On May 18, 2013 I guided Rachel weeks, a vision and hearing impaired athlete, in Ironman Texas. This is a recap of our race.
What many of you do not know is that Rachel Weeks is not only vision impaired, but also hearing impaired. Rachel has Usher Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder that causes her to lose both senses. Rachel is the first athlete with Usher Syndrome to complete an ironman.
I met Rachel last year at the Chicago Triathlon. We communicated via Facebook and twitter over the summer and I convinced her to do the race with me. From the moment I met Rachel, I knew I liked her. After an outstanding performance at the Chicago Tri, Rachel decided to sign up for an ironman. I have always hated hot races, so I swore I would never do Ironman Texas, but when Rachel told me which race she wanted to do, I didn’t hesitate to sign up.
Many people ask me whether we have to pay two entry fees for our races. The answer is no, we do not. Rachel pays for herself and I get a link to sign up as a participant- for liability and safety reasons. When I guide, I am, for all intents and purposes, a piece of equipment. I cannot stress this enough- this was Rachel’s race. When I guide, I act as the eyes for my athlete. I get a chip time, but all of my effort in the race goes toward helping my athlete run her best race.
Rachel and I do not train together during the year. In fact, I had not seen her since the Chicago triathlon when I met up with her at the Ironman Texas expo. As the case with all of my close friends, I felt like I had just seen her, even though it had been over 8 months.
I have been competing in triathlons since 2001 and guiding since 2008. I have guided athletes in 17 triathlons, including 3 (now 4) ironman races. No matter how many races you have guided, or completed solo, there is always a level of uncertainty going into a competition. You can never predict how you will feel on race day, which can be nerve wracking!!! Rachel and I are not the same pace. It is important to try and race with athletes whom you could (theoretically) beat in a race. As my friend m David Adame, director of the C Different Foundation, says, a guide should “have gas in the tank.” I have been in races where I totally blew up and had to slow down my athlete. It is the absolute worst feeling in the world. So, the way to reduce the odds of a situation like that occurring, the best thing to do is race with someone whom you are significantly faster than. That being said, chemistry is also incredibly important, especially in longer races. Keep in mind that Rachel was literally connected to me for an entire Ironman. Can you imagine how that would have felt if she and I weren’t also good friends?
Rachel and I flew in separately and met at the Ironman expo in The Woodlands on Thursday, May 16th. We walked through packet pick up together and then went shopping for race day nutrition and gear that we still needed to purchase. After putting my seat and pedals on the bike and making doing a quick eyeballed bike fit, we went back to our homestay before the mandatory athlete meeting/welcome dinner. Race prep began the next morning.
Ironman Texas offered athletes a two hour window during which they could practice swimming on the actual swim course the day before the race. We were told that the water would be warm- most likely wetsuit optional. If the water is above 78 degrees, athletes have the option to wear wetsuits, but they cannot qualify for Kona or other age group awards. If the water is 84 degrees or above, officials will not let athletes wear wetsuits because there is a risk of overheating. Having overheated in a number of races myself, I encouraged Rachel to make the call to not wear wetsuits. I think it’s worth having a slower swim time (wetsuits can cut significant time off of swim splits), if you can make it up elsewhere in the race because you haven’t overheated!
Rachel and I did a 20 minute practice swim on Friday morning. Rachel is a great swimmer, and we swim well together, so we mainly decided to practice because she wanted to get rid of her pre race jitters. When we hopped in the water, she had a couple of moments of anxiety, where she would stop in the water and almost laugh at herself. She wasn’t having a full blown panic attack, but I know she was trying to convince herself to start swimming again.
After a while, she overcame the open-water nerves and we headed to shore. Next, we went to Tri Bike Transport, so that I could fit the bike and we could go for a practice ride. After our ride, we dropped the bike off at transition… Saying goodbye to Rachel’s tandem for the night made everything seem real. The next time we would ride her bike would be after the swim on Saturday morning. I was nervous that I hadn’t tightened everything down or that my fit would be uncomfortable! A lot of things can start hurting over a 112 mile ride.
We relaxed at our homestay after dropping the bike off. The only thing we had left to do was put our race bags together.
