World Triathlon Para Series Yokohama
May 15, 2021
750m Swim, 20km Bike, 4.98km run
“I will prepare, and some day my chance will come.” — Abraham Lincoln
Every competitive athlete longs for that day when their competition challenges them to dig deep, to push beyond the perceived limits in their mind, to find what they are truly capable of. Coming to Yokohama I knew this race would be one in which I’d need to fight for every second and place. I knew that this race would be the most competitive field I’d ever faced and I knew everyone would be ready to rock and roll. I knew my body was primed and ready. Sure, the shoulder impingement I’ve dealt with off and on throughout my triathlon career had been flaring up, but with the right stretches and strengthening exercises it would be ready to go full gas for a 750m swim. The only question I had now was whether I was ready to win against a field of athletes that was continually getting stronger. And this was the first race back in the Paralympic Qualification window after more than a year pause due to the COVID19 Pandemic, so everyone would be extra motivated since there would be no guarantee we’d get to race again prior to the Paralympics. Was I ready?
Enter The Bubble
Due to strict COVID19 protocols imposed by the Japanese government, this race would be drastically different than any I’d ever participate in before. The Local Organizing Committee (LOC) in conjunction with World Triathlon had devised a bubble environment that would keep all participating in the race events as safe as possible. The Japanese government required us to have numerous documents on hand as we entered the country including negative COVID test results, travel itineraries, a written pledge, a travel visa, international health insurance, and many others besides. We were required to arrive into Japan on May 11 and required to leave May 16. In addition to printed documents we were required to install multiple applications on our smart phones including an Overseas Entrance Locator, COVID19 Contact Tracing, Google Maps, Whatsapp, and Skype. All of this wasn’t difficult to obtain, but it was a lot of extra steps that were out of the norm for us and I found myself constantly wondering and stressing anytime I reached into the binder of paperwork I had wondering if I had all the correct forms. Fortunately, my guide and friend Zack Goodman, and the rest of our Paratriathlon team were all traveling with me and we were all in the same boat. Not only that, but every other athlete from every other country was going through the same stresses.
We arrived in Japan and were immediately required to take a COVID19 test. We were then held in a quarantine area while we waited for results. Once we were all deemed COVID negative we proceeded to the normal customs routine of paperwork and collecting of baggage. Then it was onto a bus that took us directly to our hotel. Once on the bus we were given credentials and our hotel room keys. We were required to wear a wristband and have our event identification on us at all times we set foot outside of our hotel rooms. It was constantly reiterated to us that once we were in the “bubble” we were not permitted to leave and not complying with the protocols could result in criminal charges.
We arrived at our hotel, dropped our bags in our rooms and immediately proceeded down to the parking garage that we’d christen our “Basement Bike Bubble” to build up our bikes. Then it was off to bed to try and sleep and get on a decent schedule that would allow us to perform as good as we could come race day just four days away. Fortunately for me I was able to get some decent sleep and was awake and well rested by the next morning.
Food Is Fuel
Our meals were boxed and hung on our door handles in plastic bags. Every single meal held a different surprise, it was as though either Japan was guessing at what we typically ate for breakfast, or they were trying to Americanize our food. Quite often I’d open my breakfast to find spaghetti with tomatoe sauce. Every single meal had a generous helping of sticky rice and several pieces of white bread and olive oil. One morning I got some sausage-like meat that looked and tasted similar to a hotdog. It reminded me of the sausages I ate when in Tanzania nearly 15 years earlier. One of my teammates on that climbing trip had christened those sausages “tube steak” so that’s what I thought in my head as I ate my hotdog/sausages for breakfast.
I often couldn’t distinguish between breakfast, lunch and dinner as the food mostly tasted the same. Unfortunately the majority of the time our food was cold. Every time I took a bite I heard the voice of one of our trip leaders from when I participated in the No Barriers Leading The Way Expedition to Peru in 2006 saying “Food is fuel, so eat up.” We had a couple of upset stomachs over the course of those first couple days amongst the team so we all became much more picky with what we chose to eat out of our boxes, especially as race day drew ever closer. I wound up relying heavily on the stash of protein bars, tortillas, peanut butter, and instant oatmeal I brought, supplemented with fruits and snacks that had been set out in the hallway.
While we were required to stay in our rooms almost the entire time, we were allowed to step out into the hallway for short chats, or to grab snacks from the snack table set up by the elevator.
Honing The Edge
One of the most frustrating and purplexing parts of our “bubble” was our training situation. It was constantly stressed that safety and social distancing were paramount and of the utmost importance. During a select one hour time period we were allowed to descend into the basement parking garage where partitions had been set up where we could place our bike trainers and ride. We were told that we were not allowed to have our bike trainers in our rooms. To get down to the garage we’d often be tightly packed into the elevator, and it purplexed us that the mandate was still to avoid all but unnecessary conversation. Well, we followed the rules as best we could.
On Wednesday and Thursday we were bused from the hotel to a gym that had been shut down for those days so that all athletes participating in both the able-bodied and Para races could use treadmills and the pool. We were limited to running for 30-45min and the same for swimming. As I ran or swam though I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. Here we were cramming hundreds of athletes into a gym for them to run and swim and we weren’t allowed to run or train outside in the open air. Oh well, we followed the rules outlined to us to the best of our ability and made it to Friday with few hick ups and only mild annoyances to our regular taper routines.
