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July 17, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

July 17, 2006

Triathletes In The Pine Bush

Slow, fat and sickly, The Wife takes the willpower prize

It was past the starting time of Eight AM and it was already getting hot. The serious athletes, the ones who expected to win prizes or show with respectable times were standing like statues on the bank of Rensselaer Lake in the Pine Bush, gazing out at the water. The two minute warning sounded, and the “first heat” moved into the shallow water, waiting for the starting horn.

Meanwhile, The Wife was finally approaching the women’s room, having waited in line almost half an hour. Looking like a space alien in her swimsuit, bulbous purple swim goggles and bright yellow earplugs, she chatted happily with the other non-winning athletes waiting to empty their bladders.

Having been assigned to the ninth heat out of ten, she was in no hurry and betrayed only the slightest hint of nervousness. The higher number heats, she explained, were for the older people such as herself. But looking around, it seemed to me that the later heats were also reserved for the slow and chubby, and anybody else likely to get in the way of the serious athletes.

At the women's room with the Slow Fat Triathlete

Not that I have any business criticizing the participants. You don’t see me entering the 6th Pine Bush Triathlon on a Sunday morning in July. I guess I could bicycle 11.5 miles fairly well, I might be able to stumble 3.2 miles in an hour or so, but I sure as hell couldn’t swim 325 yards across the lake. No, I was there to cheerlead for The Wife, who has turned into a regular healthy exercise monster.

There was some question whether or not The Wife would participate this year. The week before last she contracted the dreaded Summer Flu, which lingered and left her bed ridden when she should have been at the peak of her triathlon training. She lolled about in bed, too miserable to even whine properly. All she could do was moan and blow her nose.

And then, as the flu receded at the beginning of the week, she got herself a sinus infection. She looked like she wanted to blubber.

“My face feels awful. I can’t imagine slamming it into the water. I guess I won’t be doing the triathlon.”

“Take the antibiotics,” I advised. “Stay rested. And go see the Slow Fat Triathlete. Then we’ll see how you feel by Saturday.”

This would be Jayne Williams, giving an inspirational presentation at the Women’s Building on Central Avenue this past Thursday night. Ms. Williams has written a book called Slow Fat Triathlete: Pursue Your Athletic Dreams In The Body You Have Now. Her basic premise:

Jayne is living proof that you don't have to be young, lean, super-fit or otherwise exceptionally talented to have fun in triathlon and other endurance sports.

This radical philosophy turned out to be exactly what The Wife needed. She came back from the lecture full of confidence and healthy fatalism. “I’m just gonna do it, and whatever happens happens. I’m gonna have fun.”

Keeping The Wife company at the women’s room line, I noticed a woman nearby who fit the description of The Slow Fat Triathlete, tall and chubby in a tight fitting blue body suit. Armed with The Wife’s confirmation of identity, I approached her.

“Excuse me, are you The Slow Fat Triathlete?” I asked.

I have to admit that was great. There’s not many opportunities in this life for a weird guy like me to ask a strange female a question like that and not get smacked, kicked in a tender place or hauled off by a cop. She smiled and admitted that she was! (Thank goodness.) She remembered The Wife well - “With the sinus infection? She made it?” Then she happily posed for a photo.

After a moment she was over at the bathroom line chatting with The Wife, her hale and hearty friend Claire Nolan who got The Wife triathleting in the first place, and Rezsin Adams, who I had brought to the event in my truck.

I’ll have to say that Rezsin sure marches around pretty good for a woman who is almost eighty. She and I had just hiked double time to Rensselaer Lake at least a quarter mile from the far end of the industrial parking lot across Fuller Road. Indeed, I kept forgetting all morning that she was old and couldn’t always keep up with me.

Rezsin has never been an athlete, but she has always been a dedicated walker. Most likely this is the reason she has outlived her female forebears, most of whom expired by their early sixties. She is proud of never having learned to drive, getting around quite well by bus or by cadging rides. And she happily trudges up the hill in Troy at least once a week to do her radio show at WRPI-FM.

At last, The Wife donned her ninth heat blue bathing cap and waded into the water. No more schmoozing, it was one short chubby woman versus the watery elements. The starting horn blasted, and she hesitated a few seconds before plunging into the drink.