Before bed, I laid all of my nutrition out on the floor and divided everything up between my bike, run and special needs bags. I made sure to freeze four bottles of perpetuem before bed so that we would have relatively cold drinks the next day. Tina Ament taught me the best ironman special needs trick- I bought a cooler for my bike special needs bag. If you stash a couple of bottles in a soft cooler, you can have extra bottles of liquid nutrition on the bike!
I felt like I was ready to race… so I headed off to bed.
We waded into the water that was teeming with what seemed like thousands of age group athletes. I imagined them bearig down on us, 10 short minutes after my race would begin. As a PC athlete, Rachel is allowed to start directly behind the pro wave, which would give us a 10 minute head start on the field. I can only imagine what we look like when we start swimming. The entire lake is watching the pros quickly pull away, while our little orange-capped heads bob slowly along in the water.
When the gun went off, I counted a beat and then told her to start swimming. Our race had begun.
A few strokes into the swim, Rachel began having a minor panick attack. When Rachel panicks, it has more to do with the fact that she can’t catch her breath than anything else. When this happened in the Chicago Triathlon, I had her tread water for a few seconds and then count to 10 strokes and tread again. We started swimming like that until Rachel heard the national anthem playing in the background. The age groupers were about to start swimming. We had about 10 minutes to swim alone before they would come up behind us. She was overcome with emotion when she heard our anthem. It was all I could do not to cry.
I knew that we couldn’t make 2.4 miles in 2 and a half hours if we stopped every 10 or 20 strokes, so I told Rachel to try breathing every stroke, instead of every three… It worked!!! I had seen Aaron Scheidies, one of the fastest triathletes I know, swim like that in the Chicago Triathlon, so I figured it wouldnt slow her down too much!
The course was easy to navigate, so we got into a good rhythm. I knew that any moment, thousands of aggro age groupers would be upon us. I must admit, tge thought scared me a little bit. as confident as I am in the water, and as confident as I was in Rachel’s swimming, I wasn’t looking forward to getting dunked by a bunch of hyper competitive dudes.
Rachel, it turned out, enjoyed battling the age groupers! The more we were in the middle of things, the more fun she seemed to be having! I did have to move us out of the center of the pack because it became too difficult to stop every few seconds to grab someone’s head and tell them not to swim through us because we were “tied together”.
The rest of the swim went relatively smoothly. I was really proud of how Rachel handled the crowds of athletes knocking into us. When she began to get a little tired (about an hour in), she started veering to the left a bit. I had to pull on our tether to rein her back in!
I felt really good during the swim. I was very happy with how things went. Because we chose not to wear wetsuits, I knew that our time wasn’t going to be insanely fast, but I was happy that everything went as smoothly as it did. When we got into the channel, I started getting really pumped. At one point I even thought to myself, “I am superwoman!” That’s a good way to feel during a race.
We got out of the swim in 1:46:16. I felt such a rush of adrenaline when we started running towards transition. I couldn’t wait to get on the bike! T1 took 11:50, which isn’t bad. I made sure that we had everything we needed in our jersey pockets. The last thing you want to do when you start an Ironman bike is forget your nutrition. Another thing that I like to do is bring a little spray bottle of sunscreen. If you’re as pale as I am, you need extra sunscreen for a ride that long.
As usual, riding with Rachel felt AWESOME! Rachel trusts me on the bike. I can tell that she trusts me because she never makes any sudden movements and she doesn’t tense her arms. When I’m piloting a tandem, I can feel almost every movement my stoker makes. If I’m riding with a nervous athlete, the front of the bike can start moving back and forth if the rider has a death grip on the bars. Sometimes I’ll ask an athlete to pretend that the bars aren’t there. I don’t have to give Rachel any tips. She is super comfortable on the bike. The only thing I will say is, “Focus on your pedal strokes. Don’t get lazy when you get tired.” But I’m saying that as much for myself as I am for her!
The first 40 miles were a breeze. It hadn’t gotten too hot yet, and the wind seemed to be at our backs. An official motorbike pulled up alongside us and interviewed Rachel, which was really exciting. It seemed like the ride was too good to be true…
Turns out, it was.
