Follow up to the guiding article I posted earlier. Leona and I were interviewed before the start of the NYC Tri about guiding. I had an amazing time racing with Leona Emberson.
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.
For Blind Competitors, Partners Show the Way
By ZACH SCHONBRUN
Published: July 7, 2012
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:
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 veteran, Jared Rose, in his own words:
“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.
After writing the report about my recent experience at Ironman 70.3 Panama, I revisited a race report I wrote after competing in Ironman 70.3 Hawaii in 2007. The contrast between my Panama and Hawaii reports is interesting. When I competed in Hawaii I was 23 years old. I had never guided a visually impaired triathlete, and I had no experience working with veterans. When I raced, and I only focused on my own results. I wanted to set personal records and qualify for higher level races. Looking back, I realize that I raced like I had something to prove. I enjoyed competing; I always have enjoyed the sport of triathlon, and I always will.
With six more years of racing under my belt and experience racing with members of the para-triathlon community, competing in triathlons has a much greater significance. When I’m having a tough day, I think about the men and women serving in our military, suffering overseas. Even if they want to quit, they cannot. I think about the para-athletes who compete with immense physical challenges. The people I have been fortunate enough to meet through this sport over the past six years have enriched my life immeasurably. Since 2007, have learned many things. I now understand the adage, “racing is 90% mental and 10% physical.” I believe that no matter how much you prepare for a race, it is inevitable that an unforeseen variable will force you to alter your plan and you must take it in stride. Most importantly, I have learned to appreciate racing. In racing, as in life, you should live in the moment, focus on getting from one mile to the next, and never worry about how much farther you have to go. With persistence, determination, and resilience, you will get to the finish line eventually.
In 2007, I called this writeup, “The Hardest Race of My Life.”
Thursday, May 31, 2007
I left work at 11am to catch a 2:35 flight out of JFK. I was petrified that my bike wouldn’t make the connection from LAX to Kona. I could barely sleep on the flights (I didn’t want to take a sleeping pill because I knew I had to be alert on Friday).
At LAX I started to get really lonely. I made a few phone calls while eating dinner, but I just felt even worse. I met my first racer before we boarded the flight to Kona. Though he warned me how incredibly tough the run was, I still felt more at ease knowing someone else was there with me. He told me he normally runs a 1:35 half marathon after a 56 mile bike (1:22 with no bike), and last year he ran 1:59 on the course.
We landed in Kona at 10:00 PM, which for me, felt like 4am. At this point, I had been awake since 6:00 AM Thursday. 22 hours and counting…
Thankfully, my bike and wheels landed with me – intact (or so I thought). I decided to rent a car to avoid having to take cabs from my hotel to the race hotel.
I was able to shuffle to the Hertz van with my bike box, wheel bag, race bag and carry-on bag in tow. I’m glad I’ve had so much practice getting my bike box in and out of cars… I had no trouble fitting the box into my tiny Ford Focus. I almost passed out on the way to my hotel. The only road in Kona is a straight, dark highway that literally circles the entire island. I was imagining a road with a strip of well-lit resorts, with easy-to-read signs displaying their names. I didn’t notice any hotels on my drive. I was lucky enough to spot the sign for the Hapuna Beach Prince. I don’t know if I could have made it another 5 minutes without falling asleep.
This hotel was, without a doubt, the nicest place I’d ever stayed. When I first stepped into my room, I was already bummed out that I couldn’t stay longer than the weekend. I was certainly relieved that after a day of traveling, I was finally in Hawaii.
Friday, June 1, 2007
I woke up early because I was absolutely famished. I NEVER pack enough food for my flights. I’m the freak on the airplane who always asks for two of everything…
A buffet brunch was included in the price of my hotel, so I stuffed my face full of potatoes, eggs and French toast, before I headed to my room to unpack my bike. I was planning to get my bike tuned up by the official bike shop, and had made a reservation at the store. However, when I called the shop, they informed me that they were located an hour from my hotel and that there was no way for me to get my bike checked out at the satellite store (at the race expo) because the list of people needing help was too long. I decided to put my bike together and take my chances at the expo… I wasn’t about to drive an hour for a tune up. I silently vowed that I wouldn’t stress out about details on this trip.
