November 19, 2017
2.4 mi Swim, 112 mi Bike, 26.2 mi Run
My race nearly ended before it started. The morning had started well, I got up on time, mixed my nutrition, met up with Will and taken care of all necessary pre-race routines and rituals. I zipped my dry clothes and extras into my Ironman Arizona backpack and handed it to my friend Omar to hold on to until I was done with the race. I’d even pulled up my wetsuit over my shoulders and was ready to zip it up. Will and I were walking toward the swim start when I realized something rather important was missing… “F*ck! The swim tether!”
Fortunately, we hadn’t walked far and we immediately turned around sprinting back toward where we’d last seen Omar yelling his name. I was able to get the tether out of the backpack but then had to briskly jog through a swelling crowd of people to get to the swim start. As a Physically Challenged (PC) athlete, I’d been given permission to start with the female pros, five minutes ahead of the rest of the age group swimmers. This is crucial to not just my success but to the success of my guide as it’s much easier and less hectic to start behind professionals who clear out quickly giving us several minutes of smooth water to swim in. If we start in the crowd of age group athletes there’s far more risk of getting kicked, punched swum over, and slowed down because my guide and I would be forced to stop, pop our heads up and communicate and regroup. Being the ultra-competitive person I am, I didn’t want too much stoppage once I started swimming.
Crisis averted with the swim tether, we made it to the steps leading down into the water, zipped up our wetsuits, put on our swim caps and goggles, and plunged into the balmy 67 degree water of Tempe Town Lake. We stroked over to where the female pros were gathering just behind the start line and got the opportunity to briefly meet the other blind athlete in the race. Hiro was competing in his first Ironman. We briefly shook hands and wished each other luck before the announcer yelled for us to get ready.
Will and I treaded water just behind the last line of female pros. Will, being the trash talker he is couldn’t help but say, “Ok female pros, you’re going down!” Several laughed and one even looked over and said, “Don’t run me over.” Then the start gun went off and the race was on!
Finding A Guide
“Hey, I know you haven’t done an Ironman in a while, but would you consider guiding me at Ironman Arizona?” I asked Will Fisher on an eight mile training run on Basalt Mountain in late May. “Let me think about it,” was Will’s response. A few days later, Will texted me and said “I’m in for Arizona.”
I’m very fortunate to have been paired up with incredible guides for both training and racing. It’s definitely not easy guiding a totally blind athlete in an open water swim, piloting a tandem bike, or running on the road or single-track trail. To find someone willing to put in the time and training for an Ironman on top of guiding me through the entirety of that event isn’t the easiest thing to ask of someone. I’m also typically not the type of blind athlete who likes meeting my guide just a couple of days before the race. I like to train as much as possible with my guide so we can be as seemless in our communication as possible come race day. With this in mind I thought I’d be in a bit of a bind for Arizona. I wasn’t sure if my previous guide, Mike, would be able to guide me due to some previous health/injury concerns as well as a very tight work schedule. Plus, Mike and I now lived 2000 miles apart and our opportunities to train together would be almost 0. I also wasn’t sure if Matt, who was going to guide me at Boulder 70.3 would be able to guide me because of his insane work schedule running Base Performance. So I’m very fortunate that Will committed and sacrificed the second half of his racing season to guide me through my second Ironman.
Will Fisher is known by many in the Roaring Fork Valley either as a crazy endurance junkie, or the head Priest at St. Peter’s of the Valley Episcopal Church in Basalt, Colo. Will’s athletic background is notably extremely impressive. He attended and rowed for Brown University. He then rowed professionally in the 90s and took sixth place at the Olympic Trials in 2000. He’d also been dabbling in triathlons at this point and would eventually go on to complete five Ironman triathlons between 2008 and 2011 with times ranging from 10 hours 44 minutes, to 13 hours 14 minutes. After some bad bike crashes and a move to Basalt though Will decided to focus on ultra-marathons. Since 2011, he’s completed four 100 mile mountain runs and numerous other trail races. While I was in Boulder racing Boulder 70.3, Will was running his fourth 100 miler in California. Just a couple of weeks after finishing the Angeles Crest 100, Will turned his focus to getting prepared for the swim and bike portions of Ironman Arizona.
