The seven days of Mussel
by Jeff Henderson
published by

It's all over. Months of phone calls, lists, meetings, and timelines. Weeks of agonizing over budgets and guessing quantities in thirty different ways. Days of assembling food, metal stakes, plastic bags, and zip-ties. The hours and minutes and seconds that passed on the way to 7 am on July 11th, 2004; all come and gone. Musselman 2004 is in the books.

I'd like to tell you how the week unfolds for triathlon organizers. Monday's melody begins innocently and crescendos to a gigantic, crashing roar of a bass drum by Sunday morning. In that time your job is to synchronize 300 instruments, most of which have never been played before. When the day of the symphony arrives, you cannot let the music die even though much of it is beyond earshot.

Tuesday the goody bags were meant to be stuffed. The t-shirt company was late with our order so we stood in the storage room above Jim's bike shop with plenty of volunteers and not enough material. Four hours later, we had plenty of material and no volunteers. My mother, father, wife, and I finished the job at 1:30 am.

On Wednesday I picked up cones from four different highway departments, moved 400 gallons of water from a local convenience store to my brother's garage, and delivered eight cases of wine to Hobart & William Smith Colleges, location of our pre-race dinner. Athletes were still registering for the race online, in droves, and I began to worry that we wouldn't have enough supplies.

Friday marked the end of feeling calm and collected. We were now allowed to move supplies into the picnic pavilion at the state park, so most of the evening was spent hauling bike racks, carpet remnants, and boxes filled with CARB-boom, Clifbars, and H.E.E.D. In the morning the run crew had marked the course through Geneva, and at closing time we tore apart the bike shop in preparation for Saturday's registration.

I had purchased some "ecologically-friendly" marking chalk via mail order, and we planned to use orange to signify the long course and white for the sprint. I won't lie to you - it was great fun to walk through Geneva spray-painting the daylights out of the sidewalk and road. Toward the end of the 13 miles we stood in front of the downtown branch of the Boys & Girls Club, an area where misspent youth typically congregate. As our run coordinator gave a good blast of orange to the sidewalk, a 10-year-old with street smarts eyed us suspiciously.

"Are we allowed to do that?" he asked, curiosity getting the best of him.

"Of course!" I told him. "Town decorations!"

If on Friday the proverbial kitchen starts to get a little warm, on Saturday a dozen grease fires rage out of control. Saturday is packet pickup and last-minute registration, the race site needs to rise from the earth, and athletes begin to arrive in large quantities. Each athlete has approximately thirty questions they would like to ask, preferably now. But as my wife often tells me, I signed up for the job.

I naively assumed I would be able to oversee setup, check on registration/packet pickup (which, by the way, is only slightly less complicated than the female reproductive system), and hold three pre-race meetings over the course of Saturday. I only managed to do one effectively: I was on time for all three pre-race meetings.

At 6 pm athletes made their way through the line of the pre-race dinner. We served the many bottles of wine that had been donated by local wineries, but we vastly overestimated athletes' willingness to drink the night before a race. Of nearly 150 bottles, perhaps 20 were drunk. Luckily, I was closer on my estimate of dinner attendees: I had given the caterers a figure of 400 and the final count was around 360. Not too bad for having absolutely no idea.

Karen Smyers delivered a wonderful talk as my wife, Melissa, held her newest son, Casey. She talked of overcoming cancer, tractor trailers, and debilitating injuries and I reflected that the tasks before me were not that bad after all. As she concluded her speech I realized we had forgotten to pick up the fruit.

I had ordered 800 bananas, 35 watermelons, 800 apples, 100 quarts of strawberries, and enough juice to hydrate 500 athletes. It was now sitting in Red Jacket Orchards' warehouse, forgotten because my slated pickup man had not showed. A sickening feeling rose from my stomach; the store was probably closed by now and we needed the fruit for the aid stations at 5am.