The drive to the race hotel (the Mauna Lani) was much farther than I thought. It was at least 5 miles away from my hotel. Thank goodness I decided to rent a car!!! I had to park in the event parking lot, which was essentially a huge lot of crushed lava rocks. I took the shuttle bus to the expo, and spoke to a guy in the Navy who normally races on a beach cruiser (they wouldn’t let him in this event) and a guy who does adventure races who is currently recovering from skin cancer. The doctors removed most of the skin from the bottom of his face. He said he’d be easy to spot because he had to race in a black mask to block out all of the UV rays (during the race I saw him three times on the course). He said that with this type of cancer, 1% of the people who get it have a chance of recurrence… he happened to be in that one percent. This guy was so hard core, he was even camping out near the race site. Everyone you meet at these races has some kind of cool story.
I got to the expo as soon as it opened, and approached the bike mechanics to see if they’d have a chance to look at my bike. The line was really long, so they asked me to ride my bike first to see if I had trouble shifting. First, I wandered around the expo and bought some CO2 and yet another pair of goggles – I have HUGE issues with goggles… every pair I own leaks. I think something is wrong with my face.
After dropping off my bike to run bag (there were two separate transition areas), I went back to the Hapuna Beach Prince to test out my bike. About 5 minutes into the ride, my lower gears started making a terrible noise. I also felt like the cleat on my right shoe was seriously out of whack. I was getting a little nervous about my chances of posting a good bike time. And I don’t even need to mention the heat. The lava rocks make the island feel like an oven. I was sweating my ass off after an easy spin on the bike – awesome.
I drove my bike back to the Mauna Lani to get help from the bike guys. I asked a mechanic to see if my front wheel needed to be trued… This is when I found out that my incredibly expensive Zipp racing wheel was cracked!!! Since I’ve never crashed on those wheels, it was most likely broken during the flight to Kona. Andy (the NYC mechanic) took some of the pressure off spokes near the cracks and told me I could race on the wheels for 56 miles, but that I probably wouldn’t want to go much farther. Thank goodness I promised myself I wouldn’t stress about the details. These things always seem to work out. I went into this trip knowing full well that something would go wrong—something always does. I get annoyed when people think I’m being negative when I prepare for the worst case scenario in every situation. To me, preparing for the worst is the most positive thing to do! If you are ready to handle even the worst outcome, you can tackle any problem. I definitely consider myself an optimist.
Dropped my bike at T1 and went for a quick swim to test out the water—and my new goggles. The beaches on Kona are absolutely beautiful. I didn’t want to leave the water.
After dinner, I went to a market to purchase some Red Bull, and I was finally able to go back to my hotel. The night before a race I like to decompress for at least an hour before going to bed. When I got to my room, I put all my race gear in a pile on the floor and wrote a list of what I needed for the morning. I set my alarm for 3:45 and went to bed.
Saturday, June 2, 2007
In the morning, I drank my quadruple shot of espresso that had been sitting in the fridge all night and attempted to organize all my crap for the race. I was able to walk to the swim start from my hotel, which definitely cut down on my stress level.
I got to T1 with plenty of time to spare. I ran into my bike mechanic friend, who wanted to take another look at my broken Zipp. He determined that the Zipp was fine, but then proceeded to break the valve extender on my rear wheel, which meant he had to deflate my tire to remove the extender from the tube. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find a replacement for the part and had to tape the extender back on the tube. I’ve never had so many things go wrong with my bike. The mechanic promised to take pictures of me during the bike if he could get back to his hotel to pick up his camera. I was really pumped to have someone to cheer for me on the course!
Ironman logo races are pretty cool because you get your number stamped to your arm. I was number 1136, so my number stretched all the way to my elbow. I did feel pretty badass with my speedsuit on and my number stamped to my arm—I would soon feel much less badass. I should have been more nervous, considering the fact that it was only 6:45 and I was already sweating.