The plunge
The blue caps plunge

She told me later that this time, her third Pine Bush Triathlon, she was not afraid of the water. This despite her illness, which had left her weak and slow. Of course, there were plenty of people in kayaks and whatnot ready to pluck her out of the ocean if she floundered and started to sink to the bottom, but that was not the point.

She had spent the past winter practicing at her favorite indoor pool, Bath House Number 2 on Fourth Street near South Pearl. This almost forgotten South End treasure looks like an abandoned building, but on the inside is an old but lovely heated indoor pool. Many a cold blustery morning she would be the first swimmer and plunk down one dollar as it opened at 7 AM.

In addition, Claire Nolan has been coming up with ways to make her excel. On the Fourth of July, just before The Wife got sick, Claire induced her to swim clear across Thompsons Lake and back, which is up in Berne right outside Thatcher Park. The Wife huffed and puffed and struggled as Claire swam lazily along and I paddled alongside slowly in my kayak, but by golly she did it. All by herself without stopping. You know she was ready for the triathlon.

After The Wife plunged into the water, I led Rezsin on a hike around the lake to the landing pad, an electronic rubber mat that reads the microchip velcroed around each swimmer’s ankle as he/she emerges bedraggled from the water. We arrived as the blue caps were already staggering out of the lake and up the bank. And we waited, as all the blue caps left the lake.

Then the purple caps of the final tenth heat started stumbling out gasping for air, but still no The Wife. Had she sunk to the bottom unnoticed by the minders in kayaks to become octopus food? (The dreaded karner blue octopi of Lake Rensselaer?) But wait, there among the last purple caps, off to the right, a solitary blue cap.

She staggered only a bit as she climbed out and crossed the mat, then ran up the hill to the changing area. Changing outfits is an important part of triathlons, and is figured in as part of the time. This has spawned a whole category of quick and versatile triathlon clothes and changing equipment, such as The Slow Fat Triathlete’s blue body suit, which is designed to facilitate swimming, biking, running and anything else in comfortable succession.

Two years ago, I watched as The Wife twiddled interminably with her shoelaces in the changing area, losing precious time as her fellow contenders arrived and literally left her in the dirt. A few weeks ago she happily opened a package and pulled out her new self-tightening shoelaces. Just pull ‘em once and they clamp tight. She was thrilled with her new purchase.

Earlier, in line for the women’s room, Rezsin had displayed her unique sense of humor when she suddenly proclaimed to all the female athletes present, “Dan tells me that you take off your bathing suits outdoors in the changing area. Is that true?”

I immediately denied everything. Of course, if that were true, I’d be spending my time over at the changing area taking pictures. I gotta tell you, some of those female athletes in the early heats were quite healthy looking.

Eventually The Wife got up and ran off to “get on her bike and ride.” Rezsin and I marched back across Fuller Road to drive to the bicyclist’s destination, the YMCA off Western Avenue in Guilderland, which is way past Route 155.

We parked on a sort of dirt lot on Western. Rezsin had asked and gotten permission to set up a Save the Pine Bush display at the termination point of the race. So I loaded up on The Wife’s “rolly cart” a folding card table, the three panel display that I had built in my basement years ago, and a big cardboard envelope of pictures and supplies. I slung The Wife’s clothes bag over my shoulder, grabbed the rolly cart, and we set off down the long, winding access road without sidewalks to the YMCA, dodging the occasional car.

“I had no idea,” Rezsin said as we trudged, “that this road was so long, and that the Y was so far from Western Avenue.”

“Yah,” I said, “they should have built a shorter road through the Pine Bush Preserve. Weren’t they talking about doing that?”

That was a joke. Rezsin smiled and nodded. You see, around ten years ago Rezsin, The Wife, and the rest of Save the Pine Bush fought successfully to stop the YMCA from blasting an illegal road through the Preserve.

Back then, to hear the corporate executives of the Young Men’s Christian Association, the new Y could not possibly survive without a driveway created by sacrificing Pine Bush Preserve. How could these irresponsible environmentalists oppose such a worthy and wonderful organization and stand in the way of privatized progress?

Then suddenly, the YMCA executives dropped their destructive plan. You see, on nearby Willow Street a developer installed water lines perhaps five feet inside the border of the Preserve. Save the Pine Bush went to court and forced the developer to dig up the water lines and move them to the other side of the street, thus affirming the integrity of the Preserve.

The YMCA executives got the message. Somehow, the Guilderland YMCA has survived the indignity and appears to be making a brisk profit.

We arrived at the parking lot of the Y, at the nexus of the bicycling and the running. Triathletes dropped off their bikes in a corral and ran over another electronic pad, grabbing a cup of water as they passed. They continued without stopping on the 5K+ run on the suburban roads looping back to the starting point.

This was also the single entrance and exit for the parking lot, and several young Guilderland cops were snarling and hollering at the spectators without letup. Vehicles, triathletes, spectators and cops jammed together in confusion. In addition, the runners and the bicyclists had to compete with vehicular traffic on the roadways.

Are these sorts of safety hazards inevitable in the suburbs, where everyone is required to own and drive a car? In downtown Albany the streets are closed off to autos for the duration of road races, and opened after the last competitor passes. This causes very little problem. Is it a basic flaw of the suburbs that such a simple and commonsense measure as temporarily closing the roads during a race is considered impossible? I sure think so.

Rezsin, of course, wanted to set up the Save the Pine Bush table right at this spot. I argued with her a bit, and eventually hustled her over to the shade of a little sapling tree to one side of the entrance to the YMCA building. I quickly helped her set up the display, ran inside to use the can, and trotted over to the bike corral.

Most of the bikes in the race had arrived and were parked and I thought I’d missed The Wife, but I needn’t have worried. Bicycling is her strongest event, but today she was slow and sick. Besides, she told me later, the cars and the poor condition of the unswept roadways scared her and made her hesitant.

Finally she ran into view from the far end of the corral, arms raised in victory and resplendent in her fluorescent green shirt. Man, that garment made her easy to spot. She crossed the rubber mat to my cheers, slugged down a cup of water and set off on the 5K+ journey through suburbia.


Claire Nolan with a banana

I went back to check on Rezsin and help myself to a free hotdog and iced coffee. They also had other free drinks and bananas, which, for some reason, athletes love to eat after races. Rezsin grabbed a couple and hid them away for The Wife, in case they were all gone by the time she finished.

After half an hour, I wandered back to the road to wait for The Wife. I walked down the hill and waited. And waited. Occasionally a lone runner would stagger by, and I would encourage them. I really wanted to keep saying to them, “It’s all uphill from here!” Instead of being cruel, I shouted things like “All right, almost there, you can do it,” etc. like I’m supposed to.

Time passed, but hardly any more runners did. Mosquitos pierced my skin and ate my blood. Still no The Wife. Had she collapsed and died on a godless suburban roadway? Without sidewalks?

I walked further around the bend of the road to the entrance of some “apartment complex.” In the distance, I saw that fluorescent green shirt.

She was not moving fast, but eventually she came up to me. I walked briskly beside her as she “ran,” shouting encouragement... “Okay! Turn on the juice!” “This is the juice,” she gasped. “There ain’t no more.”

Amazingly, she did not slow down on the hill. At the top the remaining spectators went wild with encouragement. Some people love to cheer on the last few stragglers, bless ‘em. Still, on the final straightaway, she actually moved faster and I had to trot to keep up. She crossed the last rubber mat, grabbed some water and presented her ankle to a young lady sitting in a chair who removed her microchip.

Strolling heavily like a warrior just back from the front lines, she entered the diaphanous spray of the firehose. Emanating from a Town of Guilderland ladder truck, the water rose what we who live in Albany would call five or six stories in the air and fell down as a heavy mist on the parking lot, to run off into the storm drains. Almost every single triathlete partook of this rare pleasure after the run.

The Wife emerged from the waterfall looking like a triumphant soggy rodent. Not only had she finished the race, she was not in last place. She dried off fast in the hot sun and started talking about food.

The next morning, The Wife woke up much too early with a renewed sinus infection. “My body is fine,” she said, “but my face hurts.” She spent the day lying in bed, occasionally getting up and going outside to scream incoherently at the neighbors for playing loud music.

Oh well. Such are the travails of the triathlete. At least she’s not screaming at me.

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