We did our best to get together every couple weeks for either a swim, bike or run. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any opportunities to practice swimming in the open water, but did the best we could in the pool practicing with my swim tether. We mostly spent our time training together getting comfortable on the tandem. The area of Colorado where we live is extremely mountainous. There really aren’t very many flat places to practice easy riding. So just about all of our rides consisted of dirt, roads, steep climbs, and long technical descents. Needless to say, even the most supremely confident and skilled of bike handlers have a little tighter grip on the handlebars when piloting a tandem over such difficult terrain. Nevertheless, we made it to race week safe, fit and healthy.
I arrived in the Phoenix area on Tuesday night after driving more than 12 hours in the car with my dad, dog and bike. We spent the night with one of my dad’s old marine corps friends, who we call Beto. Wednesday was spent relaxing while my dad helped Beto with some chores around the house. Then dad dropped me off at the house I’d be staying at with a couple of other athletes.
Thursday morning was spent doing some interviewing and video shooting with David and Melinda Downey, who do the majority of the audio visual digital work for Ironman. I was one of the featured athletes for the weekend and shared a good portion of my story with Dave and Melinda. They also got some footage of Matt Miller and I doing a very easy spin on the tandem. After that I went back to the house and relaxed.
Friday Will arrived and we got all checked in receiving our swag bags and instructions on how things would go race morning. That night we attended a get together for the Base Performance athletes racing Ironman Arizona. It was a potluck, and my contribution was of course some Bubba BurgersJI think they were enjoyed by many.
Saturday was all about getting ready for Sunday. Will and I did a short 10 minute open water swim. Then we did a short bike ride to spin out our legs and to do any last minute saddle and handlebar adjustments. We followed this up with a quick one mile easy run. Then we headed to lunch with one of Will’s old rowing coaches. Iskra was a four time Olympian for Bulgaria and she made Will and I delicious lunch packed with protein, carbs, fruits and vegetables. Then it was back to the house to finish mental preparations for the following day. My parents and sisters came over to the house for a short visit and then I was off to bed by 7:00 PM for a 3:30 AM wake up.
Back to the Swim
The starting gun went off, I hit the start button on my watch, put my head down and immediately started stroking. A couple of hundred yards into the swim Will tapped me on the shoulder and told me to relax a bit, I was pushing just a bit too hard too early. I settled down and found my rhythm. I did my best to focus on good technique. A little more than a month before I’d spend several days in Kona, Hawaii focusing on open water swim training. Apart from doing numerous swims with my buddy and first triathlon guide Mike, I spent a little less than an hour and a half swimming with an elite open water swimmer and coach Meredith Novack. She gave me some fundamentals to really focus on and I found myself repeating those fundamentals to myself as I swam. “Swim tall, have a quick catch and keep your fingers pointed toward the ground during the majority of the stroke.” I also focused on just putting my head down and arching my back so my feet came up closer to the surface to reduce drag.
I’m not sure how long we were swimming before the fast age groupers starting catching us. Surprisingly, I didn’t get kicked, punched or swum over too much. I accidentally caught Will in the goggles with my left elbow at some point but he returned the favor with a well aimed elbow shot to my left goggle at some point as well. But apart from that, there were no real mishaps in the swim. I did find myself reaching down and yanking up the swim tether every few minutes so that it was higher on my thigh. I figured the bungee cord wrapped around my thigh was losing its elasticity after two plus years of open water swimming. Then, all of a sudden I thought I heard the loud speaker as the announcer was calling out the names of people coming out of the water. I also thought I heard cheering and music, but I was only catching bits as my head was primarily still underwater and there was no way we could be finishing already. But then my hand hit the metal hand rail of the steps leading up out of the water and a volunteer standing on the lower steps was helping me up.
Will and I clambered up the steps and then down onto the carpet that led to the wetsuit peelers. I unzipped my wetsuit and yanked it down to around my waist and also slipped the tether off my leg. I flopped onto my back and let the volunteers help me get my wetsuit off. Then Will and I ran to grab our bike gear bags and headed to sit down and change into cycling tops, shoes and helmets. Then it was off to grab the bike and head to the mount line to take off.