The day before the race would typically be our swim, bike and run course familiarization. We were permitted to have a swim familiarization, but no bike or run course familiarization. These familiarizations are usually extremely important come race day because you can analyze where good places to accelerate, make an attack, where to move cautiously, and when to safely pass other competitors. When you are racing at the speeds we race at, the smallest details matter and there’s only so much you can gain from looking at a course map or old race video. Nevertheless it was great to get outside and swim in open water.
I love swimming in open water. I feel free and I have little fear of smashing my hands to pieces on lane lines or pool walls. I also love the feeling of riding the currents and adjusting for swells. After swimming two laps of the swim course with Zack I felt very confident that I was going to swim fast. And with Zack on the front of the bike I knew we’d ride well even though we didn’t get to preview the bike course. My coach, Derick, had been able to get hold of a GPS file of the run course and was able to analyze it using Google Maps and Streetview to precisely measure distances to turns. He then walked Zack and I through those turns and what our strategy would be once we got to the run.
“This is a swim run race,” he kept telling us. “Take no risks on the bike. Trust your run fitness.” I’d done all the work. The hay was in the barn. Now it was my time to rise up and show the international stage what we were capable of. I went to sleep Friday night nervous, excited, and confident. I just wanted to race.
Analyzing The Competition
Even though we all had done little to no racing the last year I still analyzed my competitors previous race results. Having raced against several I knew what many of them were capable of doing. I also knew that if I’d gotten stronger then undoubtedly that meant they all had gotten stronger as well. From the get go I identified Jose Luis Garcia Serrano of Spain as the man to beat. Jose, or Jota, is a B1 and for the last several years has been the fastest B1 swimmer and runner in the field. And based on his most recent race results I felt pretty sure that he was getting stronger on the bike. The other two internationals I pegged would challenge for the podium were French athletes Antoine (a B1 who’d beaten me in Magog in 2019) and Thibaut (a B2 who I had also raced against in Magog and who I had to sprint to stay ahead of to hold onto 2nd place). Both Antoine and Thibaut could run like the wind and France traditionally has a very strong triathlon presence so I knew they would be bringing their A game. Then of course there was my fellow American teammate, Aaron Scheidies. In 23 career international races Aaron had never finished off the podium, had only finished 2nd five times, and 3rd once. I also had a feeling that Aaron would be extra motivated after he finished 2nd to me at the Sarasota Paratriathlon Invitational in March.
Needless to say I felt there were five or six of us that would be battling it out for only three podium spots. I anticipated a close race and knew that I’d be giving it my all to ensure I was right in the thick of it.
I took deep calming breaths. I sat on the edge of the pontoon with my feet in the water. There was the tiniest bit of chop as the wind blew in toward us. I hear the announcer rattle off the names of the PTS5 men and then the horn which sent them on their way.
I immediately slid my entire body into the water and dunked my head it’s customary seven times to get my face used to the chill of the water. I heard the music and the announcer was announcing the names of the next class of Paratriathletes that would go after us. Then all of a sudden the horn sounded and Zack was yelling at me, “Go, Go, Go!”
I threw myself forward and began stroking hard. I’d been placed at the end of the line of B1 athletes. There was nobody to my right and I had smooth water ahead with the most direct line to the first buoy.
I quickly found my rhythm and managed to synchronize my arms, legs and when I took a breath. I was right on the edge of that threshold of “I can’t go any harder,” and “I can hold this all day.” I felt the feet of someone just ahead of me. Was it Jose, or somebody else? I had no idea, all I knew was that I had to stay with whoever was right in front of me and I had to pass them on the back stretch of the swim.
We swam strong until the first righthand turn and I continued pushing the pace and slapping the feet of the person I was chasing. We then reached the final hard turn and I knew this was my time. I knew I was swimming well and if I wanted to challenge for the win I needed to make my first move now. So I upped the tempo, lengthened my stroke and felt as though I was gliding through the chop. I wasn’t feeling the feet of anyone now though which made me think my opponent had also cranked it up and swum away from me. In reality, Zack had maneuvered me into the perfect inside position allowing us to surge past the Spaniards and take over the lead.
I took my last few strokes and felt the ramp of the pontoon under my hands. I popped up, got my feet under me and started running. Zack was yelling at me, “Go, go, go, first out of the water!”
Swim Time: 11min 36sec
Energy surged through my legs with the knowledge that I was leading the race. I reached back and ripped the zipper of my wetsuit down. Then I just focused on running as fast as I could up two decently steep ramps and into the main part of transition. I felt the blue carpet under my bare feet as I ran. I thought I could hear the Spaniards right behind us but there was so much noise from the music and crowd that I couldn’t be sure.
