Very Early Running Days

“Just move your legs. Because if you don’t think you were born to run, you’re not only denying history; you’re denying who you are.” (Dr. Dennis Bramble)

 

Growing up, I’d always considered running a punishment or just a way to train for other activities. I never thought I’d consider myself a runner and a distance runner at that—nevertheless wind up enjoying the sport.

 

As kids, my dad would make my sisters and I run laps around the house if we misbehaved. In PE at school, our punishment for acting up was always running laps. At wrestling practice running was part of conditioning but it was also used as punishment. Didn’t give your best effort in a match, start running and don’t stop until coach said so. Sometimes that could last all practice. There was one form of running that I did semi-enjoy though and that was treadmill running.

 

Growing up totally blind I used a long white cane to feel the ground in front of me so I wouldn’t trip over obstacles. Running with my cane usually resulted in it getting bent and breaking. So when I did run I usually held onto a friend’s elbow or wrist and we’d run together. I didn’t like relying on someone else though so I hated running even more. Running on the treadmill was different. In eighth grade I began training to hike the Ankascocha Trail into Machu Picchu. Part of my training was doing cardio on either the treadmill or elliptical. I wasn’t a graceful treadmill runner. I landed on my heels and made quite a bit of racket. I’m sure others around me in the gym didn’t appreciate the noise I was making. Over time though I began to enjoy the 45 minutes to an hour that I spent on the treadmill. I could just plug my headphones in and listen to music. I worked on developing a lighter foot strike so that my running would be quieter and I’d draw less attention to myself.

 

When I got to college I continued my treadmill running as my primary method of training for wrestling. I got to a point where I ran a 5 minute and 37 second mile on the treadmill during my sophomore year of college. After that though I got more into indoor cycling and stopped running for several years. Treadmill running and my 5 minute 37 second treadmill mile might have been the end of my running career if I hadn’t struggled finding employment after college and taken to reading and found out about the “born to run” phenomenon.

 

Born to Run

 

In May 2013, I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in Interpersonal/Organizational Communication. I immediately began job hunting, sending my resume everywhere I could think of. I applied to jobs dealing with communication, social media, public relations, writing, etc. Sometimes I got interviews, sometimes I didn’t. There were a couple of times that I came out of an interview feeling confident that I’d at least get a second interview but days would go by and I’d hear nothing. I had one memorable interview where I walked in with my guide dog and the receptionist rudely asked, “What are you doing here?” When I explained that I had an interview the receptionist excused herself and went to talk to the person I was supposed to meet. Then she came back out and said the hiring manager had suddenly been called away to an emergency meeting and that I’d be called to reschedule. This wound up happening several times and as the months passed I became more and more depressed and desperate to find any job. The low point came when I applied to be a bagboy at a local grocery store and was turned down.

 

At this point I’d put on 25 plus pounds from when I’d graduated. My fiancee at the time was becoming increasingly frustrated with me. She’d come home and find me asleep on the couch with my laptop sitting on my lap, on the floor or on the arm of the couch. She insisted that I should just go back to school and become a college professor. I did not want to. I was determined to figure something out, I just wasn’t sure what that something would be.

 

It had been nearly a year since I graduated, and I had no job, my bank account was nearly empty and I was losing hope. When I’d gone through tough times before I’d forgotten my troubles by reading books. So I started reading some books. And then I came across “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall.

 

“Born to Run” is a book about a tribe of natives in the Copper Canyons of Mexico who are considered some of the best distance runners on the planet. McDougall traveled with several top American ultrarunners to the Copper Canyons where they competed in a 50 mile race. The book also discussed the sport of ultrarunning and for some reason it captivated me. I began thinking about the trails and mountains I used to hike as a kid growing up. When hiking in Peru one of our climbing mentors kept telling me to “gear down, we ain’t racing!” I did slow down, but reluctantly. Reading about trail running made me yearn to get back out and move fast over hundreds of miles of trails. I knew though, that before I could run mountainous trails I had to be able to run…period. In order to do that, I needed to find a running partner.

 

Mike:

 

In 2008 I was still relatively new to using the internet with my JAWS for Windows screenreading software. I was in charge of finding sponsorship deals for the climbing team I’d founded with my buddies Brad Jaffke and Justin Grant. My rudimentary googling skills brought me to the C-Different Organization. They were primarily focused on getting people into endurance sports like running and triathlon. The founders were Aaron Scheidies and Matt Miller who I’ve become closer with in the years since. I wasn’t interested in getting into running or triathlon at that point, but I was interested in their fundraising platform that would allow Team Sight Unseen to receive tax-deductible donations without becoming a nonprofit ourselves yet. In order to utilize that fundraising platform though I had to create a profile. The website also matched people who were blind or visually impaired with sighted guides for activities such as swimming, cycling and running. I created the profile and it remained pretty dormant for several years. Until that day I finished Born to Run and decided I needed to get my ass out the door and start running.

 

I logged on to the C-Different website, updated my profile and typed in my zipcode to see who was in the Orlando area. Two profiles popped up and I emailed both individuals and waited to hear back. One of those guys responded and it’s a good thing he did too because I’m pretty sure the C-Different website went defunct not long after that.

 

The guy that emailed me was named Mike Melton. He was an ER doctor and triathlete but was willing to do some running with me when he wasn’t doing his own training or during his easy days. After a quick chat on the phone where we deduced that this was going to be a total shit show with no rule or playbook we arranged a time to meet and give running a try.

 

I’d bought some parachute cord and tied it into a rope. I figured we could each hold onto one end and that’d get the job done as some kind of tether.

 

I met Mike at a running path that circled a lake in downtown Orlando which was pretty close to his house. We began jogging, I held one end of our makeshift rope tether and Mike held the other. Mike had never been around a blind person before and was nervous. I was nervous too but tried not to show it.

 

About half a mile into our run we came to our first obstacle. We had to navigate between two poles that were placed on the path to prevent cars from driving on it. Mike notified me of said poles and I stepped sort of behind him. Unfortunately I didn’t step far enough behind him and crashed into one of the poles. I had a massive charlie horse in one leg and thought I still had both testicles but wouldn’t be able to confirm that until I got home nearly two hours later. Mike felt terrible having run me into the pole but I did my best to shake it off and we continued running. In all we ran about five miles that day and despite our one mishap with the pole we decided to run together again that upcoming weekend.

 

That weekend came and Mike drove to where I was living with my fiancee. We ran from the house out about five miles and then back for a 10 mile day in just under two hours. Not bad for my second run. And this time we didn’t crash into any poles, and only stumbled over a few curbs.

 

I mentioned earlier that Mike was a triathlete. He was actually in midst of training for the Hawaii Ironman. He kept calling it “Kona” and I pretended to know what he was talking about. Over the next several months Mike and I got together to run a few times a week. I eventually landed a job downtown and Mike and I would run after I got off work. Then we’d occasionally meet up on the weekends at either one of our houses to do an 8-10 miler. Mike took me to get fitted for running shoes. We constantly reevaluated our tether system experimenting with all kinds of materials and systems to find the best tether that worked for us so that Mike could effectively guide and we could both have something resembling running technique. And all the while our friendship continued to grow and our individual personal/love lives began falling apart.

 

Eventually, Mike decided I was ready for my first race. He picked out the Miracle Miles 15k—a 9.3 mile road run that wound through downtown Orlando and raised money for the NICU at Whinny Palmer Hospital. I was nervous and excited. I’d never been able to run more than a couple of miles at a time, it was chilly and drizzling, and I’d never run in crowds before. So understandably both Mike and I were apprehensive. All in all though we had an incredible race. I ran the entire 15k and Mike navigated me in and around the crowds fairly flawlessly. Early on in the race Mike kept politely calling out “blind runner” to try and get people to move but nobody was paying attention until a lady running right behind us helped us out by screaming at the top of her lungs “MOVE!” That parted the crowd and gave Mike and me a bit of a clearer path. We were lucky to be running a similar pace with this woman who was acting as a pacer for a group of her friends. She used her loud boisterous nature to clear a path for us a few more times. We finished the race having averaged 9 minutes and 38 seconds per mile. Not fast by any means, but it was my strongest fastest run up to that point.

 

Later that week Mike signed me up for something that truly seemed inconceivable, but something that sounded too tempting not to try… My first marathon. Except there was a little bit of a “goofy” catch/twist.

 

… To be continuedJ

The Open Road: My intro to Cycling

The Open Road

“A bike is freedom; freedom from rules and freedom from adults.” (Lance Armstrong)

 

When I was four years old, I got a bike. It was blue with black knobby tires, black seat black pedals and black handlebar grips. I rode that bike in endless circles around our col-de-sac. I’d pretend I was racing or that I was riding a motorcycle. I did my best to pop wheelies or jump the bike over curbs, but I wasn’t very good at it. I just liked going fast.

 

I first learned to ride without training wheels on my younger sister’s bike. One of her training wheels had fallen off and her bike was leaning against the garage wall. My bike was hanging up from hooks on the ceiling. Everyone else was inside watching TV and I felt like riding. So I grabbed Kelsey’s bike and rode it with one training wheel. I think mom came outside to look for me and then talked me into taking the other training wheel off. Now I was riding on two wheels. I felt alive. I was able to push my bike as fast as it would go.

 

When I lost my sight at age six, I didn’t think I’d ever ride a bike again. Meeting Erik Weihenmayer though opened up my eyes to the possibilities before me as a blind person. Rock climbing was of course at the top of that list, but probably second was tandem cycling.

 

My dad spent several months looking for the right tandem. There were several bike shops in Jacksonville but not many carried tandems built with a seven-year-old stoker riding in the back. Finally, though we found one and I felt my old excitement of going fast. The tandem was black with knobby tires. I called it a mountain bike but it didn’t really have any shocks and I  later discovered that it wasn’t so hot off the road. But for the time being all I had to do was sit on the seat, hold the handlebars and push the pedals as hard and fast as I could. And that was all I cared about right then.

