This is a very long overdue race report of my first Half Ironman triathlon (1.9 km / 1.2 mile swim, 90 km / 56 mile bike, 21.1 km / 13.1 mile run). The race took place in Geneva, NY, on July 13, 2014. It was followed by a quick reward trip to Toronto and Niagara Falls. Most of the report was written in August 2014. The blog post was finalized in Gisborne, NZ, in January 2015.
All of a sudden my 5-month-long Half Ironman training program with the DC Triathlon Club had come almost to its end. The only thing remaining was the race itself, Musselman. Since the beginning of the program, our coach had highlighted the importance of practicing race nutrition and finding your optimal menu. I like to take pride for eating being one my strengths, so over the months I had tested more brands and products than I had ever even imagined existed. On the Thursday night preceding the big race day, my mission was to replenish the last missing favorite items. After visiting nine different shops looking for Power Bars in my favorite flavor without success, a heavy thunderstorm caught me on my bike ride home.
I had to seek shelter at the entrance of a grocery store. While waiting for the rain to stop, I had a sudden nervous breakdown. How could I have known that no one likes Mixed Berry Blast Power Bars in DC? Who is behind the conspiracy of selling only Chocolate, Peanut Butter, Chocolate Peanut Butter (seriously!), Vanilla, and Cookie Dough here? Why had I not tested all the nutrition offered by organizers in advance? What are gRUNola bars anyway, and where would they have been sold? And what if my nasty cold that hit the week before the race is not gone after all? Is it even safe to start the race? Why did I have to travel to a conference in Orlando just before the race although I always get sick after flying? And why did I decide to do the Pittsburgh-DC bike tour in May although I knew it was risky? What if the paralyzing knee pain returns on the bike and forces me to stop? Or what if my left bunion gets sore in the cycling shoes again? Why am I still using my touring shoes for triathlons anyway? And what if I get a flat? Or the chain breaks? Or I am unable to unclip my bike shoes and fall? Or cause a crash by stopping at an aid station? What if my running shoes give me a hard time like they occasionally do? Why did I not buy new ones at least a month ago? What if my goggles get foggy on the swim? Or if someone kicks me in the head? What if I forget to pack something important? Why didn’t I do the packing on Tuesday night despite all my good intentions? Why did I not train more? Why on Earth is our washer broken exactly today and I have to go to a laundromat? And why can’t the rain stop already?
A few hours later – after writing a race plan in the laundromat – I returned to my usual zen-like calmness. Writing the race plan was tremendously helpful. I wrote down what to do the day before the race and what to do in the race day morning, what to wear, what to eat and drink before the race, on the bike, on the run, and in the transitions, my estimated split times, and even my sunscreen strategy. After doing this I knew I only needed to stick to the plan, no matter which miraculous gear or nutrition inventions I would see in the race expo or being used by other athletes, and everything would be fine.
The actual Musselman adventure started on Friday afternoon. I felt extremely happy that one of my DC friends was crazy enough to volunteer to join the trip as my driver, photographer and mental support. We left from Columbia Heights around 5PM. Luckily the Friday traffic around DC and Baltimore was not as bad as I had feared. The rest of the drive was on the roads of rural Pennsylvania that I am starting to be very familiar with. In Jonestown, PA, we had an awesome ice cream break at a local campground. That was pre-race nutrition to my taste, best enjoyed on a porch in a rocking chair just before sunset.
We made it to the tiny town of Orangeville, PA around 10:30PM. (In this case tiny really means tiny, as the population was 500 at the 2000 census.) Our Airbnb hosts had not returned home yet, but the front door was unlocked. A sign of true countryside! I had promised to the lady of the house that I let their dog out when we arrive. I was a little nervous about the task. Fortunately, their boxer Pluto turned out to be friendly and harmless. It did not seem to mind me speaking Finnish. When I got to the bed, it did not take many minutes to fall asleep.
On Saturday morning we woke up to sunshine in the middle of the cornfields. I sent my friend out for a run while I checked the last logistics details of the day, like local addresses of key locations in Geneva. Our super sweet Airbnb host served us breakfast, and we had a nice chat about travel and life. The lady was impressed by my friend’s morning run. When she heard what Musselman was about, she seemed a little confused. She wished me luck and gave me a hug, like if I was leaving for war. Then it was time to hit the road. The drive to Geneva was beautiful, especially the last 30 miles or so along the shores of the Seneca Lake.
