On Stories

"To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct." --Mark Twain, "How to Tell a Story"

When I was little, my uncle would read stories to me and my brother, Chris. We'd sit on the couch on either side of him, anticipating the great fun coming our way. My uncle was a great storyteller, but not such a great reader—at least that's what I initially thought.

He would begin reading our chosen book, turning the pages while we followed the words as best we could. After a few pages, the words did not mirror his telling. Chris and I struggled to keep up, to match the written with the spoken, but the effort proved fruitless. Uncle Mark had come off the rails.

Someone had laid down those storybook words with intent, but Uncle Mark chose to ignore them and freestyle his own story. The result was at once fascinating and hilarious. Chris and I stared in wide-eyed wonder as Uncle Mark created worlds of little men traveling through water pipes and balloons that could talk, a world bounded by his seemingly limitless imagination.

An author chooses words deliberately and means for them to be read precisely; they are not suggestions or guidelines or a bin of oranges inviting you to select the best ones. Most authors, I suspect, would not take kindly to liberties taken with their hand-picked lexemes. Uncle Mark was not to be constrained, though, and once we realized what was up my brother and I gleefully snapped our seat belts, knowing we were in for a strange and wonderful ride.

Producing a triathlon is not unlike writing a story. You spend a year on major elements of the manuscript: setting, rising action, tone. You identify supporting characters, you build a set (because this story will be acted). An audience is invited and encouraged to not sit idly by. Every element is fastidiously worked out and fussed over a hundred times—every element, that is, but the plot.

Enter Uncle Mark by the hundreds.

In my role as race director I get to design the dust jacket and ink the first paragraphs, but I'll never consummate the stories. The diverse set of strange and wonderful tales told at Musselman arise from the strange and wonderful characters bopping about like popcorn in a kettle. Each year a new chapter is written as the plotlines develop depth and color. And each year committee meetings stretch longer as agenda items catalyze memories desperate to be shared.

One of my favorite stories concerns a certain participant venturing from New York City to compete in the 2006 Musselman. We'll call her Edna.

Edna's story begins innocently enough with a short email sent to me a week before the race. In it she calmly explained that she could not get the darn race maps on the website to print; would I mind sending her a couple copies? I wrote back and implored her to seek help from a friend, or the local library, (but not yet a professional) because time 'til raceday was sinking swiftly through the hourglass.

A few days later she wrote again, with no mention of the maps, but to ask if she could start the bike when everyone else started the swim. "I have an open wound on my leg, and my doctor doesn't think I should expose it to the water," was her reasoning.

I quickly wrote back and expressed hearty agreement that she probably shouldn't be swimming with an open wound, but that she couldn't start the bike early because traffic control, volunteers, and aid stations would not be ready. A little kernel of worry burrowed its way into the back of my mind and I looked up her race number.

Her next note gave me a fuller indication, and a slight bit of panic, of what was to come. She would be arriving by Greyhound bus, she wrote, and needed to be picked up at 3:15 pm on Friday and taken to the bike shop, so her bike could be assembled (had she told the bike shop? I had my doubts). She would be leaving on another bus at 5:00 pm on Sunday, so after completing the race and having a bite to eat and a massage, she'd need a ride back to the bus terminal at about 4. "Oh, and I'll be arriving into New York City at one in the morning, which will require a late-night taxi ride home," she added for no identifiable reason.

It was now a few days before race weekend, and I no longer had time to correspond with an increasingly delusional lady. I wrote back explaining that the bus terminal is less than a mile from the bike shop and also a mile from the race site, and Geneva comes complete with taxis more than happy to ferry you around. I received a few other communications from Edna, but time and therapy have happily dimmed the details.

The thousand tasks of race weekend arrived and I didn't think more about needful Edna. Following the swim, our lead kayaker came over with a concern. He told me a swimmer making little forward progress had motioned for a lifeguard during the first leg of the 1.2-mile triangle. She had asked him, in a tone reminiscent of late-night on the Titanic, to throw her the rescue tube. Then she clutched it to her chest and started kicking. She refused to hand it back. An hour later, just under the swim cut-off, she miraculously puttered ashore, followed closely by a tubeless and annoyed lifeguard.

Sometime later, I asked our ham radio coordinator, Rich, where the last bike was located on the course. "Last bike is nearing Sampson State Park," he related, and my jaw dropped. It was nearly two hours after the swim cut-off and our "Lanterne Rouge" had barely made it ten miles. I had a hunch I could now guess the name of the distressed swimmer and the (pedaling?) cyclist. I asked for a race number.


Later I found out why her progress was slow. Edna had a basket on the front of her bike, and the sweep vehicle reported that she stopped every so often to pick up discarded water bottles. Her basket was full (in notable contrast to her supply of marbles) when she wheeled into the transition area many hours later.

I was waiting for her. She had missed not only the bike cut-off, which presumably happened when she stopped for a bite to eat at McDonald's, but also the entire race cut-off. I watched her meander into the transition area, and I intended to halt any attempts to begin the run.

Curiously, she had no sneakers at the ready. Instead she gathered up a bundle of tupperwares and headed for the post-race meal. Maybe she knew she'd be running (not literally) behind and wanted to ensure provisions for the long bus ride home? I didn't stop her, as Edna in the food tent was worlds better than Edna on the run course.

I wish I could tell you the story ended there. Alas, I later learned that our notorious friend, who had stayed the weekend in the college dorms known as the "Athlete Village," had taped handwritten index cards to each and every dorm door requesting a ride from the race site to the bus terminal. There must have been hundreds of them.

We'll never forget Edna. Our committee members scan the entry list each year for her name, secretly hoping she'll again show up and bring a little crazy into our all-too-quiet lives. I say a prayer each night much to the opposite.

There are a million stories that unfold race weekend, some almost as good as Edna's. Some I get to see, some I'll never hear. Some filter back through volunteers and spectators; some are told to the wind and the sun. I don't remember who won in 2005, but I remember the bike racks collapsing at 1 am. I don't recall which year we switched the swim course, but I do remember the Christian Motorcyclists Association leading a spontaneous prayer circle during Volunteer Training Night. Someday I'll tell you the one about the police boat that nearly sunk and had to be rescued by a kayaker.

Stories bring people together; they bind us through time and place. I watch the ways we communicate evolve - faxes and email and texts - and I watch magazines change formats and newspapers migrate to digital, with fancy type and shiny graphics. But nothing will ever replace a good story told well.

Series installments:
On Design
On Beauty
On Technology
On Disaster
On Liveability
On Stories
On Innovation
On People
On Community
On Fun