A tale of grass indeed . . . No, not that kind of grass. All right, I know triathletes probably seem like they must be smoking something most of the time. What with going to bed shortly after the evening news and finishing 40 mile rides before the sun comes up . . . we certainly don’t come off as “normal” and if we said we were high most of the time, other folks would just say “Oh. Okay. That explains a lot” and we would all move on with our daily lives.
In this case the grass was milfoil in Marsh Creek Lake at Marsh Creek State Park in Exton, PA, host to Piranha Sports’ Marshman triathlon. (Does it ever bug anyone else that all triathlons seem to have to end in “man”??? But I digress.) The milfoil was not a surprise. I’ve been swimming in Marsh Creek Lake all summer as part of Mid-Atlantic Multisport’s open water swim series. While there is always some amount of grass in the shallows of the lake it was taken to new extremes this year. With a warm summer and low lake levels the milfoil went on a housekeeping frenzy.
Marshman was my last planned triathlon of the 2016 campaign. It is a well-attended local favorite but my first time tackling this event. It won’t be my last.
I arrived early to secure one of the 500 available parking spaces in the park. So early, in fact, the gates were shut. Activity was evident though as Neil Semmel’s crew prepared the venue. In short order we were let in, parked, and began to fill up transition. There was the usual helpful palaver for the newbies who were confused by the various stickers and exactly how to rack their bikes. The veterans chipped in to help straighten everyone out. It didn’t take long to get my transition area setup and then I went in search of Howard and Colleen Marano whom I also knew would be participating.
Howard and Colleen and I hung out pre-race making our way to the start, past the lengthy porta potty lines and used the nearly vacant real running-water bathrooms near the start. Then we waited for the race start. I opted to skip Neil’s “mandatory” pre-race meeting. They usually say the same thing. “Swim. Bike. Run”. It’s fairly straightforward.
I was pleasantly surprised that we got a chance to warm-up. The athlete’s guide had said no swimming before the race start but I jumped at the opportunity to don my goggles and swim cap a bit early and head out to warm-up. Except . . remember the milfoil? Holy smokes! It was even thicker near the start than it had been for our open water swims. You could just about walk across it. It actually impeded a freestyle stroke so I breast-stroked and clawed my way over the grass until I got into deep enough water for there to be no more grass. A brief warm-up ensued. Enough to shake pre-race jitters anyway.
Happily, it is a deep water start. This meant we wouldn’t have to fight with the grass and 150 or so of our closest friends at the same time. Still, the milfoil at the exit would have to be dealt with.
I swam to the start buoy and picked my way down the line searching for a “thin” spot in the crowd for the start. The water was 80 degrees and while all of Neil’s races are non-USAT events and always wetsuit legal I had declined the wetsuit. It wasn’t worth it for the short swim. Of course, this meant I had to vigorously tread water for a few minutes waiting the start. It was a bit of a relief to hear Neil say “30 seconds”. Tread. Tread. Tread. Tread. “Go”!
What Neil should have done was played the part of boxing referee. “Protect yourself at all times. Touch em up”.
I don’t know how many triathlons I’ve done, but this was easily the roughest start. Limbs and legs flew everywhere as we made our way to the first buoy. I could not find clean water to land even a single stroke without clawing at someone. It was grassy, pugilistic chaos! And I POSITIVELY LOVED IT! A few years ago this start would have sent me whimpering to the shore to curl up and die below a quiet pine tree.
Experience and a solid mental plan have helped me learn to not only deal with my claustrophobia and anxiety but to embrace the moment. I didn’t know if I could compete in my age group but if I didn’t give myself a chance in the swim I surely couldn’t. This should be a fast swim so swim/fight on!
The first buoy was 90 yards in to the swim and was a major bottleneck as we all tried to squeeze around it. I was right at the buoy and was a bit annoyed that the entire field seem to come to a stop to sight see as we rounded the buoy. Someone summed it up well. “What the fudge”!? Only they didn’t say fudge.
But after a few seconds we were around the buoy. I moved in toward shore and found space between the main field and the milfoil where I could swim freely. I settled in to a solid freestyle stroke and worked my way toward buoy two passing several slower swimmers. By the time I reached the turn toward shore and Neil’s big inflatable lighthouse the field was stretched enough that the only thing left to battle was grass. But I had some experience here from the summer open water swim series in the same location. I angled behind the park ranger’s boat and found a seam of grass free water that let me swim aggressively while others walked and floundered through milfoil. Finally I stood up in kneed deep water and dashed toward T1.