As we stood on the beach waiting for the start, a girl told me we’d tread water for a bit before the gun went off. My goggles weren’t on… I was just chilling out. Suddenly, everyone made a mad dash for the water!!! I guess someone jumped the gun, which prompted the whole field to start the race prematurely. I don’t think it would have been possible for the race directors to call everyone back… I guess they just started the clock when everyone started running. I sprinted towards the first buoy, watching people fall all over each other. I was just praying that my goggles wouldn’t leak—which, of course, they did.
The water was gorgeous, but it’s hard to enjoy a swim when you’re knocking elbows with 1000 other competitors (I can’t believe it was a one wave start!). Also, the leaky goggles issue didn’t help. I had to stop at least 4 times to fix them. And holy crap, I never realized how much water I swallow during races. In transition, a girl standing near me said, “I feel like the inside of my mouth is a salt lick!” If only the gross taste was the problem… my stomach started hurting a few minutes later.
I exited the swim at around 38 minutes, which isn’t terrible (for me), considering how many times I had to stop. I ran up through the showers and into transition… I was just happy to get started with my favorite part of the race.
The first mile of the bike was pretty much straight up hill. Because I’m an average to slow swimmer, there were TONS of people starting the bike at the same time I was. Within 2 minutes of my ride, I had already scratched my leg on the plastic tie that was holding my number on my bike. It was already incredibly hot out, and my Gatorade and Red Bull mixture (usually the thing I look forward to most during the bike leg) tasted like shit.
Instead of putting my tubes and C02 in my bento box, like I’ve done in the past, I made the mistake of shoving them into one of the rear bottle holders on my bike. They seemed to be pretty secure when I was setting everything up in the morning, but about 15 minutes into the bike I hit a bump and everything went flying! One of my tubes almost got caught in my rear wheel. I watched it hanging on my frame, inches from the spokes of my rear wheel. Had it gotten caught, I would have gone flying over the front of my handle bars. A woman who rode by me as I stopped to remove the tube shouted, “Boy, are you lucky!!!” Thankfully, I didn’t crash… but I did have to ride 53 more miles without any materials to change a flat tire.
My stomach started hurting pretty early on in the bike. I thought it would go away towards the end, but it actually got worse. I wish I had known to carry Pepto Bismol tablets with me.
The bike course was along the main highway on the island. The entire ride is part of the Ironman World Championship. The turnaround was at the top of a 5 mile climb at Havi. It was so hot outside; I couldn’t stomach any of the food I’d taken with me. During my entire 2 hour 55 minute bike ride I managed to choke down 2 Espresso Love GUs, 1 banana and 1 cookie. At the Devilman Half, I ate 4 GUs and an entire snickers marathon bar—at the start of the run in this race, I was already at a 700 calorie deficit.
Thankfully, the aid stations in Kona were well stocked. I grabbed cold waters at every station on the bike course and poured as much as I could on my head. This bike ride was incredibly painful. My stomach hurt too much to remain in the aero position for more than a few minutes at a time, and I was dizzy and nauseous most of the ride. I really couldn’t push myself as hard as I wanted to because I was so dizzy I was afraid of falling off my bike. I hoped for some wind to cool the course down, but whenever I felt a gust, it was almost hotter than the air temperature. The wind just circulated the heat from the black lava rocks. It felt like and oven!!!
I definitely made up some ground on the bike. Someone told me I was the 66th woman around mile 50. By the end of the bike, I was really starting to get worried about my chances of finishing the run.
I rolled into T2 and saw that there was one bike from my age group already in transition. I passed a bunch of girls. At this point, I wasn’t even thinking about qualifying for worlds. In fact, all I could think was, “I don’t ever want to do an Ironman on this island!”
The last time I did a really hot race was 2 years ago – the Tinman Half Iron distance race in Tupper Lake, NY. I walked more than half of the run… My overall time was 6:22 (30 minutes slower than my first Half). I knew I had to come to Hawaii because there was such a good chance that I would crash and burn. I’ve done really well this season in smaller east coast races. I just think it’s way too easy to get a big head when you choose races that aren’t very competitive and where you know the weather conditions will be in your favor. I’d rather race in pouring rain or 35 degree weather than in the heat. I’d rather do a race that’s entirely uphill than race when it’s super hot out.
