Today I was lucky enough to be featured on Fox & Friends with my good friend, Amy Dixon. Anna Kooiman did a piece on guiding visually impaired athletes in triathlon. She also featured Team RWB, which has provided many VI athletes with amazing, capable guides. I am thrilled with how this turned out!
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:
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: