April 27, 2019
Milan World Paratriathlon Series
750 m swim, 19.5 km bike, 5 km run
Podium Pressure and Expectations
“I think you’re a dark horse to get on the podium.”
“Dave’s going to be hard to beat but I think there’s a chance you can get on the podium.”
“I’m expecting a top 5 finish for Kyle, but there’s a chance he could get on the podium. Not going to be easy though.”
“Just go out and execute your race.”
These were the words that people kept saying to me in person or posting on social media. And it was hard to block it out and just focus on the process of training and racing. Yes, I expect to do well at any race I start but I’ve fallen short of expectations (I’d even say I’ve choked a couple of times) in previous races.
My previous three International Triathlon Union (ITU) races have all been at the same venue in Sarasota, Fla. My first ITU race was a disaster with getting tangled on a buoy in the swim and then my guide cracking on the run. In my second race I used a strong bike to propel me to the front of the field but then couldn’t hold on and slipped to second place having been run down by a 50 something year old Japanese athlete. I went into my third career race with high expectations and knowing that my stiffest competition was fellow American Aaron Scheidies and he was racing on a bomb hip. I could totally take him down. Turns out, Aaron on one leg still kicks my ass. So I felt stressed and pressured. If I couldn’t hang with Aaron on a bum hip, how on earth was I going to be able to compete against the Europeans on their home turf where the racing is much more fierce? Fortunately I’d get to find out at the first World Paratriathlon Series race of the season which took place just outside of Milan, Italy.
Paratriathlon ITU Procedures
The ITU calendar for paratriathlon follows a similar vain to the elite ITU calendar. There are four levels of racing. World Championship, three World Paratriathlon Series races, Continental Championships, and World Cups. World Cups and Continental Championships are the easiest races to get into as they are introductory races and don’t require high world rankings. World Paratriathlon Series races are stacked with the top talent in the world. These races are worth the second most amount of points and so spots on the start lists are highly coveted.
Coming off the American Continental Championships I was ranked 27th in the world for visually impaired men. So it was a long shot that I could make any WPS start list without a miracle since only six to eight spots were reserved for visually impaired men and those spots would first be filled by the highest ranked athletes who applied for those slots. Then the ITU could issue a couple of invitations, but their invites seemed to be completely random so I couldn’t rely on an invite. However, there was one sure way I could make a WPS start list and that was by USA Triathlon placing Aaron on the start list and then substituting me in for him. This is a tactic commonly used by National Federations. It allows countries to send various athletes to events to see how they perform against international competition while saving their highest ranked athletes for certain races. Because Aaron has never been ranked lower than second in the world, the USA was almost always guaranteed an entry to any race on the ITU Paratriathlon schedule. Since Aaron was now in recovery from hip surgery and wouldn’t be available until later in the season, the USA Paratriathlon Competition Committee had to decide what VI athlete they’d send to the first two WPS races of the season. It ultimately was decided that I would get the slot for Milan and Brad Snyder would get the slot for the next WPS race in Yokohama, Japan. Phew, at least I made a start list. Now I just had to swim, bike, and run faster than the other seven guys – some of whom had been racing internationally longer than I’d been in the sport. No matter, I knew I had the potential to beat anyone… If I didn’t race like a dumbass.
Assessing the Competition
Zack and I’d be racing against seven other VI men and their guides. Of those seven, six had competed at the 2018 World Championship and at least one of the 2018 WPS races. Of everybody on the start list there were three names that stood out to me and I knew that these three were the ones I had to mark.
- Dave Ellis of Great Britain. Three time ITU VI World Champion (2013, 2017 and 2018). A guy who swims like a dolphin and runs like a gazelle.
- Hector Catala Laparra of Spain. Two time ITU VI World Championship Bronze Medalist (2016 and 2018). One of the strongest bike/run combinations on the circuit.
- Vasyl Zakrevskyi of the Ukraine. Four time ITU VI World Championship Podium finisher (2nd in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 3rd 2017). Consistently the top B1 (totally blind) athlete in most races over the years.
There was always the chance that one of the others on the start list could have an incredible day, but my gut told me these three were the ones to mark and do my best to stay ahead of.