The run course took place entirely within the Mauna Lani Resort. In order to fit 13 miles into such a small area, the course had multiple turns and loops. We ran on grass along the golf course, on sand, and on hot asphalt next to fields of lava rock.
My stomach actually felt better during the run, but the heat prevented me from running faster than a 10 min per mile pace. I tried to keep a steady, slow jog going (I didn’t want a repeat of Tupper Lake—I have nightmares of the part of that race when I was literally crawling on the ground—while crying, of course. The Kona race packet did say that running, walking and crawling were all acceptable forms of locomotion. But really, who wants to crawl?). I walked every aid station and shoved handfuls of ice into the front and back of my sports bra and into the back of my shorts. I’m sure I looked totally ridiculous, running with ice in the back of my pants. Also, because I was totally soaked from all the water I was dumping over my head, my shorts kept getting air pockets in them… just to add to the hilarity of the situation. It was pathetic: barely running… soaking wet…ice bouncing around in my uniform… with huge bubbles of air in my pants.
So there I was, shuffling around this painful 13.1 mile course. Sometimes I’d pass really fit looking men who looked like they were going to collapse. But other times, I’d watch as these old women motored past me… there was nothing I could do about it. For most of the run I battled it out with a 61 year old woman (Who, by the way, was so tan her skin looked like leather. That means she trains in the heat… which means it’s ok that she ended up beating me, right?). Her system was to walk the steep golf course hills and walk the aid stations. I tried to do the same, but couldn’t keep up with her pace—I’m laughing out loud as I write this.
A 24 year old Japanese chick passed me around mile 3 on the run. At that point, I was in the race to finish. I’m not saying that I’d given up on trying to place in my age group, but I knew that if I started focusing on other competitors, I would completely break down. I just kept thinking to myself, “It’s a long race… anything can happen.”
A little before mile 5, I ran past a woman with whom I’d played cat and mouse on the bike. She looked really strong on the bike, but I guess the heat on the run did her in. She had collapsed and was foaming at the mouth. I don’t think she was fully conscious. A volunteer was trying to revive her and was frantically calling for the paramedics. There was nothing I could do, so I shuffled on.
The run was interesting to me because it seemed like how well people did had very little to do with fitness. The people who were successful in Hawaii were just good at racing in the heat. I saw some really fit looking people getting their asses kicked. My friend in the face mask—who can run a 7 min pace for 95 miles…or so he says—was a couple of miles behind me on the run.
At mile 6 I remember looking at my watch, which read 5:12. I joked to a guy running past me that in my last race, I was done 7 minutes ago! The absurdity of that thought made me feel better for a while.
Racers looked TERRIBLE! I saw very few people who looked like they were running at a normal pace. Everyone was soaking wet, and you could hear peoples’ shoes squishing up and down the course. At mile 8, I saw the girl who had entered T2 before me. She looked about as bad as I did… For the rest of the race, I tried to catch up to her, but she remained a half mile ahead until the finish. As it turns out, she ran 2 seconds per mile slower than I did on the run.
At every aid station I would ask for ice, cola and orange slices. I was unable to eat anything except the oranges. The RC Cola they provided was probably the only thing that gave me enough energy to finish the race. I would get desperate if the aid stations weren’t located every mile. After my ice melted, I could feel a significant change in my body. Between miles 8-10, I couldn’t get enough ice, and I had to walk for a few minutes. It got harder and harder to talk… I probably sounded like I was grunting when I asked for things at the aid stations. My skin was so hot I actually had goosebumps.
By mile 10, the pain in my body was so extreme I was just trying not to stop moving forward. Several people referred to the last three miles of the race as the “death march.” The last section was on an asphalt road, without any shade whatsoever. Miles 11-12 were mainly uphill. When I hit mile 11, I remember thinking to myself, “I wonder if I can run these last two miles in under 25 minutes…” I needed go faster than 25 minutes to break 6 hours. Mile 12-13 was the best mile of my race. I grabbed as much ice as I could at the final aid station and shoved it wherever it would fit.