 

We began doing family bike rides around the neighborhood. Eventually, my friend John Norville was deemed trustworthy enough to get on the front of the tandem and pilot me around. John and I rode a bunch together. It was a way for us both to get out of the house and hang out together. John and I liked the idea of pushing ourselves as hard as we possibly could. We started venturing off of the paved roads and over grass, then a few dirt trails.

 

On a boy scout trip to Standing Indian, North Carolina, dad loaded the tandem in our camping trailer and we tested the tandem’s mountain capabilities on a few steep mountain trails. It was a terrifying but exhilarating experience. All I had was a T-shirt, gym shorts and sneakers. With no shocks we hit roots and rocks, I felt my butt come off the seat more than once as we seemed to fly through the air bombing downhill at speeds more than 30 miles an hour. All I could do was hang on for dear life. After that mountain biking experience we never took the tandem offroading but I wasn’t done cycling. I was actually just beginning.

 

The Orange Crush

 

When I was 11 I appeared as a surprise guest to Erik Weihenmayer on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Shortly after that dad was contacted by World TEAM Sports (The Exceptional Athlete Matters) and they invited dad and me to participate in a bike ride that would go from Ground 0 in New York City to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. a ride covering 280 miles in three days. I don’t know if I’d ever ridden further than five miles up until then but I was willing to try, even though 280 miles sounded inconceivably long and miserable. I thought about how my butt ached after a couple hours of fun riding with John around the neighborhood. Dad of course said we’d do the ride and started looking for a new tandem, because “Blacky” just wasn’t going to cut it.

 

Dad found the perfect tandem for our endeavor, a sleek orange Cannondale road bike. This thing just looked faster than Blacky and I couldn’t wait to ride it. I was in the midst of my second season of competitive rock climbing then and was growing used to the idea of training for performance, but climbing was still more fun than anything. My coaches were good at making up games and pitting us against one another in competitions to make us better. Apart from some basic core exercises I didn’t really do much “training” for climbing other than just climbing harder and harder routes. Cycling would begin to introduce me to actual training for sport and the foundation of cycling would build a tremendous base for when I stepped into long distance hiking, wrestling and eventually triathlon.

 

Dad started us out easy just going for a six mile ride. I felt weird in skin tight cycling shorts and a jersey. I also didn’t understand why on earth I had to wear these shoes with plastic soles and massive clips on the balls of my feet. I couldn’t walk at all in them. Couldn’t I just use regular pedals and have that strap that tightened over my shoe?

 

I was very self conscious about how I looked in my cycling kit. I felt like I was wearing nothing but underwear, but I eventually got used to the feeling. Dad and I would ride every couple evenings when he got home from work. There was no way in heck I was getting up early to ride, that just sounded crazy. Our rides became steadily longer from six miles, to 10, to 20. Then dad felt I was ready for a 30 miler.

 

He found a bike path called the “Baldwin Trail” which was an old railroad that had been converted. Dad picked me up from school one afternoon and we drove to the trail, making it there around 3:30. I changed into my cycling kit in the car and then clipped into the back pedals on the “Orange Crush” as our brilliant orange colored tandem was called. My butt always hurt after rides, I didn’t like the racing saddle I had to sit on. How was I going to sit on this thing for three days of cycling?

 

We took off from the parking lot and hit the trail. It was mostly shaded by trees and almost perfectly straight for 15 miles. We settled into our rhythm and passed several groups of cyclists who were pedalling along leisurely. We picked up the pace at the five mile mark, then the 10 mile mark.

 

We flipped around at 15 miles and began heading back. I wasn’t sure I could make it, but dad was yelling his customary “MUSH SLUG!” his nickname for me while on the bike. And so I mushed as hard as I could. We made it back to the parking lot after just over an hour and a half of cycling. I was hot, my butt hurt, my legs hurt, but I also had this weird feeling of accomplishment. I liked pushing the pace and learning to suffer through the aches and pains to reach the end as fast as I could. Plus there was something cool about riding nearly 20 miles per hour on a bike.

 

We ultimately didn’t do the ride from New York to D.C. But we did not stop cycling instead setting our eyes on another goal—The PGA Tour Cycle to the Shore MS 150. This charity bike ride raises money for MS research. I had a great uncle, with whom I shared a birthday, who had MS and it was much closer to home than the World TEAM Sports event had been.

 

Dad and I spent an entire year just riding the tandem. We picked several routes through Jacksonville that we’d ride once or twice a week. Most of our rides ranged from 20-40 miles. Sometimes we got together with other cyclists, sometimes we rode on our own. We always enjoyed it more in a pack though because of the drafting effect, but somehow dad and I always seemed to wind up on the front of the paceline. Dad was also fueling my competitive spirit with little phrases like “Are you really going to let Mr. Dawson beat us in this sprint again?” or “What you say we try to catch and drop Mr. Stenson?”

 

The most fun we had was probably when we’d go to the Baldwin Trail for time trial work. A time trial is just you against the clock. You go all out as fast and hard as you can. And because the Baldwin Trail only had a few street crossings where we had to look out for traffic, it was a great place to practice going all out for 30 miles.

 

One memorable day we were riding with our usual neighborhood group at the trail. Dad and I of course wound up on the front of the pack and just started hammering at the pedals. At first the guys hung, but slowly a gap appeared. When we flipped around at the 15 mile mark the group was only a few seconds back of us. That was when dad told me to “MUSH!” and we took off like we were shot out of a cannon. We seemed to just fly. I felt light on the pedals and perfectly comfortable in my cycling position. We made it back to the parking lot a mere one hour and 18 minutes after we’d started the ride. It took the rest of the group more than 10 minutes to catch up with us.

 

The MS 150

 

We arose early in the morning the first day of the MS 150. The start of the ride was at the St. Augustine airport, about a 45 minute drive from our house. We arrived around six AM for the seven AM start and took a picture with the rest of our team—comprised of people from dad’s office—with us all decked out in our Bubba Burger cycling kits.

 

Our best cyclist, Andy Stenson, was bouncing around and eager to get on his bike and to the front of the pack. The rest of us grouped together and started the ride off easy. I was a little antsy too and wanted to absolutely crush it. However, I’d never done a ride longer than about 40 miles, and I had 86 to travel today. Dad did his best to keep me reeled in. After all, I couldn’t exactly go faster than he’d allow since he was piloting the tandem.

 

We cycled with the rest of the Bubba Burger team for a while until we all started settling into our own pace groups. Dad and I latched on to a group of men and women who appeared to be very strong cyclists. We all took turns swapping leads for about 20 miles. We averaged close to 25 miles an hour. Then we hit the halfway point and dad and I pulled off to grab something to eat. I was tired and wasn’t sure how I’d make it the rest of the way to Daytona. But after a sandwich and gatorade I knew I had to try. And so we set out again.

 

A couple of hours later we rolled across the finish line five and a half hours after we’d begun. My butt hurt, my legs hurt, my neck hurt, everything hurt and I just wanted to curl up in a ball and go to sleep. Mom and the girls met us at the finish line and helped us get up to the hotel room where we showered and fell into bed for a long nap.

 

That night we made it down to the hotel restaurant for some dinner. As the waitress went to hand me a menu, dad—in his befuddled and tired state—said “He doesn’t need that…he can’t read.” (Oh, what she must have thought of us.)

 

We got up the next morning but were too sore and exhausted to attempt cycling back to St. Augustine. So we instead drove back as did all of our team except Mr. Stenson. The MS 150 had been a phenomenal and humbling experience.

 

We returned the following year with an even larger Bubba Burner cycling crew, including mom. We rode more as a team until dad and I got ants in our pants and took off after lunch. We finished this year’s ride slower but stronger. The next day instead of fatigue keeping us from riding it was bad weather. We elected not to fight strong winds and potential storms. Those two years of cycling with my dad and the Bubba Burger cycling team were great. I’d fallen in love with the sport of cycling and begun building a solid foundation for my later adventures.

My Swimming Evolution

Growing Gills

 

My earliest memories of the pool are pretty vague. I was maybe about three years old and had on a pair of bright orange blow up floaties to prevent me drowning. I  splashed and played around in the little two foot deep kids pool at the public pool in our neighborhood. I couldn’t help but one day hope I could swim in the big pool just a few steps away where all the big kids were swimming and laughing. Shoot, I could’ve thrown the toy shark I was playing with and landed it in the big pool, but alas I was confined to the kiddy pool until I could swim. So I resolved to learn.

 

We occasionally traveled down to Naples, Fla to visit my mom’s side of the family. One day we were at their community pool and I think I talked my Uncle Bill into letting me swim with just one “Waterwing.” He relented and I started figuring out how to swim. From then on I practiced every time I was in a pool. Sometimes I wore one floaty on one arm and then I put the floaty on the other arm. Eventually, I got confident enough to tread water and finally start stroking without “waterwings.” My technique was horrible, I splashed more water out of the pool than probably anyone else, but at least I was swimming—or more accurately, not drowning.

 

When I went blind just before I turned seven, something changed. The pool and water weren’t as fun and inviting as they used to be. On one hand, I desperately wanted to play in the pool as all my friends were doing. But on the other hand, I wanted nothing to do with the pool. I was definitely scared. When my head went underwater all of my senses seemed to shut off. The only thing guiding me was my hands. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t smell or breathe. Nothing existed beyond the reach of my outstretched fingertips. It was my childhood friend, John Norville, who helped me get back in the pool and somewhat learn to enjoy swimming again.

 

John’s grandmother—whom we all called “Gaga”—lived just around the corner from where my family. She had a pool in her backyard and John and I’d often go over to Gaga’s and play. Sometimes other friends would join us, but most of the time it was just John and I. We practiced tricks off the diving board and then pretended like we were secret agents or pirates swimming underwater up to our unsuspecting targets. We pretended as though we were shipwrecked and desperately swam for shore.

 

When friends joined us we played our favorite game “Star!” Star is a game where one person sits at one end of the pool and speaks the initials of a movie. A group of people, usually anywhere from three to five, sit at the other end of the pool and ask for clues on the movie. When you think you know what the movie is you shout “Star!” and swim as fast as you can to tag the lone person at the end of the pool. Once you tag them you speak the movie title. It’s best when several people shout “Star!” at once. Then it’s an all out race to tag the “It” person. We did anything and everything to beat each other to the end of the pool. We’d try and swim faster, we’d swim over each other, we’d grab bading suits…anything to win. This friendly competition and banging around in the pool would certainly serve me well later on during the chaos of open water triathlon swims.

 

Despite the fun I had playing with John and other friends in the pool, swimming slowly lost it’s appeal to me as I got into my teenage years. I of course loved to get out on a motor boat and be dragged behind on an intertube, but I never enjoyed getting thrown off because I still harbored that fear of drowning, even though I’d proven to myself time and time again that I could swim. One time while being pulled behind a boat on a tube the tube completely flipped upsidedown. I, being stubborn, clung on for dear life as I was being dragged underneath the surface of the water. Somehow the tube righted itself and I was still there hanging on.

 

As I became a teenager, I also became conscious of my looks and body image. Being blind, I didn’t really know what I looked like with my shirt off and it just felt weird being at a public pool or at the beach dressed in nothing but my bathing suit. I imagined myself as a pasty white, chubby guy who had no business having his shirt off. I also hated, literally, bumping into people that I didn’t know. Which is an occupational hazard of being blind. So I started avoiding pools and beaches. Despite all of this though, friends would still occasionally talk me into doing stuff around the water with them. After all, we did live in Florida and Florida’s known for it’s water activities.

 

I spent one memorable day learning how to surf. A wrestling teammate, Kyle Manning, lived just a stone’s throw from the beach and invited a few friends over during one of our last days of high school. I admitted that I really didn’t like the beach but did want to learn to surf. Kyle made it his mission to get me standing up on a surfboard. So we spent several hours that day with Kyle teaching me how to paddle and feel the waves. When I finally did manage to feel the pull of the wave and the board underneath me it was unlike any feeling I’d had before. It wasn’t quite as awesome as dangling 100 feet up on a rockface, but it was still cool to feel the board suddenly become stable under me and then I was standing riding a wave, if only briefly. After that experience I tried surfing a few times but I determined that the ocean just wasn’t my thing. Swimming just wasn’t my thing. After all I didn’t have gills, and unless I grew some I didn’t think I could ever enjoy swimming. So apart from the occasional trip to the beach, I hardly ever swam from the time I graduated high school in 2010 until January 2015 when Mike Melton somehow convinced me that I needed to learn to swim if I had any dream of one day doing a triathlon.

 

Grasshopper, You Must Learn to Swim

 

Mike and I’d been running together for about six months while Mike trained to race in Kona and I trained for my first marathon. Shortly after Mike and I completed the Goofy Challenge (Disney half marathon on Saturday and Disney Marathon on Sunday) Mike took me to the downtown Orlando YMCA and began working with me on how to swim. I tried swimming from one end of the 25 yard pool to the other. I crashed into the lane lines on either side, splashed a shit ton of water out of the pool and lifted my head completely out of the water to desperately suck in lung fulls of oxygen. I couldn’t swim more than 25 yards without stopping for several minutes. My shoulders ached, my lungs burned and I thought there was no way in hell I was ever going to get this swimming thing.

 

But Mike showed tremendous patience. He taught me how to float. How to turn my head to either side to breathe. How to take a stroke. How to kick. And so on and so forth. He took me to several different swim coaches who changed one thing or another tinkering with my swim stroke, body position and breathing until I could somehow do something resembling a swim workout.

 

Over the course of 2015 and 2016 I transformed from a thrashing mess to being able to comfortably swim several thousand yards during workouts and survive in the open water. I somehow completed numerous triathlons ranging from sprint distance to my first Ironman and I thought I was becoming a pretty good swimmer for a totally blind triathlete.

 

At the end of 2016 I moved from Orlando to Carbondale, Colo and put my triathlon specific training on hold for several months while I concentrated my efforts on training for my first Boston Marathon. But I had signed up for Ironman 70.3 Boulder in August 2017 and Ironman Arizona 2017. So at some point I needed to get back in the pool. Eventually I did and just cranked out swim sets to the best of my ability doing workouts I found online. Somehow after only eight training swims I pulled off (probably thanks to Matt Miller mostly dragging me through the Boulder Reservoir by my tether) my fastest 70.3 swim at 34 min 16 sec. But I knew I had to spend more time in the water before tackling Ironman Arizona in a scant three months.

 

Swimming with Mere

 

In October 2017 I took a trip with my buddy Mike Melton to Kona, Hi during the week of the Ironman World Championship. Mike and I tried to swim in Kailua Bay every day we were there. One afternoon we were browsing through one of the Ironman merchandise tents and I got to chatting with one of the people working the tent. Her name was Meredith and she mentioned that she’d love to maybe meet up and swim with us the next day. She gave me her card and said to let her know when we’d next be down to swim.

 

Over a lunch of fish and chips—while Mike ribbed me saying I should’ve asked Meredith out on a date—I checked out Meredith’s website. Turns out she’s a former pro triathlete and is now an elite open water marathon swimmer. The open water swim races she competes in are 10 km or longer. Damn, this woman wanted to swim with me? Needless to say I was slightly intimidated.

 

The next day Mike and I met up with Meredith and Mike suddenly handed her the tether and said “Have fun you two” and took off. Ok, not what we were expecting but Meredith took it in stride. She’d never guided a totally blind swimmer before but she guided spectacularly. We swam together for nearly an hour and a half. Throughout the course of that swim Mere would stop me and make suggestions on how to change my technique. After about 20 min or so she began assigning me workout sets—20 strokes fist drill, 20 strokes easy, 40 strokes hard, etc. We occasionally would stop, tread water or float and just chat. Mere helped me learn that by improving little things in my technique I’d eventually get faster in the water and actually learn to enjoy swimming.

 

When I got back to Colorado I did my best to implement what Mere had taught me in Kona and I saw a dramatic improvement in my swimming. Maybe this swimming thing wasn’t so bad after all.

 

Next Strokes

 

After completing Ironman Arizona with my friend Will Fisher in under 12 hours I took my training to a new level. I was pretty sure my 1 hour 14 min 42 sec swim in Arizona had more to do with Will dragging me through the water than my own swimming ability. So I dedicated myself to getting faster. My friend Tom MacPherson, who’d recently become a triathlon coach, helped me for a few weeks at the beginning of January 2018 to dial in some technique changes. Then I attended a triathlon camp hosted by elite blind female triathlete Amy Dixon where I worked with a couple other coaches on refining certain aspects of my technique. Then I hired multi-time Off Road World Champion triathlete Lesley Paterson to coach me. While Lesley didn’t focus a ton on swim specific technique with me she did help me drastically improve my swim fitness to where I was suddenly able to crank out 3000-4000 yards with ease three to four times a week.

 

I improved across all three disciplines of triathlon during 2018. When Alan Greening and I pulled off the first sub 11 hour Ironman by a totally blind athlete at Ironman Arizona, we didn’t have the fastest swim we were capable of, but it was one of the smoothest and most efficient open water swims I’d ever executed allowing me to have more in the tank for the bike and then the run.

 

Two weeks ago I moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs where I’m getting used to swimming five days a week. Having taken the previous eight weeks off from swimming my coach, Derick, has spent these first two weeks really stressing technique. Swimming is by far the most mentally taxing of the triathlon disciplines for me because there is so much to think about. Left hand enters water at the 11 o’cclock position; cup the water; point fingers at bottom of pool during entire stroke; rotate body to right side throughout stroke; reach right hand as far as possible to lengthen the body to cover more distance; left hand exits water at left hip; take a breath just before rotating flat and bringing left arm back up above the water to repeat. The slightest turn of the hand in the middle of the swim stroke, or the dropping of the elbow in front toward the bottom of the pool, over rotating to the side can throw off the entire stroke, direction and momentum. The faster I get, the more I focus on the littlest of details. Swimming is also pretty counter intuitive in that the harder you work the slower you go. Swim smooth to swim fast is a mantra I repeat to myself when I’m in the water.

 

No, I’m still not fast in the water. In fact, I’m probably one of the worst swimmers Derick and others here at the training center have ever seen. But already after two weeks of intense focus I’m seeing improvements in smoothness and efficiency. Yes, I’m impatient and want to be at peak swim fitness already, but I’m trying to trust the process and I know my swim speed and fitness will come back around. Now the question is where is my swim crest and can we make it higher?

 

#eyeronvision

Surviving Week 1 at the Olympic Training Center

The Big Move

Well #eyeronvision supporters, it’s here. January, 2019. That means I’ve made the move to Colorado Springs to take up residence at the U.S. Olympic training Center as a member of the USA Paratriathlon Resident Team. I was certainly excited, but at the same time anxious, nervous, and for lack of a better term, scared shitless.

Uprooting your life and moving to a city where you know only a handful of people is nerve racking in normal circumstances. Throw in being a totally blind extreme introvert and you get someone who’s nearly a basket case. Granted, I think I hid it pretty well. After all, “fake it till you make it.”

Dad drove Skye and I down to Colorado Springs On Sunday evening and helped me move all of the stuff I brought—primarily clothes and my training bike and Wahoo Kickr bike trainer—into my room on campus first thing Monday morning. Then began the process of trying to figure out where the heck I was going. Dad was able to help me orient a little bit to the campus. At least by the time he left that evening I could somewhat competently make it from my room to the dining hall, to our triathlon training room, to the pool. Confidence would come over the course of the week. But my mantra for the rest of the week was “just survive getting around.”

Testing

Monday morning had been reserved for me to move my stuff into the dorm, but Monday afternoon saw my first official duty as a resident team member. And that was a run lactate threshold and VO2 Max test. The test is both awesome and miserable. Cool because I’d only ever read about elite athletes doing the test before and I never thought I’d actually get to do one in my lifetime. And miserable because… well it really fucking hurts.