Arriving in Geneva was awesome. Musselman was visible everywhere. It felt like every car had a bike rack on. We drove directly to the race expo on the campus of Hobart & William Smith Colleges to pick up my race packet. I always feel very relieved when I finally have my bib and timing chip. Before races, I often see nightmares of being late from the packet pickup. The banner welcoming Musselman athletes to our hotel reminded me of all the Ironman banners I had seen in Kona in October.
The rest of the day flew by. I had hoped to have time for at least a small swim before the pre-race info session, but I realized that was overly optimistic. Eventually we barely had time for a quick salmon sandwich lunch and signing the MusselMural. To my surprise, the only tools available for the mural project were paintbrushes. Next time I will show up with my own stencil and spray paint!
The pre-race info session took place at the Smith Opera House, definitely the fanciest pre-race meeting location that I have ever come across. I’m not sure if the info session made me more nervous or relaxed. I adored the fun-loving atmosphere and hearing about the local specialties, like zebra mussel safety (the mussels are sharp, but the lake is safe as long as you swim and do not walk) and what to do if you need to pass a horse and a buggy (not a rare scene in the Mennonite country). Then again, I had somehow managed to avoid the fact that last year there had been two deadly accidents on the Musselman bike course. This year’s race was in memory of these two athletes. White ghost bikes were honoring them on the accident scenes. I tried to keep calm and keep in mind that at least these athletes died doing something they loved, but I could not help feeling very sad, disheartened, and scared as well.
Fortunately, the next event was an uplifting pre-race dinner at a fellow DC Triathlon Club member’s parents’ garden. It was awesome to see many familiar faces and chat with energetic fellow triathletes full of excitement and fighting spirit. Conversations were light-hearted, and I taught a few people the word ‘sisu‘.
After the dinner, we got distracted by the Geneva Firemen’s Parade for a moment, and then eventually made it to the race site. I reassembled my bike, did a quick test ride to see that everything was ok, racked the bike, checked out the layout of the transition area, and even dipped my toes in the lake to feel how warm the water was. Then we returned to the hotel to take care of the remaining preparations. So many little things to take care of from attaching the bib number to the race belt and stuffing the “bento box” (a small bag that is attached to the front tube of the bike to give easy access to nutrition during the ride) with opened energy chew bags and pre-cut Power Bars. Like always before a race, it was way too late when I finally I had everything ready, almost midnight. Amazingly, I was able to fall asleep quite easily again.
When the alarm went off at 4:20AM, I would not have minded sleeping a little longer in the comfy bed, say, for another 4.5 hours! Before starting to munch granola with apple sauce and milk, I checked the weather forecast. To my relief, there were no thunderstorms in the forecast any longer, so it seemed clear that we will get to swim. In case of thunder, the swim would have obviously been cancelled due to safety reasons. It would have been such a pity to settle to only bike and run. No thunder in the morning was all I wanted to know at that point, and I was very happy for that. At the same time, I could not help noticing that the wind forecast had been also been updated and that I would not be done with the bike when rain was forecasted to start…
Time flew by also in the morning, but thanks to the race plan, things did not get too chaotic. Despite the cloudier than expected weather forecast, I made sure to marinade myself in sunscreen just in case. I braided my hair, added ice to water bottles, wore the heart rate monitor strap under my tri-top, and I even remembered to set a band-aid inside my tri-top zipper to make sure that it won’t chafe. We checked out from the hotel around 5:30AM and headed to the race site.
Body marking was the first ritual before anyone was let to enter the transition area. Instead of fancy Ironman style number tattoos, the volunteers simply used a Sharpie to write the bib number on everyone’s left arm and leg, and the age in the end of the year on the calf. After this, setting up the transition did not take too long. The only thing I screw up was that I did not realize to use my big plastic bag as a rain cover for all the gear. That early in the morning it did not look like it was going to rain.
In the race expo I was instructed to go to the medical tent in the morning of the race day to get my knee KT taped professionally. There was no one at the tent. Luckily, I still had a piece of pink tape that I had got from my guardian angel Claire at Rose Physical Therapy. With her instructions I taped my right knee myself in the same way as she did when I visited her before Bike Virginia. As I used only one layer of tape, the impact was probably primarily on the mental side. Then again, the importance of the mental side should never be underestimated, especially because I had selected pink tape on purpose.