Our average pace for the first 30 miles was 17.48 mph. This pace felt incredibly easy for us, as it should feel at the beginning of an ironman. If you are fatigued 30 miles into the bike leg, you did something wrong. I used one of Tina’s tricks to help us focus on the bike. I dedicated every 10 miles to a different person or group of people. It helps to focus on the 10 miles you’re in and to not thing ahead to the ground you still have to cover.
We dedicated 10 mile to Richard Hunter, a visually impaired athlete who works tirelessly to get visually impaired individuals into athletics and Diane Berbarian, another VI athlete who coached Rachel for the Ironman. 10 miles were dedicated to Rachel’s daughters and to our mothers. 10 went to the victims of Boston and to our nation’s veterans.The hardest 10 miles were the ones we dedicated to the fallen members of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. It seemed appropriate to suffer at that point. It was the kind of pain that makes you think about what REAL pain is… I knew that anything I was feeling wasn’t CLOSE to the amount of pain our grunts feel when they’re patrolling in Afghanistan. So we pushed on…
By the time we hit mile 50, it had started to get really hot. We knew that the heat index was supposed to be in the mid 90s, which meant that it would feel like it was over 100 on the dark asphalt. After mile 50, I began looking forward to Special Needs, which was at mile 56. We had been doing a great job with nutrition thus far. I made sure to remind Rachel to drink and take salt tabs. I would set hydration goals for each part of the race. For instance, I would make sure that we both finished at least one bottle of water and half a bottle of Powerbar Perform. Miles 50-56 seemed endless. We were riding into the wind, and the heat had started to take it’s toll. Finally, we arrived. I made baggies of salt and vinegar potato chips for both of us, which have gotten me through a few Ironmans before. When Rachel tasted them, she was elated. It was probably the best moment of the race so far. When you’re exercising for that long, it’s amazing what the body craves (and on the flip side, it can be amazing how much the body won’t tolerate when it comes to nutrition). `
The boost from our salt and vinegar chips didn’t last long. I felt like we were really dragging. Then I heard a high pitched squeaking noise… that’s never a good sign. I told Rachel I was going to pull over to check the brakes. As it turned out, both of our brakes were rubbing! We speculated that the heat had someting to do with it. The metal disc brakes could have shifted because of the extreme temperature. We could have been wrong, but it made sense at the time!
After fixing the brakes, we set off again. Throughout the ride, Rachel had been in good spirits. We talked throughout much of the early part of the ride because we were in a low endurance zone. But as we got further into the ride we becane much less chatty. When Rachel stopped responding with as much “energy”, I began to worry a bit. We saw dozens of athletes on the side of the road. One man had stopped at a spectator’s home and was lying on the side of the road holding an ice pack they had given him. I was feeling pretty good, but I have done a bunch of races in the heat. I learned from my mistakes in Panama (I did the 70.3 Panama in February) and was very conscious of hydration during the race. Rachel is a new triathlete. It’s impossible to predict how your body will react in extreme conditions and it’s even harder to predict when you don’t have a ton of racing experience.
I assumed that most of the aid stations had someone to administer first aid, so I told Rachel that we were going to stop at the next station and find her an ice pack. She didn’t protest. By some miracle, the next aid station actually had a kiddie pool filled wth ice. There was a woman sitting in the pool who looked as red as a beet. We took off our cycling shoes and helmets and got in the pool with her. It was so hot outside, the water didn’t even feel cold. I couldn’t believe it.
I don’t know exactly how long we stayed at the aid station, but I am convinced that the ice bath saved the race for us. When we began riding again, I could feel the difference in Rachel’s riding. She was pushing harder and seemed to have a lot more energy. I felt better for a while, but the heat started to get to me with about 30 miles to go. When you’ve already gone 80 miles, 32 shouldn’t seem like many, but it felt like an unconquerable distance.
I found myself getting very, very quiet. I hoped Rachel didn’t say anything. She was quiet too. I told her that I would do whatever I could to get us to 112. I knew that she was working as hard as she could, but we still had a marathon to go, so I didn’t want to risk pushing Rachel too hard. There were points in the race when I fantasize about quitting. I thought to myself, “It wouldn’t be so bad if Rachel wanted to stop right now.” But in the back of my head I knew that it would be worth it to keep going. Shortly before mile 90 pick up truck filled with bikes passed by. After racing for 13 years I’ve seen a lot of things, but I have never seen so many abandoned bikes.