I was able to run most of mile 13 at a pretty decent pace. These long races are really interesting, because your body and mind will go through so many changes. Sometimes there would be a 10 minute stretch where I felt like I could actually run, but 5 minutes later I was ready to quit the race and go back to my hotel. At the end, the race just became a mental challenge. I told myself the pain was ok. I tried to convince myself that I enjoyed it. I had to focus on getting from one aid station to the next. It didn’t matter how slow I was moving. It didn’t matter that this race was going to take me close to an hour longer than the race I did a month ago. It didn’t matter if I placed well in my age group. I just needed to cross the finish line.
My finishing time was 5:54:10. Swim – 38:42; Bike – 2:54:29; Run – 2:13:43.
I won’t say my finish was anti-climactic, but it was a little sad that there was no one waiting to greet me at the end of the race. I hobbled around for a bit, picked up my finisher’s shirt, and realized that I had no way back to my hotel. The Prince was right next to the swim start, but the finish line was at the Mauna Lani… The race directors did not provide any shuttle vans from the Mauna Lani to the swim start.
As I was walking back to T2 to pick up my bike, I ran into Michellie Jones, who placed second in the race. I had actually met her before, when she made an appearance at an all women’s triathlon in Illinois a few years ago. It was the summer after my freshman year of college. I have a photo of us after the race. I was chubby, sweaty, and pasty white. She, of course, is tall, thin and tan… Anyway, she’s a very nice person. She claimed that she remembers meeting me, though I highly doubt it. She asked me how I had avoided getting sunburned during the race. Aha!!! That was the only thing I did right during this race. I brought a tiny bottle of spray on sunscreen and reapplied every half hour on the bike. There were countless people walking around the post-race party with their race numbers burned into their skin. I’m definitely proud that I avoided getting burned… I get the funkiest sunburns most of the time.
I went to collect my bike and transition bags from T2—I still didn’t have a ride home. I asked a bunch of people along the way but no one could help me. My toes hurt like someone had smashed them with a hammer. I took off my shoes, to find that my feet were shriveled like disgusting, white prunes. I guess that’s what happens when you run 13 miles in wet shoes. My transition bags were so gross. My bike shoes smelled worse than ever. Everything was all wet and all of my food had melted. It was difficult to walk my bike with the two plastic bags full of race crap. People told me I should ride back to my hotel, but I would rather have slept on the sidewalk than gotten back on that thing.
I ended up calling a cab at the Mauna Lani. While I was waiting for the cab, I talked to a 22 year old kid who I’d seen walking on the run course. He told me his Ironman PR was 10 hours. Talk about a bad day… his Half Ironman time was well over 6 hours. He complained about getting passed by an old woman. Yeah, that was a little hard for me to take too.
The races that don’t go the way you want are almost more important than the races that go really well. I knew I was going to have a sloooooow time. It was hard to accept that the course was kicking my ass. But it is way too easy to just pick the safe races. I admit it—I got my ass kicked by a 61 year old woman. I was 3rd in my age group. I might have been able to beat both of the other girls if it hadn’t been so hot. But you know what? I don’t KNOW if I could have beaten them. I lost this race. I’m done making excuses. It’s ok not to have a great race every time. And it’s also ok to have a great race and still get beaten by someone in your age group. These statements may seem obvious, but I spent too many years stressing out about all of this. I ruined so many great races by fixating on the fact that someone beat my run split. I felt like no matter how good my performance was, if someone beat me who I didn’t think should have, I no longer felt that my performance was acceptable.
After my conversation with the 22 year old guy, my cab driver pulled up. I explained that I had no cash, no phone, and no way to get to my hotel. I thanked him for coming to get me and asked if he’d mind waiting while I ran (hobbled) to my hotel room. This cab driver was really interesting… Turned out he was from Brooklyn, but never considered himself to have found his “home” until he moved to the Big Island. He moved to Hawaii after his brother passed away a few years ago. He just married the woman of his dreams, and seemed to be living the most blissful life. He also leads tours around the island, and gave me some random facts while we drove home. It was fascinating to see how his life could change so dramatically in such a short time.
