfield. Throughout its history of wind downs it jettisoned buildings and materials to different colleges and locations throughout the Finger Lakes Region. Then closed in 2000, what we rode on during Musselman, were the remaining major streets scattered with some rundown buildings and a few identification signs.
We exited the facilities at its north end and pedaled up a mile long but less steep climb that paralleled Lake Seneca towards Geneva. We road by the entrance to our B&B and curved around the top of the lake and rolled back into the State Park for the bike-to-run transition. During T2 I racked the bike but lost five seconds re-reading the girls’ personal message at the start of the run. I could not believe the RD would take the effort to personalize the transition space. The subsequent adrenaline boost of reading the encouragement gave me a better return on my run effort.
We ran out of T2 along the north end of the lake towards downtown Geneva now under full sun as the clouds went away as time went by. After finding my legs on the early flat stretch we started a steep but short climb to the campus of Hobart & William Smith Colleges. I lost my hat to a low hanging tree limb that snagged it right off the top of my head. A trailing runner said, “I’ve never seen that before.” Well the same thing happened at the Laguna Phuket Triathlon in Thailand five years earlier when a tree buzzed me there too. Ran back to the trees both times because I needed the protection from the sun.
All the volunteers, all the spectators in town, and all the participants gave comments of encouragement during the race. For a big time race everyone wanted everyone else to do well if not their best. I rarely can recall a race where the competitors spoke as much to each other throughout the race.
At the first aid station beyond the transition a volunteer committed on my race attire. I chose to run with a bike shirt. A multi-colored shirt depicting a bike and VW van. She mentioned the jersey being unique and cool. She remembered me too when coming back through the same aid station before the finish. She cheered me on loudly. All the Musselman volunteers were superior.
The greatest one though was located at the Mile Marker 5. As the volunteers shouted out refreshment options I heard them yell “Coke” too late as I had passed by already. Still, for some reason I yelled “Coke” back as in that’s what I wanted yet chose not to stop and retrace my steps, deciding instead to get one at the next aid station. Well, about 150 meters past the aid station this young teenager came running up yelling politely, “Here’s your Coke sir”. I stopped and thanked her profusely. Not only was she thinking to help but she had to be running fast, as my split was the fifth fastest of the field and she walked me down like I was standing still. I told her she was “Awesome! Just awesome!” Just like the overall race.
At the finish we were decorated with a unique finisher’s “medal”, a used bike sprocket crafted locally by sponsor, Geneva Bicycle Center. Workers saved sprockets throughout the year and organizing committee members cleaned, polished, and attached them to lanyards made from organic cotton. Style wise, the sprocket is my favorite finisher’s medal of any race.
I commended Jeff Henderson, as the Race Director, and his whole staff and volunteers. As a first time Musselman competitor, longtime triathlete, we enjoyed the extended weekend in the Finger Lake region and the Musselman races Jeff directed. Everything Musselman was efficient, friendly, and fun. With all the personal touches easy to conclude the race was held for each individual racer instead of a total collection of over 1,200 triathletes.
We collected our equipment and headed back to the B&B for a quick shower then to cruise some more of the Finger Lake wineries. We also ventured to a couple of pottery shops along Lake Cayuga. We continued up the west side through Seneca Falls then eastward into Auburn and drove by Owasco Lake. From there we drove to downtown Skaneateles at the north-end of Lake Skaneateles. A peaceful, beautiful setting near the eastern end of the Fingers Lake region. The downtown area was quaint and occupied by high-end retail stores and trendy unique restaurants. A real contrast to Geneva at the north-end of Lake Seneca that was in a transition phase of trying to re-define itself post its economic high water mark back in the 1950’s. Seneca Falls, at the top of Cayuga Lake and Auburn, at the top of Owasco Lake, were somewhere in between Geneva and Skaneateles in securing their identities.
We enjoyed dinner with a water view of Lake Skaneateles. Afterwards we walked out on the pier. No high school graduation parties in July but the setting was nothing short of beautiful.
A week after Musselman I mentioned to a co-worker who grew up in New York City about the visit to the Fingers Lake Region. She looked bewildered and said she was not familiar with the area. I immediately thought of the famous 1976 New Yorker Magazine cover drawn by Saul Steinberg that depicts an egocentric view of US geography looking west from 9th Avenue. At least Chicago shows on that map.
Back in the Chicago area Chris spends hours each day of burning energy being a parent, caretaker, and coach to our kids. I spend hours of energy on working and triathloning. I watched and experienced the outcome of the energy Jeff Henderson and his team of volunteers gave us during the race. And race day being a tip of the time requirement iceberg. He led preparations that started over a year ago and would continue into clean-up for days to follow. While I think what we do are the right things to do for our lives, our circumstance; I appreciated what Jeff did for the racers. His efforts fed his soul for serving an isolated few. Jeff and his genetic and race families touched each triathlete directly by fulfilling our competitive needs but indirectly thousands of other people benefited. Non-profit groups received a portion race fees and donations, restaurant workers fed the out of towners, the winery operators offered their juices, and other people in other places rented out beds for us to sleep in. I’m grateful of what Jeff did for the sport and the community. I’m grateful to what Chris does for the kids and me.
I’m also grateful to a passenger on a train ride who shared my 18th birthday. She planted a seed in my New York state of mind about the wonderful Finger Lake Region. It led me to a spectacular Musselman triathlon and the prettiest hidden treasures in New York State.
Results: 12th overall. 2nd age group.