The heat was dangerous. It was crippling even the fittest athletes. The aid station at mile 90 was sent to be seen. As we approached, I asked Rachel if there was a party going on. There appeared to be dozens of people just hanging out at the aid station. Rachel and I needed to use the porta potties, and when I was waiting for her to finish I noticed a group of very fit looking athletes sitting under a tent. It was obvious that they had all thrown in the towel. This might sound twisted, but seeing a bunch of in shape athletes who had decided to drop out somehow we had our job is to me. Maybe it was a case of schadenfreude. Either way, I was determined to get through the bike.
The last hour of the bike was pretty quiet. I had to stop and fix the brakes again. I think I had to fix them a total of three times during the ride. I don’t know how much the brakes rubbing slowed us down compared to the heat, but the combination of those two factors really did a number on us. When we finally got to the Woodlands, I was thrilled. It felt like we were home again! I realized that we had spent almost 8 hours on the bike, which is pretty astounding considering the pace we held for the first half of the bike.
I let Rachel know that we were approaching the bike dismount line. After so many hours in the saddle, I think there was a disconnect between her mind and her feet, because she was unable to clip out of her pedal as I stopped at the line. So of course, the only mishap we had, was in front of hundreds of spectators at the finish of the bike. Rachel was not hurt, so it was actually pretty funny. But I felt like a terrible guide!
I cannot describe how excited I felt when the volunteers took the bike from us. Rachel and I walked as quickly as we could to the changing tent to prepare for the run. We took just over 14 minutes in T2. We spent a little bit of time putting our compression socks on, but I maintain that it is worth the extra time. Rachel was still recovering from the ride, so we started out walking. The heat was so bad, it was almost impossible to run. After a few miles we started to job in the shade, but there was very little shade to be found. I just wanted to make it to aid station for, where I knew our RWB teammates would be waiting. One of the most exciting parts ofWas passing the RWB aid station with our tents and flags boasting the Team Red, Whire & Blue Eagle. Ironman volunteers are an incredibly tough bunch. Our volunteers began the day at 5 AM and did not quit until after midnight.
Both Rachel and I are talkative and friendly so we made a lot of friends during the run. One of the first friends we made was a Marine officer based at Camp Lejeune. As he passed us he asked me what exactly Team RWB was. I used the opportunity to try and recruit him. I hope he remembers to look us up. Talking to the officer motivated me because I dedicated my race to our active duty servicemembers and veterans.
Coming into our second lap, I did not think we were in any trouble as far as meeting the 17 hour time constraint. We were very conservative during the marathon, because I felt that being conservative was far better than pushing ourselves past what our bodies could handle and ending up like a countless people who were forced to leave the event and ambulances. All throughout the race heard sirens going off and we knew more and more people were forced to quit. We moved a lot quicker on our second lap than we did on the first, but we still were not able to run very quickly. I felt shockingly strong during the run, which made me very happy. My biggest fear is having to make my athlete slowdown because I cannot go any faster. It has happened to me two times, and both of those places are still painful to think about. When I racing, 100% of my focus is on the athlete with whom I am competing. I wanted nothing more than to allow Rachel to run the race SHE wanted to run. i still encouraged her to drink, taking calories, and consume salt tabs. Anything can happen during an Ironman marathon. You can never be too careful when it comes to nutrition.
However, the types of foods we ate during the marathon are pretty funny. The most exciting thing that I found at in a station on the course with pickles. My two favorite foods during the run at Ironman Texas were chicken broth and pickles. I choked down a Gu or two, but it was tough to eat anything at all. It was still blazing hot even after the sun went down. When I felt Rachel’s arm, she was hot to the touch.
Some people on the course remembered us from the bike and asked us if we had been on the tandem. Many people let us know how inspired they were by what Rachel was doing. On occasion, we got an, “Oh, how cute! You guys are tied together!” I suppose that if you did not know that Rachel is visually impaired you might think that we were using the tether as a gimmick. I used every opportunity I could to explain that she was a physically challenged athlete. I would love for it to be commonplace to see visually impaired athletes in triathlons, so I believe that spreading awareness is of the utmost importance.
