October 14, 2018
Sarasota-Bradenton Paratriathlon World Cup
2.5 km Run, 18.3 km bike, 5 km run
“Come on! This is what we train for!” Zack seemed to yell even though he was only about 50 cm away from me. It was hot, humid and my legs and lungs were burning. All I could focus on was breathing in for two foot strikes and breathing out for two foot strikes. My arms were pumping as I desperately tried to cling on to the lead I’d gained on the bike. I wanted this win. It didn’t matter that I was in the middle of Ironman training or that I had a former Paralympic gold Medalist in the marathon bearing down on me from behind. I wanted this win.
“we’re parked and waiting for a gate to open so we can deplane,” Zack texted me as I sat at Gate E14B in the Charlotte Airport waiting for our connecting flight to Sarasota. Hurricane Michael had rudely disrupted the flight patterns of hundreds of flights across the southeastern part of the United States. Not to mention the devastation to homes, towns, property, roads, infrastructure, etc. What was most concerning at this point though was that my guide for the Sarasota-Bradenton World Cup was in danger of missing our connecting flight. Not the end of the world if he did, he could simply hop on a later flight, but that would put us behind the eight ball even more than we already were.
“Use that 5:30/mi speed to get here,” I joked over text back to him.
With the call of just a couple of minutes until boarding Zack arrived at the gate in time to board with me and for us to make our very delayed flight. Zack’s flight from San Diego had circled the Charlotte area for quite a while before being diverted to Atlanta to refuel and attempt to fly back into Charlotte. I was fortunate enough for my flight from Denver to only have to circle for an extra 15-20 minutes before we were able to sneak in through a clear window.
Once on the plane to Sarasota though we settled in and caught up on life, chatted about races we’d done and strategized for this weekend.
I met Zack at Camp No Sight No Limits in San Diego which is put on by Elite Female Blind Triathlete Amy Dixon. Zack was guiding another athlete but we hit it off and kept in touch. Zack went on to crush his first Ironman in Canada and take second in his age group. Barely eight weeks later he competed in his second ever Ironman and won his age group and took sixth overall (he’s 24 years old). I’d been keeping an eye and ear out for fast guides and had built up a roster of potential guides for future races. Zack was on that list and after shooting some text messages back and forth with Amy Dixon I reached out to Zack to see if he’d be interested in guiding me at the Sarasota-Bradenton World Cup. He immediately said yes, but if I could find someone faster then he wanted me to choose them. Zack is probably the fastest triathlete I know that I can call a friend so I didn’t find anyone faster and we arranged to race together.
Upon arriving at our Airbnb in Sarasota we changed into running clothes and checked a map for somewhere to eat after 10 PM at night. We saw that there was a Chili’s a little more than three miles away so we decided to run there, eat and Uber/Lyft it back to the Airbnb. Only problem was that it was pitch dark outside with few street lamps lit. Zack was using his cell phone as a flashlight and a little more than a mile into our easy jog his foot caught a rise in the road and he went down scraping up his knee. He popped back up though and kept on running as though nothing had happened. “It’s a little bloody,” was all he mentioned about it. We eventually made it to the restaurant, drenched in sweat from the humidity, ate a quick dinner and then Lifted it back to the Airbnb where we showered and crashed.
Change of Plans
The next morning Zack and I Lyfted over to our friend Rachel’s house where I’d shipped my bike. Rachel was racing this weekend as well being guided by another friend we’d all met at Camp No Sight No Limits, Alex Dreu. Zack and I built the Limo back up from it’s broken down state and then Alex, Rachel, Zack and I pedaled over to Nathan Benderson Park for the Bike and swim course previews. Unfortunately though we received word that the swim was cancelled due to poor water quality. So instead we’d be racing a duathlon comprised of a 2.5k run, 18.3k bike and 5k run. That didn’t change my goal of taking the top step on the podium. I felt strong and in our quick shake out runs Zack and I were holding sub 6:30 min/mi paces with apparent ease. It would just be a little different and a little more challenging to go for gold now.
Saturday was Kona Day—meaning the Ironman World Championship was being contested in Kailua-Kona. It’s easily the biggest day in triathlon each year. Yes we have the ITU World Championship and 70.3 Worlds and the Olympics every four years, but nothing compares to Kona. I was glued to my phone watching coverage on Facebook Watch and tracking several friends including Erich Manser (the blind/visually impaired Ironman World Record holder for fastest Ironman at 10:42:59). We went over to Rachel’s house to watch the coverage on Alex’s computer. We were all still even watching the coverage on our phones right up to the time the Paratriathlon Race Briefing meeting began at 6 PM back at Nathan Benderson Park.
