full circle in Syracuse

When we left Syracuse just over four years ago, I wrote this tribute to a city that had become unexpectedly dear to me. Given that this used to be a food blog, the post was unapologetically food-centric. Today’s post will spiral back to the new love that eventually took over—a love that also has its roots in Syracuse.

But first, a disclaimer: Last weekend’s trip to Salt City, besides being our first return visit as a couple, was memorable for mainly one reason. Mark defended his PhD on Friday afternoon, the culmination of years of hard work, and I’m so proud of him. My eighth half-Ironman was a bit of an afterthought—and quite honestly, I raced as if it was. But this is mainly a triathlon blog now, and so, in the words of Joseph Conrad, “I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.”

Jamesville Reservoir was picture perfect.

Thankfully, the Syracuse 70.3 was no nightmare. The day was perfect, with no characteristic thunder or humidity. I had zero expectations, given my on-again-off-again training, and so on race morning calmly ate my unsweetened applesauce and drank my caffeinated NUUN (hoping that not drinking coffee might fight the Chest Monster). We were onsite by 6:00, which left me two hours to prep and get in a good warm-up—and practically a nap. Similarly to Vineman and Austin last year, I got to spend my 1.2-mile swim weaving my way through 15 waves of athletes that went off ahead of me. I exited the water in 33:34, 10 seconds faster than my previous swim PR in Austin, but still slightly disappointing given how well my swimming has been going. (Can one simultaneously have no expectations and yet be disappointed? I’ll call myself on the contradiction there.)

Before the swim.

The bike was like a little gift just for me, taunting me with memories of rookie rides with my 300$ used Diamondback along Onondaga County’s smooth and undulating rural roads. (How can their asphalt be so smooth given their winters? Come on, San Diego!) The 56-mile corridor wove through lush green forests, and past run-down Victorian farmhouses and fields dotted with cows. Despite a 20-minute bonk somewhere in the middle, I had fun neck-in-neck racing the woman who’d go on to get second place in my age group. We had a couple of good-natured interactions, including me reassuring her that I couldn’t run. She replied, with a smile, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to after this—I’ve never biked so hard in my life!” My time was 2:38:26, good for the third-fastest in my age group. Phew!

Yeah, that one. (Prepping my Diamondback road bike for my first tri in Syracuse, 2008)

The Syracuse bike course was beautifully green.

That’s me, as a friend recently commented, “all helmet.”

Then I was done. Not literally, but mentally, and emotionally. I said out loud to Mark as I headed out, “I really don’t feel like doing this run.” For one, despite my Prilosec experiment, the Chest Monster had appeared early, mid-way on the bike. Second, that sinking, resigned feeling I experienced in South Africa showed up again, a feeling that I’m beginning to think is the Chest Monster’s new sidekick. I just couldn’t care less. And that was that.

Just a wee bit hilly. (Photo from the Syracuse Post-Standard)

I set out easy, determined to at least try to enjoy the pretty 13.1-mile route, and vowing not to make things worse by looking at my pace. I trotted out the first 3 miles, thinking that maybe my pace would later surprise me. HA! It turns out the Syracuse run course, like its close cousin in St. George, is made for mountain goats. It went by quickly (given that it took me almost two hours) and I loved the cool breeze, sunshine, and shade. And then came the hard truth that despite a successful winter of running and two running PR’s, it’s just not translating to triathlon this year. Stick a run on the tail of a swim and bike, and in comes acute pain and creeping negativity.

At Gannon’s, post race. Snapchat by Keith.

BUT! (And I’m so glad there is one.) On Sunday, I was too happy to let it wreck me. Happy doing what I love in the place where I discovered my inner athlete. Happy cheering for the girls blowing by me, walking the aid stations, and finding that last push to sprint to the finish and break 5:15 by an eyelash. Then I left the whole silly mess there at the finish line, read to move on. We hit Gannon’s for homemade ice cream on our way back to Keith‘s home stay, where I let a dish of Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl try to calm the Chest Monster down. Later that night, we met up with Keith, Alesha, and Dan at the famous Dinosaur BBQ to celebrate.

syracuse 70.3

Goofing around after the race with Kevin and Keith.

[Here I must insert a warning to my good friend Jordan—the original Hippie Triathlete—who drove down from Ottawa for Mark’s defense and poked fun at me for the number of “sad blog posts” in the days after Ironman South Africa. I guess I am a little Eeyore-esque sometimes. Maybe the glut of “look how perfect my life is” blogs out there make me want to tell it like it actually is, like so many of my favorite bloggers in this sphere (SonjaKatie and Penelope.) I like the way the author of a recent essay titled “Why the Internet is getting bland,” characterized this phenomenon. Speaking of the “banal positivity” that has infiltrated social media, he says: “In many cases it’s simple bragging; in others it’s about finding and growing an audience with inspirational aphorisms, [and] pictures of beautiful things.” In other words, to sell shit. Well, that was a divergence! The rest of this is for you, Jordan.]

This race wasn’t special for its times or breakthroughs or firsts. It was special because of the memories bubbling up in each visit on friends’ back porches or to old hole-in-the-wall bars. It seemed that around corner hid the memory of a conversation on a park bench, a late night’s snowy trudge home, a song sung in an old church. Living there was a time of wide-eyed willingness to explore new things; I’ve changed in many ways since then, but returning brought waves of nostalgia that were stronger than I was prepared for. I couldn’t tell if what I was feeling was a longing for things passed, or actually a peculiar kind of happiness—the kind you feel at a homecoming.

Dinosaur BBQ feast.

Turns out the word nostalgia itself reflects this. It’s a combination of the Greek nóstos, meaning “homecoming,” and the Homeric word álgos, meaning “pain,” or “ache.” My feelings made perfect sense. Even better is the concept of sehnsucht, introduced to me years ago by C.S. Lewis, a German noun translated broadly as a type of “intensely missing.” Whatever the word or definition, the feeling visited me at every turn in Syracuse.

It visited me as I walked down the streets of the University area, under their thick canopy of birch, elm, and oak. It showed itself as we walked past the houses where friends used to live, and as I traversed old cycling and running routes—where I took my first steps as a triathlete. It came to me on the whiffs of fresh-cut grass and on the sounds of birds, still chirping in the 9 p.m. light on the longest day of the year. As I said goodbye again, I was sad, really sad to be leaving, yet without fully knowing why. And I guess, just like when we’re not as fit or as fast as we want to be, we’ve got to just let it be OK.

And just for fun, a few non-race photos:

Thornden Park pool. In grad school I'd ride my bike here in the morning to swim, and then Mark would bring me a latte and take my swim bag home while I headed to my 8:30 am class.

Thornden Park pool. In grad school I’d ride my bike here in the morning to swim, and then Mark would bring me a latte and take my swim bag home while I headed to my 8:30 am class.

Where I spent MANY hours: The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Where I spent MANY hours: The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

The Hall of Languages on campus.

The Hall of Languages on campus.

Grace Church, Syracuse.

Grace Church.

Our old apartment on Westcott St. (So much nicer inside. 2BR, Hardwood floors, $600/month!)

Our old apartment on Westcott St. (So much nicer inside. 2BR, Hardwood floors, $600/month!)

A huge thank you, as always, to Cannondale Bikes, Giro, Bonk Breaker, Champion Systems, INFINIT, Oakley and Pearl Izumi. And excellent service from Nytro Multisport and support from my sisters on the Nytro Women triathlon team.

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