I asked my father to drive to the warehouse with his truck and see what he could find. I did not ask him because he has a truck; I asked him because he has an uncanny ability to do the impossible. He'll drop off the family in front of a crowded theatre in the rain and somehow manage to park one block away and not get wet walking in. An hour later he called to report that he had located the owner's grandmother and was now on the way to fetch the warehouse keys. He would have the fruit in 45 minutes.

By 1:00 am we had sufficiently arranged the park to be presentable in the morning. I looked over the piles of aid station provisions littering the floor and asked my father, our aid station coordinator, his plans for the morning. All the supplies needed to be out of there by 5 am, when raceday registration would commence. My father's original plan was to assemble a crack team of mobile drivers with pickup trucks, who would roll out on cue by 5 am loaded to the gills. Over the prior days, though, he had received word that one driver had a coronary stenosis and couldn't drive a stick shift, and another hurt his knee and couldn't lift anything heavy. This was not good news for a job made up of two primary components: driving and lifting.

We sketched a plan. He had three functioning teams remaining - himself and two others. My father would take the first three bike stations, Stu and Dave would fortify the final two, and John and Matt would take the beginning of the run. I would take care of station #1, at the transition area, and then whoever returned first would finish off the run. It just might work.

At 2 am Melissa could no longer hold it together. Too many nights of too little sleep and the mounting realization that morning was approaching took hold of her and shattered the brittle composure. Her arms dropped to her side, despair clouded her eyes and she began to cry. Tom, our medical coordinator, put his arm around her; the tears came more heavily now. In the loneliness of darkness, in the vulnerability of the very early morning and the uncomfortable heaviness of having to think instead of sleep, the weight of the world came down on her.

We were exhausted. I told Tom to go home and sleep. He lifted himself into the cab of his truck and drove to a dark corner of the park. Melissa and I drove toward the exit gate, stopping long enough to consider putting up the welcome banner, as we had planned. I told Melissa to lay her head down and rest while I drove in the metal stakes.

Of course she came out to help me.

Back home, at 2:30 am, I entered the final participant names into the database and printed out two copies of the athlete list for the park's entry gate. Melissa lay on the couch and fell into a deep sleep. I burned a CD of music we had compiled that week; a trivial detail but a necessary one. At 3:29 I lay down on the bed in the upstairs loft and closed my eyes... exactly one minute later the alarm went off.

We drove to the park in silence, the world still cloaked in darkness. I had slept four hours in three days and wondered how I would survive the most difficult day yet.

The park lay quiet, then volunteers began to arrive. The timing company completed the finishline; I assembled the transition aid station. Melissa led a briefing of the kayakers while Tom Kime used his motorboat to place the buoys. With the arrival of more volunteers, my anxiety began to subside. The sky lightened to the east.

Like a beehive coming to life the grounds soon swarmed with activity. I pointed frenzied athletes with broken bikes to the Geneva Bicycle Center's tent. I directed others to body marking near the timing trailer, and fielded questions about the swim course. The course is a simple triangle and I had described it in detail at Saturday's pre-race meeting, but I could understand the nervousness and that gave me patience.

On his way to deliver the first aid station, my father and his small convoy of trucks came across a dead woodchuck in the road. He slowed down and said to Matt, Melissa's brother sitting in the passenger seat, "I think we need to take care of this."

Matt had returned from a year of missionary work in Belize two nights before. "You mean perform its final Christian rites?" Matt asked.

My father shrugged. "Whatever it takes."

So Matt climbed down from the truck, stood before the woodchuck and made the sign of the cross, and with a shovel hurled the now-blessed roadkill into the weeds. Crossing himself once more, as the line of trucks waited by the side of the road, Matt got back in and they continued.

At 6:52 my father pulled the truck to the side of the road and took out his cell phone. My brother, standing next to the bagpiper, placed a call to my father and lifted his phone to the music now stirring forth. In the marina sailors paused in their moorings; athletes stood still and listened; the gentle breeze stirring the oak leaves shimmered silver in golden light. There are few things on this earth more beautiful than the sound of bagpipes at the water's edge, and in my bleary state I stood knee-deep in the lake and a tear slowly rolled down my cheek.