I only had a few hours between the race and the after party, so I took a bath (while eating potato chips) and tried to recover a little. The party was back at the Mauna Lani. I sat with a group of Navy and Air Force servicemen, and spent most of the time playing with an adorable little girl named Sarah.
I got an award for placing third in my age group and got to go up on stage. The Japanese chick won the race entirely on the run. Somehow she managed an 8:23 pace for the half. I was about 4 minutes behind the second place girl, who got an entry to Kona. I thought the Japanese girl would get an international spot at the Ironman World Championship, but I guess they didn’t have any in our age group. She took the only qualifying spot in our age group for 70.3 Worlds in Clearwater, Florida. Maybe I’ll qualify at Timberman.*
All in all, my weekend in Kona was incredible. I loved traveling alone because I learned a lot about myself—how I interact with people, how I handle stress and pressure, and how completely capable I am of taking care of myself.
Sunday, June 3, 2007
I woke up, went to brunch, and started packing my bike. I had three hours of actual vacation time before I had to leave… I felt empowered because I had to take care of all the details myself. I loaded my bike box into the car and drove to the airport. I was exhausted, but when there’s no one else to help you get everything taken care of, you just do it yourself. If I’d had friends with me, I probably would have asked them to take care of driving and carrying my bags! I had two minor meltdowns on the way back to NYC. I found myself crying in the Honolulu airport when I realized my flight was delayed (I had a 45 minute layover in Chicago, so I was going to miss my flight to NYC).
Monday, June 4, 2007
Though I missed my 6:00 flight, I was the last standby passenger to get on the 6:55 to LaGuardia. I had a middle seat at the very back of the aircraft. The doors shut as soon as I boarded. Unfortunately, there was very little room in the overhead compartments by the time I got on the plane. So, when I found my seat, an uppity male flight attendant was already starting to harass me about putting my backpack away so we could leave. He kept telling me to take my bag apart. At this point, I’d been traveling for 16 hours. I was dirty, hungry, tired and dehydrated. And this f*cking flight attendant asks me in front of the whole plane, “What don’t you understand about ‘start taking your bag apart?’” Needless to say, I completely broke down. I started bawling in the middle of the packed plane. A nice female flight attendant gave me a plastic bag to transfer some of my clothes.
While hyperventilating, I managed to say, “Please…tell…him…that…he…doesn’t…need…to…be…so…MEAN. He…just…shamed…me…in…front…of…the…whole…plane!!!”
And I cried my way to my seat. I sat with my award on my lap, because there was nowhere else to put it. I think the male flight attendant felt bad, because he avoided me for the rest of the trip. I just felt bad for the two guys I sat next to. I didn’t stop crying until after we took off.
Miraculously, my bike and wheels were waiting for me when we landed. It was 10:00AM and I’d been in-transit since noon the day before. I sped to my apartment in a cab, showered, changed, and was at my desk before 12.
I still can’t believe I made it through the weekend.
*Footnote: I did not qualify for 70.3 Worlds at Timberman. My finish time was 5:11:33 and I placed third in my age group. If a spot had rolled down, I was next in line to qualify.
I had reason to be afraid of competing in Ironman 70.3 Panama race. For four months, my training had been inconsistent at best, I was not accustomed to the heat, and I lacked mental focus and confidence. I had been struggling with a lack of motivation for what seemed like a very long time. Perhaps my years of racing had taken a toll on me. I feared that I would never regain the drive I once had.
I have been racing since I was 17. In 2008, I began racing as a guide for visually impaired athletes, which has become my passion. Over the past five years, I have mostly competed in triathlons as a guide. Though guiding is often more challenging than racing solo, at some point over the past few years I stopped feeling like the strong athlete I used to be. I know that I have created mental barriers, which cause me to doubt myself. However, my fears of failure and inadequacy seem very real to me.
In order to regain my sense of self, I know that I must train and race for myself, not just for the athletes whom I guide. Guiding will always be my number one priority in athletics, but I am doing a disservice to my athletes if I race when I am not functioning at my best, both physically and psychologically. Panama 70.3 would be the first Half Ironman triathlon that I would race solo in almost three years.