The symbolic value of that piece of pink tape was much more than anyone in the race site knew. In summer 2013, a Finnish elite triathlete Elina Jouhki finished 9th in IM70.3 in Haugesund, Norway, right after surviving breast cancer. This summer she intended to race in Frankfurt Ironman. She created Team Pink Wheels to raise money for cancer research and raise awareness of the Finnish Stem Cell Registry (maintained by the Finnish Red Cross!). Sadly, leukemia forced Elina to stop training in April. The Finnish triathlon community – including our current Prime Minister Stubb – decided to carry out the plan of racing with pink wheels and/or wearing pink. I did not have pink wheels on my bike, but the pink tape on my knee made me unofficially part of the Team Elina Jouhki. Ever since April when hitting obstacles in training (or in life), Elina’s amazing story and example have helped me to put things quickly into perspective and carry on. You can read more and show your support here.
The remaining pre-race routines included crawling into the wetsuit, dipping into the lake to get an idea of the conditions ahead, swallowing the first energy gel of the day, and drinking a cup of water. The only discrepancy to my race plan was forgetting to set my heart rate monitor on my bike. I had not planned to swim with it to avoid any unnecessary hassle in T1. When I realized I still had the watch on my wrist, there was no longer adequate time to bring it back to the transition area, so I just had to go with it and take this as an opportunity to test its multisport features.
Just before the race start there was a moment of silence for the athletes who tragically died the year before. Chills. Then the national anthem, then time to get into the lake.
Swim 1.9 km / 1.2 miles: Men 30-39 years got going at 7AM. Our swim start was 5 minutes after them, and 5 minutes before 40-49-year old men. The latter fact was a slight source of concern for me, as I knew a lot of these men would reach me, and in the worse case swim over me with full force… The lake was very shallow at the beginning of the swim, so a lot of athletes opted to walk to first hundreds of meters, but I decided to start to swim right away, having the mussel safety guidance fresh in mind. The last thing I wanted to happen was to step on a sharp shell.
Swimming felt great right away, although the water was murky. After the first buoy, the conditions got much choppier and rougher. At some point the waves got so high that you had to wait to be on top of a wave to see where the next buoy was. I thought about the words of the coach at the Lake Anna open water swim clinic about always turning the conditions to your advantage. I knew that for a lot of people these ocean-like conditions were a disaster. I was happy to realize that they did not scare me at all. I knew I would not drown and that I would make it. At the same time, it was obvious that the waves would make the swim much more energy-consuming and somewhat slower than in a calm lake. After a small eternity, I finally reached the half way point of the swim. The second half was in a canal, so things got somewhat easier – no white capping waters. I was done with the swim in 51:18.
T1: When I got out of the water, I was surprised that I did not feel very dizzy. Sometimes getting out of the water feels like leaving a student party at 4AM… I was still dizzy enough to mess up recording my split times with the heart rate monitor, though. A mental note taken to learn to use the multisport features properly before the next race… During the swim, I had promised myself a bathroom break in T1. That turned out to be a good pit stop strategy, as there was no waiting in line. Getting out of the wetsuit went desirably uneventfully, and so did the rest of T1. I stuffed the first bag of energy candy to my mouth, set the heart rate monitor on the bike to serve as my dashboard, got into my cycling shoes, grabbed my helmet, and even added sunscreen just in case. All this in 6:10.
Bike 90 km / 56 miles: Due to the knee issues that I developed on my commuter hybrid on the way from Pittsburgh to DC earlier in the summer, I had decided to take the bike ride very easy, making sure to have so high cadence that my pesky knee should not get irritated. I had also promised to myself that I will respect my inner grandma and not take any risks at all that could compromise the safety even if that meant I was the slowest cyclist of the day. Needless to say, I had the tragic stories from the previous year in mind.
After the first 16 km / 10 miles I started to suspect that my grandma tactic might not work. I had spent almost an hour to complete them. I made conversions between miles and kilometres over and over again in my mind. Each time the conclusion was the same: With that speed I would need almost six hours to finish the bike! That would obviously mean exceeding the maximum allowed race time big time, becoming unofficial and/or being pulled off the course. Very depressing. Luckily one of the super fast cyclists passing me told me “just to wait for the tailwind”. I did not have any experience of biking in strong headwind, so his comment made me a little more optimistic.
When the course turned towards north, my speed almost tripled. I barely needed to pedal to swish forward at least 40 km/h / 25 mph. I had never experienced that type of sustained pace. It was like flying! I realized that if I can take the advantage of the wind behind me, I was back on track and had a great chance to complete the bike in time.