Swim Time: 1:14:42
Transition 1: 8:16
We launched smoothly enough and I was able to clip into my pedals fairly easily. Sometimes I can’t nail the clip exactly and can lose precious time fiddling trying to get clipped in. Even after 15 years of using a variety of pedals, I still sometimes feel like a beginner.
We started easy just spinning our legs out in some smaller gears before getting out onto the open road where we had almost a straight shot with only a couple of turns for the next 18 or so miles.
The Ironman Arizona bike course is three loops of about 36-37 miles. On the way out of town you climb up a very slight incline for about 10 miles. Typically the wind is also blowing into your face. Thankfully Will and I trained on super steep climbs so this excuse for a climb felt pretty flat. We settled into a good rhythm and started passing people. We also got passed a few times. Will let me know when he was in the arrow bars and not so that I could get out of my drops and stretch my back. We also let each other know if we had to stand to relieve the pressure and give our butts a short break.
Throughout the last year I’d dialed in my nutrition plan and immediately got on it during the bike. Every 15 minutes my watch alerts me with a vibration and alarm tone letting me know it’s time to eat/drink. Every 15 minutes I take one or two licks of Base Performance salt. At 30 minutes I take a 100 calorie gu jell (I prefer vanilla flavored without caffeine). At the top of the hour I eat a 200 calorie Base Performance Limeberry Real Bar. In my water bottles I have a mixture of Base Performance hydro, amino and salt (Base athletes call this concoction Rocket fuel). I carry four bottles on my bike and put one in an area known as special needs if I need it later on. Based on how I felt during training I typically went through a bottle of rocket fuel every 20-25 miles on the bike. On hotter days I tend to drink more, and on cooler days I drink less. Every few aid stations I’ll grab a bottle of water to drink and spray over me if I need to cool down. During this race the wind was blowing and the sun wasn’t yet beating down so I drank less than I probably should have, but I felt good and hydrated throughout the bike.
Will and I reached the turn around just past mile 18 a little less than an hour and 15 minutes after we started the bike. The turn around was rather tight so we took it cautiously with the tandem. Once we were on the straight away through we were on a slight downhill with the wind at our backs—AKA every cyclist’s dream but especially on a tandem. We flew holding speeds upwards of 35 MPH on the way back before we made the turn to start our second loop. I heard people cheering and thought I heard my family. I definitely heard the announcer yell about one of the blind athletes. Then just before we made the turn to head back out of town Will looked over to the right and saw one of the top American female pros, Heather Jackson, cheering from the sidelines as a spectator. Again, Will’s trash talking nature came out and he yelled “Princeton sucks!” (Heather Jackson played hockey for Princeton before getting into triathlon and as noted above Will rowed for rival Brown University. However, just in case this newsletter makes it onto Heather Jackson’s computer screen, I would just like to say that wasn’t the guy on the back of the tandem yelling at you. I’ve got no problem throwing Will under the bus on that one LOL.)
We successfully executed a second lap on the bike, stopping around mile 60 to get off and pee in one of the port-a-potties on course. Ideally I’ll eventually be able to just pee on the fly, but I’m not quite at Matt Miller level yet. (For those of you who are new to this newsletter, I invite you to go read my race recap of Boulder 70.3 at www.kylecoon.comand you will then get that reference.)
Even with the pee break around mile 60 we were only a couple of minutes slower on our second lap. Now we were down to the final lap, about 18 miles of uphill and headwind and the rest a fast cruise. After we made the turn and started heading downhill for the last sixth of the bike course we started to hammer. We pushed the pace as hard as we could while not blowing up. On each lap we’d seen Hiro and his guide, Greg, on the other side of the road and would shout encouragement to them.
Around mile 108, the wind shifted and we were suddenly riding into a headwind. Thank goodness we only had a couple miles left. We downshifted and started spinning our legs out getting ready for the run. I took my last swallow of rocket fuel and then Will was counting down to when we’d dismount.
