This was the third year that I’d signed up for Cayuga Lake Triathlon’s intermediate distance. As in prior years, the race would be a gateway between our summer at home and several weeks of summer vacation. This year, we’d travel to Oregon for a few weeks of hiking, brewpubs, reading and relaxing. But first, I’d spend a few hours gutting it out in the lake, on my bike and on my feet.
I had focused solely on running for the last six months. I’d completed several mile races, the Skunk Cabbage Half Marathon, and the Gorges Half Marathon. As I wrote in those race reports, the plan I’d been following (Run Less, Run Faster) was tough. It left little room for joy and plenty of room to steel myself for the hard workouts. Since Gorges, I’d felt the need to refocus on being diversified in my fitness and rediscovering the joy of moving my body in different ways.
The lead up to this year’s triathlon was, by any definition, non-traditional. I felt no pull to use any kind of triathlon plan. I didn’t have my sights set on any specific goals for the events. I listened to my body and spent my time doing more of the fitness things I love: biking, trail running, BodyPump, Bikram yoga, and vinyasa yoga. You’ll notice the absence of one key triathlon ingredient: swimming.
Taughannock Park opened a swim lane specifically for triathletes the weekend before the race. Amy and I both went and swam with our wetsuits. We both swam the race distance of a mile. Shane Eversfield offered a “Strokes Mastery” course the Wednesday before the race at Island Health & Fitness. Shane, a Total Immersion instructor extraordinaire, would prove to be a critical piece in this year’s triathlon for me. He started off the course talking about nervousness. He said he counters nervousness by first acknowledging it, but then by recognizing that he’s about to do something that is important to him. Something he’s able to do. That he “gets to do this.” That resonated with me. The evening progressed with a Cliff Notes version of the Total Immersion class that I’d come to love when I progressed through it several years ago.
Volunteering, Night Before
We enjoyed volunteering at registration as a family last year, so made a point of doing so again this year. Amy, Elizabeth and Xander enjoyed greeting athletes with Wegmans bags and race shirts as they went through the registration process. I took on a different job, applying yellow transition zone bracelets to racer’s wrists. I explained that they were super-plush and engineered for overnight comfort. They were assuredly not, but I think most appreciated my sense of humor. A few hours into our shift, we enjoyed delicious sandwiches brought in from Collegetown Bagels. Time passed quickly and we were soon relieved by more volunteers.
Wrapping wristbands around wrists with Marie
The concerts in the park are always a good time and Amy and I headed down for the evening while the kids stayed back at home. I really enjoy seeing the transition area set up for the next day, although the lion’s share of the setup happens overnight. As we listened to the band and relaxed with a bottle of wine, I was so struck by the contrast of the moment that I decided to write about it (link to taughannock.us). I was enjoying a soothing evening, but just 12 hours later I’d be on the very same grass getting ready for an incredible endurance event.
Wristbands, wine and a damn good time
After returning home we all set about packing most of the things we’d need for the race and then headed to bed. I don’t get too nervous before races anymore, and I gratefully found sleep rather easily once I turned in.
We drove both of our cars down to the park: a little Dawson family caravan. Amy and I were both doing the full intermediate distance and the kids were signed up on a sprint relay team with their friend Jessica. Our Subaru ferried two bikes up top while our Honda Pilot took the third bike. I could feel my energy levels rising as we pulled into the park and heard the announcer’s voice reverberating around the area. He was reminding racers about body marking, transition, USAT rules, and the promise of selfies with Andy Getzin. We got into body marking lines and then stashed our bikes and gear in our assigned transition spots.
All set up in transition
I walked over to the lake and looked at the swim course. The buoy line was relatively straight and the waves were not too bad.
A straight buoy line, but not for long
I stopped back at registration to say hello to my parents, as they were volunteering there before being able to spectate.
My parents and Xander at registration
It was fun to walk around and say hello to the people we knew, and I had the good fortune to run into Ximing. He ran on my cross country team last year, and we immensely enjoyed his company and good humor when we hosted the team for a barbecue at our house. He was looking good in a China singlet and we wished each other well.
A pre-race thumbs up from Ximing
As I waited for my 8 a.m. start time I saw pockets of volunteers meeting in different locations to map out their day. The kayakers were huddled near the shore. The lifeguards were mingling outside their building. State troopers and sheriffs were gathered in the parking lot. Ian Golden was setting up a generator and sound system near the water where he’d be announcing the swim. Volunteers were unloading massive amounts of ice from a tractor. A refrigerated Wegmans truck pulled into the park, undoubtedly carrying much of the delicious post-race lunch we’d enjoy. The race takes an army of organizers and volunteers, and this point was not lost on me as I waited.