Then it started to rain. Heavily. Torrential rain showers rather than drizzles. Like we say in Finland, we are not made out of sugar or paper, so being soaking wet was not an issue. The issue was that rain can make roads extremely slippery. So there I was, biking on wet roads in crazy wind faster than ever in my life. The only thing that could make the conditions more absurd were “horse poo bombs”. Even if I did not need to pass any Mennonite buggies, I could tell Mennonites had not skipped their Sunday church visit, as there was horse poo on the roads at regular intervals. I definitely did not want to make history as the cyclist who slipped in horse poo and crashed. I kept my eyes so carefully on the road that I might need to go back one day to check out the apparently exceptionally beautiful landscape on the bike course.
Up until a few weeks before the race I was still super scared to drink or eat while riding. Practicing that paid off and grabbing water bottles had started to feel pretty natural. I had still decided to stop at the aid stations to make sure that I get enough nutrition and hydration. Towards the end of the bike I realized that it was actually very easy to grab energy candy from the “bento box” while riding. As I love candy in pretty much all forms, I stuffed so much of them in my mouth that there was a funny moment at one point when I had to pass a slow guy struggling to pedal uphill. With my mouth full of candy, I tried to follow the protocol and warn the guy by yelling “on your left”. Then I actually found myself telling him that my mom has taught me that it is rude to speak when your mouth is full and apologizing for my bad manners. And then we both laughed as after biking three hours or so in strong winds and severe thunderstorms, my not-so-royal behavior probably was not a very big deal.
Like many endurance athletes could tell, during the race you have very emotional moments. Even if there are a lot of things happening around you, in the end you still are mostly alone in your thoughts. Often there are phases when you are cursing and regretting the whole idea of signing up for the race (and any future races). And then there are moments when you just love life and feel grateful for your body and for the amazing experiences it can take you to. I also always feel sentimental when I think of all the people that have supported me on my way towards a big goal, like this one. I often visualize them with me on the course, especially all my training buddies that I have been biking or running with. This time I even imagined some two thousand Women & Bicycles community members on the course around me. I also spent quite some time thinking through who all should be included to my Oscar gala style thank you speech.
When I completed the bike, it felt like I had finished the race. It took me 3:55:45, but my knee had not let me down, there were no technical difficulties with the bike, and I had arrived safely.
T2: When I got to my transition spot, I found all my gear completely soaked. I really should have realized to put them in a plastic bag in the morning… Oh well. I quickly changed to my wet running shoes, put on the number belt and grabbed my hipster sunglasses, the same ones that I wore on my first marathon in Berlin. Considering the weather conditions, there was not a real need for sunglasses, but the weather had changed so many times during the day that I figured having them along would not hurt. And it would be fun to finish wearing them. The T2 took 4:00.
Run 21.1 km / 13.1 miles: Getting out of T2, I felt a little lost. I had been so focused on the possible knee issues on the bike and the risk of having to stop that I had not really thought through what exactly happens if I actually make it to the run. I had been almost five hours on the go by that time and I knew I would need another 2.5 hours or so to crawl through the half marathon.
The fastest athletes had obviously already finished the whole thing by the time I even got started with the run, and I saw some of them happily eating ice cream by the course. Had I not binged so much energy candy on the bike that I actually felt a little too full, I would have been very envious of that ice cream. Even if it was a rainy day, the temperature was still easily around 25’C / 77’F. A cool summer day for Geneva, but more than enough for a Finn. At each aid station I asked for ice, put some under my tri-top and even held ice cubes in my hands to cool down and keep going. Other remarks from the run: a nasty blister from early on, more than enough hills, and unmanageable difficulties to push oneself to run when most others were walking.
Finally I crossed the finish line after 7:38:15. My slowest timed half marathon ever (2:41:02), but it made me a Musselman. DC Triathlon Club had a tent just before the finish line, and as most people from the club had finished before me, there were loads of friends cheering when I arrived. This reminded me of the amazing finish line party in Kona just before midnight. All in all, it was incredible that even us who “maximized value for money” by spending well more than 7 hours on the course got to enjoy the same level of support on the course as the faster guys. The bands kept playing, and it was so touching to have people cheering despite the rain.
After the race, the best part was catching up with others and hearing war stories of the race. I was also thrilled to spot some American Red Cross blankets, in my case useful primarily for posing purposes. The Red Cross really is everywhere! I was also hoping to get a free massage which turned out to be a free first experience of chiropractic treatment instead. Luckily it was not very painful, and judging based on the noise that came from my neck during the treatment, it was probably only a good thing that someone put my head back to where it belongs. The vegetarian post-race meal was not the biggest culinary success, but I managed to eat at least a little bit of something primarily cookies. Then it started to be about the time to clean up the transition area, have a quick shower, pack the car, and head towards the next destination: Toronto.
