West Virginia #30
August 8, 2010
Mountaineer Olympic Triathlon
Two weeks later I went upstream from Cincinnati to race in the Mountaineer Olympic Triathlon in Morgantown. We swam in the Monongahela River which flows downstream to join the Allegheny River to create the Ohio River when the two rivers merge at Point State Park in Pittsburgh. Chose to race in Morgantown to trace some of my aunt and uncle’s travels through their lives and understand plans they made to make changes for future generations of University of West Virginia students. I also left town after meeting a fellow triathlete who was racing to raise money for a personal cause could that make a difference in cancer prevention while promoting triathloning in 50 states too.
Flew out of Chicago early on a Saturday morning. I went for a 30 minute pre-race day easy run from my house. Stretched, showered, and waited from a hired ride to O’Hare. Everyone in the house was still asleep. All the lights were out and the house quiet at 5am. I waited for the car to pull into the driveway at 5:15am and then would step out with luggage and leave. Instead, the driver had already pulled into the driveway hidden from the front window. He rang the doorbell, ten minutes before the agreed to time. The dog barked and the cone of silence was shattered. Not a good start to sneak out of the house without anyone waking up. We loaded a bag and bike case into the trunk. The driver was not happy because the bike case didn’t fit entirely in the trunk. Sometimes it does and sometimes not. Decided not to ship the bike due to the next race scheduled the following Saturday. He showed his contempt for the bike case. I was pissed because he rang the doorbell that woke up the dog that woke up the rest of the family. He didn’t think anyone was awake with all the lights out. We sat in silence headed for a 45 minute drive to O’Hare. Once at the airport he asked if I was headed to a bike tour or race. He also asked if Tour de France cyclists took drugs. Told him that all riders in the tour took drugs. Just not sure of quantities or whether inside the regulations.
Checked in the race on Saturday afternoon after a 90 minute drive from the Pittsburgh airport. Everyone was friendly at packet pick-up. I write this in almost every chapter. I found a genuine connection of volunteers to the triathlon competitors across the country. The race directors selected some of the friendliest people in their communities to work the races. Americans are a welcomingly friendly nation of people. And the friendliest of all are the people who get out and help others achieve their passions.
Fog sat atop the Monongahela River when I arrived for the race early Sunday. A little over an hour later at race time the fog still made it difficult to see buoys at the far end of the swim course. The race start was staged from a dock located in the Wharf area. The water temperature was 1 degree below the upper limit of being able to wear a wetsuit and still be eligible for awards. Decided to wear it though not push the pace to prevent overheating. Race decision are as much art as a science in deciding whether to wear a wetsuit on the swim or not.
As we waited on the dock for our waves to start I noticed a woman in her early 20’s with a plastic bag wrapped around one of her feet. She mentioned to another racer it was to prevent infection in a spot where she had a medical procedure for removal of something a few days earlier. The bag was not heavy duty enough or taped well enough -- where the bag ended and her flesh was exposed -- to keep the water out of the bag and thus the wound area. Also, the way she hobbled around her foot wound would hurt on her bike ride due to the pending hill climbs on the road. And if she lasted to the run, the pounding on the wound area would hurt the most. Worse case would be some hurt on both the bike and run, and the damn bag would fill with water causing some nasty infection to follow after recovering from the physical activity. Either way, we triathletes will do about anything to race and finish.
The Half Triathlon distance competitors started first. I raced in the Olympic distance triathlon. We queued up by wave then jumped in the Mon River when directed for the in water start. Spectators watched the swim from the bike path on the east side of the river. The swim course was shaped like a long rectangle. We swam counterclockwise. The Olympic distance swimmers headed downstream from the dock 200 meters with the course paralleling the near shoreline. Knew to turn left at the yellow buoys yet when swimming the long side of the rectangle I could only see the red buoys which meant, keep swimming straight. Finally through the fog a yellow buoy appeared and we turned left to swim across the river 100 meters to the far river bank and turned left again and swam 700 meters upstream. The dam was closed to minimize any current in the Mon River. Nothing noticeable. We turned left again at the far end of the course for 100 meter swim to the near bank and then we turned left one final time to swim 500 downstream to the exit point on the dock to close out our rectangle.