I had asked John Kenny, the Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club, to be our official starter. John had never seen a triathlon before; he had come to our planning meetings glad to be a recipient of the final donation but unclear exactly what this thing was all about. As one hundred athletes in green caps and matching black wetsuits took their positions before him in the start corral, he was beginning to get it.

"What an amazing event!" he breathlessly stammered as we made our way to the start line, 30 meters out in the water. I explained to him the start procedure: I would make a final announcement to the swimmers at 30 seconds, then I would hand him the megaphone. At five seconds he would relay the time to the swimmers and then he would fire the horn. He confidently replied, "simple."

At 6:59:30 I held the megaphone aloft and said, "Swimmers, 30 seconds. You are now in the hands of the starter, John Kenny, of the Boys & Girls Club of Geneva. Good luck."

John took the megaphone. At ten seconds he was visibly shaking. At five seconds he triggered the siren. Two seconds later he shouted "five seconds!" Oh well.

The next wave went flawlessly. We did not begrudge the first wave their slight advantage.

An hour lies between the half-iron and the sprint race, the mini-Mussel. I walked toward the volunteer tent and asked how things were going. No problems. I checked on the motorcycles; they were lined up and ready to go with three officials on the back. The medical tent personnel were chilling on the cots; no action yet. All seemed to be in place as my nefarious cell phone sprang to life.

I answered; it was Jennifer Grant patrolling the bike course. "Jeff," she told me, " there are no professionals out here."

Three hundred swimmers were making the first turn and every dangerous intersection for 56 miles was unguarded. I told her to stay at the first intersection and I would call her back. We dispatched as many volunteers as we had while I frantically called the county sheriff.

The sheriff, who I had been in contact with since January, told me that the head of emergency services mistakenly thought the event was Saturday, the day before. The fire police were snug in their beds as I explained, in unchecked English, that 300 cyclists were about to enter Seneca County with no intention of stopping at stoplights. Not wanting to have the Monday morning headlines associated with his name, he grasped the urgency of the situation and said he would make some calls.

It is then that a small team of angels descended upon Seneca Lake State Park in the form of Richard Kingsley and his band of Hamm radio operators. I had contacted Richard to provide communication support on the bike course because the cell coverage is spotty; his crew prepared for the event like they were being deployed to the jungles of Vietnam. Richard arrived with a 4-square-foot map of the entirety of Seneca County and blanketed the roadways with radios. "I can call Baltimore from here if I want," he told me. "Only need two repeaters."

Richard, unhurried and cool as the other side of the pillow, got on the horn and vocally orchestrated the symphony. He got on the police frequencies and told them where to go. He monitored the progress of the lead cyclist. He closed gaps and instructed volunteers. At 7:30 my father called in a panic.

At the point where the sprint splits with the long course, an arrow had been placed incorrectly. Seeing this, my father had slammed on the brakes and threw the truck into reverse; in his haste he forgot the trailer. Later in the day we would notice the dent in the side of the truck and the bent tongue of the trailer, but at that moment my father simply wanted to keep the cyclists going the right way. I told him to remove the sign, and as he did the first cyclist appeared on the crest of the hill.

A brilliant day of sunshine sent the thermometer climbing, and by the time runners took to the streets of Geneva dogs lay in the shade with no intention of moving. Unaccustomed to such activity on a Sunday in July, citizens of this quiet town rallied a spirit that no amount of prior planning or money in the budget can create. Runners at mile two of the run were accompanied by a bongo drummer as they passed through a tunnel; garden hoses were rigged to ladders for impromptu showers; and at mile five, a ten-year-old girl stood at the end of her driveway and serenaded the weary with her violin.

It took four days to dismantle the Musselman - four days to return all borrowed items to their owners, to send coolers back to the sponsors, to make the rounds with t-shirts and thank volunteers using words woefully inadequate for the gratitude meant to be conveyed. Would I do it again? You bet I would - July 17, 2005.