I had wanted to visit Toronto for a long time. When I realized that Geneva is not very far from the Canadian border, I figured that it was a brilliant idea to drive there after the race. From the logistics point of view this probably was an ok idea indeed. From the recovery point of view it might have made more sense to stay in the Lake Seneca area, take it very easy, have a big dinner, go to sleep, and then maybe hit a few wineries on the following day. Instead, we spent some 5 hours in the car right away on Sunday night, a significant amount out of this at the border crossing waiting for our turn to enter Canada.
It was very late at night when we arrive in Toronto. Luckily, we found our B&B in Cabbagetown easily as well as the secret parking spot reserved for us. Finding the correct bedroom in the house was slightly trickier, and we may have accidentally woken up at least one Asian businessman in the process… Quite some creativity was required also to figure out where to hang all the wet gear. I also realized that I had forgotten to warn our South African host about the bikes, but fortunately she did not mind too much finding them parked inside her beautiful villa.
After a restless night of sleep – very typical for me after a race, might have something to do with the caffeinated energy gels – it was time to explore Toronto. Strolling around the city with very sore legs was pretty painful but definitely useful for recovery. Slowly but surely we wandered around the city. In addition to the obvious tourist drag CN Tower with amazing views over the city, we went to see the Toronto City Hall. No one, including the border control officer on the night before, seemed to understand why the City Hall was so important. The catch of course is that the building is designed by my favorite Finnish architect Viljo Revell.
We had also planned to visit the Signs Restaurant where all the waiting staff are deaf and customers need to use American Sign Language (ASL) to place their orders. My friend who I travelling with is an ASL interpreter, and she had come across an article about this new place just before trip. Unfortunately it turned out that the opening of the restaurant was delayed. It started its operations a week later than initially planned which was a few days after we were in town. Next time!
I have probably never in my life been as hungry as on Monday morning after the race. No wonder: The race was worth some 5000 kcal on top of the standard daily 2000 kcal. To compensate for the minus calories, we had a tasty 3-course lunch with 100% guilt-free dessert at one of the restaurants participating at the Summerlicious food festival. Still, it was only after inhaling a $10 bar meal consisting of a huge burger, a mountain of French fries, and a massive pint of beer at the Urban House Cafe in the evening that my body felt relieved and full. Good value! The dinner gave just enough energy to sample a few local beers at the neighboring Bar Volo where we randomly ended up joining the birthday party of a local girl.
On Tuesday we had a yummy start to the day at the awesome St. Lawrence Market. Everything from gooseberries and Greek pastries to vegan raw juices tasted so good! Then we were already forced to leave Toronto behind and start the long drive back to DC via Niagara Falls.
My expectations for Niagara Falls very not particularly high as I had heard horror stories of the notorious Las Vegas style infrastructure, atmosphere and mass tourism in the area. Furthermore, despite the healing refueling at the market I was actually feeling pretty horrible after the race: in addition to being tired and sore, I could feel my cold was coming back. Considering all this, the Niagara Falls visit was definitely a huge positive surprise. The weather was pretty, and the waterfalls were absolutely stunning both from the Canadian and the US side of the border. The best part was a cruise with the Maid of the Mist, a boat that took as right by the falls. Getting completely wet was an excellent way to truly wake up and feel refreshed at least momentarily.
The drive from Niagara Falls to DC was long and grueling. I had managed to omit the fact that summer nights in Pennsylvania and Maryland are all but white like in Finland. November-like darkness hits early! This meant hours of driving on the pitch dark roads. Somehow magically my friend still managed to pull it off and drive us back safely. When I finally got home during the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, I was ready to collapse to my bed.
On the following day, I did not leave the house at all. I still felt pretty destroyed, but at the same time I felt like a winner.
PS. Up until several weeks after the race I thought it was an urban legend – or a rural legend – that there was a tornado on the race day. When I finally did a little googling, I found some actual evidence: a tornado indeed hit the other end of the lake on the morning of the race day. Now that explains the waves and the wind. The weather conditions (4’C/40’F, storm wind and nonstop rain) of the Stockholm Marathon in June 2012 were legendary to say the least, but Musselman 2014 is a serious competitor for the craziest conditions ever. Seriously, a tornado!