Q & A – Guiding Visually Impaired Triathletes

A few friends wanted to know more about guiding visually impaired triathletes, so I decided to answer some of their questions in a Q & A form. If you would like to add any more questions to the list, please email me at caroline.gaynor@gmail.com.

Here are the questions and my responses:

Do you query the athlete’s expectations before you agree to guide them, to ensure you are up to the challenge? For example, what if they want to go faster than you?

I definitely discuss an athletes expectations before agreeing to guide. If you are significantly faster than an athlete, you will reduce the chances of having a “bad” race and causing them to reduce their speed, but unfortunately, guides can have bad days too!

Do you swim side by side, or do you sort of take the lead and they swim off your hip?

Para triathlon rules dictate that I cannot swim ahead of my athlete. We can swim side by side, or she can swim slightly ahead of me. If she were to swim slightly behind me, this would be an unfair advantage, as she would get the benefit of my draft.

Before your very first race, did you do much training with an athlete? How did you learn how to do the bike?

Funny you should ask! Before my first triathlon as a guide, I had less than a week’s notice. I received a call the week of the New York City Triathlon from Matt Miller, founder of the C Different Foundation. Matt told me that he had an athlete coming in from Chicago to do the race and he wanted to know if I knew anyone who could guide. I was already registered for the race, so I agreed to race as a guide instead.

I met my athlete, Kim Borowicz, the day before the race. She took the train into the city from JFK and met me in midtown. I had ridden a tandem that morning, with Matt Miller as my stoker (a captain or pilot is the front person on a tandem, a stoker sits behind them). Matt and I rode one loop of Central Park and I almost lost my mind, I was so scared. He is significantly heavier than Kim, so his movements had a huge effect on the front of the bike. He was doing everything he could to throw me off. So, to answer the question, I really learned how to pilot a tandem on the fly! My first time riding with a visually impaired athlete was during the 2008 NYC Triathlon.

It seems to me that you take some of these races on short notice, is that accurate? If so, how are you able to get/stay in shape for it? Most people train for 6+ months for an Ironman, and you just “do” it?? Is this a youth thing or what?

I wouldn’t say it’s a youth thing… I tend to be the backup person a lot of the time. I like to be flexible, so it’s easy for me to jump in and race when I’m needed. I guess I have a lot of fitness “in the bank” because I have been racing for so long. I had plenty of notice for IM Texas, but the first Ironman I guided was on 5 weeks notice. I received an email from a friend who had heard about an athlete in Seattle who needed a guide for IMLP because her guide had broken her wrist during a training ride. I felt that I had enough fitness to race.

How much does your water polo experience help you in the water? I’m assuming by your comments that you don’t have any anxiety about the swim pre-race?

I think my water polo and life guarding experience help me a lot in the water (Thanks, Coach Lee!). When I started doing triathlons, I was already used to being rough in the water. When I started guiding, I had already been racing for 7 years, so I had a decent amount of experience under my belt.

I don’t usually have much anxiety before races… I think it’s because I tend to caretaker mode. When I fee like it is my job to control a situation, I shut off the part of my brain that makes me feel nervous.

Can you wear a wetsuit and your partner not (or vice versa)?

Depending on the race, wetsuits are absolutely legal. Rachel and I did not wear wetsuits at IMTX because the water was warm enough that I felt it was unsafe to wear a wetsuit.

Does guiding a race count towards national ranking?

Officially, I don’t think so. Lately, I have been guiding so much that I haven’t been nationally ranked. However, some of my guiding results show up under my own name. I haven’t checked to see whether they are separated out because I raced in the PC wave. I am sure that USAT would remove the results from my profile if I asked. Often, your name will not appear anywhere if you are guiding, but at Ironman events, guides get their own chips and bib numbers.

Because of the stakes, what are your thoughts on average age group swimmers becoming guides? I get very anxious pre-race, and a lot of it is due to the swim. I don’t know how much help I could be to my athlete if I’m wanting to throw up myself!

I think this is a personal choice. I would absolutely recommend practicing the swim with your athlete if you get nervous. If you are a competent swimmer, there is no reason why you can’t guide an athlete that you can (at the very least) keep up with. Just be honest with your athlete. Never claim to be able to go faster than you can. You’ll only be doing yourself and your athlete a disservice.

How do you handle potty breaks? I’m guessing that Rachael wouldn’t have liked it too much if you stood up on the bike and started peeing!

