I got to swim with Wessie the vagabond anaconda in Westbrook yesterday. Well, maybe I did. We’ll never really know, will we? The Major League Triathlon sent dozens of triathletes, including me, into the Presumpscot River, which is where a 9-foot snake nicknamed Wessie was spotted earlier this summer. She/he never showed.
There’s something about triathlons that make you value your ability to breathe and strive. So Wessie’s hidden presence just added to that sense of appreciation for vitality. A 500-yard swim, 12-mile bike ride and 3.1-mile run (actually, it was about 4.25 miles) — and the potential presence of a giant snake that spends most of its time in or around water — really make you grateful for all your toes … or your feet, or your legs.
“Isn’t this the dock where Wessie was spotted?” one of the athletes said as we walked onto a dock where we’d start the race. I laughed. But then we jumped in and had to tread water for a few minutes until everyone was ready and the race director could sound the horn. The water was murky; I couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of me. What was happening beneath the surface?
It turned out my dog, Ernest, had concerns of his own. I couldn’t hear him from where I was in the water, but he started yelp-howling as I jumped in. It was “a combination between a shriek and a cry,” my husband told me later. Ernest, an Australian shepherd, hadn’t made that sound before.
After we all took off, my husband and pup walked back along the riverbank to the transition area. By “walked,” I mean Ernest pulled. Whenever there was an opening in the trees, Ernest looked intently at the water, my husband said. If a snake attacked (unlikely, I know), Ernest would have been ready to spring into the water and defend his momma.
Of course I knew none of this at the time. I was just trying to breathe — and not get kicked in the face. (Luckily, I avoided all flailing feet.) It was a major relief to spot the final buoy and then crawl-wade out of the water. Ernest was right there, waiting anxiously. I swear he smiled when he saw me. I called out to him as I ran to the transition area to pull on my shoes and start biking.
He was calm when I spotted him during the laps of biking and running.
“He didn’t express as much worry in the non-water parts, so I think he was concerned strictly with the snake,” my husband said, as we talked later. (Yes, I interviewed him. That’s totally normal, right?)
“Were you worried for me?” I asked
“No, I didn’t believe the snake would be a problem.” (They aren’t venomous, and this one would be too small to eat a human. Everyone said it would avoid a loud group of triathletes at all costs.)
“Why do you think Ernest was so freaked out?”
“He’s very protective of you, and he doesn’t want to be too far apart from you if he can help it, and I think he’s a little bit worried whenever you go in the water — and certainly when he can’t follow you. It would be funny if he did.”
“Then we’d have a missing Ernest to worry about,” I said.
“Luckily we prevented that.”
As I crossed the finish line, my husband and Ernest came to greet me. The race director announced to everyone how my dog had gone crazy when I jumped in the water and must be glad to be reunited. Later, they gave the winners stuffed snake toys. (I won my age group, and received a beer glass.) They were also selling T-shirts featuring Wessie — a dominant theme of the event and great for publicity.
But more than any token or acknowledgment, I was just glad to have pushed myself. Wessie or no Wessie, completing a sprint triathlon provides an internal sense of accomplishment. I’m not sure whom the race was hardest for — me, Ernest or the silent Wessie — but at least we all got to reaffirm what matters to us. Me: a challenge. Ernest: making sure I’m safe. And Wessie, if the snake exists at all: survival.