Though I registered in October, I did not fully commit to compete in Panama 70.3 until the week before race. After a conversation with a good friend I realized that I needed to complete this race in order to conquer my irrational fears.
Setting a personal record in Panama was out of the question. My goal was to avoid completely blowing up due to the heat and my lack of fitness. I knew I had to get to the starting line and smile for 70.3 miles, no matter the outcome.
The morning of the race, I felt surprisingly relaxed. I boarded the shuttle bus to transition with my mom and my new race buddy, Dana (whom I met 6 years ago at 70.3 Kona). Race setup was smooth, and Dana and I made our way to the pier where the race would start. I was thrilled to be walking along the Panama Canal. I knew that in a short time, I would swim in one of the Seven Wonders of the World. How could I not feel grateful for such an unbelievable experience?
A 30-minute delay in the race start time made me a bit anxious. In a race that was guaranteed to reach 90+ degrees Fahrenheit, every minute delay at the start meant another minute racing in the hottest part of the day. Despite the long wait, I enjoyed the company of my fellow racers.
What a positive, energetic group of people! There seemed to be dozens of photographers, perhaps in part due to the presence of the former Miss Panama, a strong triathlete in her own right. Women were dancing, laughing, smiling, and chatting with fellow competitors. One spunky triathlete said, “It’s simple: nadar, pedalear, correr…” She was right. It was simple. All we had to do was swim, pedal and run. Why did it seem so much more complicated than that?
All of a sudden, the wait was over. The announcer called the pro wave to the starting line. I could see the professional triathletes treading water between the buoys. In the background, huge cargo ships were sailing up the canal, making the swimmers seem incredibly small and fragile. When the pros went off, I knew that I only had minutes to prepare.
The women in the 18-35 age groups jumped into the water with 2 minutes to go and swam to the buoys. The water was cold, a pleasant surprise. I always prefer cold water to warm; there is nothing worse than exiting the water overheated.
The swim was a straight point-to-point course and there was plenty of room, so I didn’t have to throw any elbows (sometimes my high school water-polo-player self comes out in crowded swim starts). I swam conservatively and stuck to my own rhythm.
Before I knew it, I was making the left turn toward the stairs bringing the athletes out of the water and back to transition. With the current, my swim was relatively fast. I still finished middle of the pack, but my body felt good and I began to feel optimistic about the race.
Cycling is my favorite leg of a triathlon. I consider myself a cyclist. One reason I like guiding so much is that I can get on a tandem with a visually impaired athlete and ride a course without holding anything back. Confidence is critical. You have to respect your bike and the conditions of the road, but there is no better feeling than flying down a hill at 40 mph, passing jacked-looking men who are gripping their brakes…
Twenty kilometers into the race, I looked down at my rear tire and thought the pressure seemed a little low. I asked a guy who rode up next to me if it looked flat, but he said it seemed fine. I pressed on. I don’t mind being a mediocre swimmer because it’s really fun to catch people out on the bike course. And for a while, I seemed to be doing pretty well.
An hour into the race, however, the familiar feeling of my rim rolling against the pavement confirmed my earlier concern. My rear tire was flat. My first ever in a triathlon! Thankful that I had decided to pack a spare tire at the last minute, I pulled over and quickly removed and inspected the tire…. No glass or sharp objects. That meant I must have been riding with a very slow leak for a while. I don’t know how much time I lost riding with a deflating tire.
Crap! I had forgotten a CO2 cartridge. You can’t fly with CO2, so I didn’t put one in my bike box. I had to wait for the course mechanics. When they came by on their motorcycles, they helped change the tube and were preparing to pump it up when a second problem came to light. The stem on my tube wasn’t long enough. My Zipp 404s require either an 80mm stem or a valve extender. What a rookie mistake! I had assumed the tube I packed had the long stem….
Luckily, after searching through their gear, the mechanics produced a valve extender. What a relief to know that a minor equipment issue hadn’t meant the end my race!
While I waited for the mechanics to fix my flat, I watched dozens of athletes pass me. I was highly (in retrospect, overly!) motivated to catch everyone who passed me while I stood helpless on the side of the road.