Four Dawsons, pre-sweat
It was getting close to my start time so I headed into transition to grab my wetsuit, swim cap and goggles. I was in the first wave: men 45 and older.
Corralled and ready
The water had gotten a bit choppier since I’d last looked and the crew had some trouble with buoys getting away from them. Over the last half hour, they’d lost the yellow turnaround buoy and a bright orange one that threatened to drift around Taughannock Point. They’d gotten them all back to where they needed to be, but the distinct arc in the buoy line told me that the wind was going to conspire to make this an interesting swim. I couldn’t control any of that, though, so I hopped into the swimming area to warm up.
As I came out of the water after swimming a lap I saw Andy Getzin talking with Travis Turner. They’d no doubt be leading the pack today, so I made a joke of wishing them well, since this would be the only time I’d see them today! All of us white-capped swimmers walked one-by-one from the holding pen into the water. In prior years, I’d been at the front of the mass of swimmers, only to be trampled and kicked in the fight for space as the race began. This year I adopted a different strategy. I held back about two-thirds of the way back, off to the left of the buoy line. I reasoned that it’d be a far less stressful start, and it would only add a few seconds to my time. It turned out to be a fantastic decision!
The swim was so pleasant. True, the wind had whipped up waves making each outbound stroke a struggle, but I passed the time focusing on the different points that Shane had made in his Strokes Mastery course. Snapping my hips. Patient lead arm. Sliding my arm into the sleeve. Alternate breathing the whole way. I was filled with gratitude at one point, and echoed Shane’s sentiment to myself, saying “I get to do this.” I was being smacked in the head by waves and constantly having to course-correct, but I was grateful.
Near the turnaround at a half mile, I noticed as I breathed off to the right that the turnaround buoy was about a hundred yards in that direction. Could that be right? I stopped short and treaded water as I got my bearings and quickly understood what had happened. The buoy had again become untethered and a poor kayaker had taken up a post in its stead. He was yelling for all of us to go around him, which we did. I can’t imagine how long he must have had to give those instructions while paddling to stay in one place, especially to swimmers whose ears were mostly underwater.
The return trip was blissful since I was now swimming with the current. I enjoyed the quickening pace and reduced resistance and spent some of the return time thinking about transition. I visualized what I’d need to do: sunglasses, shoes, helmet. Sunglasses, shoes, helmet. As I approached the shoreline — (sunglasses, shoes helmet) — I saw bright sunlight reflecting off dense patches of seaweed beneath me. They passed by fluidly with each stroke. I was struck by the irony that, for most of the swim, you mark progress by the passage of surface buoys. It was far more satisfying to see objects below me passing by. It wasn’t unlike the feeling of being a little kid, putting my arm outside a car window and feeling the wind buffeting my hand as we drove. It was tactile for my senses and so enjoyable. I came out of the water feeling like I had plenty of energy. As Shane has told me before, nobody wins their race in the water, but plenty of them can lose it. The goal is to get out onto the bike and run courses with plenty of gas in the tank.
Exiting the swim (photo: Ed Dawson)
I ran through the parking lot into transition and noticed Craig McManus running at my left side. We had a good laugh since last year we also exited the water at the exact same time. I stripped off my wetsuit awkwardly after having some difficulty getting it around the timing bracelet on my ankle. I put on my sunglasses, slipped into my cycling shoes and strapped on my helmet. I staggered briefly as I started to roll my bike out of transition, mostly due to the rush of exerting so much energy moving while standing. A quick yell fixed that sensation. I clipped into my pedals and pedaled quickly onto Route 89.
Starting the bike course
The ride is easily my most favorite part of this course. Sure, it’s in my backyard so I train on it a lot. I love that you get a lot of the climbing out of the way in the first few miles. I doubled down and passed a few guys from my wave during the ascent. The Knapp and MacCarrick clans were out in full force near the crest of the hill. Stevan Knapp shot photos from the opposite shoulder while the families gave much needed encouragement as I passed. It was a wonderful emotional boost!
The next miles clicked by quickly. Rolling hills had me alternating between gear extremes. During the triathlon training night weeks prior, I had clocked my fastest bike time on the course — race or no race. I’d had a good rabbit to pace off of that night and hit 20 mph as an average. I’d not been in the lake for a mile beforehand, though. I had my watch set on average pace today. My average pace approached 18 mph as I approached Sheldrake. I immensely enjoyed the downhill into the shoreline community. As I made the turn and sped onto the “Sheldrake Sprint” Strava segment (link) I was gratified to hear the cowbells rung by so many residents from their lawns and porches. What amazing support! Here I was, halfway through the bike race and being buoyed by the support of neighbors to the north. It was awesome.