As it got dark, I began to realize that Rachel probably never trained in the dark at home. I mean, why would she? I asked her if she had run in the dark before. She confirmed my suspicion, that this would be a first for her. So during the final 9 miles of the marathon, not only did Rachel have to battle extreme fatigue, but she would be forced to run in pitch darkness for the very first time. In addition, we began to realize that we would be cutting it very close to the 17 hour time limit.
I did some quick math, and noted that we would need to go about 15 minutes per mile on the last loop to make it to the finish line before 11:50 PM. Midnight is the cutoff for age groupers, but because we started with the pros we had 10 fewer minutes. Rachel was wearing a Garmin watch, but it was not reliable. We had to just run as much as possible and pray that we would make it.
We ran some of the last lap with a fellow RWB member, Boonsri. He would stay with us for a while, get tired and walk, and then catch back up a few minutes later. This race wrecked everyone in it. The Team RWB aid station fell just before mile 22 on the third lap. By this point, I was getting a little nervous. The race could have gone either way. As we passed by our team members, I saw Hailey Lanier, the four year old daughter of my good friend, Allison, whom I stayed with earlier in the week. Seeing Hailey pumped me up! I couldn’t believe she was still awake, and cheering!!! Next, my friend, Hailey, ran up beside me. She said, “I have Jared on the phone! He says he loves you and that you should kick it into the next gear!” Getting a message like that was the final push I needed…
I was in focus mode. Rachel and I speed walked the next two miles. At that point, running and speed walking were so close in pacing, we thought walking fast might be more efficient. Boonsri caught up to us and let Rachel hold his arm for a while. At that point, it was so dark that Rachel had to hold my arm at all times. We turned each mile to the session we did not have time to stop it, so I would call to the volunteers and ask them to hand us fluids as we walked by. If they didn’t react fast enough, we would keep walking and usually someone would run up to us with a cup of water.
As we approach the final 2 miles we passed by the home of two new friends whom I stayed with the Thursday before the race. John and Nancy walked with us for close to a mile. Boon and I chatted with them, but Rachel was dead silent; she was totally in the zone. Just before 2 miles to go, I reminded Rachel that her daughters were waiting at the finish line for her. It was time to fucking GO! Rachel started running and didn’t stop.
We were still cutting it incredibly close. Rachel kept a really good pace. I stayed silent and tried to match her stride. There was nothing else to say. We were pushing it to the end. We got close to the second to last aid station and I noticed a sign that said, “Mile 7, 16, and 24 here.” A few minutes before, I told Rachel that we were almost at mile 25. I couldn’t believe it! Had I just lied to Rachel? If we had been at mile 24, we wouldn’t have made it. Thankfully, the sign was wrong. About a quarter mile after that aid station, we hit mile 25. We had less than 15 minutes to go 1.2 miles. The last mile seems very very long. There was an out and back along the water that messed with my head. I just wanted to be at the finish line already! Heading into the home stretch, about a half mile before the end, Allison handed me her American flag. At the Chicago triathlon last August, the only other race I had done with Rachel, I ran five of the 6.2 miles carrying an American flag. When Allison handed me the flag I got goosebumps. I remembered why we love racing. This meant more than both of us. This Ironman was about overcoming obstacles that Rachel at one point believed were insurmountable.
I had not seen the finishing stretch, so I was unsure of all of the turns. I relied on volunteers to steer us towards the finish line. I did everything I could to hold the flag high. Rachel seems to be running better than she had the entire race. The energy of the crowd at an Ironman finish line the last few minutes before midnight is unparalleled. I’m glad I got to experience the energy of this group of people. I told Rachel to grab the flag with me and we ran across the line. We headed into the shoot and picked up speed with every step. I began crying before we even crossed the finish line. I was overcome with pride for Rachel and filled with a feeling of utter joy. I wrapped my arms around her in congratulations. We had finished 140.6 miles in 16:58:14. One minute, forty-six seconds to spare.
Rachel said the only thing I could possibly hope to hear after an Ironman. She told me, “I wouldn’t have changed one thing about that race.”
I’m already trying to convince her to do another…