Swim: 9:44 for the quarter mile.
This was race number 2 for my Specialized Shiv (Rakeeta). I was out of T1 in 1:13 and on my way in a heart beat noting that Howard’s bike was still racked. Howard is a strong biker and I expected him to catch me during the ride.
The bike for Marshman is a quick out and back with some tricky rolling hills. My goal was to stay ahead of Howard as long as possible on the bike. Once upon a time my swim was my weakest discipline but for the last two years (or longer) it is now definitely the bike. But things are better with the properly fitting Rakeeta and I felt like I could at least not drop so much time to others in my age group. Most days at race effort when I stay within what I feel is appropriate power I used to average around 17-18 mph. With the better bike fit, it seems I can now hold on to 19ish. I suspect if I broke open my piggy bank and ever invested in some sort of reasonably fast race wheels I could probably bump that up over the 20mph mark (or faster in shorter events).
But still, the motor remains the limiting factor and Howard passed me with about 3 miles to go. I used this to incentive to stay in contact with him though. I actually didn’t have to work any harder, he had just chased me down for 5 miles and then I just stayed on his tail until we arrived back at dismount.
Bike: 39:07 (This needs to get better)
I actually passed Howard on the way into T2 going at a quick trot across the mat. I slipped out of bike shoes, put my Zoots on, grabbed my race belt and headed toward the exit feeling like I was forgetting something. I suddenly realized I had something on my head. Hmmm. Perhaps inspired by Chris Froome’s efforts on Mont Ventoux I discovered I was heading for the run course with my bike helmet on.
I ran back to my T spot, flung the helmet and headed out again. I cleared the timing mat and set out on the course. I went to hit LAP on my Garmin to start Run mode and realized I never grabbed it off my bike mount. Oh well. I’ve run naked before.
T2: 1:17 (Probably 10-15 seconds lost here with the helmet debacle).
I was feeling good and it was only a 2 mile run. I knew I could have success here chasing people down. I began passing competitors almost immediately picking off one at a time. The run headed out along the recreational area of the lake shore and on to a gravel road. From there we proceeded around the western most spit of land from the parking area and then climbed the hill toward the upper parking lots and swimming pool. This is where my run began to get conservative. I had hoped to do something like 6:00 miles which, on good pavement, would not be unreasonable. As it was, I have rolled my ankle 3 times in 3 months and with a 2018 Boston qualifying attempt coming up in a bit over a month I am trying to be careful to not sustain another injury. The gravel service road up the hill was decent but a bit rocky and washed out in spots. The day was gray and overcast, and the road ran through the woods making it difficult to see. I slowed my pace accordingly.
I passed quite a few folks on the climb. Some of those uber bikers apparently used themselves up before the relatively easy run and had slowed to a walk. At the crest of the hill the gravel road veered to the right and we continued on grass. It looked level and smooth and I continued to pass folks here though it got a bit dicey due to being a fairly narrow path. We moved briefly back to pavement, crossed the main park road and then looped out into rough terrain in a grassy area next to the upper parking lot. I’m not sure why we couldn’t have either looped a bit up the park road at this point or made use of the parking lot. Footing in the grass looked treacherous at best with long grass, hidden gullies, and sticks and nuts. I was wearing my prescription running/riding glasseswith red lenses. I really don’t need the distance correction they provide to survive in the wild, but it does make it easier to see things like slight changes in terrain and other potential ankle rollers. A couple times I tried the “with” or “without” experiment with my glasses but decided it was better to see clearer with the darker lenses then take the chance on missing a gully in brighter light but fuzzier vision. Getting older kinda sucks sometimes.
I kept my pace conservative until I descended the hill and made it back to the level part of the gravel road. With well under a mile to go I picked up things back up. Other racers were few and far between at this point. I think I passed one or two more before rounding the bend for the finish line.
I waited for Howard who was just a few minutes behind me and then we waited for Colleen who finished a short time later. Howard and Coleen graciously waited for me to get my award and snap a photo for me. I think they decided they need younger friends whose awards come up sooner.
It was a good day with good weather and good friends. I’m happy to wrap up triathlon season with a solid finish. Now enough of this swim and bike nonsense. There is a marathon to run.