The test was done in the High Altitude Training Center (HATC) Lab. This is a room that can be adjusted to just about any atmospheric pressure, temperature or humidity level. So rather than doing my test at the actual 6000ish ft of elevation that Colorado Springs is located at, the testers made the room sea level. I then got on a treadmill and a contraption was placed on my head which included a snorkel-like breathing tube which went into my mouth. My nose was then clamped shut and I could only breathe through the snorkel-like mouth piece. This measures the flow of oxygen I take in and the amount of CO2 I exhale as well as the rate at which I breathe and some other things. I kind of tuned out at that point as I was trying not to gag with this rubber hose shoved into my mouth. Oh yeah and then they turned the treadmill on and I had to run.

We started with an easy 10 min warm up with me breathing through the contraption so I could get used to it. Then they let me take the contraption off to get some water and brace myself to actually do work. Then the real test began. First, lactate threshold.

This first test was pretty straight forward. My coach, Derick, set the treadmill at a certain speed and I ran at that speed for three minutes. At the end of those three minutes the physiologist, Carwin, jabbed my index finger with a small needle and took a small sample of blood to measure the amount of lactate in my blood. Then the speed was cranked up a little more and we repeated that process until my blood accumulated a certain amount of lactate. All in all the actual test took about 30 minutes to complete. Then I could walk, stretch and get some water and prepare myself mentally for the VO2 Max test.

The VO2 Max test is basically finding out how much you can suffer. More scientifically though it’s finding the point where you just can’t process oxygen any further and are forced to quit because you can hardly breathe. To do this test, Derick set the treadmill at just below my lactate threshold speed and then proceeded to crank up the incline by one percent grade every minute until I gave up. The goal of the test is to last as long as you can but if you do the test correctly it should take anywhere from six to 12 minutes max. Oh yeah, I had to where the breathing contraption again too. I was able to do the first five or six minutes fairly easily, but once the percent incline got up to around seven percent I started to hurt. “Make it to 10 minutes” I kept trying to repeat to myself, but as the incline rose and I continued running at my threshold pace things began to get a little fuzzy. I pushed on past eight minutes and hung on tip nine minutes. “One more minute!” I screamed in my head. But it wasn’t meant to be. I cried uncle about 30 seconds or so into the ninth minute. Oh well, the next time I do the test I’ll hit 10 minutes.

I don’t specifically know what my numbers were on the lactate threshold and VO2 Max tests, but Derick and Carwin appeared relatively pleased with my results. Then it was off to shower and get ready for dinner.

Dad had stuck around to make sure I navigated around ok and left after dinner. Then I was on my own.

Finding a routine

Routines and schedules give me comfort. While I can fly by the seat of my pants if I need to, I much prefer structure in my day. Since my senior year of high school I’ve found I’m most productive and happy when I have a schedule or routine to follow. So this living at the OTC thing was actually going to work out in my favor because I had to be on time to work outs and there wouldn’t be a ton of wiggle room.

That first morning on my own I was definitely nervous walking into the cafeteria and getting my food. There are a lot of things that have the potential to stress me out, cafeterias are at the top of that list. Getting food and then navigating an unfamiliar place while carrying said food and drink in one hand while holding my guide dog in the other hand is a recipe for disaster. Fortunately this wasn’t the cafeteria staff’s first rodeo and they were all extremely helpful in letting me know what was available to eat and then directing me to a table. Over the course of the next few days I got more and more comfortable navigating around the cafeteria, but I’m still learning where everything is and will continue to move cautiously the entire time I’m living here.

A Two Minute Walk

After surviving the cafeteria it was time to go for a little swim. One of the biggest barriers to me getting in adequate training in the past was access to a pool. When I lived in Orlando, Mike and I lived a short drive from our downtown pool, but the Tri club often worked out at a pool a 45 minute drive away. Then living in the Roaring Fork Valley I had to rely on someone to drive me down the hill to the bus stop. Then I had to wait for a bus that would then take me up valley. I’d then change buses and eventually make it to the pool. Then I’d do the same in reverse. All in all, for a swim that lasts about an hour to an hour and a half would take up a good four plus hours of my day (if I was lucky and everyone was running on time). Now though the pool is literally a two minute walk from my bedroom.

The indoor pool at the OTC is also a 50 meter rather than 25 yard pool. This cheered me immensely because that meant fewer times I had to turn around in the pool meaning fewer opportunities to smash/cut/rip my knuckles and fingers on the pool wall. Derick had apparently been thinking along these same lines as well and had chatted with the Paralympic swim coaches to find out how they coached their blind athletes to not crash into the wall. The system they used was pretty nifty and we adopted it.

When I walked on to the deck of the pool I heard the usually echoes of an indoor pool, but there was also the sound of a couple of sprinklers. Derick had set up a hose at either end of the lane that I’d swim in and positioned the hose so that the water would hit me when I was a few strokes out from the wall. So when I felt the water falling on me from above I’d know I was approaching the wall and could therefore ease up and anticipate the wall and just maybe avoid smashing my fingers. If I’m not careful I’m going to become soft and spoiled with all this pampering.

Since I hadn’t swam since Ironman Arizona, Derick took it easy on me this first week and we focused on just getting my technique back and getting me used to swimming every day. I have a feeling that’ll change in these next couple of weeks.

The rest of the week followed a pretty similar pattern. Get up early to swim, eat in the dining hall, do some kind of test in the afternoon and in general just get comfortable navigating on my own. I hardly spoke to or saw any of my fellow paratriathletes except in passing primarily because I was just focused on surviving getting around and not getting myself lost or causing chaos by tripping over something and sending food flying in the cafeteria. But since I’m writing this now I obviously survived and the past couple of days I’ve actually felt confident that this new living situation is going to work out all right.

So, sorry for the fairly boring report, but in my world boring usually means I haven’t screwed up too badly just yet. But have no fear, I’m sure the next few weeks will bring all kinds of excitement 🙂

#eyeronvision

2018 Year In Review

2018 Year in Review

Wow, what a year. There were some tremendous highs, a few lows, a lot of learning, growth and development. I pushed myself in ways I didn’t know possible. I was able to turn a hobby into a career and have set myself up for a, hopefully, incredible 2019. Because I know we’re all preparing for some end of year celebrations I’ll keep this #eyeronvision newsletter short and sweet by just hitting a couple of highlights 🙂

January: Attended Camp No Sight No Limits and met several new friends, guides and my eventual coach. Also attended my first Race Across America Training Camp for Team Sea to See and became acquainted with my team members.

February: hired now 5X Off Road Triathlon World Champion Lesley Paterson to coach me for 2018.

March: Took 4th place at my first International Triathlon Union (ITU) race at the CAMTRI American Championship in Sarasota, Fla, guided by my buddy Matt Miller.

April: Through a steady rain, consistent wind and cold, I broke the 4 hour barrier for the first time (3:55:14) in a marathon at the Boston Marathon with my buddy Pete Fowler, beating my previous best marathon time by more than 23 minutes. The race was made even more special because it was my sister, Kelsey’s, first Boston Marathon and getting to share the experience with her was incredible. Oh yeah, I met this crazy Scottish dude named Alan Greening who likes to drink beer and whiskey and who does sub 11 hour Ironman with regularity. Lesley thought we’d get along and thought Alan would be a great person to guide me for Ironman Arizona in November.

Also attended training camp number two for Race Across America with Team Sea to See.

May: Attended the United States Association of Blind Athletes Tandem Cycling Camp hosted at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center.

Also finally rode up Independence Pass with my buddy Everet Minute piloting the limo (15 plus miles of nearly 4000 ft of elevation gain topping out at more than 12000 ft above sea level).

June: Race Across America with Team Sea to See. 3067 miles, 180000 plus ft of elevation gain, 12 states, three major mountain ranges, four major rivers, four tandem bikes, four blind/visually impaired stokers, four sighted pilots, three RVs, three 15 passenger vans, a mini-van, 20 plus of the most amazing support crew, 12 person camera crew, starting in Oceanside, Calif and finishing in Annapolis, Md in 7 days 15 hours 3 minutes. We became the first four tandem team with all blind or visually impaired stokers to complete Race Across America. An experience that taught me so much about team work, friendship, stress management, sleep management, pain tolerance, how to turn adversity into an advantage, and how focusing on a vision can bring people together to achieve remarkable things. Of course the ultimate story that everyone always wants to hear about is how Chris Howard and I crashed in Kansas and somehow scraped ourselves off the road to finish strong even though it turned out I had a pretty significant fracture in my right arm. Thank you Chris and the entire crew for helping me gut out those last three or four days. I don’t manage without the support of the entire team.

July: The Lake Christine Fire forces my family to evacuate our home. Fortunately we’re able to return after a few days but we know people who lost everything. It was a sobering event that was a reminder to be grateful for the things we have and to cherish memories over possessions.

Later that month, Kelsey and I ran the Power of 4 25K Trail Race in Aspen. My first official trail race experience and the first time my sister ever guided me in a race/official event. What a blast and I can’t wait to add more trail races to my race calendar.

August: Attended the USA Triathlon/United States Association of Blind Athletes Triathlon Camp hosted at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center. This was the first time Alan Greening and I got on the limo together and I’m pretty sure Alan thought he was going to die. But we figured it out and had an awesome camp experience and were confident that we’d be able to pull off a good race at Ironman Arizona in November.

September: Raced Ironman 70.3 Augusta with my buddy Danny Craven and fell just short of my goal of breaking 5 hours finishing the 1.2 mi swim, 56 mi bike and 13.1 mi run in 5:01:42.

October: Raced my second ITU race at the Sarasota-Bradenton World Cup guided by my buddy Zack Goodman. We were able to grab my first podium with a 2nd place finish despite the race being modified to a duathlon (run, bike, run) rather than a triathlon (swim, bike, run) due to poor water quality.

Less than two weeks after this I was informed that my application to live and train full time at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center as part of the USA Paratriathlon Resident Team was accepted.

November: Ironman Arizona with Alan Greening. 2.4 mi swim, 112 mi bike, 26.2 mi run completed in 10:59:17. We were able to pull off our goal of breaking 11 hours and in doing so I became the first totally blind triathlete to go under 11 hours for an Ironman 140.6 Branded race and only the third person who is blind or visually impaired to do so. Thank you Alan for helping me push through to achieve that goal we’d set.