We dismounted smoothly, I snatched one of my empty bottles off the bike and a volunteer took the bike to go rack it while Will and I grabbed our run gear bags and headed to the changing tent. I changed my socks, emptied my Bubba Burger cycling jersey pockets of trash, and filled the empty bottle I’d grabbed off the bike with a disposable bottle I’d filled with rocket fule that morning. I through on my Hoka Kona Clayton running shoes, put on my visor and headed out of the changing tent. After a quick pit stop in the port-a-potty we’re were ready to start the run.
Bike Time: 5:42:00
Transition 2: 8:25
Throughout the history of Ironman Triathlon it are those who can run strong off the bike that succeed the most. I’d been a cyclist growing up and thought I’d be able to shatter records if I could just bike like a maniac. I quickly learned that makes for a miserable triathlon experience at any distance. Strangely though I’d identified as a runner for about a year before I did my first triathlon in 2015. I’d made steady progress as a runner, but hadn’t had a break out year until this 2017 season. When I step back and look around I firmly believe that if you want to learn to run fast and efficiently then the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado is a pretty darn good place to learn. Yes we have hundreds of miles of trail and road to run, but more than that our running community is incredible. Running with elite level runners will definitely motivate you to try and keep up. However, even though I’d had a break out year as a runner having run the Boston Marathon and setting personal bests at a variety of distances, I hadn’t done much run specific training since running Boston back in April. I just hoped the massive run block I did leading up to Boston and the runs off the bike I did once or twice a week would pay off in Arizona.
As soon as Will and I came out of T2 we started running. If you’ve never run immediately after riding a bike, it is a very weird sensation. Fortunately I had nearly three years of practice running off the bike and my legs had never felt better. I did my best to focus on smooth running form and technique—landing on my midfoot, trying to stay light on my feet, sinking my arm swing with the cadence of my legs and focusing on breathing slowly and deliberately. I’d decided that my run strategy was going to be run from aid station to aid station, walk through each aid station while taking in water, coke and any other items I needed for as long as possible. I wanted to avoid walking between the aid stations as much as possible.
For the first few miles I felt incredibly good considering I’d been racing for the majority of the day. The strategy of walking the aid stations was working out beautifully. As we came to each aid station I’d grab water, then one or two cups of coke. If there was ice at the aid stations I started shoving that into my jersey and shorts to keep my temperature down. I’d also through a cup of water over my head to help with this as well. The one area I was concerned about was my salt intake. I’d forgotten my extra tube of salt on the bike and was running low. Fortunately though I was able to grab an extra tube of salt at the aid station manned by Base. I also refilled my bottle with rocket fuel. Since this was a looped course I’d pass through the Base aid station four times—twice on each lap—so I was able to grab salt and rocket fuel each time.
I expected that I’d start feeling exhausted and heavy legged around mile seven, but surprisingly I continued running strong. In fact, I was on pace to run my fastest marathon (even faster than I’d run Boston) until mile 12. At the last aid station before completing the first lap I decided to empty my gut before I had to start worrying about any digestional issues. I ran through the turn around and heard my family cheering loud and hard. I even heard my dad’s friend, one of my marine Corps uncles, Beto yelling that he’d have a beer for me at the finish line. Then it was back to focusing.
Our mile splits began slowing down little by little. Will and I started extending our walk breaks around mile 14 or 15. We were definitely starting to hurt, but we were still both surprisingly ok compared to previous races. The year before at Ironman Boulder I just about walked all but a couple of miles of the marathon. In Will’s last Ironman back in 2011, he’d run the first 11 miles and then walked nearly the entirety of the remaining 15. So we were overall pleased with our performance. Then shit nearly hit the fan.
We decided to take an extended walk break after mile 16. We were right around the 10 hour mark for the entire race and Will’s stomach was starting to become a little upset. We walked and chatted about the race up until that point, how we thought we’d finish and future race plans. We also chatted with other people out on the course about this and that. Then as we hit mile 18 Will stopped, doubled over and started hurling. A couple people paused to see if we needed help, but we told them we were fine. I’m not sure if they believed us considering Will probably looked awful at that point. I wasn’t super concerned about not finishing, but I did think there was a strong possibility we’d have to walk the rest of the marathon. After a solid two minutes or so of spewing, Will straightened up and we continued walking. Then as we approached a slight downhill Will suggested we try a little jog into the next aid station which was only a few hundred yards away. So we jogged before walking through the aid station. Will took in some coke and we continued walking for a few minutes after the aid station. Then Will suggested jogging again. So we jogged easy until the next aid station and repeated.