Unfortunately, when I’m on the front of a tandem, I lose the ability to pee while riding. Let’s call it a courtesy to my athlete. During Ironman events, I try to discuss pee breaks with my athlete.

“How long can you hold it?”
“Do you want to go at this aid station or the next?”
“I think the line is too long at this aid station. Let’s wait.”

In Ironman races, there are usually bike racks where athletes can leave their bikes while they use the faciities. Sometimes I’ll rack the tandem, and sometimes a nice volunteer will hold the bike while we go!

How would you recommend someone break into being a guide? Perhaps on run only events to figure it out, or maybe as a training partner?

I think that it is always best to train with an athlete before you race with them, if possible. Obviously, there have been many times when I have not been able to train with someone before I raced with her, but it’s still not an ideal situation. Running is certainly the easiest way to begin guiding. If you are set on guiding a triathlon, I would try and locate a tandem bike in your area and practice riding with a sighted person before you ride with a visually impaired individual.

Do you bring your own pedals to the races?

When I race, I bring my own pedals and seat.

Is it the athlete’s responsibility to get a bike for the race?

I suppose technically it is the athlete’s responsibilty to get a bike before a race, but there are many people that are willing and able to help. Some of the organizations that are particularly helpful are: Achilles International, Para Promotions, and the C Different Foundation.

If an athlete owns their own bike, they get it to races the same way you or I would. In fact, Tri Bike Transport has begun transporting tandem bikes (used by para-athletes) for free! Thanks, Tri Bike!!!

How do you get in contact with athletes that would lime a guide?

To get in contact with athletes, sign up as a guide on C Different’s website:
http://cdifferent.org/join

I also highly recommend adding yourself to this Facebook Group for VI athletes and guides:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/running.eyes/

The Blind Stokers Club in San Diego is another great resource:

http://blindstokersclub.org/

Is it better to start with an Olympic distance, move to 70.3 then on to a full?

Paratriathlon is a new sport in the 2016 Paralympics. I actually recommend starting with sprint triathlons, as that is the official distance for international paratriathlon competitions.

I read some where I think that you have done other races with Rachel, do you stay with the same athlete for awhile?

If I get along well with an athlete, I usually want to do multiple races with them! I am not committed to racing with one particular athlete. None of the women I guide live near me, so I pretty much train on my own and meet up with visually impared athletes for races.

Did someone teach you how to guide?

Every athlete has different things that they expect from a guide, so I feel like I am constantly learning. But no, no one ever sat me down and taught me how to guide, as far as I can remember. I probably learned by watching my good friend, Aaron Scheidies, race.

Did Rachel have to learn how to be guided in a race atmosphere as opposed to in every day life?

You’ll have to ask her!

Did you do an Ironman solo before doing it as a guide?

I did one Ironman in 2005 solo. It was an iron-distance race called Silverman. I didn’t even consider doing another Ironman until I found out about an athlete that needed a guide for Ironman Lake Placid in 2010.

Regarding potty breaks, do you un-tether?

We definitely untether. Depending on the athletes level of vision, I will either wait to go, or go in a stall near them. Since stalls are dark, I usually tell the athlete which side the toilet paper is on.

Do you help them with their nutrition? For example if they want a gel every 20 minutes or x miles?

At Ironman Texas, I tried to help Rachel with her nutrition. It was more about reminding her (and myself) to drink, take salt tablets, and eat at regular intervals.

If the athlete can’t draft off of you on the swim, who drafts if you come up to someone’s feet (you of the athlete)?

I have never been in a situation where I was able to draft while guiding. Usually it’s more of a battle in the water than anything else. I try not to be too close to people because I don’t want to clothesline anyone 🙂

If you do a wetsuit swim you would lose the tether before stripping, then what (hold hands to T1 or what)?

Exactly! Sometimes my athlete will grab my arm instead. I carry both wetsuits, goggles and swim caps.

Have you ever done larger running events as a guide? In my experience they are bedlam and it could prove difficult to keep people from running between you.

I have done some NYRR races as a guide in New York. For larger events, it’s good to have a sweeper to get people to move out of your way when you’re trying to pass.

You’re in the final leg and your athlete wants to walk. How much do you push/encourage them vs. acquiescing?

That’s tricky. I like to coach/motivate, but it really depends on whom I’m racing with. I try to be conscious of how the athlete is feeling. It’s more of a “do you want to run now?” Situation than a, “come on, you can do it!” thing. I do tell athletes where we are in the race and talk race strategy with them. I try to plan out where to make moves in the race, if it’s appropriate.

Have you ever had an athlete get into distress on the run? How did/would you handle that? Might you talk about quitting? Might you quit yourself if they are bad enough?

I have had to stop a race because an athlete was severely dehydrated. It’s as disappointing as when I have a bad race solo. But safety is always the priority. I wouldn’t stop racing without the athlete making the decision unless I really felt their health was at risk.

Are you as chatty towards the end of the race or do you talk less as you get tired (please tell me you do get tired!)

Of course I get tired! Everyone gets tired. I think that’s what is so interesting about long course racing. Rachel and I discussed the fact that we might have high and low points in the race at opposite times. Sometimes you can get really annoyed at your athlete and they can get REALLY annoyed and frustrated with you. Imagine being tied to your best friend for 15 hours. Now add in 140.6 miles of exercise… Tensions can arise during a race!

Do you talk at all during a swim? I.e., left turn ahead? How do you handle turns?

I try to talk as little as possible during the swim, because I don’t want to slow my athlete down. Sometimes it is necessary to stop and reorient if it seems like we are getting too far off course. I have had to talk down a number of athletes during panick attacks. During those instances, I absolutely talk to my athlete!

Do you prefer your athletes on one side or the other? Do you alter your breathing so you can keep a better eye on them?

I try not to have a dominant side when it comes to positioning because I race with so many different athletes. I usually go on whichever side they prefer. When I’m swimming with a tether, more often than not, I will breathe every other stroke instead of every three so that I can keep an eye on my athlete. Sometimes I switch sides so my neck doesn’t start hurting.

Did I hear you say you watch for swimmers trying to come up between you? How do you do that?

In addition to sighting on the swim, if we are in a large group of swimmers, as is the case in Ironman events, I will occasionally look back at the field. For the most part, if I feel someone coming right behind me, I might look back. If the person doesn’t pick his or her head up, I have, in some instances, grabbed a person’s head and shouted, “You can’t swim between us! We’re tied together!” Other guides might have different tactics.

What would you do if your tether broke on the swim?

I have had at least one tether break before. It’s kind of a pain… you have to almost swim like you’re jumping rope! It gets tiring. If a tether broke in an ironman, I would try to re-tie it in the water.

I’m typically a bit fuzzy headed and wobbly at the end of the swim. Are you or your athlete? Does it require special attention/care?
I think everyone is wobbly after a swim. I just focus on moving towards transition and not causing my athlete to trip and fall!

I’m not sure how a tandem works. If I’m a stronger rider than my athlete am I able to carry 60% of the load, or if I push harder does that make them have to work harder.

On a tandem, you can push as hard as you want, and your athlete could just soft pedal, if he or she wanted to. Most tandems require that athletes ride with synchronized cadence. You will feel if one person is pushing harder than the other. You can’t force a stoker to put out more power by riding harder. You could cause them to speed up their cadence. I might be wrong about this one…

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C4 Athletics Spotlight Athlete: Caroline Gaynor

C4 Athletics

What do you think of when you hear the words Iron Man, Triathlon, Marathoner, Endurance Athlete?

What do you think of when you hear the word guide?

What do you think of when you hear these words- an Iron Man, Triathlon, Marathon, Endurance Athlete Guide-together? Well let me introduce you to an extraordinary athlete Caroline Gaynor a multifaceted athlete who not only excels on and off the race course but has also worked very hard to promote, mentor and connect Veterans and civilians through her work at Team Red, White and Blue.

Me on the bike - Panama 70.3 2013

Caroline Gaynor is Triathlon Director for Team Red, White & Blue. Team RWB’s mission is to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting veterans to their community through physical and social activity. Caroline is responsible for the development of the triathlon team, including recruiting new members and initiating and maintaining relationships with the team’s sponsors…

View original post 2,460 more words

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Afghan women bike racers train in secret

Sidestepping threats and jeers, the Afghan women on the country’s national cycling team are risking their lives to compete and doing their part to help women’s rights race forward in the war-torn nation. NBC’s Mike Taibbi reports.

This video is both tragic and inspirational. The adversity these women must overcome would seem insurmountable to most people. I applaud these cyclists for their courage and tenacity. Please take 2 minutes and watch this clip. It’s absolutely worth watching.

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Team RWB: Our Impact

This video illustrates the importance of Team RWB. I am honored to be a part of such an incredible organization that is working to improve the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. Please take the time to watch this video. If you would like to learn more about Team RWB, please visit our website: http://www.teamrwb.org. Veterans and civilians are encouraged to join. There are no obligations, no membership dues, and no expectations. We are creating a movement- we need to gain as much support for our nation’s veterans as we possibly can.