Bound for Europe
I’ve done a bit of traveling in my life. Nowhere near the amount I’d like to do and not nearly as much as others I know. Despite my travel experiences, travel in general can still be a stressful endeavor. Add on top of that I was traveling to attend a race where I was expected to perform and bring home some hardware… My heart was lodged in my throat and I had to exercise greater patience than normal while navigating through airports. Fortunately I wasn’t flying to Italy alone. I was able to get on the same flight as my teammates Allysa and Hailey, as well as our coach Derick, the USA Para Triathlon Team Manager Amanda, and our team mechanic Joseph.
We flew from Colorado Springs to Chicago and then on to Frankfurt, Germany. We had a two plus hour layover in Frankfurt and everyone (except me) was a United Club member since they’ve all flown so much. But, hold on a sec, Derick was able to get me in as a guest. Score! I could hang out in the swanky airport lounge too! And what a lounge this one was. It was quiet and we each got our own comfortable couch or chair. Plus unlimited delicious coffee and some tasty pastries. About an hour into us just chilling in the lounge, a woman came through and offered each of us a fresh soft pretzel. Talk about living. How quickly can I get status with United? Darn it, I still have to spend $1000 and fly about 10000 more miles. Oh well, I’ll get there.
From Frankfurt it was a quick 45 minute flight to Milan. We then loaded all of our luggage into two vans that Team USA had rented and made the very short drive to our hotel.
While I was feeling anxious about the race coming up on Saturday, I was also excited. I could hardly sit down or stay still. Derick and I went for an easy 4+ mile shake out run to clear out the jet lag. Then the team elected to eat at a sushi restaurant for dinner. Then it was off to bed to try and sleep.
The next day was more relaxing apart from a quick run with Derick where I did some race pace efforts. Joseph and I also took time to build up my tandem including putting on a new set of shiny race wheels that David from Cycles Chinook had custom built for me. That night Zack arrived and things started to feel like a normal race week. I was settling in and thus far, apart from traveling across the Atlantic, my race week was shaping up just like all of the other race weeks I’d had.
Thursday was an important day as it would be the only time we could preview the bike course. Zack and I are strong on the bike and were eager to test out our new wheels as well as see what kind of fun twists and turns the course would have. We took one lap of the course nice and easy analyzing each turn and patch of gravel discussing where we should stand, open up the throttle, and take it easy. Then on our second lap of the course we took a few of the turns aggressively just to test how we’d feel. We also kept an eye on a few of the other tandems. Even though we knew we couldn’t take anything concrete away from observing, we couldn’t help but feel confident.
Friday was highlighted by a sumptuous multi-course dinner of grilled vegetables, pasta, salad, and either steak or chicken. By this point in the week I’d happily taken on the role of “team garbage can” but had to exercise great caution as I didn’t want to over fill myself the night before a race. I still wound up eating my own meal of chicken and half of our team physiotherapist’s steak. And what a steak! Everyone that ordered steak received a massive hunk of meat with a beautiful trimming of marbleized fat. The beef was seared on either side and was nice and bloody in the middle. (Side note: The proper way to cook a steak is to knock the cow’s horns off, wipe its arss, and drag it across the grill once on each side.) I only prayed that the beef wouldn’t sit too heavy in my stomach for the following day.
“It’s just another race,” I kept repeating to myself as I went through my race day routines.
- Eat a big breakfast early.
- Sit and chat with teammates for a bit.
- Get back up to the room to organize gear and put on race tattoos displaying my number.
- Put on headphones and listen to music and focus on my breathing to get into a zone. Go through each segment of the race in my head. Picture everything that could go right. Picture everything that could go wrong and how I’d fix it.
This might have just been another race for some people, but I couldn’t help but feel that my season was hinging on this race. If I did well I’d gain more respect from my teammates and maybe USA Triathlon would think about sending me to more races. If I did poorly I might as well pack my bags and head back to Ironman because USA Triathlon wasn’t going to continue to invest in someone who didn’t have medal potential. And I felt the pressure. It was like a weight pressing on my chest making it hard to breathe. My temper was short and the littlest thing threatened to set me off. I was tense and moving into control freak mode. It drove Zack crazy but his efforts to get me to relax only wound me tighter.
We finally made it to the race venue, which was almost directly across the street from the hotel. We got checked in; had our swim tethers, black out goggles, and glasses approved; and headed out to set up transition.
