My Irene Triathlon: NYC to NE to the Catskills

Violet light seeped filmy and translucent through the windows facing east. Birds were warming up their morning voices. The muffled chime of a bell buoy tolled now and again from across the water. And then I ruined it all by checking email on my smartphone.

“We are sorry to inform you that we are going to have to cancel the *Frost Valley Triathlon Race. We just received news that all roads going into Frost Valley are closed and 50% of our run course is under water.”


I couldn’t curse too loud, though. I was staying in my mom’s house in Massachusetts, and it was full of family escaping from the power and water outages in Vermont due to Hurricane Irene. We were all very lucky. Irene had merely doused us with anticipation and excitement in my Brooklyn neighborhood, and my niece and nephew’s family lived on a hill above their water-logged Vermont town; when the water came back into their pipes, they’d head back to their dry home—although many neighbors were not so lucky. My hometown, too, was no worse off than if one of their less severe Nor’easters had hit. When the sun came out the next day, sailboats still bobbed happily on their moorings in the protected harbor. Even my mom’s basement was dry, despite the deluge.

The deluge was of a dramatically different sort in the Catskills, however. Like the green mountains of Vermont to the northeast, water coursed down the hills, filled the creeks and rivers, and when those couldn’t hold it anymore, created new bodies of water down roads, filling garages and basement, and sweeping away bridges. I would find out later that the violence of the rushing water had also destroyed the one road into the YMCA camp where the triathlon I had signed up for was to take place. It was summer’s end and all campers had gone home, but some staff remained and were stranded.

In a perverse way, I felt stranded on the other side—unable to get to the event I had trained for and looked forward to all summer. I had just tuned up my bike, broken in a new pair of “spd” shoes, and bought a pair of padded tri-shorts. A few weeks earlier, I’d run in a 5K road race in order to remember what it was like to compete; it was hilly and hard but I did well and it made me all the more excited for a race I hadn’t yet experienced. And now I wasn’t going to experience it. At least not this one. But I knew my disappointment couldn’t be compared to the distress that people badly affected by the hurricane were experiencing. So instead of moping, I decided to go running.

Old Burial Hill

Running through my seaside hometown just north of Boston never fails to cheer me up. Nostalgia combined with endorphins combined with a place so damn beautiful that it’s like running through one picture postcard after another would distract almost anyone from their misery. Here’s an example of a typical route, should you ever be in Marblehead and like to try it for yourself: Begin at Redd’s Pond where yours truly skated (fairly well) in the winter and fished (not so well) in summer, then take the road down and around Old Burial Hill, full of sea captains and fisher-folk, past Fountain Park overlooking Little Harbor, past the boat ramp and the one-time mooring of “Wings of the Morning,” my mother’s Rhodes 19, past the little two-family house where I was born (front room, alas still no plaque), and then make a right onto Beacon Street by the sand flats which you can cross at low tide to Brown’s Island. If you’re feeling strong, take the long windy hill up through the woods to the newer part of town. If not, or if you’d prefer to follow the footsteps of my parents whose favorite walk always included Gingerbread Hill, make a quick left and you can enjoy a bucolic view of Black Joe’s Pond on one side and glimpses of the sea on the other.

Looking toward Fort Sewall

And this is how it goes all throughout town. Past town and country history (Abbot Hall with its famous “Spirit of ‘76” painting,  the town wharf where fish and lobster boats still offload their day’s catch, and Fort Sewall where the local militia canonballed the British and saved “Old Ironsides”), my own history (an old red brick schoolhouse—now, alas, condos; the sadly empty lot where my beloved YMCA used to be; and the dock off Crocker Park where friends and I would dive into ice-cold water) and view after view after view of the ocean. Marblehead sticks out from the northshore of Boston like a thumb, so if you can’t see the ocean, you can surely smell it. Whenever I drive into town after being away for a while, I roll down my window so I can smell the salt air. Briney. Moist. Wonderful.

Salt air may also be good for clearing the head. After my initial disappointment that my first ever triathlon had been canceled, I came to my senses. If I hadn’t decided to do the race, I wouldn’t have started running again, and if I hadn’t started running again I would have missed one of the loveliest mornings in Marblehead. Trust me, I would’ve slept right past it. Plus, I had deeply enjoyed my training, rediscovering my love of running and cycling, and learning that the one sport my body was capable of early in the morning was swimming. It had not only been a summer of cross training, but one of new experiences.

But still I wanted the experience of a full triathlon, and after surfing for a while, I came up with an ideal solution. I could even do my first triathlon on the very day I was originally supposed to. Because I would do it alone. Why not? I’d never put all three sports back to back while training and I would do the same distances I would’ve done in the cancelled triathlon. The downside was, of course, that I would be my only competition and would miss out on a big factor of what makes a triathlon: the other racers. But the chances of finding another tri nearby that was still open to new entrants weren’t great. I liked my idea.

I liked it that is until I woke up that Sunday morning of my tri to heavy gray skies. Still determined, I put my bike in the back of the pickup, gathered my red swim cap, clear goggles, and both bike and running shoes, then donned my new tri apparel, the quick-dry shorts and a sleeveless zip top. And then it started to rain. And thunder. And lightening. And I took everything back off. Maybe it wasn’t my tri day after all.

But this wasn’t another hurricane or even an all-day rain. Within fifteen minutes it soaked itself out and the sky began to brighten. A bit. I ran back to my room, threw on my tri clothes and jumped in the truck. If I had a window of time, I was going to grab it.

first leg at Crystal Lake

My window lasted, miraculously, for the two plus hours I was in the water, on the bike, and on the road, before it began raining again the moment I got home. But the half an hour swim (time substituted for distance, since I wasn’t sure how long the lake was) was probably the most beautiful one of my life, through slowly rising mist on a remote Walden Pond-like lake at the end of a bumpy dirt road. I decided to add more distance (and a long two mile uphill climb) to my ride two-thirds the way through, but when the competition is yourself, you can make these last-minute decisions. You can also decide to cut short the run when one of the race volunteers is over-hungry for lunch and providing the ride home. To be honest, I did run the same distance as that in the real race, a mere 2.2 miles, but mine was mostly on road while theirs was to be on a trail.

In the end, I’ll admit that my tri felt more like a long training session than anything resembling a race. But I’m glad I decided to do it. It gave some closure to the summer of my first triathlon, accomplishing something I had committed myself to do, and might not have if not for that head-clearing run through salt-spiked air. But will I try it again? Ask me after squash season…. or if you see me running through Marblehead.

* The Frost Valley YMCA camp where my triathlon was to take place was hit extremely hard by Hurricane Irene. To see a video and/or to make a donation, visit Frost Valley YMCA

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