For Blind Competitors, Partners Show the Way

I have copied the text from a New York Times article on guiding visually impaired triathletes that was published last July. I was honored to be interviewed for the piece, and I think the author did a wonderful job describing how rewarding it is to compete in a triathlon as a guide for a visually impaired triathlete. 

NY Times Photo Shoot in Central Park

For Blind Competitors, Partners Show the Way

By ZACH SCHONBRUN
Published: July 7, 2012
The toughest of the three legs of an Olympic triathlon, for a blind athlete, is generally the swim.

A plunge into cold water can drown one’s alternate sensory perception. Sudden, seizing panic attacks can follow, like waves of paralyzing disorientation. Shivering fits. It is at these rare nadirs when the blind may seek an encouraging tug.

Six completely blind athletes will swim the 0.93 miles, bike the 24.8 miles and run the 6.2 miles of the New York City Triathlon’s course through the West Side of Manhattan on Sunday. Making every step, spin and stroke along with them will be six volunteer guides, tethered to them.

“It’s a teamwork, a partnership, no question,” said Caroline Gaynor, who will be making her fifth guiding appearance. “I don’t necessarily like it when people say, ‘Oh, it’s so great you do that.’ I get as much out of it as they do.”

During the swim and the run, the pairs are connected by bungeelike cords, typically wrapped around each other’s waist (occasionally, they are attached by the wrist). For the bike portion, they ride a tandem — a specially modeled dual-seat cycle, sighted guide in front, legs pedaling in synchrony.

When guiding, the minutest of details must be tended to. The night before the race, shoelaces need tying, goggles need taping, tethers need adjusting to a manageable length. Too short, and rhythm can be disrupted. Too long, and the blind swimmer cannot feel the guide’s directional tugs.

The number of steps from the river to the road might be counted. Succinct communication calls, like a coach’s playbook, are critical for the swimming and cycling portions, when hearing can be difficult.

When the guide Sameh Mikhail met his athlete, Terry Gardner, for the first time in 2010, it took them nearly two hours of practice just to be able to balance on the tandem bike.

The runs involve near-continual dialogue: alerts about the next turn, dip, hill, curb and grate, along with the occasional pep talk. Mikhail said Gardner even liked him to keep a running count of every person they passed.

Understandably, the guides need to be in top triathlon shape to be able to race with the athlete and also adapt to conflicts that almost always arise.

The first time Steve Zink ever guided, their tandem bike’s rear derailleur broke halfway down the West Side Highway. Unable to fix it and unwilling to give up, Zink and his partner decided to run the rest of the way, carrying the bike a good 10 miles, in just their socks.

“He’s behind me holding onto the bike and I’m guiding him and guiding the bike,” Zink said. “We were coasting down hills. We developed a system on the spot to sort of skateboard along when it’s flat.

“It was improvisational,” he added. “A lot of these people are totally capable; they just need your help.”

Gaynor, 28, said she had raced in more than 50 triathlons individually since high school but preferred only guiding now. Her partners vary.

In May, Gaynor noticed a Facebook group for blind triathletes and posted a message inquiring if any needed a guide for the New York City Triathlon. Jan Ditchfield — the founder of an Ontario-based organization called Won With One, the only self-financed program for blind and visually impaired triathletes in Canada — responded.

Ditchfield connected Gaynor with Leona Emberson, whom she had never met before Friday, when Leona arrived and the two practiced a bit in Central Park. The crash-course training, Gaynor said, is part of the challenge.

“I think of myself as equipment,” Gaynor said. “These are competent, capable people, and they don’t want to have their hands held unless they need to. They wouldn’t be racing with me unless they needed to have a guide. So I want to respect the amount of independence that they want, but also give as much as help as they need.”

A few organizations, including Won With One, work with volunteer guides and pair them with athletes based on size, age and ability (most races enforce same-gender pairings). The athlete establishes the pace.

John Korff, the race’s owner, said the triathlon had averaged four to eight blind athletes each year since 2002. On Korff’s desk in his Midtown Manhattan office is a framed photograph of Gaynor finishing in 2008 with Kim Borowicz, who has tears streaming down her cheeks.

“The guide is giving that person the gift of the triathlon,” Korff said. “This is their sport, but they can’t do it alone.”

For 11 months of the year, Mikhail, 33, trains and races individually. But, after meeting Gardner, Mikhail said as long as Gardner still wanted to do it, he would never run the New York City Triathlon alone again.