I placed each transition item as precisely as I could given that our transition area was a little tighter than I’d previously had. We had to angle the bike diagonally in our transition box so that it wouldn’t stick out into the aisle where people would run. My helmet and sunglasses went on the handlebars, cycling and running shoes next to the bike with run tether resting on top of my running shoes. Our transition baskets were placed near the back of the bike so that as we stripped equipment off our bodies we could quickly toss it into the baskets. Then it was time to get out of transition and get focused for some actual racing.
750 meters in clear lake water. Breathe in, breath out. Pull the shoulders of my wetsuit up and pull the zipper up. Arrange the strap so that it sits just right so that I can quickly grab it and rip it down my back as I’m running up the steps out of the water. Adjust the crotch of the wetsuit so that it fits snugly to my body. Another couple deep breaths.
“Zack are you ready?”
“Relax Kyle. I’m a pro wetsuit getter-onner.”
Time to line up. B1 men and women are going off together. I think there’s eight of us in total. Since I’m number 633 I’m positioned on the far left of the group as we lower ourselves into the waters of the lake which is a chilly 64ish degrees. I quickly dunk my head and blow some bubbles willing my heart to stop racing. There’s definitely more of a crowd here than there was in Sarasota. I can hear them buzzing in a grandstand. Not to mention they’re blasting music.
30 seconds. Deep breaths. Focus on staying long in the water. Stay tight and streamlined. Keep those fingers pointing toward the bottom of the lake and push the water behind you.
“On your mark… GO!”
I put my head down and charged out hard angling to the right toward the first buoy. I could feel the Australians buffeting me on my right. Instinctively I pushed the pace surging ahead of them and suddenly I was slapping someone else’s feet. I wonder if this is the Ukrainian. Stay on the feet if you can but if they’re going too slow get around them.
Zack and I had decided on a new method of signaling when to turn. Previously I’d just waited until the tether pulled taught and I angled my body to the left. If we needed to turn right then Zack would punch me in the ribs. We wondered if we could save time and swim less by Zack signaling turning left with a double tap on my left shoulder. As I pushed the pace in the swim I waited for that first double tap hoping someone wasn’t going to swim up between us and yank on the tether or that I wouldn’t mistake a double tap for just a general pummeling. But then I felt a quick double tap on my left shoulder blade and I quickly turned left. I no longer felt the feet of whoever I was following so I figured they’d either dropped me or we’d gone around and dropped them. No matter. I refocused on my technique.
“When you swim smooth you swim fast,” Derick has told me time and time again. So I tried not to think about pushing the pace. Instead I focused on how my hand entered the water, keeping my fingertips pointed down and pushing the water straight back behind me while keeping my lead arm/shoulder tight to my head. The result was an intense but relaxing swim.
The lake was infested with tangles of weed which got tangled up in the tether and around my hands and arms. But the weed shook lose nearly every time I stroked. I found my rhythm. Stroke stroke breathe, stroke stroke breathe. Another couple left turns. Then Zack punched me in the ribs and we turned right. I knew now that we had a straight-a-way to the steps leading up out of the lake and into transition so I pushed it. My hands touched the steps and I popped up. Zack was right next to me as we bounded up the steps. I grabbed for my zipper and ripped it down my back. Then as I reached the top of the steps I heard Mark Sortino, the other coach supporting us in Milan, yell “2nd place, 20sec down.”
Swim: 12min 1sec
I sprinted as best I could in a wetsuit. I yanked the shoulder straps of my wetsuit down to around my waist and then ran flat out between bikes while holding Zack’s elbow. Zack had gone with the full sleeved wetsuit so it took him a second or two longer to get his wetsuit down, but no matter. In practice we’d discovered that the fastest way for me to get a wetsuit off is to sit down and have Zack rip it off my legs. So when we got to the bike I quickly got my wetsuit the rest of the way down to my calves and Zack ripped it off tossing it over my head and into the basket as I yanked off my swim cap and goggles and put on my cycling shoes. Then I put on my blacked out sunglasses, buckled my helmet and grabbed the bike off the rack. Zack was ready and we quickly ran to the mount line. We stopped, swung our right legs over the top tube, clipped in and took off.
