CAMTRI Paratriathlon American Championship
March 9, 2019
750 m Swim, 20 km Bike, 5.225 km Run
Stroke, stroke, breathe. Right, left, breathe. Focus on rotating your body around a single point. Only bring that right goggle out of the water. Stay relaxed. Don’t push too hard, and don’t ease off. Are those Brad’s feet I keep slapping? I’m feeling good. Maybe I’ve got a little more in the tank and we can get around Brad and Colin and… Oh fuck! We can’t be caught on a buoy again?!
Travel and Classification
Zack and I met up in Tampa, collected the rental car and loaded it up with our luggage—including my brand-new tandem from Cycles Chinook. After filling our bellies with a bite to eat we made our way to Sarasota and checked into our hotel. We then proceeded to piece my new bike together before turning in for the night.
On Thursday morning my coach, Derick, had assigned me some race pace efforts and above in the pool, so we tracked down a pool we could swim in and cranked out a 1500 yard workout before taking the Chinook to a bike shop to have them look over the bike to ensure we’d put it together correctly as well as do a quick safety check on it. Then it was off to an eye clinic so I could be officially “Classified.”
Competing on the International Triathlon Union (ITU) circuit as an elite paratriathlete means that your disability needs to be verified by a small panel of officials with medical experience.
After it was determined that I was officially totally blind, Zack and I made our way to the nearest Publix for sub sandwiches and to pick up a 12 pack of beer as payment for the bike mechanics at Ryder Bikes who were checking over the Chinook. Then it was time to actually test ride the Chinook and do a little shake out run with some race pace efforts before turning in early for the night.
Friday we continued tinkering with our fit on the Chinook before heading to the race venue to preview the swim and bike courses. Zack and I’d never actually swam open water together before so the swim course recon was very important for us. We plunged in without wetsuits as the water temps weren’t terrible. They were certainly considerably warmer than when Alan and I’d taken on the 58 degree water temps in Arizona back in November. We then proceeded to do one very easy lap of the entire swim course. We only had one mishap when one of our fellow Team USA female visually impaired counterparts, Liz Baker and her guide Jill, accidentally swam up between us and got a little tangled in our tether. But no harm done. Little did we know that would be a bit of a precursor for the following day’s race.
Immediately after previewing the swim course we had a meeting for all of the Team USA athletes, many of whom were competing in their first ITU race. It’s definitely exciting to see the sport of paratriathlon grow. Across the six paratriathlon sport classifications there were around 40 athletes competing for the USA. Personally I also liked seeing the field of visually impaired men grow with stiffer competition.
At the end of our “Team USA” meeting it was time for the bike course preview. The previous two times I’d raced on this particular course the bike was a fast three loops totaling 18.3 km. This year a small out and back section was added for technical difficulty as well as to make the course a full 20 km. Unfortunately they only gave us one chance to preview that new section of the course. When Zack and I went around that turn around we were very cautious as the road was fairly narrow and we had to avoid going off the road into the dirt. So after they shut the course preview down we went to an empty parking lot and worked on taking tight 180 degree turns at higher and higher speeds.
Then it was time to make our way back to the venue for the official pre-race briefing and then off to find food and sleep. After all I had high expectations and I wanted to be ready to deliver.
Assessing the Competition:
The previous year at this same race I hadn’t performed up to my potential. I was determined not to let that happen again. On the start line were five Americans, two of whom—Aaron Scheidies and Brad Snyder—I’d raced against previously. Aaron is ranked 2nd in the world and over the past decade has been a prohibitive favorite at any race he’s entered. In fact, he’s never taken lower than 2nd at any ITU race and has only taken 2nd a total of three or four times in his more than 20 ITU starts. It was a very long shot that I could beat him, but I was going to try my hardest. Brad is a seven time Paralympic medalist in swimming and has been making the transition to triathlon the last couple of years. Brad was able to out run me at last year’s CAMTRI American Championship and beat me by an overall margin of only 14 seconds. I’d bounced back later in 2018 to out race Brad at a World Cup by more than a minute. Today my competitive side wanted to bury Brad. The previous day at breakfast, Brad, his guide Colin, Zack and I were eating next to each other and Colin jokingly said “Hey Brad don’t give away any race strategy cause I know Kyle’s eves dropping over there.” We all laughed and I half jokingly replied, “Doesn’t matter because my strategy is to just kick your ass Brad.” So needless to say Brad and I were keeping an eye on each other.