I passed a few more cyclists on the flats and made the left turn just past Sheldrake Point Winery to climb back up to Route 89. My average pace was lifted by the speed I carried through Sheldrake and I’d kissed my 20 mph average as I started the climb. I had a strong ride up the winding hill, took a left on 89, and doubled down to keep up the pace.
Return trip (photo: Stevan Knapp)
The first few southbound miles of the return trip have some slight longer uphill grades. I watched my average pace creep down tenth-by-tenth to 18.8. I was sure I could make some of that up in the final downhill miles. I traded places with just a few bikers on the return trip, since some of us are stronger at downhill stretches and others excel uphill. I passed a large contingent of MacQueen supporters. Such great cheering! I flew by the troopers who’d closed the road beyond the last intersection. All that stood between me and the end of the bike course was a sweet downhill with no traffic — guaranteed. I hit a top speed as I bottomed the hill, slowed to enter the park and dismounted when instructed. It was time to run.
I had a decent transition time from the bike to the run. The longest part was slipping on my socks and shoes, yet the bib was a cinch. When this race hosted the National Sprint Championship several years ago, the runner swag included a triathlon running belt. Your running bib snaps on the front of it, and the elastic belt clips around your waist. I’ve loved this piece of swag every year I do a triathlon, as it makes transition so easy.
The run is two identical loops up to the end of the gorge trail and back. After spending so much time exerting myself on the swim and bike, the run was all about perseverance. I ran by perceived effort, using my watch only to record the workout for posterity. After many minutes of isolation on the bike, it was heartening to have so much support on the run: the myriad spectators who shouted out my name (thank you!); Brenda Michaud at the marina bridge; the two enthusiastic volunteers cheering at the turn to the west at the shore; all the aid station crews, but most notably Bob Talda and his infectious positive vibe.
At the turnaround, loop 1
I caught up with Shane Eversfield on the first loop and chatted with him briefly. I told him that the Wednesday night class had been “pure gold” for me. It was true: without it, the swim would have gone far more poorly. The first loop went by so well, but the sun beat down relentlessly as I came back into the park. There was no shade here, and I longed to be back on the tree-covered gorge trail. Joel Cisne, in his inimitable fashion (personality and clothing) spurred runners on at the halfway point and finish. He was kind enough to let me post this video of him either guiding runners to the finish (sprint and second-lap intermediates) or another 5K loop (us lucky intermediates). Joel is one of the most memorable parts of the race for me!
The second loop was all about just keeping the pace up. I went a little further inside myself, not taking the time or energy to encourage many other runners. It was hard enough to focus on my own cadence! Minute by minute the miles passed by, though, and soon I was back in the direct sunlight. I was ready to be done.
Finish line photo
I crossed the line with an interesting dual fist pump posture. Call it my BodyPump pose, if you will? I was so happy to be done with the heat of the day descending. All I wanted in the moment, though was to find a piece of shade. I quickly said hello to my parents and my son, who’d not yet begun his relay run, followed me over into the shade of a tent. I collapsed and he took what is probably my most favorite picture of the day.
Elizabeth soon came into transition and Xander headed out onto the run course. I pulled my things out of transition and packed them in the car, then waited with Elizabeth and Jessica for Xander, then Amy, to finish. Everyone was smiling and talking and laughing, and that’s one of the reasons I love this race. It’s such a fun community to be in! There wasn’t any line at the Wegmans tent for lunch, and the long line for Ithaca Beer didn’t take a long time to get through. Our friend Christina had volunteered to sweep the youth bike course and she joined us for lunch at a shaded picnic table near the shore.
A fabulous post-race spread
It was a fitting end to a tough morning. I enjoyed the cold beer and beautiful spread of food, but I enjoyed being able to sit even more. The waves we’d endured during our swim were gone now. Ironically, the wind had died down enough to give the lake a glassy texture. After a few more minutes, with the beer gone, there was only one more choice our family could make before going home. We all looked at each other as we stood up. “Ice cream?” Amy asked. Heck yes. Ice cream.
Beer never tasted so good
Cayuga Lake Olympic Triathlon: By the Numbers
5/17 age group M45-49
Compared to Other Years: Olympic Distance
(2:07 per 100)
(19.55 avg mph)
(7:42 per mile)
(2:19 per 100)
(19.74 avg mph)
(7:25 per mile)
(2:24 per 100)
(19.47 avg mph)
(8:00 per mile)
(2:06 per 100)
(19.5 avg mph)
(8:17 per mile)