Transition 1: 1min 27sec
Total Time: 13min 28sec
“Yeehaw!” I yelled as I felt the surge of power course through my body and the Chinook beneath me seemed to come alive. She was eager and ready to race just as much as I was. We were about 30-40sec down on the Ukrainians but elected not to blow our legs out immediately trying to chase them down. Instead we settled in to a steady effort and reeled them in slowly. We hit the first technical left hand turn. Zack breaded hard, leaned the bike left and then we stood up and charged ahead surging up to roughly 30mph.
Little by little the gap between the Ukrainians and us closed. We were fast approaching the first right hand U-Turn. We hit it only about 10sec down on the Ukrainians. We stood out of the turn and accelerated again. This time we threw down a little extra power and took the lead. Now it was time to open a gap.
The second half of the bike lap had some tricky little S turns, one of which had a spitting of gravel. Fortunately Zack is a very confident bike handler and took the turns aggressively. Every time we hit a straight-a-way we put down a little extra power. We hit the second right hand U-Turn, stood up and charged down a slight hill ready for lap two of three. I heard Sortino once again “1st place now! Stay strong!”
Zack and I merged with some other cyclists coming out of T1 including our fellow Team USA teammate racing in the PTS4 category, Jamie Brown. We zipped past several cyclists doing our best to drop any tandems that might be coming up on us. In the back of my mind I wondered where Ellis and Catala Laparra were. I knew they were both extremely fast swimmers but I felt I was a stronger cyclist. Could I hold them off until the run?
We hit the U-turn half way through the lap and Zack caught sight of Ellis and his guide coming fast behind us. As we accelerated out of the turn Zack counted the seconds to see how far up we were on the two time defending world champ. “About 15-20sec up,” Zack yelled. We both knew that wasn’t good enough so we put down a little more power. Zack took the S-turns a little more aggressively and we hit the end of the second lap. As we stood out of the U-turn Mark yelled that we were now about 45sec up on Ellis.
Now it was time for our third and final bike lap. This had to be our best one if we wanted to come out ahead going into the run. I gritted my teeth and willed my legs to turn over faster, putting more power into each downward and upward stroke of the pedal.
We flew through the lap taking each turn and curve aggressively without being stupid. Now it was time to execute the flying dismount. This was something we’d executed almost perfectly in Sarasota, but we didn’t do so this time around. Zack called for me to take off my right shoe. I did and placed my foot on top of the shoe and pedaled a few strokes. Then we did the same with the left foot. But we’d mistimed our shoe removal. We should have waited an additional 50 meters or so. Ultimately it didn’t cost us any time though so no harm done.
Zack gave me the countdown, “3, 2, 1, dismount!” I popped my right leg over the top tube and hit the ground running barefoot into the second transition.
Bike: 28min 17sec
Total Time: 41min 45sec
We sprinted barefoot through transition, quickly racked the bike, tossed our helmets into the baskets. Then it’s on with the shoes, slip the run tether on and sprint for the exit. As we ran by Mark again he yelled “still in 1st about 45 seconds up on Ellis.” Then we hit the run.
Transition 2: 47sec
Total Time: 42min 32sec
“Don’t forget to roll into the run,” I told myself. “No suicide pace to start out.”
I took the first 75-100 steps out of transition to find my running legs and then settled into what felt like a sustainable pace. I had no idea that my “sustainable pace was around 6:20/mi however. And I was able to hold onto that for the majority of the first lap.
The run course was pancake flat and consisted of three out and back segments with a tight left hand U-turn at either end. Zack and I hadn’t practiced a ton of left hand U-turns so it was an interesting twist for us. But we handled me pivoting on my left foot while Zack leaned his left shoulder into my right quite nicely. Surprisingly I think we were able to maintain our speed better on the left hand U-turns than on the right handers we’d so often done in training and racing.
It was part way through our second run lap that I was finally caught. I’d held onto 1st place for the majority of the bike and it appeared as though I’d made the “runners” work a bit harder to catch me. It was early on in the second lap of the run when Hector Catala Laparra of Spain came flying past me as though he were on wheels. I attempted to match his pace for a hot second but quickly realized that if I tried to run with him then I’d blow up in about 100 meters. So I settled back into my pace and did my best to minimize losses. Ellis was still behind me but coming fast.