I was antsy for the briefing to end so I could get back to following Kona. And what a day… So many major records fell including the men’s and women’s swim course records falling, the men’s and women’s bike course records being broken, the overall men’s and women’s course records being broken, the first two people to go sub eight hours in Kona and the overall women’s fastest Ironman branded time being set. Not too mention so many others. All the triathlon community could do was say “Wow!” And I prayed I could have a similar race the next day.
Oatmeal, banana, watermelon, gatorade and coffee were in my system as Zack and I pedaled the bike from our Airbnb to the race venue of Nathan Benderson Park. I’d raced here in March when it was the Camtri North American Championship and I didn’t have the race I was capable of. I planned to correct that and push myself to the max.
Because of the duathlon start the start waves were shuffled around and now the PTVI wave didn’t start until 10:01 AM instead of 8:03 as it had originally been scheduled for. This meant hotter and more humid conditions. No matter, we just had to live with it.
The First Run
Due to course crowding potential the Wheel Chair athletes had their race first then at 10 AM the waves of the other Paratriathlon categories began. The B1 (totally blind) men and women started at 10:01. I waited with my heart thumping and legs tensed ready to spring. At the sound of the airhorn beginning our wave Zack and I sprang forward exploding out to a fast lead ahead of the other eight or nine B1 athletes. Slowly though a few clawed their way back and passed us. A Japanese athlete passed me, then my fellow Team USA teammate Brad Snyder and one of the Irish athletes. Zack and I measured our pace. I was going hard but not as hard as I could. Every time Zack looked down at his watch though we seemed to be hovering around a 6 min/mi pace.
At the turn around point of the 2.5k run we were sitting in 4th or fifth place. We slid up to run shoulder to shoulder with the Irish and held a measured pace all the way to transition 1.
Run 1: 9 min 27 sec
We sprinted to the bike and I grabbed my helmet, throwing it on, buckling it while kicking off my running shoes. Then I slid my feet into my cycling shoes, strapped them, grabbed onto the bike and ran with Zack toward the mount line. We paused threw a leg over the bike, clipped in and took off. We were right on the heels of the Irish and only a few seconds down on the lead Japanese team and Brad.
Transition 1: 57 sec
My legs felt heavy as I initially started pedaling. I worried that I’d pushed too hard on the first run and wouldn’t be able to have the power to surge to the front as Zack and I’d planned. But the heavy feeling quickly disappeared and Zack and I began to hammer. On the first opportunity we zoomed passed the Irish. Then we locked onto the red, white and blue kits of Brad and his guide Colin. We also had to contend with some cyclists from the wave ahead of us. Not long into the first lap we surged passed Brad. To encourage my teammate and fellow countryman along I yelled “Go Team USA!” Then we set our sights down the road. Japan was just ahead of us and we were on a mission to catch and pass them. We did a short while later and took the lead.
I don’t know how fast we were going at any given point, but I could feel that we were flying. I was throwing down possibly the strongest bike ride I’d ever done. Zack took the turns aggressively in the arrow bars and I stayed tucked in behind him as best I could to reduce drag.
We completed the first loop and I vaguely heard the announcer say something about first visually impaired athlete. But we went by so fast that was all I heard. Then we were on the second lap of three. This was where we decided to hammer even harder and where we extended our lead. We held that effort until about three quarters of the way through the third lap when we down shifted and spun the legs out a bit to get ready for the run.
We blazed toward the dismount line, hit the breaks, unclipped, came off the bike and started running into T2.
Bike: 25 min 12 sec (26.3 mi/hr average speed)
We racked the bike, I unclipped my helmet, tossed it in the bin where we are required to put discarded pieces of equipment, kicked off my cycling shoes, threw them in the bin and yanked on my running shoes again. I grabbed the run tether and Zack and I began sprinting to the run start.
Transition 2: 58 sec
It was hot. As we flashed by a crowd of people applauding and cheering. After all, we weren’t just leading the BVI field, we were actually the first people to get on to the run course. The was water at the first aid station just outside of transition and we grabbed a bottle to share until the next aid station.
I fell into a rhythm syncing my arms and legs to a fluid cadence. Zack was keeping an eye on our competitors. They were coming hard and fast but we still had a gap. I turned up the pace a notch. Dumped water into my mouth. I dumped water over my head. I breathed in. I breathed out. I swung my arms. I flexed and extended my legs. I didn’t talk. I tried not to focus on how fucking hot it was.
All the time Zack seemed to be striding effortlessly next to me giving me crisp clear directions. “Step toward me. Easy right hand bend. Now back to the left. Windy path. Keep it up man! You’re looking so strong!”
As we passed the one mile mark I knew I wasn’t holding the pace I wanted to. I felt like my legs were moving through mud. I pumped my arms harder trying to get my legs to catch up. I tried pushing the pace. But it was as though I could feel someone bearing down on me from behind.