“It’s Terry’s,” Mikhail said. “I feel like that’s his focus of the year. I would never be able to selfish enough to be like, ‘O.K., it’s about me now.’ There’s so much more to this now that running it by myself would feel essentially empty.”

If all goes well, six blind athletes will finish on Sunday, and their “eyes” will detach and walk away. The guides are not technically registered, nor are they recorded as finishers. The blind athletes receive most of the hugs and the handshakes.

The guides, those who steer, steady, tug, coach and motivate, only share in the internal reward.

“It’s their race,” Gaynor said. “If I can just help a person have their best possible race, so that they can cross the finish line feeling like they accomplished something, like the way I have felt when I’ve finished races, then that’s awesome.”

Here is a link to the original article:

Link to New York Times Article

Stan’s NoTubes p/b EnduranceWERX

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Stan's NoTubes p/b EnduranceWERX

I am honored to be a part this amazing amateur women’s cycling team in NYC. We have support from some incredible sponsors, including Stan’s NoTubes, Hutchinson Tires, enduranceWERX, Amrita Health Foods, iFIXBYX, Fearless Chocolates and OSMO Nutrition. Look out for us on the road!

My Grandfather – Brigadier General Ernest Paul Braucher

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 My Grandfather - Brigadier General Ernest Paul Braucher

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about family and how my relatives have directly and indirectly influenced the path I have taken in life. I wish I could thank my grandfather for everything he taught me. Most of the lessons I learned from my grandfather were passed from him to my mother, and then to me. My grandfather left an incredible legacy. Since his passing, I have learned a great deal more about his generosity, his dedication to the U.S. military, and the admiration and love he felt for my grandmother. I am proud to say that this man was my grandfather. Click on this photo if you are interested in reading more about his incredible life and service to this nation.

Marine Corps Vet, Jared Rose – From Wounded Veteran to Ironman

Marine Corps veteran, Jared Rose, in his own words:
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“I joined the Marine Corps in November of 2006 and became a Machine Gunner. I felt as if I had found my mission in life. In May of 2009, 2/8 Marines deployed to Afghanistan for Operation Khanjari. We all knew this was going to be a completely different ball game. We had multiple briefs on the enemy situation. 2/8 would be the “tip of the spear” heading into uncharted territory in the Helmand River Valley. We saw combat nearly every day. It seemed so likely that we would strike an IED, that it we joked about it. On August 2nd, 2009, I got hit by my first IED. I suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and some bumps and bruises. I was knocked out for about 10 minutes.
6 weeks later, on September 29th,, my vehicle was hit by another IED. It cut our vehicle completely in half. The truck was thrown in a front flip motion and landed topside down about 20 feet from the blast. My gunner and dismount were severely wounded. My driver was trapped underneath the steering column, but luckily only suffered minor injuries. I was left with another TBI, some superficial shrapnel, and other minor injuries. My Battalion lost 14 Marines on that deployment, and many more were severely wounded. My life was forever changed.

I came home from deployment and was a different man. After being wounded and sent to wounded warrior battalion, I was on a pharmacy full of medications, I felt like a zombie. For the first time in my life I was out of shape. I joined the WAR (warrior athlete reconditioning) program and started cycling to get back in shape. As I started getting more fit, I started realizing that exercise was absolutely crushing many symptoms I was dealing with. My headaches retreated, I was able to sleep (better at least), my rage and anger were being put into the pedals or the weights…and my depression had retreated.

Then came my medical retirement from the Marine Corps: I spent less time exercising and lost the sense of community I had in the Corps. Invisible wounds such as depression, nightmares, and bouts of rage re-surfaced. I felt overwhelmed with a sense of guilt. I still feel incredibly guilty that I walked away with such minor injuries compared to the other brothers in my vehicle and those in my Battalion who fared worse than me.

After growing so isolated since leaving Active Duty, I found a new purpose in life when I joined Team Red, White & Blue. Team RWB has not taken away my problems, but it has given me a purpose, motivation, and the ability to serve as a leader right in my new community. I am now the Veteran Outreach Director for the NYC chapter. This role enables me to reach out to other veterans who I know are struggling, but may not be sure what to do. I’ve been down that road and know what to do: Join me on Team Red, White & Blue and turn to the power of community and exercise to fight through life’s challenges.”

Jared Rose completed the Ironman U.S. Championship on August 11th, 2012 in a time of 12:44. His is a story of sacrifice, resilience and determination. Semper Fi, Jared.

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