I hopped back on my bike, motivated further by cheers from spectators on the roadside. For a while I was moving at a good pace, but the temperature was climbing.
I was able to drink water and finished a bottle of Perpetuem within the first 20 miles, but I couldn’t stomach much else. The discomfort from the heat, not having trained enough on my TT bike, and wearing an inadequately vented aero helmet were getting to me. I was passing competitors at regular intervals, but it was discouraging to see so many people heading back from the turnaround when I was still on my way out. With about 10 miles to go, I wanted nothing more than to stop my bike. With so much salt crusted on my shorts, I knew I was in trouble. I tried to enjoy the beautiful scenery, but I was unable to ignore the pain in my neck and shoulders and the suffocating heat. I focused on keeping a smile on my face, hoping that if I looked like I was enjoying myself, I might start to have fun.
After more than 3.5 hours on the bike course (my normal time is well below 2 hours 50 minutes), I reached transition. At this point, I felt so terrible I was hoping that an official or volunteer would physically remove me from the course…. Please tell me I’m severely dehydrated and need an IV! But I knew that unless I was actually putting my health at risk, I couldn’t quit.
But boy did I want to. I have never started a run feeling so defeated. After a few minutes on the course, I saw my friend Dana finishing her first loop. She looked so strong…. I felt so weak.
But I began my 13.1-mile trek, still hoping that someone would tell me I was too dehydrated to go on, but knowing that I could suffer through the rest of the race. After about 6 hours, I turned my watch off. There was no point in looking at the time any more. In my wildest imagination, I did not dream that a this race would take more than 6.5 hours, even on a TERRIBLE day*. It just goes to show that you can never predict what will happen during an endurance race like this.
On my second lap, I met an entertaining Brazilian lawyer named Edison. We both complained about the difficulty of the course and I mentioned how slow my time would be compared to my normal performances Edison said something that resonated with me: “This is your new PR- your perseverance record.” What a wonderful way to look at a race like this. It would have been so much easier to quit, but we all carried on. If I finished, this would be my new perseverance record.
There were no mile markers (which might have been a blessing)- only markers every 3-5k. I couldn’t focus on anything. I had no rhythm. I ran when I could, but every time I was out from under shade, I felt my body shut down.
At the start of my second loop, I saw my mom again. She asked if she should meet me at the finish. I said yes, knowing that it would be a long time before I saw her again. I felt short of breath and tried to fight back tears. I wasn’t crying because of how I felt. I was crying because I was thinking about now hard it had been for me to even bring myself to show up for this race.
When I signed up in the fall, I did so with the hope that it would motivate me to get myself together, to start training and enjoy athletics again. Unfortunately, there was no race that could have pulled me out of my slump.
I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude. I was grateful to be out on the course, no matter how slowly I was moving forward, I was making forward progress. Lately I have felt like my life is moving in slow motion. Often, I have have even felt like I was moving backward, regressing to a state of helplessness while everyone around me was moving forward and bettering themselves.
I realized at that moment that I have not been moving backwards. Slow progress is still progress. My finishing time in this race was the least important aspect of the event.
I would like to say that this revelation filled me with energy, that I ran the last 6 miles feeling stronger than I had at any point in the race, but that’s not how it happened. I continued to walk, running on occasion… Letting the minutes and miles pass by, trying to reach the seemingly unattainable finish line.
But the finish line did come.
After 7 hours and 12 minutes of swimming, biking and run/walking, I crossed the line. Yes, my time was more than 2 hours slower than my PR of 5:05. Yes, I wanted to quit at least 5 times during the race. But I had finished. I even managed to smile almost the entire time, which is what I promised my friends I would do.
This was a new start. There may be more setbacks to come, and I may have to start over a hundred more times, but I will start over. Again and again… Until I have the momentum to continue forward and pick up speed along the way.
*So the reader can better understand why it was hard for me to come to terms with racing a 7+ hour Half IM, I have put together a comparison of my times for Panama 70.3 versus the times from one of my best Half IM races. See below: