World Triathlon Para Championships Abu Dhabi
November 5, 2021
Abu Dhabi, The United Arab Emirates
750m Swim, 20k Bike, 5k Run
We dropped off the pontoon and into the very salty water of Yas Marina. The air was heavy and warm, but not as stifling as I knew it would get in just a couple of hourse time. We swam out to a point right between two start buoys and waited for the “Go!” I was one of four B1 men on the start list and my confidence wasn’t super high with my less than ideal preparation leading into today. However, I was still at the start line of a race and I knew no matter how under prepared I felt, I was going to leave it all out there on the race course.
The countdown began and the horn sounded. We were off.
I definitely did not expect the severity of the Paralympic Games hangover. While I was proud to have been involved in a competitive race I still felt I’d let my coach and teammates down by not bringing home a medal. I initially tried getting right back to training with cycling and running, but I just felt flat. There was no umph in me. I had no desire to follow a structured workout and feared that if I forced myself to do so I’d grow to hate training. So I made the decision to step away from rigid structure.
I flew to Victoria, British Columbia to spend some much needed time with my girlfriend, Jess. We’d hardly gotten to spend time together except for a couple of weeks immediately after Pleasant Prairie and we were both eager to just be together.
Once I got settled in Victoria I connected with a handful of runners and cyclists in the community and got out as much as I could just to ride and run. I didn’t focus on pace, power or times. I just biked and ran enjoying the cold, the wet and the adventure of exploring somewhere new to me.
I submitted my name to go compete in Abu Dhabi which had just been announced as the World Championships but I intentionally kept my expectations low. I knew I had to go in with an attitude of relaxed, although still professional if I had any hope of earning good quality points to set me up well for the 2022 season.
For this race, I teamed back up with Zack and the two of us were certainly eager to make our mark.
Travel and Final Prep
I had a bit of a round about way of getting to Abu Dhabi. I was scheduled to attend the annual United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) Breakfast with Champions to celebrate the achievements of the men’s and women’s Goalball teams in Tokyo. My Paratriathlon teammates Hailey and Kendall also wanted to have one last mini get together before Hailey and I went off to race in Abu Dhabi and Kendall went to canada to begin her final preparations for the Beijing Winter Paralympics. So I flew into Colorado Springs for a few days before Hailey and I drove up to Denver to catch a flight to Germany and then on to Abu Dhabi.
I arrived about 24 hours ahead of Zack so took the time to slowly build up my bike and get it to the bike mechanic. I also took the time to just relax and settle in. Over the last year or so I’d grown to appreciate the alone time I have before races. I’m able to calm my mind and bring my over all stress of performance down by just being alone and in my own space.
The afternoon after I arrived, I met up with several of my teammates and we all hit Yas beach. My teammate Mohamed—who was getting back into triathlon after taking a couple of years off to focus on cycling—and I even got into the Persian Gulf for a bit of relaxed open water swimming. The vibe was completely different than the past few races I’d been too. Much more relaxed and people just happy to be together hanging out. Sure, we knew we’d be racing in a few days, but the race was secondary to just hanging out with good friends.
Once Zack arrived we got into our normal groove of making sure we swam, biked and ran together. We made sure to catch up over good food and coffee. And we also talked a lot of triathlon. So many cool things were happening in the triathlon world besides our race coming up in just a couple days, and if there’s one thing athletes enjoy more than actually doing their sport, it’s talking about their sport. We made sure to make time to eat and hang out with as many of our teammates as possible and just soak up the vibe of being back in the race environment.
Before too long it was time for the swim, bike and run familiarizations and final day before race prep.
Everywhere we went we made sure to have our vaccination cards, passports and a negative COVID PCR test. We were asked to show these everywhere. To get into the hotel restaurants, to get into the race venues, and if we chose to go anywhere it was just a good idea to have everything. Overall though I’d gotten fairly used to the extra documents and checks that came with racing during a pandemic.
We swam, biked and ran the course we’d be racing on and my excitement to race bubbled up. While I wasn’t swimming super fast, the water felt good and I couldn’t help but be optimistic that I’d be one of the first out of the water. The bike course was on the famous Formula1 track in Abu Dhabi. It hit while me we were spinning around the course that within the span of a year I’d complete triathlons at both Daytona International Speedway and the Yas Marina Formula1 Circuit. Pretty cool. Finally, the run was flat, smooth and fast. In other words, this course seemed to suit all of my strengths. I just hoped I’d be able to showcase those strengths to the best of my ability.
Previewing the Competition
The Abu Dhabi start list was big. There were 12 or 13 visually impaired men and at first glance everyone said it was a deep field. I immediately noticed though that there were five key guys missing which included the Gold and Bronze medalists from Tokyo, and the fourth place finisher in Tokyo. All in all, I estimated that five of the top eight visually impaired men were not in attendance. However, any time Dave Ellis and Hector Catala Laparra line up on the start line, it’s a strong field.
Dave was the clear cut favorite to win, especially after he’d DNFed in Tokyo with a bike mechanical.
Hector was the silver medalist from Tokyo and had one of the deadliest bike run combos ever. In my first ever World Series race I’d come off the bike first but Hector went blazing past me like I was standing still. Then in Tokyo he’d caught and passed me fairly early in the run and run his way through the field better than anyone else.
Then there were some wild cards like Lazar Filapovic who hadn’t raced since January of 2020, and Danacha McCarthy, who’d been on a tear in some recent World Cups. In my head, I was aiming for a top five finish simply because I wasn’t confident with where I was physically or mentally.
We started with a deep water start, not unusual, but normally we’d hold onto the pontoon. This time we’d start from treading water. Zack was to my left and I think Donacha and his guide Sean were on my right. There was also Anatolii from the Ukraine and a new B1, Dastan from Kyrgyzstan. Our B2 and B3 counterparts would follow with their guides 3min and 21sec after we went.
The horn sounded and we were off. I put my head down and charged ahead, determined to be the first out of the water. I din’t care if I’d barely swum since Tokyo, there was no one in this B1 field that was going to out swim me. After a couple hundred meters I settled into a nice smooth rhythm and just focused on trying to swim well. Don’t try to swim fast, just try to swim smooth. Zack kept nudging me to the right as I seemed to be drifting into him. He signaled me to turn left with a double tap on my left shoulder. I knew there were four turns total. One turn about 300 meters or so into the course, then a short section before another lefthand turn then a moderately longer portion before the final turn and a long stretch into the swim exit. Shortly after I made the final turn to go into the swim exit I felt someone’s feet at the tips of my fingers. I knew I was swimming slower than I would’ve liked but I didn’t think Dave or Hector had swum that fast to catch me still a couple hundred meters out from T1. It must be one of the other B1s. In my head I screamed “Oh hell no!!!” And I immediately began putting a lot more force into my strokes. I hit the exit ramp and popped up.
Swim Time: 12min 42sec
Turns out I was second out of the water. Dastan, from Kyrgyzstan out swam me by 3 seconds. I’ll have to keep an eye on him in years to come. Zack and I sprinted up the exit ramp and into the transition area. We made our way to the bike and I ripped off my cap and goggles, getting them into the bin where all equipment that comes off our body is supposed to go. I quickly put my blacked out sunglasses and helmet on and we ran with the bike to the mount line. We swung our right legs over, got a foot into the shoe and took off.
Transition 1 Time: 1min 17sec
The plan for the bike was just to ride hard and let the run be what it would be. I knew that in order to have a chance at cracking the top five I was going to have to have one of the faster bike splits. So Zack and I immediately began throwing down the power. However, something seemed a little off. Zack attempted to shift and we couldn’t seem to shift past the fourth hardest gear. There was also a sound coming from the chain that sounded like the chain was not quite fully on the chain rings, but it was. We didn’t know what was going on and knew that if we stopped to try and figure it out we’d lose more time than we would if we just powered through. We made the decision to just stay in the hardest gear we could get into and ride at a super high cadence. There were a couple of small hills on the course that we figured we’d have to grind over but we couldn’t risk shifting down to easier gears just in case we couldn’t shift back up into harder gears. So we essentially raced with one gear the whole time. We just had to make the best of it. We later discovered that the chain had come off one portion of the rear derailer which prevented us from getting into the gears we wanted access to for this flat and fast of a course.
We rode hard. Zack took excellent lines around the few technical corners and kept us upright over a wet patch on the track. Overall our speed was solid and no one seemed to be catching us. We blazed through each lap and I tried to keep my power up. There was one instance on the very last lap that Zack had to yell to encourage me to dig a little deeper. My legs were beginning to turn over slower as we ground up the final little hill. It wasn’t long after that when Dave Ellis and his guide Luke finally caught us. Luke later told us that he could see us just up the road and he was working like crazy to close the gap and it took us slowing down for them to close that final little gap to get ahead of us into transition.
We swung off the Formula1 track and into a slightly more technical section to get into transition. We slid our feet out of the shoes and prepared to dismount.
Bike Time: 26min 51sec
We ran barefoot through transition. I think I bounced off a barrier at some point because later after the race Zack saw a couple of long scratches on my arm that hadn’t been there prior to the race. We racked the bike, threw our helmets into the bin and yanked on our shoes. Once again I struggled cramming my feet into my shoes. I should practice pulling my shoes on more often so that doesn’t keep happening. Eventually though both of my feet were in my running shoes and Zack and I were running toward the exit and the run course.
Transition 2 Time: 1min 9sec
We were finally onto the run and a run course that finally suited my strengths. Just a couple of 90 degree turns onto a long straight away with a big 180 degree UTurn at the far end. Do this three times and it would all be over. I entered the run about 15sec behind Dave. I had no idea where anyone else was on the course but just tried to focus on running as fast as I could. I felt decently strong but only felt like I had one gear. No matter how hard I ran I couldn’t seem to run faster than what felt like a 6min mile pace. I think I was halfway through the first lap on the run when Hector finally caught and passed me. I knew he was running way faster than me so I focused on just running fast enough to hold off whoever would be coming fast behind us. Zack kept saying that we had a huge gap, that there was no one in sight. And every time I passed Mark Sortino (the head coach of the US Team for this race) he kept saying to just maintain the pace and we’d finish on the podium. I kept pushing though trying to run faster. It was warm and humid but nothing close to the oppressive heat that made the race in Tokyo so slow. Every time we passed an aid station Zack passed me a bottle of cold water to dump over myself. There was one instance when Zack went to grab a second bottle for himself but the volunteer pulled the bottle back. I was already tossing my bottle away when Zack asked for it. I felt terrible for not reacting fast enough to give Zack whatever was left in my bottle. But Zack’s one tough dude and missing one splash of cold water didn’t phase him. Even so I made sure to offer my bottle to him the last couple of aid stations just in case a volunteer didn’t give him his own.
We whipped around the final 180 degree UTurn and entered the final long straight away. I leaned forward and trusted whatever fitness I had and just ran. I had no idea what pace I was running or how far behind I was from second or how far ahead of fourth I was, I just wanted to get to the finish line. We made one final turn into the finishing shoot and I heard my name called as being in third. I put on an extra little spurt of speed to get to the line and that was it.
Run Time: 19min 23sec
Total Time: 1hr 1min 19sec
Finishing Place: 3rd
Good thing I didn’t run any slower. Turns out Lazar Filipovic was closing fast and finished a mere 20sec behind me. I was excited and happy to hear that Owen Cravens, my USA teammate who is only 19 years old finished in fifth. This was a great result for Owen who was competing in his first true international race. I was more eager to get cleaned up and find out how the rest of my teammates had done though than stress over how my race had gone. It felt good to get back on the podium but I had teammates out there who needed cheering on.
Zack and I jumped into some ice baths to cool down for a few minutes and it was cool to hang out and interact with our fellow VI competitors. We all acknowledged how hot it had been out there and a few of the athletes who hadn’t been in Tokyo asked how the heat in Abu Dhabi compared to the games… No comparison, Tokyo was way more brutal!
Finally, we were coherent enough to make our way out to the course to cheer on our teammates. We learned that Howie finished in seventh, his highest ever finish in the super competitive PTWC World Championship field. Also, Chris Hammer who’d had a heart breaking fourth place finish in Tokyo, had come through and sprinted his way to a Gold medal here in Abu Dhabi. Then Kelly Elmingler and Hailey Danz brought home two more World Championship Golds in the PTS4 and PTS2 sport classes respectively. Finally, Grace NOrman, Tokyo silver medalist, brought home the silver here in Abu Dhabi as well. In total, Team USA brought home five World Para Championships medals—three Gold, one silver and one bronze. Not a bad day at the office. I was flying out the next day though so I had to get back to the hotel and pack up the bike and all of the other stuff that had gotten strewn across my hotel room. So we celebrated with lunch on the rooftop deck of our hotel and watching a bit of the able bodied race on our phones. Then it off to pack and get some sleep before flying out the next morning.
Looking back at Abu Dhabi I’m conflicted. I’m happy with a third place finish considering where my head was at. I really was still processing Tokyo and wasn’t fully mentally present. I felt pretty flat throughout the entire process of racing in Abu Dhabi. Even so, I was able to race my way to a third place finish in a decently competitive field. Part of me felt relieved that guys like BBrad, Thibaut and others weren’t there to push me further down in the race, but another part of me felt I didn’t truly earn a Bronze Medal at the World Championships because it wasn’t against the best field assembled. I found myself picking apart the race asking myself what I could do to get faster, stronger and better which ultimately tells me that there’s still a hunger to race and chase perfection. I know I will never achieve that illusive perfect race, but the fact that I’m still hungry enough to chase it tells me that I’m just getting started and there’s still so much growth to be had.
I returned to Victoria immediately after Abu Dhabi to spend time with Jess and return to Colorado in December for the holidays before making my way back to the training center in January to begin the build for the 2022 season and yes, to earn a spot on the team going to Paris in 2024.
Thank you for continuing to follow my journey. Keep an eye out on my social media channels for the most up-to-date information on what’s going on in my day-to-day adventures.
As always Keep an “Eye On Your Vision!”