The clouds boiled with rage, threatening rain, snow, and a general melange of misery. The wind howled and peeled at flesh, as if it would strip one to the bone. The lake frothed with whitecaps that beat the shores like a seething beast. Pervasive precipitation defeated any attempt to keep oneself anything beside frozen.
This was Seneca 7.
Literally every other day in April was nicer. Today, the day after the race, I ran in a t-shirt. Yesterday I was dressed for an extra-planetary excursion.
We watched the weather obsessively in the days leading up to the weekend. The high got lower, the low got lower. A promise of rain turned into a promise of snow. On Friday the race coordinators gave us the option to become a car team. After a frantic discussion we acquiesced, much to our disappointment.
Part of me was relieved. I remembered how brutal last year's Seneca 7 was. 77 hilly miles on bike and on foot is hard enough. When you add in snow, rain, and blistering wind, it becomes a struggle for survival. Not all of us made it to the end.
On Saturday, the forecast improved.... slightly. It was enough. Bert said, "let's bike!" As Curt had once said, "if you don't bike in the rain, you don't bike." And that was it. One moment and we were suddenly plunged headfirst into a torturous escapade. Again.
Curt was halfway through a 4 hour bike ride (on the trainer) at that point. The rest of us hadn't bothered packing anything for a long bike ride in winter conditions. We were all ready for a cozy tour around Seneca Lake in a warm truck. Suddenly we had to scramble to overstuff our backpacks with survival essentials. Many of us didn't get much sleep Saturday.
There were seven of us gathered at the Geneva Bike Shop that morning: Bert, David, Curt, Harland, Chris, Patrick, and myself. Harland and Patrick were first timers, new additions due to injuries among a pair of last year's teammates. We filled their ears with optimism and talk of manly deeds in the days prior.
Once again I was dressed in Frog Trogs, resembling a lost cosmonaut. In my hands I bore a sack of potatoes, further solidifying my Russian heritage. Half those potatoes ended up on the sidewalk in front of the bike shop. They may lie there still. This was not on purpose, but appropriate for a team named Hot Mess Express.
Even at 6am, the street near the starting line was already bustling with jubilant runners. In front of the bike shop, it was quiet, almost morose. We took turns expunging our guts in the abused bathroom of the shop. We turned in our spindled forms and checked the pressure on our tires. We checked and rechecked our gear, as if it made a difference. We were too far from home to snag another pair of socks.
In too-brief a flash, we were ready. We looked like cartoon caricatures of ourselves, laden with many layers of Arctic clothing and backpacks that had their own gravitational pull. A gust of wind blew a puppy across the street. But we were resolute. This was what we had wanted: A chance to push our limits and prove what we were made of.
It was cold and drizzly. No way the weather can be as bad as it was last year, we had exclaimed. Lightning never strikes twice in the same place! It had, and our bodies bore the marks of its scorching passage. This time around I'd made sure to invest in shoe covers. No more plastic bags for my feet.
We rode. We ran. We got wet. We changed clothing in open view. We hauled the trailer. We got splashed with mud. The wind whipped us like rag dolls. We joked and laughed and shivered. We were a group of warriors, challenging the heavens to unleash its full might upon us.
On leg 5 we got lost. A friend of mine, Rachael, had just been thrown on another team at the last minute. It was her first Seneca 7. She had feverishly studied the course and I'd told her, don't worry, you can't get lost. Incidentally, she was running leg 5. Foolishness, meet Peter.
|Did I mention I split my pants?|
I split my pants.
Photo cr. Curt
We set off from the exchange and biked in the direction the runners were heading. We quickly passed the group, so now we were leading them. This is when I realized the street we were on headed directly into the lake, with a sign just shy of the shore that said "dead end." I stopped abruptly, and David almost crashed into me. "This is the wrong way," I shouted, trying to sound like a viking lord.
We zipped around on our bikes and finally found the correct way. The runners thanked us, as if we hadn't gotten them lost in the first place. I stood on my pedals and pounded up the hills, trying to outrun my embarrassment. I was at the next exchange as the runners finished the leg. I spotted one speedy gentleman and said, "there's that fast man!" Compliments always smooth over awkward situations.
It was my turn to run on leg 6. I peeled off my Hazmat suit and put on my kilt. I'll forget to bring a race belt, I'll forget to bring food, I'll forget to bring body glide, but I'll never forget my kilt. Halfway through the run I got warm and took off my jacket. I carried it in my hand; wrapping it around my waist would have covered beautiful plaid. After that it was my turn to haul the trailer.
After a couple more legs, I hauled that slow fat trailer into yet another Winery, where half the team was huddled in a secret alcove. Some of the exchanges have port-o-potties reserved for cyclists. Exchange 8 has a hidden spot where you can pee, change, or just hang out with your junk out. It's a brief moment of luxury. I think Harland was halfway out of his pants when I pulled in.
The ride down into Watkins Glen was extra treacherous this year, due to construction. One errant slip would leave you plunging into a gaping chasm in the road. This is especially great when you're flying down the hill at 30+ miles per hour. Bert chose to haul the trailer, as he had the best breaks, but I'm not sure he used them.
We pulled into Clute Park with only two flat tires. Last year I got a flat tire, and we spent a week and a half at the park. This time it was Harland and Dave. So we had another long "rest". Bert was tracking our time more actively this year. The break set us back um.... a bit. They did have a building reserved just for the cyclists, which made me feel like king of the world. The best part for me was spotting Carrie. Those squeezes were the best.
After a nice long vacation involving juice and hot soup, we clambered back aboard our newly repaired bikes with dry socks on. Bert continued to haul the trailer up the massive soul-crushing hill out of Watkins Glen. I decided to floor it on my bike, but used up what little energy I had left. I patted myself on the back at the top, and realized we still had over 30 miles to go.
At the next exchange we had an exchange.
"We're at 7 and a half hours now. If we push it, we can make up our time," said Bert confidently.
"Right, we're going to push it... up hill... into a headwind," I replied.
"You shut your dirty mouth."
"You shut that dirty f*cking mouth right now."
"Let's get on our bikes and go!"
"Chris is running the 10k leg. It doesn't matter if we leave now. We're still going to have to wait for him to finish at the next exchange," I said, because I'm a huge a$$hole.
"You shut your mouth and never speak again!"
I don't remember the exact words.
We got progressively colder, hungrier, and more tired as we biked and ran. At one of the exchanges, David, Chris, Patrick and I were loitering, waiting for the rest of the group to catch up. We were complaining vigorously about how hungry we were and precisely what we would eat to satisfy that hunger. The piles of imagined food were ostentatious.
Then, Chris spied something. He bent down and scooped up a blue round object and popped it into his mouth. He immediately spat out shells and yolk. We stared, stunned, as Chris wiped his mouth.
"I thought it was an Easter candy."
"But it wasn't."
"It was a robin's egg."
"Was it delicious?"
I took pity on their desperate hunger and offered up some of my potatoes. Chris followed up with a comment about making omelettes with robins' eggs and potatoes. Truly we were in dire straights.
After that we got lost repeatedly on the running trails on legs 15 and 16. Did I say "we"? I meant "I". I started following the runners down a muddy grassy trail on my bike. Up ahead I spotted a drum circle and thought, wow, that's cool! Until one of the fellows stopped me. He was very polite but the message was very clear: I was a dumb idiot who had gone the wrong way.
The end of that leg involved crossing some deep mud puddles. Chris was hauling the trailer at that point, so that made for a "fun" challenge. We thought we'd gotten misplaced again, until we saw the battalion of minivans ahead.
I have to make a side note here. As a bike team, we repeatedly made snide remarks about the car teams. We spoke with chagrin about the happy energetic runners who blasted past us on the runs. We stared on in envy as warm runners ate cookies while dangling their legs off the back of a van. We grimaced with contempt as we squeezed past a row of a dozen vehicles with their blinkers on, hoping to somehow find parking in a full lot.
We parked our bikes in the midst of an army of such vehicles. We were so cold and tired that we kept dropping things and tripping over pebbles on the ground. Warm, dry, well fed spectators giggled at our antics. We made pleasant conversation, but secretly we bubbled with rage and envy. Though our chests did inflate to three times their size when we were complimented on being "crazy". Heck yeah we are!
Chris was off trailer duty and hopped on his bike, elated. He hit the pedals hard and zoomed on, with me close on his heels. We were getting closer and closer to the end, and we were excited to finish and eat greasy salty food. We turned down a path with a broken surface (all too common for us foolhardy bikers). Chris was just ahead of me, moving at a quick clip.
His front wheel turned 90 degrees and his bike stopped instantly. Chris did not stop. Time froze. I saw Chris in midair, his body making no contact with any stable surface. Then, as if in fast forward, every inch of him made simultaneous contact with the concrete surface. For a brief moment, he and the pavement were one, an unholy union of flesh and concrete.
I heard no sounds, but my brain manifested the crunching of bones. The bike clattered, the telltale echo of a potentially terrible tragedy. As Chris put it, he was "robbed of flesh and dignity." In an instant he bounced right back to his feet, as if nothing had happened. I almost thought I'd imagined it. Suddenly he was the most graceful of ninjas.
Casually, he picked up his bike and got back on. With all the aplomb in the world, he continued on as if nothing had happened. I shook my head in amazement, then willed my own frozen body to continue on behind him.
I felt surprisingly strong on my last leg. I had jammed myself full of Cheezits and gatorade that Patrick's friend has offered. My previous leg had started well, with a mile downhill, before following up with four miles uphill. I'm fairly certain the entire course is uphill, made up for entirely by the massive hill down into Watkins Glen.
This last leg, I spotted a lady far ahead, and committed myself to smoking her. I turned on my turbo charger, straining my legs to the brink of catastrophe. On the last climb before the exchange (another hill, of course), I passed her. Feeling like a superhero, I charged into the exchange.... where nobody was waiting for me.
I spotted David, making his way towards me. Hefting a sigh, I handed the "baton" to him and met up with the rest of the group. It was the last exchange. I changed clothes in record time and said, "let's get the f*ck out of here." We hopped on our bikes and did the victory cruise to the finish.
Sh*t. That was Bottomless Brewery. I made no jokes about it! That just goes to show the state of our mental faculties.
Curt, Chris and I glided down the highway. We passed the cheering spectators at the finish and thought, how the heck do we get into this park? Finally, far ahead we spotted the turn. It added about a half mile to get around to the the "Reunification Area". As we dropped our bikes unceremoniously into the grass, I spotted Harland hauling the trailer and Patrick.
I got out on to the curb, braving the rushing traffic. I looked left. I looked right. Then I motioned for the two of them to cross. I helped Harland pull his bike and trailer over the curb as a semi barreled behind him. It wasn't a semi. Maybe a large van... maybe just a little sedan. But still!
We relaxed and smiled in victory and joy as we waited for David to finish his final leg. It had been a long and exhausting day. It was surreal to be at the end. Everyone had been amazing. Bert was our team captain, making sure to log our legs and keep us moving. David was on top of the trailer, swiping bikes like a seasoned pro. Curt was the stalwart athlete, never flagging. Chris, an expert at long bouts of suffering, was always in good cheer. Harland and Patrick got to enjoy this amazing, crazy event for the first time. It was an incredible day with great guys.
We spotted David in his Wolfpack suit. As he passed us, we joined him for the final jog to the finish line. Scott, of the Southern Tier Running Club, called our group as we crossed: "Hot Mess Express!" and we weren't even last! We were about 300 out of 330. But I'm sure our beards were the best.
We hugged, took photos, and ate chili and cookies. Then we grabbed all our junk and headed back to the cars. After dumping all of our mud soaked gear, we headed to a salty and greasy dinner. We laughed and commiserated and ate enough to stuff an elephant. Truly we were euphoric. I felt like I could do it all again!
Harland and I had carpooled together. He'd met me at 4:30am at my house. Now, at 10pm, we were finally heading back. I blasted A Perfect Circle as we drove back down Route 14, remarking how even in a car it seemed very far. I suddenly felt extremely sleepy, but Harland and the rumble strips kept me on task.
We all survived. Not just that, we had an amazing day. Despite the cold and the rain and the hardship, each of us finished. We discovered new things about ourselves. We got lost, our bikes broke, we had accidents and mishaps, we ate birds eggs off the ground, and yet we live to tell the tale.
Thank-you to all of the organizers of the event! It must have been a pain with the weather. Thanks to the many many volunteers! I can't even imagine how many people it takes to man all of the exchanges. Thanks to the police officers who hung out at the most dangerous intersections. Thanks to all of the spectators who cheered us on! Despite our envious whining, the perk of the run teams was that they were always around, cheering us on. Thanks to Hot Mess Express, an awesome team. And thanks to everyone who made the day such a positive experience.
Next year, it will be warm and we will do the whole race in shirts and shorts. No way lightning strikes in the same place.... three times.