As we passed through the Base aid station for the third time, Will got himself a bit of rocket fuel and I refilled my bottle for the last time. As we came out of that station we picked up the pace. Not long after that we hit the 21 mile mark. Will looked down at his watch and said “We’re at 11 hours. If we just maintain sub 12 minute miles we can finish in under 12 hours.” I didn’t want to believe him. Anything could happen, one of us could cramp, start throwing up again or just not have the will power to run. But what the heck, it was worth going for it and so we picked up the pace a little more.
We passed through the Base aid station at mile 23 for the last time around the 11 hour and 20 minute mark. Will grabbed some rocket fuel and just as we started running again, Matt Miller came running up and said “Hey guys can you stop for a sec so we can grab a picture?” At the exact same time Will and I said “NO!”
“I’m about to break 12 hours mother*cker!” I yelled over the pounding of the music that’s always thumping at the Base station. I think our response caught Matt a little off guard but then he yelled “Go do it!” And so we took off.
We hit the 24 mile mark, then 25. We grabbed water and coke at the last aid station and picked up the pace for the last time. Now Will was counting down minutes. “We’ll be done in six minutes…three minutes!” And then I heard the crowd, music and the voice of Ironman—Mike Reilly. We hit the last stretch of carpet leading to the finish line and I couldn’t hear over the enormous roar of the crowd. I caught the words “blind athlete and his guide,” and of course I caught the all important phrase “You are an Ironman!”
Run Time: 4:33:20
Total Time: 11:46:43
After we crossed the finish line my excitement got the better of me and I jumped on Will giving him a bear hug. Unfortunately he wasn’t ready for it and collapsed, but no injuries so all good. After some hugs from the family Will’s stomach started acting up again and he started hurling. We made it over to the medical personnel and they put blankets around both of us and got fluids into us. They managed to get Will some sprite and I even managed to get down a few pretzels.
Between bouts of hurling, Will was chatting up the female medical volunteers doing his best to pimp me out. “Are you a student at ASU? How old are you? Are you single? Would you date a 26 year old blind guy?” Ah Will, not only does he guide me into a very elite group of triathletes who are blind or visually impaired, but he does his best to set me up on dates. Not sure the timing was exactly ideal, but I applaud the effort!
After a while we were able to leave the medical area and go change into our dry clothes and eventually make it to our beds. I still had a hard time believing that we’d broken 12 hours. I made my mom repeat our splits several times as we were driving back to the house. Even now after several days, I can still hardly believe it. It had been my goal when I started racing triathlons almost three years ago to break into that elite group of triathletes who are blind or visually impaired to break 12 hours.
To the best of my knowledge, I became the ninth triathlete who is blind or visually impaired to accomplish this feit. Ched Towns of Australia was the first to accomplish this in 1990 at Ironman Australia. No other blind athlete broke the 12 hour mark until Patricia Walsh in 2011 at Ironman Texas. That same year, Richard Hunter cracked 12 hours at Ironman Florida. It then took about three years before the frenzy began. Elizabeth Baker broke 12 hours at Ironman Chattanooga in 2014. Eric Manser then set the bar high with an 11:10:28 finish at Ironman Florida in 2015. In 2016 Ryan Van Preit raced an 11:08:30 at Ironman Florida, Haseeb Ahmad raced an 11:03:31 at Ironman Barcelona and John Dommandl broke the 11 hour barrier with a 10:44:31 at Ironman Western Australia. (I believe Haseeb also broke the 11 hour barrier at a non-Ironman branded race.) Then in October of 2017, Eric Manser again raised the bar with a 10:42:59 finish at Ironman Maryland. I look at all of these times and elite athletes and can’t help but feel a little awed to have a time close to what they have. The competitive side of me wants to get on the same course on the same day with these athletes and have a race. Because believe it or not, I think we’re all pretty competitive to some extent. Maybe one day. For now I’m just excited to see how much I can improve in 2018.
Thank you for all of your continued support.