“You’re 20 seconds up,” Zack said “keep pushing!” That gap came down to 15 seconds, then 10. We hit the turn around hard and pushed the pace a little harder. The lead Japanese athlete was flying behind us. I could hear his and his guide’s footsteps and heavy breathing. I gritted my teeth and willed my legs to go faster.
“How bad do you want to win?” Zack barked at me. I pushed harder. Then Japan was next to me. We ran shoulder to shoulder for a brief moment.
“Come on man, he looks like fucking shit! You look stronger!” Zack said. My brain was turning off. I was just running, pushing. Japan began pulling away. I tried to match the furious pace he was setting but couldn’t hold it for very long. Japan dropped me with just about a mile to go. And another Japanese athlete was coming fast behind me.
Zack continued to feed me encouragement and constantly reminded me to focus on form. “Don’t fall apart! We’re on the podium! We can still catch him!”
We hit the second to last bridge and Zack took a peek back to see where our second Japanese pursuer was. “Ten seconds,” Zack said. “If you want to hold this guy off you need to give it everything.”
I dug deeper and opened the gap a little. I vaguely heard someone yelling at the side of the run course “Keep driving forward!”
We hit the apex of the final bridge and headed slightly down hill. I extended my stride and dug just a little deeper. I knew that in order to begin collecting credit toward making the National Team I needed to minimize the gap between me and first place. I also needed to hold off this fast charging second Japanese athlete.
Zack and I came into the finisher shoot and hit the line in second place. My legs were shot, my heart rate through the roof and I was wetter than I would’ve been if we’d just completed a swim. I very nearly collapsed but Zack was there to hold me steady on my feet as we made our way into the athlete recovery zone.
Run: 22 min 16 sec
Total Time: 58 min 47 sec
As I stood on shaky legs in the recovery zone, a volunteer draped a cold towel around my neck and shoulders and pushed a bottle of water into my hand. I sipped on the water and let the cool towel lower my core temperature. The Japanese athlete who’d finished in first place—48 seconds ahead of me—came up to Zack and me and hugged us. In broken English he said “Good race. I was Paralympic Gold Medalist. You did very good job.” Zack and I took that to mean that we’d pushed him to dig deep and this win wasn’t easy for him. Then we greeted the other Japanese athlete who’d finished a mere 18 seconds behind us in third place telling him that he’d pushed us and it was a great race. Then we began making our way out of the recovery zone to walk around and keep moving. Other athletes were coming across the line and we cheered them on as we saw them. We stopped to chat with Brad and Colin to see how their race went. We all agreed that it was a very hot day and that we felt the race might have shaken out differently if the swim hadn’t been cancelled. But all we could control was how well we raced and on the whole we were all fairly pleased with how the race went. Even so I turned to Zack and joked “Give me an Ironman over that any day.” Ironman is hard and it gets harder the faster you go, but Ironman is suffering little by little throughout the day not one hour of pedal to the metal. The pain is no worse or better, it’s just different. The thing that is so appealing about ITU racing though is the pure competitive nature of the beast. How hard can you push yourself to beat your competitors. Sometimes we win the battle and sometimes we lose.
I often say that if I’m second place I might as well be first loser. I still feel that way and expect better of myself. I know that in order to compete with the best in the world (which is what I want to do) I have to improve.
Nevertheless there were a lot of positives to take out of this second place finish. Even though my 5k run split of 22:16 was exactly the same as I’d done in March, the conditions this time around were much worse. I’d also begun with a hard run then had a much stronger bike and I was in the middle of Ironman training. More than that though, I felt I’d pushed myself and really raced for the first time in a long time. It felt good.
We walked around and chatted with our fellow athletes. We analyzed the race, had the podium ceremony and began cleaning up our transition area. Then it was time to bike back to Rachel’s, take the bike apart, pack it up and then head back to the Airbnb to get cleaned up and head out for good food and beer before crashing and getting up in the middle of the night to catch a 5 AM flight.
And so another race weekend came to an end. Thank you as always to everyone who made yet another race possible. Zack for an incredible job guiding and pushing me to my limit. Amy Dixon for playing guide/athlete match maker. Rachel for taking such good care of my bike. To the awesome crew of USA athletes who are all so supportive of each other. I do think we push each other to truly be better and raise the level of competition. Thank you also to the great race volunteers, race officials and spectators who made the race a fun one. Thank you as always to my incredible sponsors for allowing me to represent you and race and test myself against the best athletes. Here’s to hopefully many more podiums to come. And finally, thank you to you my readers for staying with me on this journey and for taking the time to read this newsletter.