This was my second river swim in two weeks. My water level view in the Mon River made the Mon Valley look much more narrow and steeper than the Ohio River Valley. The idea of being upstream from the Ohio River where I was two weeks earlier seemed different. The concept would be more difficult if I raced in Morgantown before Cincinnati. I calculated the water I swam in Morgantown took 18 days to reach Cincinnati. And easily can cover the 575 river miles in fewer days following rains and staying in the central channel. Had I raced first in West Virginia and followed by racing in Ohio a couple of weeks later, I conceivably could have swam in the same waters in different rivers in different states weeks apart. This idea came while swimming. Next time, I’ll work on some weird race sequencing.
At the end of the swim a volunteered reached down, grabbed our extended arm, and pulled us back up on the dock where we started 1500 meters before. I peeled off my wetsuit halfway over my shoulders and awkwardly rolled into a guy the on dock. Neither of us fell back into the water. I took off running, wetsuit in hand, for my bike racked in the transition area 300 meters away in the bottom floor of a parking garage.
Dropped off the wetsuit, put on a helmet and glasses, and started pushing the bike to the mount line on the throwback brick road of the Wharf District. The bike course took us over some of the most interesting street and road names in a triathlon. We rode on Don Knotts Blvd over the Star City Bridge then headed out of town on the flat Riverside Avenue that flowed alongside the Mon River. We then started climbing out of the Mon Valley on Jerry West Blvd. We started out on street named after a guy who portrayed one the worst fictional shooters in television history to end up on a street named after one of the most realistic purest shooters in the sports world. We kept heading north to Highway 7/19 on to Number 8 Hollow, up Wades Run and merged in to Blue Horizon crossing the state line into Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania. The climbs and dips kept coming; a mix of short, long, steep, and true rollers.
Before coming out for the Morgantown race, I practiced for hills on a short but tough hill climb called Johnson’s Mound in a Kane County Forest Preserve. Actually a kame, made of gravel, rocks, sand, and glacier till that fell through a retreating glacier during the last ice age. While Johnson’s Mound was not too high, the bike ride up the paved trail reached a varied in steepness 10-20 degree climb. By concentrating on this type of training I gained a great deal of confidence to be competitive on a hill climbing bike leg while living primarily in a flat area of Chicagoland.
In Mt. Morris we rode around in a counter clockwise direction. At the first turning point the lead bikers came straight at us. We turned right to make the loop while they turned to their right to head back to Morgantown. Bike speed on the flat portion of downtown Mt. Morris approached mid 20’s. Most racers achieved a negative split on the bike since much of return ride was downhill into the heart of the Monongahela River valley. Trees lined much of the course. With all the hills and multiple blind bends in the roads, there were few opportunities to look how many competitors were in front of me and by how far until returning to the transition area.
I jumped off my bike before the dismount line and re-entered the transition area. Out of the corner of my eye another bike on the rack with its front wheel still spinning. I was close but not sure how close to the triathlete who just racked that bike.
The run was along the river’s edge on a paved path and winding course which limited views of the runners in front. The pavement gave way to a crushed limestone and packed dirt path. Canopies from tall trees covered the course most of the way. Never saw who I was pursing until the three mile turnaround. Likewise, never saw who was trying to hunt me down until the turnaround. The guy behind was out pacing me. Mentally calculated he would pass me unless he bonked or I picked up the pace. Unfortunately, neither happened. Most of the path was marked with distance posts, each set up a ¼ mile about. That helped me to know my pace as well that of my temporary pursuer. He walked me down as I gave up a two minute lead over him at T2. He was flying. He easily ran the best run split of all triathletes in the Mountaineer Tri.
Mountaineer included three different races: an Olympic distance, a shorter Sprint distance, and a longer half Ironman distance. With different categories and three awards deep in each age group, it seemed everyone won an award for something as a constant stream of award winners approached the awards table. The awards were 4”x5”, generic in nature as to race though a beautiful white, sponsor’s name with their logo, date, and place. This was the quickest awards ceremony I participated in. Almost a self- serve award ceremony. You stated you name, stuck out your hand for the award, received congratulatory comments, thanked the presenter, and stepped away for the next winner in line.
Not everyone liked the laid back feel of the race. A couple of competitors stated personnel provided “the least information ever given before a race.” The directions announced on the dock simply included a confirmation of the heat number, get into the water, and then the air horn went off signaling the start of the race heat. Another triathlete said the race director could have put in some real tough hills to make this challenging. Being a lemming helped while competing in this race.
Meeting people at races was one of the best parts of the entire journey. The race setting provided unique opportunity to listen to others to learn why they race, their motivations, their goals, and their own self-fulfillment. People need to go to different races to learn about human nature. In Morgantown I met Jenn Sommermann. “You are the ‘other’ 50 Stater,” I said. Not sure she understood the comment until we talked for half an hour. Read her story and journey on-line a few weeks earlier. Jenn was racing to make a difference in the lives of many others since given another chance in life. She was racing and soliciting donations across the country to raise $100K for ovarian cancer research. A dreaded disease she conquered as a survivor. She worked three jobs to fund her journey to get the word out about the disease. Jenn did a great job in getting her journey known in the triathlon community and in the communities she raced in. All her donations were going to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund to fund a cure for it. During our conversation I suggested she get in contact with the Ironman organization to finish her journey in Hawaii for more publicity and promotion to raise funds for the Foundation. The Ironman group is a great marketing machine to promote a feel good story as a component of their races. For all the physical, emotional, and mental strain she survived from her cancer ordeal, Jenn was a positive person. The upbeat vibe easily felt in her passionate plea to raise money for a cure. Her inspirational attitude was infectious to others thinking if she can beat cancer personally, then achieving her other goals would occur too.
My only aunt and uncle both grew up in West Virginia. They met each other in Morgantown as students at the University of West Virginia. After they married, they moved to Ohio, then later to California, and retired to Las Vegas. My uncle Jess passed away less than a week before we moved to Thailand in 2003. My Aunt Margie’s health suffered and we moved her close to our house in the Chicago area in summer 2009. Chose the Mountaineer race because of its location. Visiting Morgantown provided some insight to their past that I wanted to explore. A few months before, Aunt Margie told me Uncle Jess was coming into see her after dinner. He never showed as he died seven years before. Aunt Margie rarely talked after that with both her mind and hope receding. She would listen, stare, smile occasionally, and nod her head but that was about as expressively as she got after the no-show. Not sure what shut her down but she acted as if her spirit was broken. Now a few months later with little change in her demeanor, we enjoyed her favorite lunch of Mexican food. Hayes, Caroline, and I talked to her mostly as a narrative, not expecting any verbal response.
I told Aunt Margie of the trip to Morgantown over the weekend. She shot me a distrusting look. I told her about driving by her Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house. Then drove by the Sigma Chi fraternity house where Uncle Jess belonged during his stay on campus. I told her about the steepness of the hills in town and what the campus looked like with older buildings when she was there and of changes with the newer buildings. I told her about driving by the geology school building commenting Uncle Jess spent hours studying in there to earn his geology degree. Aunt Margie stopped eating, looked me and said “You listened to Jess & I during your visits to our house,” though she had not said more than “yes” or “no” for weeks. Now I turned speechless.
Aunt Margie lived another three years though she said little more at subsequent visits. With my mother dead and my aunt with no children, I felt an obligation to best understand my Aunt’s roots in how they were established in a different path than her only sibling. Knowledge, financial, and emotional resources get distributed between families, coaches, and professional personnel to match the needs of grantors and recipients across multi-generational relations. Business and sports legacies generate movies, sports, and cultural trends. My parents’ legacy included what they taught us kids through the years. My aunt’s and uncle’s legacy in West Virginia is honored in four funded scholarships to service students’ education in their passions in life for years to come through the University of West Virginia Foundation.
Results: 4th overall. 1st in age group