December: Attended the United States Association of Blind athletes Marathon National Championship at the California International Marathon as a spectator and social media representative for USABA. What a blast cheering on and sharing the stories of so many awesome athletes.

I then spent a few days with my good friend Deb Yoder who was one of our RV Managers for Race Across America and who guided at the USABA Marathon National Championship despite the fact that she lost nearly everything she owned in the Paradise Fires only a few weeks before. Spending those couple of days with Deb showed me once again the power of community and how we choose to confront adversity is so important.

Only a few days after returning from California I went to Colorado Springs and covered the USA Paracycling Track National Championships via Twitter for the United States Association of Blind Athletes.

A couple of days later I flew to Florida to visit my older sister, brother-in-law and brand-new niece for some much needed family and relaxation time.

Now it’s the last day of the year. A day to look back and reflect on the year past, but also a time to look forward to the year ahead. There’s no doubt I had some epic experiences in 2018. I don’t accomplish any of them without the incredible team of people that helped me along the way.

Thank you to everyone who guided me on runs, bike rides and in races. Thank you to my friends and family who helped support me mentally and emotionally through this year of ups and downs. Thank you especially to Team Sea to See for the opportunity to be part of such an incredible history making endeavor. Hopefully we can continue the work we set out to do and help shrink that 70 percent joblessness rate among the blind and visually impaired community.

Thank you to my coach, Lesley Paterson, for pushing me to all new heights I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make. Also thank you for introducing me to Alan. Speaking of whom, thanks mate for not just being an awesome guide for our record setting performance in Arizona, but thanks for becoming such a good friend. Can’t wait to race with you again—or drink a beer or share a glass of scotch, or a dish of creme brule.

Thank you also to my sponsors and supporters who made it possible for me to turn this triathlon and adventure seeking lifestyle into a career.

And, last but certainly not least, thank you to all of you in the #eyeronvision community! You all have been with me cheering me on and supporting me from afar. Your energy and support is much needed and appreciated. Thank you for following me on social media, reading my newsletters and for just being awesome 🙂

Now our attention turns to 2019. I’m excited for this new year and the opportunities it’s going to bring. In 2018 I was able to keep an “eye on my vision” of raising the bar in the blind and visually impaired athletic community and I think we made strides in making people aware of the athletic and professional capabilities of the blind and visually impaired. In 2019 I’ll continue to push myself to get better and grow more as an athlete, professional and overall person.

Remember everyone, no matter the circumstance, that your attitude will determine your altitude and always keep an “eye on your vision!” See you in 2019!

#eyeronvision

Kyle Coon

www.facebook.com/kylecoonspeaks

www.twitter.com/kyle_coon

www.instagram.com/eyeronkyle

Breaking 11: Ironman Arizona 2018

Breaking 11: Ironman Arizona

November 18, 2018

Tempe, Arizona

2.4 mi swim, 112 mi bike, 26.2 mi run

*This report may contain strong language.

“You wanna go under 11 hours right?” Alan asked as we ran step-for-step in stride with each other. “Yes,” was about all I could manage. “Well, then we can’t stop at any more fucking aid stations,” Alan said.

Race Lead Up

I arrived in Arizona on Tuesday evening having driven with my buddy Mike Melton, AKA the guy who taught me almost everything I know about triathlon and guided me for my first Ironman back at Boulder 2016. Another friend, Joel Diaz, was flying in Tuesday night as well. Joel was about to attempt his first Ironman. Joel had guided me at the Disney Marathon in 2016 when I attempted to qualify for Boston for the first time.

We spent Wednesday getting bikes put together and looked over by a bike shop. Eating good food and tracking down a pool to do some easy swimming. Wednesday evening one of Joel’s old roommates, who now lived in the Phoenix area, came over to the Airbnb for dinner and we enjoyed some relaxed laughter and good company.

Thursday, Mike and Joel went to check in and do some expo shopping while I headed over to the Airbnb I’d booked for Alan, his wife Muriel and I. Alan and Muriel arrived Thursday evening and we immediately began moving into pre-race mode. Alan got out all the “torcher tools” including a car buffer which we used to gently massage our muscles, foam rollers, roller sticks and a variety of other mysterious instruments.

On Friday, Muriel and I made a grocery run while Alan did some work on his computer taking care of athletes he coaches. Then it was time to head to the expo, check in, listen to the athlete briefing and get back to the house. While listening to the athlete briefing Alan and I weren’t 100% thrilled to hear that the swim start and location had changed. But we were less pleased when we learned that the swim course would now be a clockwise swim with all right hand turns. Since I do a better job swimming when I swim on my guide’s right side this would mean a more stressful swim for Alan as he tried to sight on the buoys around me instead of sighting to his left. This meant we also had to decide how best we were going to signal me to turn. Eventually we came up with the idea of just me swimming as far to my right as possible and always trying to keep the tether tight and Alan would stop me if he needed to and we’d physically reorient ourselves. Or Alan could just punch me in the ribs to tell me to move over. Whatever, we figured we had 2.4 miles to figure it out in the swim. Everything else though seemed unchanged from the year before.

That evening we went to a bar to socialize with several friends and some of the athletes that Alan coaches. Alan lifted my beer ban and allowed me to have two beers because you can’t socialize with endurance athletes and not drink beer. It’s against some unwritten code.

Saturday we got up and headed to the practice swim which was a 750 meter loop that was a miniature version of the swim course Sunday. Before diving into the water though Alan and I took 30 minutes or so answering questions from a local news station who were doing a short piece on us. Then we plunged into the chilly 61 degree water and completed the practice swim at a fairly easy effort. Overall we were pleased with our practice swim especially since it was Alan’s first ever time guiding me in open water. We’d swum with a tether in a pool but swimming in open water is much different tethered than in a pool. We then went to lunch with Muriel and Alan’s friend and business partner, Cory, who’d flown in that morning to support us and several other friends and athletes that were racing. Finally it was back to the house for naps, food, lots of fluid and bed. After all, we had some big goals at this race and we needed to be rested.

Race Day: Shit just ain’t this easy is it?

Ironman mornings begin early. For me that’s around 3:15 or 3:30 AM. I had to mix my nutrition—consisting of several bottles of Base Performance Rocket Fuel which is two scoops of Base Performance Hydro, one scoop of Base Performance Amino and two scoops of Base Performance Salt—and double-check that I had my wetsuit, goggles, swim cap and timing chip. Then it was down the stairs to stuff my face with food.

My Ironman breakfast is pretty basic. I eat two to three packets of maple and brown sugar instant oatmeal, two to three bananas, a bagel with peanut butter, black coffee and gatorade. Alan ate eggs, sausage, rice cakes, bananas and coffee. Then it was time to head out the door.

We left the house around 4:45 and made it to the parking garage a little after 5. We quickly found a parking spot and headed into transition to arrange our nutrition on the bike and do a last minute tire pressure check. After this was accomplished we walked to a little grass covered hill and just sat down to wait for the time when we had to start walking toward the swim start.

Only one thing was bothering me and I voiced it out loud. “Shit’s gone too easily so far today.” And for an Ironman morning I was right. Usually I feel stress about getting to the start on time. Usually I have to use the bathroom every five minutes, or something doesn’t go just right. But today everything was just falling into place and I hoped it was a good omen.

The Swim: It’s a good thing I like the cold

Alan and I made our way down toward the swim start. I’d decided to go with my one piece sleeveless ITU kit with the Bubba Burger logo displayed prominently on the front and back, and my Roka sleeveless wetsuit—partly because it’s the only wetsuit I own that isn’t in need of repair and partly because I don’t like swimming in full sleeves. We wound our way through the crowd at the swim start and made our way up to the front where the pros were staging. As participants in the Physically Challenged Division we were allowed to start immediately behind the female pros so that we weren’t fighting the mass of people at the swim start. Having a few minutes of smooth water also helps my guide to settle in and not be so incredibly nervous about the swim.

Just before the singing of the national anthem we observed a moment of silence for a firefighter and triathlete who’d lost his life while training for Ironman Arizona just a few weeks before. He was hit and killed by a distracted driver while out riding his bike after a work shift. It was sobering because cyclists and triathletes being hit by distracted drivers while out training has become far too regular an occurrence. So please, friends and family who drive, put your phones down and pay attention to the road.

The gun went off for the male pros to start. Then the female pros lined up and the gun went off for them. Then the head official sent Alan, myself and any other PC athletes who wanted a head start in. Strangely my buddy Corvin, another visually impaired athlete, and his guide Johannes weren’t anywhere to be seen. So Alan and I figured they were starting back with the crowd.

Alan and I entered the water and at first it was a shock to the system. It was pretty fucking cold. They’d announced the water temp as being 60 degrees. Later on many people were reporting the water temp at 58 degrees. Nevertheless, it was cold. But we didn’t have time to dillydally. As soon as we were able we started swimming. We took it pretty easy for the first few hundred meters as we had a couple of tight right hand turns. Then we were able to settle into our Ironman race effort. But for some reason, even though I felt strong and I felt as though I was grabbing the water well, the swim felt slow. It was almost as though we were battling a current.

After a while the super fast age groupers caught up to us and began swimming over and around us. Several swam right up between Alan and I getting tangled in the tether. That threw off our swim strokes and caused us to stop, reorient and start again. Occasionally someone would swim by me on the right and I’d hesitate because I didn’t want to get elbowed or kicked in the face as I had in so many other races.

For the most part the swim went fairly smoothly. But no matter how much I focused on my swim technique, fast arm turn over, strong kick, body rotation, etc, it felt as though Alan and I weren’t making much forward progress. We were being tossed and bounced around as though we were in a washing machine. And while this is usually the case in an Ironman swim it felt more pronounced than normal.

Finally, my hands touched the boat ramp and I stood up on shaky numb legs. Alan and I staggered up the swim exit and I vaguely heard Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman, call out our names and saying something about how we were going for a sub 11 hour Ironman finish time.

As soon as we could talk, Alan said exactly what I was thinking, “Damn that felt fucking slow!”

Swim Time: 1 hour 19 minutes 14 seconds

Transition 1:

“fuck this hurts your feet!” Alan said as we jogged through the seemingly endless transition from the water’s edge toward the bike gear bag pick up, wetsuit peelers and changing tent. I’d already stripped my wetsuit down to around my waist and was trying not to focus on how cold my feet were and how, yes, it did hurt to run over the uneven ground. It felt like I was stepping on pins and needles. My toes were completely numb and I just wanted to get out of my wetsuit and get on the bike.

The wetsuit peelers did a phenomenal job in helping me get the legs of my wetsuit off. Then Alan and I grabbed our bike gear bags and headed into the warm changing tent to put on our socks, cycling shoes, helmets and sunglasses. Then we trotted out, grabbed the bike and wheeled it to the mount line. Muriel and Cory were standing just on the other side of the transition fencing and when Alan mentioned that we thought the swim was slow Muriel told us that we’d done a 1:19 which was about five minutes slower than we’d expected. Right then I shifted my brain to thinking about just racing the best I could. I’d secretly hoped that we could go 10:40 for the day, but I knew we’d need a perfect day. However, sub 11 hours was still in play if Alan and I could have a strong bike.

But as we rolled to the mount line I banished all thoughts of time goals. I needed to focus on what I could control here and now, not what could happen.

My friend Scott Bennefield was at the mount line and wished me luck as Alan and I mounted up and pushed off. Sorry, I didn’t respond Scott but I was pretty laser focused.

Transition 1 Time: 8 minutes 11 seconds

Total Time: 1 hour 27 minutes 25 seconds

The Bike: The Limo’s Last Ride

My custom built Cannondale has been my trusty steed for more than 10 years. I’ve ridden it with many pilots keeping me upright and healthy over tens of thousands of miles. (Note: Chris Howard’s and my crash during race across America doesn’t count since we crashed while using Dan Berlin’s Seven. Funnily enough, the four flat tires we had during RAAM also came while riding the Seven. So Dan, I guess we can call your Seven Flatapuss Jr.) Needless to say, the “Limo” as Mike Melton had so aptly named my bike in 2015 when I started racing triathlons had been a good and faithful ride. But I’d decided that this race would be it’s last. So I prayed that the little mechanicals that had been cropping up more frequently over the last year would hold off and the Limo could give me one more rock star race.

A little more than five miles out of transition I heard a dreaded sound. It was a high pitch squeaky whistle that I recognized immediately. The rear break was rubbing. We powered through until Alan was able to find a spot just past mile 15 where we could pull over and make a quick adjustment to the rear wheel. It only cost us a couple of minutes but it was something we had to do because who knew how many minutes it could cost us if we didn’t fix it.

We hit the first turn around at mile 18.7 or so in just over an hour. And as soon as we made the tight U-turn we immediately started flying. Ironman Arizona is awesome for tandems because it’s a very gradual uphill on the B Line highway for 10-11 miles to the turn around. This means you get that same 10-11 mile stretch going slightly downhill. So with the combined weight and power of the tandem Alan and I could easily hold 25-30 mph on our return toward town. After the stretch on the highway we had some tight turns and a rough road before we made another tight turn around to head back out for our second loop. I heard Mike Reilly again give us a shout out as we made the turn and headed out. We had some time to make up and I intended to put down some power on this lap.

My legs felt strong and I was riding in a solid tucked position behind Alan. But even though I felt strong and was pushing the effort it still felt as though we were moving slower than we should. I had nutrition alarms set on my watch which alerted me every 15 minutes to take licks of Base salt, drink my rocket fuel and/or eat a bar or jell. The 15 minute gaps between watch alerts seemed to be getting longer and longer.

Our second lap was also slightly more crowded as more people had exited the swim and were out on the bike course. This meant Alan was constantly saying “on your left.” Fortunately though we didn’t get passed too much.

We made the turn around at 56ish miles in about 2 hours and 42 minutes. We pulled off for a planned bathroom and refueling stop at mile 63ish where bike “special needs” was set up. Both Alan and I had to piss like race horses and refill a water bottle.

When we got back on the bike and started riding again Alan informed me that the strap on his right cycling shoe was busted. Not a huge deal as long as he didn’t pull up on the pedal but it probably affected our power just a bit. No big deal. We were still riding well, though not as well as we’d hoped. Since we’d come through the halfway point in 2:42ish according to Alan’s watch I guessed we were on pace for about a five and a half hour bike ride. Better than my ride at Arizona 2017 and my best Ironman bike time ever, but we’d planned on a sub 5:10 bike split.

The rear break occasionally rubbed a little more and then as we passed 90 miles the front break decided it was a good time to start rubbing as well. Alan had to keep flicking the break levers to loosen the breaks as much as possible because we couldn’t afford to stop again.

We rolled toward the dismount line and my watch beeped signaling a 15 minute interval had passed. “Wow, right around 5:30,” I thought. It wasn’t until more than three hours later I discovered that I’d miscounted the nutrition alarms that had gone off on my watch. I’d accidentally added 15 minutes to our bike time.

Bike Time: 5 hours 18 minutes 26 seconds

Total Time: 6 hours 45 minutes 51 seconds

Transition 2: “Going slow is going fast.” – Jeff Evans to me as we hiked up a steep mountain trail somewhere in Peru in 2006 when I was just 14 years old.

Alan and I grabbed our run gear bags and sat down in some chairs outside of the changing tent. I got my cycling shoes off along with my helmet and sunglasses. I’d tossed an extra pair of socks into my gear bag in case the socks I wore during the bike leg got wet for any reason, but my socks were still nice and dry and I felt I could run well in them. So I just pulled on my Hoka One One Tracer2 running shoes and immediately headed for the port-a-john since I could feel my guts gurgling. Thank you to the volunteer who helped me get to the port-a-john while Alan was still putting on his shoes and collecting the run tether. After a minute or two emptying my system I popped out of the port-a-john, put on the run tether and Alan and I moved out of T2 and on to the run course. It felt as though we’d taken forever in T2 but any time I’m in transition I remind myself of what one of my climbing mentors told me one time “going slow is going fast.” This basically meant, move efficiently, don’t hurry and you’ll go faster than you realize.

Transition 2 Time: 4 minutes 12 seconds

Total Time: 6 hours 50 minutes 3 seconds

The Run: Triathlon is not how well you can swim, bike or run; it’s how well you can swim, bike and run.

As soon as we started running my legs felt heavy. My quads felt huge and like I was trying to move them through mud. My calves were extremely tight and I thought briefly about stopping to stretch them out. My run form was also all over the place as I staggered sideways into Alan. I wasn’t sure how wide the path was we were running on and the last thing I wanted to do was step off an edge this early into the run. So we played a little yoyo with me bouncing into Alan and away from him again until I finally settled in and was able to get in sync with Alan.

Alan set the pace and cadence and it was my job to match my stride with his. As soon as my feet found the rhythm, my arms fell into sync with my legs and my breathing fell into my long run pattern. Breathe in for three-four foot strikes, breathe out for three-four foot strikes. Once we got by the early run hubbub of noise it was much easier to just focus on running at an almost effortless pace. I didn’t know what pace we were holding exactly but it felt smooth. Each time we came to an aid station we grabbed what we needed as quickly as possible and got out of there.

Just beyond mile three my buddy Mike ran up next to me and said, “Come on buddy, if you can pull off a 3:52 the world record’s yours. So get your ass moving!” Then he slapped me on the butt and darted off the course again to continue cheering. “Put that out of your head for now,” I told myself. I couldn’t focus on trying to break the overall Visually Impaired Ironman World record. I had to focus on running my race and if I ran smart I’d still PR. But I wanted that record if I could. Or if I couldn’t get it I at least wanted to make it close.

For the first three or four aid stations I only grabbed water. And for the most part Alan and I were able to run through the stations. Around mile five I felt a gurgling in my stomach again and took a quick pitstop in a port-a-john to clear my guts out again. After that I started grabbing water and gatorade at the aid stations. Alan and I also began power walking through the aid stations and picked up running as soon as we were clear of the area.

We simply focused on staying steady. My goal was only to walk in aid stations. Between the aid stations I would not walk unless it was absolutely 100% necessary.

For the most part Alan and I were very focused. We occasionally chatted about random things along the run and Alan would describe some of what was around us, but for the most part we focused our energy into running and Alan focused on giving me the information I needed. “Feet up. Step toward me. Sharp left turn. Sharp right turn. Super tight fucking U-turn. Aid station coming, what do you need?”

We passed through the Base Aid Station which was rocking as usual and grabbed some bottled rocket fuel for a quick pick me up. Then we made the turn around mile seven and up alongside of us came running the top female pro, Heather Jackson. As she pulled alongside she said “Great work guys!” Then disappeared ahead of us. (Yes, this is the same Heather Jackson that the year before my guide Will shouted at “Princeton sucks!” while we were on the bike and Heather was cheering from the sidelines. I don’t think she remembered that a year later LOL.)

Alan and I continued chugging along grabbing what we needed in aid stations and continuing to run strong between stations. After mile eight or so I felt surprisingly light on my feet. My calves were no longer tight, my stomach had settled down and I felt I could run forever.

About mile 12 Alan felt he was on the verge of bonking so we started grabbing coke in aid stations as well. Even though I felt good and strong I knew that if Alan was feeling calorie deficient then I would be feeling that way before long as well. So I started having coke in addition to my water and gatorade. I also grabbed some bananas and Alan had some pretzels and grapes.

We hit the turn around and immediately flew back out onto the second loop holding strong. The miles seemed to just melt away. Around mile 14 or 15 I was in a zone and vaguely heard Mike running on Alan’s other side yelling at me that I needed to pick it up. That I was looking good but that I couldn’t get lazy.

At mile 16 I started counting down. Ten miles is an easy training run. Nine miles, that’s a walk in the park. Eight miles, hey at this point last year Will was puking out that red bull he drank at mile 16. Seven miles to go, shit Lesley assigns me harder runs than that on the treadmill running at 15% grades. Six miles to go, fuck I hate racing 10ks. Damn it, I think my watch just died.

Around mile 20 of the run, Muriel and Cory found us and started running alongside us. “You guys are on pace for sub 11!” Muriel yelled excitedly. “If we can hold this pace we’ll just sneak in under it,” Alan said. Then Muriel and Cory ran off again to get back to the finish line to cheer us in.

The Last 10K:

Alan looked down at his watch and asked “Is going sub 11 your goal?” “Yes,” was all I could manage. “Then we can’t stop at any more fucking aid stations!”

We ran and didn’t walk. It hurt like hell. All I could do was continue putting one foot in front of the other. Breathe in, breathe out. I tried relaxing my shoulders and letting my arms swing in rhythm with my steps. We ground our way up the steepest and longest hill on the course which under normal circumstances wouldn’t even register in my brain as a hill. But 20 plus miles into an Ironman run it felt like a 10% grade.

We passed through the Base aid station one last time and I heard Matt Miller running alongside us and yelling that I was at 10:35 with just over two miles to go and that I was going to break 11. I think he asked if I needed more rocket fuel but I couldn’t afford to slow down for even a second. I couldn’t take on any more nutrition. I had to run.

Alan and I barely spoke. All I could hear was a cacophony of noise interspersed with Alan giving terce instructions. “Stay with me. Left turn. Fuck I meant right. Now we’re going left.”

I think it was around mile 24 that I asked, “are we going to go under 11?” “If we can hold 9:30s we have a chance,” Alan said. “Are we?” I croaked out.” “Almost,” was all Alan said. To me that meant “Speed the fuck up!”

I tilted my head slightly forward, pumped my arms a little harder and gritted my teeth. “You’ve been in more pain than this before! There are people out there who aren’t as lucky as you who can’t quit. What about that 13 year old boy you just learned about who has cancer? You think he’d give up just because it hurts a little bit? What would you say if you looked back on this moment years later and admitted to yourself that you’re a quitter? Do you want to be one of the best in the world or not? Come on fucker it’s only a mile! This shit’s easy!”

I heard people yelling nonsensical things like “The finish line’s just there! It’s around the next corner.”

I heard the boom of music and the sound of an announcer on a loud speaker. Was that Mike Reilly’s voice? Then Alan and I turned left and a wall of noise closed in on either side of me. Something in my head yelled “GO!!!” And I called on every last bit of strength I had to sprint down the finishers shoot. We hit the line and people were going insane. I heard Mike Reilly shouting something about sub 11 hours. Dad, Muriel, Cory, my dad’s friend/one of my marine corps uncles, Beto, were all screaming and yelling. Alan was yelling something asking if we’d broken 11. Then Alan and I were hugging and holding each other up.

Then our finisher medals were being hung around our necks and foil blankets being draped around our shoulders. My friends Scott, Alex, Mike, Mikey, Melissa and so many others were reaching across the barriers to hug both Alan and I. I was so exhausted I could hardly stay upright. And I was so incredibly happy and satisfied because I’d accomplished my goal of breaking 11 hours in an Ironman. Now all I wanted to was to drink some good beer and celebrate with Alan, Muriel, dad, Beto, Mike and the rest of the crew who’d pushed and supported me through the day.

Run Time: 4 hours 9 minutes 14 seconds

Total Time: 10 hours 59 minutes 17 seconds

The Aftermath:

Post race I could hardly stagger around. I was pretty delirious. It’s not often you can feel so incredibly satisfied with the result of a race. Yes, we didn’t have the swim and bike we expected. Both Alan and I agree we very well could’ve gone faster if some things had bounced our way. But then again, Ironman is a log day for everything to go right, everything to go wrong, and a long day for things to go both right and wrong and to bounce back from anything.

We spent the post race filling our bellies with beer and food. We also checked in on all of our friends who were racing. My buddy Joel snuck under 12 hours for his first Ironman. My friend and fellow visually impaired athlete Corvin crushed his first Ironman as well finishing in 12 hours 38 minutes. And so many other friends, both first timers and multi-time finishers, had strong races. The next day we all headed toward home for some much needed rest, relaxation and more food than we could fit in our stomachs 🙂

And so my 2018 competitive season comes to a close. And what a year it was. I will be doing a year in review in a few weeks but I’ll go ahead and say now that this was probably my strongest year as an athlete. But I certainly didn’t do it alone. I had such an incredible team of people around me to support and push me to incredible new heights.

First and foremost, thank you to Alan Greening. Brother, we set a goal of breaking 11 hours in Arizona and accomplished that goal. And we had a ton of fun along the way! Thank you for taking the time and the risks of becoming a guide. Hope to race and train more with you again soon!

Thank you to my coach, five time World Champion, Lesley Paterson. Les, I know I missed some work outs on occasion and breaking my arm mid season set us back a bit, but you knew the right buttons to push and guided me to my strongest season. Being able to witness from afar the struggles you went through as an athlete as well helped me to continually step up my game. It’s been a real pleasure and honor to train under you as a Braveheart Athlete!

To my family who’s been incredibly supportive through this crazy journey. You guys are always there in person or in spirit no matter where the race is and are always my biggest fans and cheerleaders.

A very special thank you to Mike Melton. Bro, if you don’t take me under your wing and teach me how to be a triathlete all those years ago I don’t know where I am today. You taught me how to have fun while suffering during the course of a long day. You laid the groundwork for what we’re accomplishing now.

Thank you to all of my sponsors and supporters who allow me to make my passion a viable career (at least for now). Bubba Burger, Base Performance, Independence Run and Hike, The United States Association of Blind Athletes, Sopris Chiropractic, Team Catapult and so many others.

And as always, thank you to you all, the amazing #eyeronvision fans who continue to cheer me on from far and near. Your support is always felt and much appreciated 🙂

Now, after a short offseason, it’s time to turn my attention to representing the USA on the International stage as I attempt to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. I’m excited for this next chapter in my life but rest assured, I don’t think this’ll be my last Ironman 🙂

Until next time faithful #eyeronvision fans.

Kyle

Sarasota-Bradenton World Cup Race Report: ITU Bounce Back

October 14, 2018

Sarasota-Bradenton Paratriathlon World Cup

2.5 km Run, 18.3 km bike, 5 km run

“Come on! This is what we train for!” Zack seemed to yell even though he was only about 50 cm away from me. It was hot, humid and my legs and lungs were burning. All I could focus on was breathing in for two foot strikes and breathing out for two foot strikes. My arms were pumping as I desperately tried to cling on to the lead I’d gained on the bike. I wanted this win. It didn’t matter that I was in the middle of Ironman training or that I had a former Paralympic gold Medalist in the marathon bearing down on me from behind. I wanted this win.

Dodging Disaster

“we’re parked and waiting for a gate to open so we can deplane,” Zack texted me as I sat at Gate E14B in the Charlotte Airport waiting for our connecting flight to Sarasota. Hurricane Michael had rudely disrupted the flight patterns of hundreds of flights across the southeastern part of the United States. Not to mention the devastation to homes, towns, property, roads, infrastructure, etc. What was most concerning at this point though was that my guide for the Sarasota-Bradenton World Cup was in danger of missing our connecting flight. Not the end of the world if he did, he could simply hop on a later flight, but that would put us behind the eight ball even more than we already were.

“Use that 5:30/mi speed to get here,” I joked over text back to him.

With the call of just a couple of minutes until boarding Zack arrived at the gate in time to board with me and for us to make our very delayed flight. Zack’s flight from San Diego had circled the Charlotte area for quite a while before being diverted to Atlanta to refuel and attempt to fly back into Charlotte. I was fortunate enough for my flight from Denver to only have to circle for an extra 15-20 minutes before we were able to sneak in through a clear window.

Once on the plane to Sarasota though we settled in and caught up on life, chatted about races we’d done and strategized for this weekend.

I met Zack at Camp No Sight No Limits in San Diego which is put on by Elite Female Blind Triathlete Amy Dixon. Zack was guiding another athlete but we hit it off and kept in touch. Zack went on to crush his first Ironman in Canada and take second in his age group. Barely eight weeks later he competed in his second ever Ironman and won his age group and took sixth overall (he’s 24 years old). I’d been keeping an eye and ear out for fast guides and had built up a roster of potential guides for future races. Zack was on that list and after shooting some text messages back and forth with Amy Dixon I reached out to Zack to see if he’d be interested in guiding me at the Sarasota-Bradenton World Cup. He immediately said yes, but if I could find someone faster then he wanted me to choose them. Zack is probably the fastest triathlete I know that I can call a friend so I didn’t find anyone faster and we arranged to race together.

Upon arriving at our Airbnb in Sarasota we changed into running clothes and checked a map for somewhere to eat after 10 PM at night. We saw that there was a Chili’s a little more than three miles away so we decided to run there, eat and Uber/Lyft it back to the Airbnb. Only problem was that it was pitch dark outside with few street lamps lit. Zack was using his cell phone as a flashlight and a little more than a mile into our easy jog his foot caught a rise in the road and he went down scraping up his knee. He popped back up though and kept on running as though nothing had happened. “It’s a little bloody,” was all he mentioned about it. We eventually made it to the restaurant, drenched in sweat from the humidity, ate a quick dinner and then Lifted it back to the Airbnb where we showered and crashed.

Change of Plans

The next morning Zack and I Lyfted over to our friend Rachel’s house where I’d shipped my bike. Rachel was racing this weekend as well being guided by another friend we’d all met at Camp No Sight No Limits, Alex Dreu. Zack and I built the Limo back up from it’s broken down state and then Alex, Rachel, Zack and I pedaled over to Nathan Benderson Park for the Bike and swim course previews. Unfortunately though we received word that the swim was cancelled due to poor water quality. So instead we’d be racing a duathlon comprised of a 2.5k run, 18.3k bike and 5k run. That didn’t change my goal of taking the top step on the podium. I felt strong and in our quick shake out runs Zack and I were holding sub 6:30 min/mi paces with apparent ease. It would just be a little different and a little more challenging to go for gold now.

Kona Day

Saturday was Kona Day—meaning the Ironman World Championship was being contested in Kailua-Kona. It’s easily the biggest day in triathlon each year. Yes we have the ITU World Championship and 70.3 Worlds and the Olympics every four years, but nothing compares to Kona. I was glued to my phone watching coverage on Facebook Watch and tracking several friends including Erich Manser (the blind/visually impaired Ironman World Record holder for fastest Ironman at 10:42:59). We went over to Rachel’s house to watch the coverage on Alex’s computer. We were all still even watching the coverage on our phones right up to the time the Paratriathlon Race Briefing meeting began at 6 PM back at Nathan Benderson Park.

I was antsy for the briefing to end so I could get back to following Kona. And what a day… So many major records fell including the men’s and women’s swim course records falling, the men’s and women’s bike course records being broken, the overall men’s and women’s course records being broken, the first two people to go sub eight hours in Kona and the overall women’s fastest Ironman branded time being set. Not too mention so many others. All the triathlon community could do was say “Wow!” And I prayed I could have a similar race the next day.

Race Day

Oatmeal, banana, watermelon, gatorade and coffee were in my system as Zack and I pedaled the bike from our Airbnb to the race venue of Nathan Benderson Park. I’d raced here in March when it was the Camtri North American Championship and I didn’t have the race I was capable of. I planned to correct that and push myself to the max.

Because of the duathlon start the start waves were shuffled around and now the PTVI wave didn’t start until 10:01 AM instead of 8:03 as it had originally been scheduled for. This meant hotter and more humid conditions. No matter, we just had to live with it.

The First Run

Due to course crowding potential the Wheel Chair athletes had their race first then at 10 AM the waves of the other Paratriathlon categories began. The B1 (totally blind) men and women started at 10:01. I waited with my heart thumping and legs tensed ready to spring. At the sound of the airhorn beginning our wave Zack and I sprang forward exploding out to a fast lead ahead of the other eight or nine B1 athletes. Slowly though a few clawed their way back and passed us. A Japanese athlete passed me, then my fellow Team USA teammate Brad Snyder and one of the Irish athletes. Zack and I measured our pace. I was going hard but not as hard as I could. Every time Zack looked down at his watch though we seemed to be hovering around a 6 min/mi pace.

At the turn around point of the 2.5k run we were sitting in 4th or fifth place. We slid up to run shoulder to shoulder with the Irish and held a measured pace all the way to transition 1.

Run 1: 9 min 27 sec

Transition 1

We sprinted to the bike and I grabbed my helmet, throwing it on, buckling it while kicking off my running shoes. Then I slid my feet into my cycling shoes, strapped them, grabbed onto the bike and ran with Zack toward the mount line. We paused threw a leg over the bike, clipped in and took off. We were right on the heels of the Irish and only a few seconds down on the lead Japanese team and Brad.

Transition 1: 57 sec

The Bike

My legs felt heavy as I initially started pedaling. I worried that I’d pushed too hard on the first run and wouldn’t be able to have the power to surge to the front as Zack and I’d planned. But the heavy feeling quickly disappeared and Zack and I began to hammer. On the first opportunity we zoomed passed the Irish. Then we locked onto the red, white and blue kits of Brad and his guide Colin. We also had to contend with some cyclists from the wave ahead of us. Not long into the first lap we surged passed Brad. To encourage my teammate and fellow countryman along I yelled “Go Team USA!” Then we set our sights down the road. Japan was just ahead of us and we were on a mission to catch and pass them. We did a short while later and took the lead.

I don’t know how fast we were going at any given point, but I could feel that we were flying. I was throwing down possibly the strongest bike ride I’d ever done. Zack took the turns aggressively in the arrow bars and I stayed tucked in behind him as best I could to reduce drag.

We completed the first loop and I vaguely heard the announcer say something about first visually impaired athlete. But we went by so fast that was all I heard. Then we were on the second lap of three. This was where we decided to hammer even harder and where we extended our lead. We held that effort until about three quarters of the way through the third lap when we down shifted and spun the legs out a bit to get ready for the run.

We blazed toward the dismount line, hit the breaks, unclipped, came off the bike and started running into T2.

Bike: 25 min 12 sec (26.3 mi/hr average speed)

Transition 2

We racked the bike, I unclipped my helmet, tossed it in the bin where we are required to put discarded pieces of equipment, kicked off my cycling shoes, threw them in the bin and yanked on my running shoes again. I grabbed the run tether and Zack and I began sprinting to the run start.

Transition 2: 58 sec

The Run

It was hot. As we flashed by a crowd of people applauding and cheering. After all, we weren’t just leading the BVI field, we were actually the first people to get on to the run course. The was water at the first aid station just outside of transition and we grabbed a bottle to share until the next aid station.

I fell into a rhythm syncing my arms and legs to a fluid cadence. Zack was keeping an eye on our competitors. They were coming hard and fast but we still had a gap. I turned up the pace a notch. Dumped water into my mouth. I dumped water over my head. I breathed in. I breathed out. I swung my arms. I flexed and extended my legs. I didn’t talk. I tried not to focus on how fucking hot it was.

All the time Zack seemed to be striding effortlessly next to me giving me crisp clear directions. “Step toward me. Easy right hand bend. Now back to the left. Windy path. Keep it up man! You’re looking so strong!”

As we passed the one mile mark I knew I wasn’t holding the pace I wanted to. I felt like my legs were moving through mud. I pumped my arms harder trying to get my legs to catch up. I tried pushing the pace. But it was as though I could feel someone bearing down on me from behind.

“You’re 20 seconds up,” Zack said “keep pushing!” That gap came down to 15 seconds, then 10. We hit the turn around hard and pushed the pace a little harder. The lead Japanese athlete was flying behind us. I could hear his and his guide’s footsteps and heavy breathing. I gritted my teeth and willed my legs to go faster.

“How bad do you want to win?” Zack barked at me. I pushed harder. Then Japan was next to me. We ran shoulder to shoulder for a brief moment.

“Come on man, he looks like fucking shit! You look stronger!” Zack said. My brain was turning off. I was just running, pushing. Japan began pulling away. I tried to match the furious pace he was setting but couldn’t hold it for very long. Japan dropped me with just about a mile to go. And another Japanese athlete was coming fast behind me.

Zack continued to feed me encouragement and constantly reminded me to focus on form. “Don’t fall apart! We’re on the podium! We can still catch him!”

We hit the second to last bridge and Zack took a peek back to see where our second Japanese pursuer was. “Ten seconds,” Zack said. “If you want to hold this guy off you need to give it everything.”

I dug deeper and opened the gap a little. I vaguely heard someone yelling at the side of the run course “Keep driving forward!”

We hit the apex of the final bridge and headed slightly down hill. I extended my stride and dug just a little deeper. I knew that in order to begin collecting credit toward making the National Team I needed to minimize the gap between me and first place. I also needed to hold off this fast charging second Japanese athlete.

Zack and I came into the finisher shoot and hit the line in second place. My legs were shot, my heart rate through the roof and I was wetter than I would’ve been if we’d just completed a swim. I very nearly collapsed but Zack was there to hold me steady on my feet as we made our way into the athlete recovery zone.

Run: 22 min 16 sec

Total Time: 58 min 47 sec

Post Race

As I stood on shaky legs in the recovery zone, a volunteer draped a cold towel around my neck and shoulders and pushed a bottle of water into my hand. I sipped on the water and let the cool towel lower my core temperature. The Japanese athlete who’d finished in first place—48 seconds ahead of me—came up to Zack and me and hugged us. In broken English he said “Good race. I was Paralympic Gold Medalist. You did very good job.” Zack and I took that to mean that we’d pushed him to dig deep and this win wasn’t easy for him. Then we greeted the other Japanese athlete who’d finished a mere 18 seconds behind us in third place telling him that he’d pushed us and it was a great race. Then we began making our way out of the recovery zone to walk around and keep moving. Other athletes were coming across the line and we cheered them on as we saw them. We stopped to chat with Brad and Colin to see how their race went. We all agreed that it was a very hot day and that we felt the race might have shaken out differently if the swim hadn’t been cancelled. But all we could control was how well we raced and on the whole we were all fairly pleased with how the race went. Even so I turned to Zack and joked “Give me an Ironman over that any day.” Ironman is hard and it gets harder the faster you go, but Ironman is suffering little by little throughout the day not one hour of pedal to the metal. The pain is no worse or better, it’s just different. The thing that is so appealing about ITU racing though is the pure competitive nature of the beast. How hard can you push yourself to beat your competitors. Sometimes we win the battle and sometimes we lose.

I often say that if I’m second place I might as well be first loser. I still feel that way and expect better of myself. I know that in order to compete with the best in the world (which is what I want to do) I have to improve.

Nevertheless there were a lot of positives to take out of this second place finish. Even though my 5k run split of 22:16 was exactly the same as I’d done in March, the conditions this time around were much worse. I’d also begun with a hard run then had a much stronger bike and I was in the middle of Ironman training. More than that though, I felt I’d pushed myself and really raced for the first time in a long time. It felt good.

We walked around and chatted with our fellow athletes. We analyzed the race, had the podium ceremony and began cleaning up our transition area. Then it was time to bike back to Rachel’s, take the bike apart, pack it up and then head back to the Airbnb to get cleaned up and head out for good food and beer before crashing and getting up in the middle of the night to catch a 5 AM flight.

And so another race weekend came to an end. Thank you as always to everyone who made yet another race possible. Zack for an incredible job guiding and pushing me to my limit. Amy Dixon for playing guide/athlete match maker. Rachel for taking such good care of my bike. To the awesome crew of USA athletes who are all so supportive of each other. I do think we push each other to truly be better and raise the level of competition. Thank you also to the great race volunteers, race officials and spectators who made the race a fun one. Thank you as always to my incredible sponsors for allowing me to represent you and race and test myself against the best athletes. Here’s to hopefully many more podiums to come. And finally, thank you to you my readers for staying with me on this journey and for taking the time to read this newsletter.

#eyeronvision