There were also two Americans making their first ITU starts. Owen Cravens was a 16 year old who’d I’d heard vague whispers about. The social media buzz was that he was a star in the making and that he was possibly faster than Aaron. The final American in the field was my buddy Francesco Magisano who’d I’d met at Amy Dixon’s No Sight No Limits triathlon camp the previous January. Francesco’s still new to triathlon but has a ton of potential. He also happens to be a retinoblastoma survivor so we bonded over that.
Outside of we five Americans, there was a Canadian, John Dunkerley, who’d taken 2nd at CAMTRI last year and who’d shot up the rankings throughout the course of 2018. Going into today he was currently ranked 5th in the world. But having scrolled back over he’s previous year’s results I felt I could out swim, bike and run him. There was also an Israeli, Oren, and a Mexican, David. Zack and I’d met David on Wednesday evening when we were checking into the hotel. David was fairly new to triathlon but seemed like a great guy. Oren had previously raced on the ITU circuit but it had been several years so I wasn’t sure what to make of him.
At the end of the day my gut told me it was going to come down to Aaron, Brad and me. I knew that I was swimming, biking and running better than I ever had previously and that Aaron was nursing a hip injury. Despite that though I knew that if I was going to beat Aaron I’d have to race harder than I ever had before. One of the last things Derick said to me before I headed down to Florida was “Go turn some heads and let’em know you’re here to compete.” I planned to do just that.
I woke up early, probably around 6:30 or so to feed and take Skye out. The race wasn’t until 2:30 so Zack elected to sleep in as much as possible. I like to stay on as much of a routine as possible so I stuck to my early wake up time. Once Zack got up we wandered down to stuff our bellies with breakfasts of eggs, bagels, peanut butter, fruit, bacon, waffles and coffee. We’d snack on fruit, carrots and other various snack items a couple of hours before the race and top off our glycogen stores with an energy jell 10 minutes before we got in the water.
Zack and I then finished packing our bags as we were checking out of the hotel prior to heading to the race (we had an early flight out of Tampa the following day so we’d elected to get a hotel in Tampa Saturday night post race) and spent some time just getting into our own zones.
Around noon we’d packed the car and checked out of the hotel. We drove over to Nathan Benderson Park and got ready to race.
We checked in and got my blacked out swim goggles and running/cycling glasses approved as well as the length of our swim tether. There are so many rules in ITU racing in general, now through in a few more on the para side and it can make your head spin if you think about it too much. But here are a few of the basics as it pertains to the Visually Impaired Division, or PTVI.
Some Rules Explanations
PTVI is actually separated into two categories—PTVI1 and PTVI2. PTVI1 is for those athletes who are totally blind—like me. There are generally three levels of visual impairment in the international sporting world, these are known as B1, B2 and B3. Athletes who have a designation of B2 and B3 have a certain level of visual acuity which can range from best corrected vision of 20/200 to a visual field of X percent (sorry I don’t exactly know the designations for B2 and B3 classification since it doesn’t really pertain to me). In short, B2 and B3 triathletes are placed into the PTVI2 category because they have some level of usable sight.
In 2010, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) established Paratriathlon as an official Paralympic sport. Rather than separating B1, B2 and B3 athletes into three separate categories they combined them into one. There just weren’t enough athletes with visual impairments competing in triathlon to warrant three separate medal events. However, controversy arose almost immediately because there was a blanket rule that all athletes with a visual impairment would be required to wear goggles and glasses that had been blacked out to make a “level playing field.” However, this didn’t go over too well. B2 and B3 athletes pointed out that they should be able to use their level of usable vision in triathlon just as other athletes with similar eye conditions could in other sports. It was also a safety hazard having those athletes who were used to training using their sight to suddenly not be able to do so in an event such as triathlon. Eventually it was determined that B2 and B3 athletes had a point. So a new system was developed which took swimming and running data from other Paralympic sports to create a time factor so that B2 and B3 athletes wouldn’t have too much of an advantage. This allowed B2/B3 athletes to not wear black out glasses/goggles. However, B1 athletes are still required to do so. This time factor continues to be adjusted year to year as more and more data from triathlons roll into the ITU’s database. In the early years of ITU racing B1 athletes got a little more than a 2 minute head start on B2/B3 athletes. In 2018 during my first year of ITU racing that factor was increased to 3 minutes and 16 seconds. This year in 2019 that factor was again increased to 3 minutes 21 seconds. This means that I as a totally blind athlete get a 3 minute and 21 second head start on my B2/B3 counterparts. Again, this is to make a more level playing field and is supposed to promote actual racing against each other. Is it a completely fair system? No, but right now it’s the best we have. Maybe one day there’ll be enough athletes to separate B1, B2 and B3 athletes into separate medal events, but at last check there are only 75 men who have done at least one ITU event in the past 18 months or so. Also at last check, I don’t think a B1 athlete has won a world championship or won a “Major” International race that had a field of more than a handful of visually impaired athletes.
A couple of other basic rules exist for PTVI athletes. First, all swim tethers must not exceed 80 cm in length and must be made of an elastic/bungee material. B1 athletes must wear blacked out goggles during the swim and can not remove their goggles until they reach their bike in transition at which time they can replace the goggles with blacked out sunglasses. The guide must not pull, push or propel the athlete forward in the swim or run. (For example, if your guide is significantly stronger than you in the swim they could potentially assist you by dragging you a bit in the water. So the rules state that the guide can not do this.) There is also a rule on run tether length. The run tether must not exceed 50 cm in length and must be made of a nonelastic material. The guide can also not physically “guide the runner except in designated “leading zones.” For example, when Zack and I are running I can not grab his elbow or wrist to have him physically guide me except at designated points on the course such as a narrow path or a tight turn around.
There are a few more rules and regulations, but those are the basics… Ok, got that? Now let’s cut out the boring talk and get to the racing shall we?
“PTVI1 athletes, please make your way to the start.”
I lowered myself in my wetsuit off the edge of the pontoon and into the water. Zack was tethered to my left by an 80 cn length of bungee cord attached at my upper left thigh and his upper right. Zack, being an elite level swimmer and not being bothered by the water temps elected to go without a wetsuit. To Zack’s left were Brad and his guide Colin. To my right were the Israelis. On either side of us three athletes and guides I wasn’t quite sure but I knew that there were five B1 men and two B1 women in the water. Three minutes and 21 seconds after our gun went off the B2/B3 (or PTVI2) men would be sent off, and about 27 seconds after that the PTVI2 women would be sent off. Needless to say we who were currently in the water ready to race were packed tightly like sardines. My left shoulder was practically touching Zack and my right touching one of the Israelis.
The horn sounded and I put my head and charge ahead aggressively. I was being banged on my right side by the Israelis and Zack was being bounced into my left side by Brad and Colin. “Hey, it’s just like Ironman,” I thought. So I slammed my right elbow out creating a bit of space and then turned on the power to surge ahead of the Israelis. Then I felt someones feet at the edge of my reach and I instinctively knew I was on Brad’s feet. “Stay here and don’t let him get away,” I thought. And for the next 400 meters or so I continuously slapped Brad’s feet with each stroke. I occasionally felt Brad kick out as though he were trying to get me out of his draft, but I refused to ease up. I occasionally felt a tug on the tether as Zack turned us left. Then Zack pushed my ribs indicating if we needed to move right.
I fell into a rhythm of stroking, breathing and rotating. I was feeling strong and I felt like we were moving fast. Then all of a sudden I felt the tether get jerked part way down my leg. The previous year my guide and I’d gotten our tether tangled on a buoy and it cost us 30 or more seconds in the swim. “Fuck, we can’t be hooked on a buoy!” I screamed in my head. I reached back and thought I felt something on the tether. I popped my head up and Zack screamed at me, “Go, go go! Finish strong!” So I put my head back down and surged ahead. I again felt someone’s feet and stayed on them. However, it wasn’t Brad’s feet. It turned out that the Israelis tried to swim up between Zack and me and had grabbed onto our tether. Zack’s portion of the tether had actually come off but he was so quick in grabbing it and getting it back on that I didn’t notice. In that time though that I’d popped my head up and Zack took to get his tether back on the Israelis had darted around us and Brad and Colin had surged ahead.
I swam hard right up until my hands hit the swim exit. I came up out of the water pissed off at what ever had gone wrong with the tether.
Swim Time: 12 min 26 sec
I yanked down the zipper of my wetsuit as I sprinted past the Israelis and pulled the wetsuit to down around my waist. We made it into T1 and I quickly sat down on the ground for Zack to help me get my wetsuit off. It got hung up on one of my ankles costing us precious time but we eventually got it off and into the basket where we’re required to put things that come off our bodies. I tossed my cap and goggles in there as well as I grabbed and put on my cycling shoes. I stood, put on my blacked out sunglasses and helmet. Then I grabbed the Chinook off the bike rack and Zack and I ran toward bike exit.
Transition 1: 1 min 9 sec
I threw my right leg over the top tube and luckily managed to clip in immediately. Zack pulled the pedal up and we launched. After a couple of quick pedal strokes with only our right feet clipped in we clipped in with our left and Zack shifted into a better racing gear. I felt the Chinook respond immediately as though it were coming alive beneath me. She was ready to race fast. After all, this is what she was built for.
We made it onto the bike course and immediately set our sites up the road looking for Brad. He wasn’t far ahead and we reeled him in slowly. We took a hard right hand turn to do the little extra out and back, made the tight left hand U turn and then another hard right to get on the main loop of the bike course. Then we put the power down and surged past Brad and Colin. “Let’s go boys!” I yelled as we passed. Zack and I were now leading the PTVI field. I had no idea what Aaron had swum, but I knew that he was going to be the fastest in the water and that he and his guide Ben were strong cyclists—injured hip or not. However, Zack and I were also strong on the bike and we decided that if Aaron wanted to win today he was going to have to earn it.
Zack took each turn aggressively in the arrow bars and I stayed tucked in tightly behind him. We completed the first lap in around 9 minutes and headed out for our second lap. Aaron still hadn’t caught us and Zack couldn’t see him and Ben when he glanced back. We took the out and back U turn a little more aggressively this time and accelerated out of the turn. Brad and Colin had managed to hold on about 20-30 seconds behind us but Zack and I quickly accelerated again and threw down an even faster second lap. Coming into the third lap Zack got his first glimpse of Aaron and Ben. We came out of the out and back U turn for the third time with about 20-25 seconds on Aaron and Ben. We pushed the pace but Aaron’s not a seven time world champion and the strongest PTVI cyclist in the world for nothing. They caught and passed us a little more than half way through the third lap.
Zack down shifted with about a mile to go so that we could spin our legs out a bit to get them ready for the run. Zack could still see Aaron and Ben as we rolled toward T2. About 45 seconds before we were due to get off the bike we put our left pedal down and unstrapped our right shoes placing our bare feet on the top of the shoe. Two or three pedal strokes later we did the same with the left foot. Zack waited til the last second to hit the breaks hard. We jumped off the bike and hit the ground running into T2.
Bike Time: 27 min 9 sec
I’d just successfully executed my first flying dismount in a race. We ran with the bike to our rack, racked it and tossed our helmets into the bins. I slipped on my running shoes (sockless) grabbed the run tether and headed toward run exit. I yanked on the run tether over my head and down around my waist as I ran and Zack did the same.
Transition 2: 58 sec
We made a couple of quick tight turns as we tried to find our run legs. Shortly after coming out of T2 there was a water stop. I didn’t want or need water just yet but the volunteer accidentally slammed an open bottle into my chest. “I can see he can’t” Zack yelled frustratedly. Fortunately it didn’t slow us down. We made it to an open area and turned up the pace.
In previous sprint races my strategy had been to go out as hard as possible and just hang on. Derick however had instructed me to ease into the run. He wanted me to hold no faster than a 6:30/mi pace for the first 0.5 miles. After that we could recess and with pick it up or hold steady.
“I can still see Aaron and Ben up ahead,” Zack told me as we started to settle into our groove. We came down the backside of a foot bridge running at a sub 6 min/mi pace. Once we hit the flat at the bottom of the bridge we reeled it back and settled into a 6:30ish pace. I didn’t speak. I just focused on my breathing, my cadence, my arm swing and not slowing down.
“Snake left. Step toward me. Don’t stop. Water coming up I’ll grab it. Toss it right when you’re done.” Zack kept up a constant stream of instruction and encouragement. “I can still see Aaron. Keep your pace. How many races have the Brownly brothers won because they just stuck to their pace and let the guys in front crack?”
I pushed my body to another gear. We began to approach the turn around and we saw Aaron and Ben coming back toward us. “Hang on to it! You got it man. It’s just a race between you and Aaron now. No one’s in sight behind us.”
The 180 degree turn around was a leading zone so I hooked my right hand under Zack’s left elbow and we executed a super tight right hand turn. We were half way through the run now and still in striking distance if I could only dig deep enough. Only problem was that as soon as we made the turn we now had a tail wind which was blowing at the same speed we were running. “Oh fuck!” I thought as the air became still. I tried to run faster to create a breeze to cool my body down but the heat was brutal. My breathing rate went up and so did my heart rate. “Stay with it. How bad do you want this?”
We hit the next water stop and I sloshed water over myself in an attempt to cool down. It didn’t do much as the water was lukewarm at best. We passed Brad and Colin going the other way. Hot on their heels were the Israelis and the Canadians. We had at least a two minute gap on them though so as long as I didn’t start walking the silver medal was mine. But I didn’t want Silver. I tried to dig a little deeper, but the gap between Aaron and me steadily grew. I tossed water into my mouth and over my body. Sweat poured down me. My legs, heart and lungs burned. Zack continued to coach and encourage me. “Lean forward, keep your form, don’t give in.”
We hit the second to last bridge and it felt as though my legs were made of lead. We came down the backside and I tried lengthening my stride. We executed some tight left an right hand turns before coming into the final stretch. I gritted my teeth and pumped my arms and legs willing them to go faster. We hit the finish line in 2nd place 1 minute and 50 seconds after Aaron and Ben. I’d run a 5 km personal record and secured my second silver medal and second podium in only my third ever ITU race. But as I staggered to a stop and nearly collapsed on the ground I was far from satisfied.
Run Time: 21 min 24 sec
Total Time: 1 hour 3 min 3 sec
We were just beyond the finish line. I was supporting myself in an almost downward dog position on the ground as Zack poured cold water over me. Finally I staggered to my feet and we made our way to greet and congratulate Aaron on an excellent race. “I wanted to make you earn that one,” I said to him. “You did man,” he replied and then we shared a quick hand shake and hug then turned to wait to see who’d finish in 3rd to round out the podium. It turned out to be Brad and Colin who managed to out last both the Israelis and Canadians making it an American podium sweep. We congratulated Brad and Colin as they came across the line and then it was off to refuel, rehydrate and wait for other Team USA athletes to finish.
Once all of the PTVI men had crossed the line, the women started coming in. We all got together and posed for photos and chatted about our individual races. There was a buzz of excitement that only a hard fought race can bring. I was happy that I’d set new personal bests in each triathlon leg, but at the same time I wanted to do nothing else but get back to the training center and start working to narrow that gap between Aaron and myself.
We shared the podium with Aaron and Ben on the top step, Zack and I on the second, and Brad and Colin on the third. Team USA had swept the PTVI Men’s podium. After stepping down from the podium we again congratulated each other and said “Let’s do this racing thing again some time.” Then we left.
Zack and I made our way to an all you can eat pizza buffet and stuffed ourselves before heading to Tampa, disassembling and packing the bike and falling asleep for a few hours. Then it was up early, get to the airport and fly home to rest up for a couple days and get back to training. After all, Silver tasted sweet, but I want to see how Gold tastes. And in order to do that I got a lot of work to put in.
CAMTRI American Championship Results:
- Aaron Scheidies; 1:01:13 (Swim 11:00, T1 1:06, Bike 25:10, T2 0:49, Run 19:49, plus 3:21 factor time)
- Kyle Coon; 1:03:03 (Swim 12:26, T1 1:09, Bike 27:09, T2 0:58, Run 21:24)
- Brad Snyder; 1:05:37 (Swim 11:54, T1 1:27, Bike 29:20, T2 0:59, Run 22:00)