It's been over six months since an endurance event almost killed me. This time it's no hyperbole! During 13+ hours outside on the bike or on my feet around Seneca Lake on Sunday, I often debated my options. I could be smart and call it quits, or I could keep on going and hope to reach the finish before I died. Our team did lose a member, and another friend's team lost two whole members (as opposed to partial members...).
Spoiler alert: I'm still alive.
I got roped into the race many months ago, I don't remember exactly when. This seems to happen to me a lot; I'm a sucker for peer pressure. Friends "tricked" me into signing up for Beast of Burden (via a well-timed comment about fences), and I had to bail on that. I was "guilted" into doing Lake Effect half, and couldn't do that either. I've signed up for not one but two Ironmans in the same way (though I don't know about that second one). There was no way I was going to give up on Seneca 7 though.
If you've been reading my blog, you know I've been dealing with health issues and that my training has suffered. I had a legitimate reason to worry. I wasn't sure I could finish; I haven't done nearly that distance in over half a year. I really thought it could kill me, especially if I was foolhardy enough to ignore my body saying, "maybe just lie down and stop moving for a while." I took off two whole days before the race. During those two days, my body was on fire with aches and pains. Gross.
Our team, Lace Up Now and Howl, consisted of Bert, Dave, other Dave (who's name I struggled to remember because my brain couldn't fathom two people with the same name in the same space, like some kind of breach in space-time), Steve, Curt, and Chris. The first four are members of Wolfpack, a group that's all about signing up for the most grueling multisport events they can find. Curt and Chris are members of LUNAR, as am I. I've had many adventures with them. All six are brave, fairly crazy guys, and it was an honor to suffer with them.
Seneca 7 consists of 7 teammates covering 77.7 miles around Seneca Lake. The teammates take turns running the 21 legs, running a total of 9 to 13 miles each. I f*cked up Sunday and ran over 15 miles; more on that later. However, it wasn't enough for us to cruise around in a big warm vehicle in between our legs like many teams did. No. We signed up as a Bike Team. That means when we weren't running, we were biking.
|Biking.... on our bikes!|
It was 36 degrees when we started. It was snowing. The wind gusts were strong enough to sweep a truck into the lake. We watched the weather obsessively in the days leading up to the race, grimacing. On Friday night, we got an email saying that bike teams might get excused from riding bikes. On Saturday morning we got a follow up email saying, nope! Ride your bikes and freeze! No snowbanks = ok for biking!
I won't lie. I wasn't looking forward to it. I had done absolutely zero preparation for the race, kind of like a child who covers his eyes, believing the big scary race will suddenly vanish from existence. I only managed to deal with the paperwork and other requirements because of my teams' constant reminders. My bike desperately needed a tune-up though. It brought to mind that old philosophical quandary, if enough parts of a thing are changed, is it still the same thing? Is Tsar Bicycle the Great now some sort of bicycle cyborg? A product of engineering and esoteric chemistry? Will my bike try to assimilate me into its collective?
The race was a go. All my whining was for naught. I boiled salt potatoes on Saturday. I had been intimated by them, but really it's just water, salt, and potatoes. Two thirds of the ingredients are in the name. I stopped by Walmart (which just goes to show how dire my situation was) to get Frogg Troggs. It's a waterproof suit not at all designed for endurance sports. I looked like I was wearing a radiation suit, or a spacesuit. I got jokes about both. I also bought shoelaces, so when I wrapped plastic grocery bags around my shoes, I could look slightly classier.
I did not look classy.
|Maybe a little classy...|
I set my alarm for 3:30am Sunday. Our team was starting at 7, and we had to meet up at 6. It was an hour drive. And I had to pack. That's right, I did no packing at all until the morning of. I packed my potatoes. I packed my frogg troggs. I packed a bunch of clothes, my bicycle, my ID which identifies me as an organ donor. I packed the bare minimum, considering I was biking in winter conditions. I drank a lot of coffee.
I got to the Geneva Bike Center only a few minutes late. It was a nice morning in Corning. It was cold and snowing in Geneva. A gust of wind blew a puppy across the street. It was strange seeing a bunch of cyclists getting ready, utterly incongruous with the weather. I took two (2) poops in the bike store's bathroom, while a gaggle of young ladies waited in line. Bert bought me a race belt, so I wouldn't have to punch holes through my radiation suit. We did all the things and got ready.
Dave went up ahead since he was the first runner. I missed that part. There wasn't any great fanfare. We just got on our bikes and started going. We passed Dave and yelled obscenities, or maybe encouraging words. It was a blustery winter morning, but I actually felt alright in my space suit. It only occasionally got caught on parts of my bike. We got to the first exchange point. There were a bunch of buses there, shuttling the non-biking (= sane) runners. We switched bikes on the trailer.
|Buses. Bert looks on, majestically.|
There was a special port-o-potty just for bike teams, which was exciting. We weren't allowed to go inside the buildings at the exchange points, mostly breweries and wineries and the like. At least I don't think we were. I didn't try. Folks wouldn't have reacted well to a guy in a Hazmat suit tromping into their establishment dripping with mud. "Don't worry folks, you'll probably live."
Everything was covered in mud. Eve-ry-thing. When I drank from my water bottle, I got a mouthful of gritty mud. It splattered on my back and - somehow - into my hair, despite my helmet and space-hoody. My shiny new chain and gears got completely covered. This was going to be my condition for the next many hours, cold and covered in mud, like a yeti in a tough mudder.
I won't recount every exchange point. We switched runners, rotated bikes, and shivered in the cold while jealously eyeing the vans and SUVs that clogged the roads. At some point I started to vape on these breaks. I've never done that at any endurance event; I'm not sure why I even brought it. It turned out to be a nice distraction from reality. And Dave said I looked sexy vaping off into the sunset. In my radiation suit.
I was the fifth runner. I took off my gray cosmonaut uniform and put on my kilt. At no point did I resemble a regular athlete. I started running and felt surprisingly strong. My body warmed up nicely. I cruised through my 4.6 miles at steady sub-8 splits. Wow! Then I hit the exchange. The volunteer told me to run through the grass. My shoes instantly got suffused with muddy water. I didn't spot the next runner, Chris. I finally spotted Dave as I ran and he waved me on, yelling, "keep going!"
|"Keep going, we want to see|
more of your kilt!"
I thought, oh, uh, alright. Maybe Chris was waiting for me on the road. Up until that point we had handed off our baton (it wasn't really, but I held it like one) from runner to runner. Most of us are pretty competitive dudes. Later on we would take some breaks at exchanges, but at that point I was still in the mind frame of go go go! I didn't see anyone so I..... kept running.
After a couple more miles, Chris came riding up on my bike. He offered to switch. I said I felt good and figured I may as well finish. I ran 9.37 miles with a 7:46 pace. Crazy! I mean, that would've been normal for me a year or two ago, but with everything I was going through lately, that was really good. Chris would take over one of my other legs (so he would run two in a row). My next leg was 6.1 miles, so I offered for him to take my last one, 2.6 miles. Great!
I got totally drenched with sweat on the run. Up until that point I had been fine on the bike, but after that run I was frozen for the rest of the day, my hands and feet especially. Thus began the suffer fest. After my run, it was my turn to haul the trailer, and I did so for the next 4 legs down into Watkins Glen.
At one of the exchanges I left my Ironman backpack behind. In fact several of us wore Ironman backpacks, because we wanted everyone to know how crazy we were. Thankfully Chris's awesome son Ian was driving around, supporting us. What a super awesome dude!!! He went and fetched my bag for me. Score!
|I don't have a pic of Ian, but he did park|
behind this barrel at one point.
As is usually the case, it's the people who make an event like this incredible. Bert and Dave were the team leaders, and did a great job in that role, both before and during the race. They kept us in good spirits and kept us moving. Chris was always enthusiastic, cheering on not just us, but the other athletes. He always has a positive outlook, no matter the conditions. Curt is a strong stoic athlete; he pushes hard and always lends a hand with nary a complaint. I didn't get to know other Dave (sorry for the terrible moniker) too well, but he impressed with his strength and tenacity. Steve had to quit about 2/3 of the way due to injury, but talking with him about the pains and difficulties helped me through the tough parts. And of course it wouldn't have been possible without the support of friends and family like Ian, as well as the volunteers and coordinators of the race!
|Our fearless leaders!|
I flew down the hill into Watkins Glen at over 30mph with the trailer rumbling behind me. The runner's course at the bottom was very unfriendly for bikes, and there was too much traffic to cross to the right side of the streets. All of that pounded on my bike, but I finally got into the park and settled down.
I went and sat in the truck with Chris and Ian for about 15 minutes, trying to warm up. That was a mistake, because as soon as I stepped out again, I started shivering three times as badly. The team had taken the hitch off my bike. Then Dave said, "dude, you have a flat." Maybe he said "bro". It was either dude or bro. Something manly and convivial.
I've had Tsar Bicycle the Great for two years. In that time I've done a 100 mile ride around Keuka lake. I've done two 70.3's and a full Ironman. I've logged thousands of miles on that bike. I have never gotten a flat tire. Never. I barely even know how to change a flat. On Sunday, I got my first flat tire.
I was 50 feet away from the Geneva Cycling guy. I walked my bike over. He fixed it. Like magic. Turns out, in addition to about a thousand little stones and pieces of glass, a thin piece of wire had punched through the tire. He also straightened my wheel out, as it was wobblier than an old Irish man on St. Patty's day. Thanks guy! Another buddy of mine on a different team, Jack, wasn't so lucky; he had to run his bike down the hill with a flat.
All that sucked up a lot of time, and more than cancelled out my fast two legs. I felt bad, but the team didn't get upset. They were there to finish, not to race. It was a test of endurance, not of who could finish first. I really appreciated that camaraderie and spirit. Then we looked over at the giant hill heading out of Watkins Glen and our excitement puffed away.
|The view of Seneca Lake from Watkins Glen|
The next 20+ miles were brutal. We were biking into a very strong wind, up a lot of elevation, frozen through and through. None of the guys complained. Well maybe a little. Ok, maybe a lot. Even stoic Curt made a comment about the wind that made me think he wouldn't invite it to his next birthday party.
I had the next leg after we climbed that huge hill. It was 6.1 miles. I was hoping that it would be flat, but no. As Dave put it, the hills didn't stop until we got to heaven. It sure felt that way. My pace into that wind, up those hills, was a full two minutes slower than my previous pace. At least the blood returned to my feet. That would be short lived. After that I put my radiation suit back on; you never know when you may cross a spent Uranium rod. "This one is used up Roberts, go dump it somewhere on Rt. 414 with the rest."
After that I felt terrible. I was really really really really cold. My running was done for day, as well as my trailer hauling. I seriously considered getting a ride to the finish. Really seriously. Somehow, I biked the next leg, and then the next. At some point our friend Janice caught us at an exchange. She met Curt for the first time, and I swear she said, "I've Curt a lot about you!" She said "heard", but seriously you guys!
While we were making conversation about injuries, which seems to be a common theme among endurance athletes, they mentioned something about broken Achilles tendons. I told them, "well, whatever doesn't Achilles only makes you stronger." They insisted I mention that groan-worthy joke in my blog. Around that point I finally realized I needed to do something or I was going to have to quit.
I dug around in my bag, the bag I had been wearing for many many hours, the bag I had almost lost. As far as I knew, it only contained potatoes. But there, glowing with a warm halo, was a hoodie! Whaaat? When did I pack a hoodie?! I put it on in the middle of my other layers. I changed my socks. Other Dave lent me his shoe covers. Suddenly I was much warmer!
|So many potatoes!|
Bert had to run an extra leg to make up for Steve. Chris had to run two back to back legs because of my earlier mishap. I felt somewhat guilty, as we were all tired. Chris crushed those two legs with aplomb; he is no stranger to long brutal races on tired legs. Curt hauled the trailer for the last few legs, powering ahead while the rest of the guys rode with him like an honor guard. I was usually a little behind. My body was saying, "why are you still going? Why aren't you on a couch somewhere?"
At the very last exchange at Bottomless Brewery (yes, I made a joke or two about that), I finally went into a port-o-potty. I exclaimed to the guys that my pee felt like hot acid. They asked, was it radioactive? Did it glow a neon yellow? In fact it had!! I made some comment about Chernobyl, because jokes about nuclear disasters are always funny.
It was a little surreal being at that last exchange. It had been such a very long day. Even on a nice day, running and biking all the way around the lake would have been hard. The weather conditions on Sunday made it incredibly difficult. Somehow though, the guys all kept pushing. They pushed past the pain, the cold, the exhaustion. Their strength and positive cheer inspired me. I didn't want to disappoint them.
|My face when I'm disappointing people|
That's the hardest thing to express in writing: The hours of torture. In some ways, Seneca 7 was harder than an Ironman. Curt said that, and I couldn't disagree. It truly is a testament to human will that we can accomplish such a feat. Some might call us crazy. A buddy of mine on another team, Steve, has a favorite saying: "Running is stupid" (though that doesn't stop him).
How do you explain it?
When I looked into the eyes of my teammates, Dave, Bert, Steve, Curt, Chris, and Dave, I saw zeal. I saw vitality. I saw pure purpose. It reconnects us to our ancestral roots, when we survived by the capacity of our minds and bodies. In the modern era, a strong body and a strong mind is a vestige, an obsolete organ. These guys refuse to accept that. They refuse to accept a life of "good enough." They want to know exactly what they are capable of.
I think, on Sunday, we all pushed a little past what we were "capable of."
Bert ran the final leg into Geneva. We biked that last stretched. The sun was setting, and Chris remarked on its beauty. Curt and his honor guard rode triumphantly ahead, the setting sun throwing long shadows on the pavement. I would have ridden with them, but I got snagged by a red light. I caught up with them at the reintegration area. That's the place were we dump our bikes and cross the finish line together as a team.
We waited on the walkway for Bert. We looked out over the lake. The breeze felt almost warm. I had taken off my nondescript gray suit and stood there in my kilt (or "skirt" as some insist on calling it). We were tired but victorious. We were one of the last teams to get to the end, but it didn't matter. In that moment we were champions. Finally we spotted Bert in his unmistakable Wolfpack suit. It's very bright. Very very bright.
|But then, everone's bright on race day|
We ran together. No, we did not hold hands. Chris took a live video of us to share with friends. The announcer made a long commentary about the team in front of us, and barely squeezed us in as we crossed the finish line ".... oh and these guys! Get your medals."
That was it. We were done. Just like that. My brain, doing that magical thing it does, immediately destroyed my memory of the suffering. All I felt was joy and pride. I felt immensely connected to my fellow team, with whom I had suffered for so long. The trivialities of life melted away in that moment. In that moment we were pure spirit. Even the pain and exhaustion in our bodies seemed to melt away temporary.
I always feel like I miss a lot in these posts. Thank you Dave, Bert, Chris, Curt, Dave, and Steve for letting me be a part of this incredible experience! Thank you to the volunteers (when they were out on the course; because when they weren't, we got lost, more than once). Thank you to everyone who makes the race happen. Oh, and Dave said I should mention the potholes.
There were a lot of potholes.
|Photo courtesy of Dave!|