It was on the back half of the second lap was when Ellis finally made the pass, although much slower than Catala Laparra had. It was kind of surreal. Here I was sitting in 3rd place only steps behind the two time defending world champion. As long as I didn’t have an epic collapse, I wasn’t losing my 3rd place position. I had maintained a steady lead over Zakrevskyi and maybe even lengthened my lead with this incredible run. So I pushed myself a little harder.
The second half of the run was much more crowded than the first half. The visually impaired women had joined us on the course by this time and I found myself pacing off of Spain’s Susanna Rodriguez (the current world champion on the women side) going into my final lap and a half. With a little more than 800 meters to go in the last lap, Zack and I darted around Susanna and surged. Zack could still see Ellis up the rode and Zakrevskyi had dropped back over a minute behind us. In fact, Italy’s Federico Sicura had moved into 4th, but I wouldn’t know that until post-race.
Over the last stretch of the run I dropped my pace down to close to 6 min/mi pace and hit the line with a new 5k personal best. Yep, I have never run 5k faster in my life. I’d wrapped up 3rd place and gotten on the podium in my first ever World Paratriathlon Series race and became only the second visually impaired American to podium at a WPS. I’d finished 1min 57sec behind race winner Hector Catala Laparra, and only 57sec behind Dave Ellis. Even though I’d given everything I had on that particular day I knew there was still more in the tank that I just hadn’t tapped into as of yet. That made me giddy with excitement to see what I could do.
Run: 19min 35sec
Total Time: 1hr 2min 6sec
“Have I seen you before?” Dave Ellis asked Zack and I as we stood around in the recovery zone immediately after the race.
“No, this was our first WPS,” Zack told him.
“But hopefully you’ll be seeing a lot more of us,” I mentioned.
Third place (or second loser as I fondly call it) previously would be a disappointment for me. However, Zack and I executed a nearly flawless racing strategy. The only thing that kept us from finishing higher up the placings was physical ability. I’d swum and run faster than I have ever in my life. And I’d executed the second fastest bike split of the day (only Hector had biked faster).
As soon as we saw Derick after the race he was like a kid on Christmas morning. He gave each of us a massive hug. I imagine it’s got to be rewarding to see an athlete you coach make such dramatic progress in a short four months. Then Mark gave Zack and I the advice “Don’t analyze today’s race just yet. Just enjoy it because you crushed it. There’s time for analysis later.” And so that’s what we did.
We headed out to cheer on our teammates as they came in one by one. Team USA had a pretty dominant performance on the whole as we collected five medals—one gold, three silver and one bronze—across the various paratriathlon categories. It was a busy podium ceremony.
As soon as we were all done receiving our medals we made our way back to the hotel to clean up before heading out for gelato and drinks.
The next day, several people headed home, but Zack, Allysa, Hailey, Jamie and I spent the day exploring Milan. We walked around town visiting an old castle, checking out a small museum, eating good food and drinking great wine and coffee. The two highlights of the day were spending a couple of hours in the Duomo—a massive cathedral which took nearly 600 years to build. We capped off the day by visiting an all you can eat buffet which only cost us each 11 euros. Then it was off to bed since we all had to fly out the following day to get back to our lives and training.
What’s next for me? Well, we’re in a wait and see period. Hopefully my next race will be World Paratriathlon Series Montreal on June 28, but we won’t know that for sure for a couple of more weeks. In the meantime Zack’s crushing it in San Diego and I’m doing my best to crush it at the OTC. I’m focused on just training one race at a time while keeping an eye on the overall vision of making it to Tokyo in 2020. The road is tough but the path is becoming a little clearer. So please keep following along on this journey with me by following me on social media and continuing to read these posts.
Until next time 🙂
Milan World Paratriathlon Series Results
- Hector Catala Laparra; Spain: 1hr 9sec (Swim 11min 0sec, T1 1min 7sec, Bike 27min 1sec, T2 44sec, Run 16min 57sec, +3min 21sec B2/B3 factor)
- Dave Ellis; Great Britain: 1hr 1min 9sec (Swim 9min 54sec, T1 1min 7sec, Bike 28min 45sec, T2 39sec, Run 17min 24sec, +3min 21sec B2/B3 factor)
- Kyle Coon; USA: 1hr 2min 6sec (Swim 12min 1sec, T1 1min 27sec, Bike 28min 17sec, T2 47sec, Run 19min 35sec)