We reached the bik and I quickly yanked my arms out of the wetsuit. I got it down to my ankles and was able to get my right foot out but was having issues with my left. Not wanting to waste time I immediately dropped to my butt which was Zack’s and my signal that I needed him to give my wetsuit a yank. He did and quickly tossed it into the bin along with my cap and goggles. I grabbed my helmet and blacked out sunglasses, put them on, stood up and we took off running with the bike. For this race we’d decided that we’d start with our cycling shoes already clipped into the pedals and held in place with rubberbands. While I’d tested this out a few years earlier with my buddy Danny Craven, and Zack and I’d practiced a little bit the day before we flew out of Colorado Springs, there was still that instant of prayer that this would indeed work. One thing I did realize was that it was a lot easier to run barefoot with the bike in T1 than clod hopping in cycling shoes. We reached the mount line.
Transition 1 Time: 1min 18sec
We swung our right legs over the top tube and I was able to slide my right foot into my shoe. We pushed off but not hard enough. The bike seemed to wobble and was in danger of tipping over. My left shoe had wound up upside down, but I quickly managed to reach down and flip it right side up. I wiggled my foot into the shoe and quickly strapped it in. Then I reached down and strapped my right foot in. Zack was doing the same. This did take us longer than either of us would’ve liked but once our feet were secure we could focus on riding our race. The Spaniards were just a few pedal strokes ahead of us. We set our sights on them and determined we would not let them get away.
The Yokohama bike course was easily one of the most technical bike courses we’d ever ridden. We immediately took a hard 90 degree right out of transition then a tight 180 out onto a straight away. After that I just hung on and listened for Zack’s instructions to coast, lean, or turn. It seemed as though we were constantly coasting and turning. However there were a couple of straight aways where we could build up some speed and carry it through each turn.
We took the first lap extremely cautiously not having gotten to preview the course the day before and therefore not knowing how safely we could take each turn with speed. Just 10m ahead of us the Spaniards were doing the same.
The bike was four laps of 5km each so our plan was to up the effort on each successive lap. There were one or two hairy sections where Zack planned to be extra cautious, but after the first lap Zack felt confident we took take most of the turns pretty aggressively. After all, technical bike courses are really fun because it tests the speed, power, and communication of both pilot and stoker. It’s a more true test of how well you ride together than a straight up easy course. And with each successive lap Zack and I were getting more and more confident.
We kept the Spaniards just ahead of us until part way through lap two. Then on one of the straight aways we made our pass. Unfortunately, we were constantly having to slow down and speed up to avoid running other Paratriathletes off the course as we kept overtaking the single bikes. The Spaniards upped their effort and seemed determined to stay with us. I could hear the guide yelling just as Zack was. There was no doubt, we had a Race on our hands.
At every 180 degree turn around, of which there were several, Zack could get a good look at who was pursuing us and our time gaps to each. There was a solid line of tandems all racing flat out. Zack wasn’t able to see any of the B2s and B3s who had started 3:21 behind us though. Every time we made a turn or surged, The Spaniards matched us pedal stroke for pedal stroke. As Derick predicted, it looked like this was going to come down to who could run.
We completed the 3rd lap and were going flat out on the 4th lap. During one section I felt the bike slide under me as the wheels hit a slick patch of gravel, but we stayed upright and powered through. Then we approached the dismount line.
Zack gave the command to unstrap our left feet, then our right. We pedaled and then it was time.
Bike Time: 28min 12sec
“3, 2, 1, dismount!” We leaped off the bike hitting the ground running. It was one of the smoothest flying dismounts we’d had in a long time. We sprinted with the bike, with the Spaniards breathing down our necks. We reached our bike rack, quickly racked it and I yanked on my shoes as Zack tossed our helmets into the bin. I pulled the run tether on and then we began to run. I heard the Spaniards off to my left as we both came crashing into the start of the run. Step for step, and stride for stride. It was on!
Transition 2 Time: 54sec
The run was pancake flat and the pavement was firm and dry underfoot. “Too hot, too hot,” Zack told me in the first few hundred meters. I took several deep calming breaths, relaxed my shoulders and focused on letting myself flow through the run. We’d moved about two or three steps in front of the Spaniards and they settled in right behind us running just off our shoulder and running stride for stride with us. I could vaguely hear them breathing hard and could definitely hear the guide encouraging and urging Jose on. I forced myself to breathe evenly taking deep breaths in and filling my belly with air, then forcing it out. I knew that no matter what I had to remain calm and I had to stay in front of Jose. I had the psychological advantage, every time I heard him trying to make a move I countered it by picking up the pace just a bit. We kept that two or three step gap.
We approached the first 180 degree turn around on the run and nearly over shot it as the volunteers who were supposed to be pointing out where the turnaround was were standing well back. I had to quickly slam on the breaks and pivot hard to the right and get back up to speed, but fortunately the Spaniards weren’t able to capitalize on our near error. I quickly settled back into my pace, running within myself, right on the edge of “I can’t go any faster,” and “I can hold this all day.” I kept my hands high, my shoulders relaxed, my chin down and my focus straight ahead. I could feel the ground under my feet, smooth, flat, and fast. I seemed to pop off the ground stronger with each step. With each 90 and 180 degree turn, Zack and I got stronger and improved our communication and tactics. Each time we made a turn we seemed to stretch the gap out by only a step or two, but then the Spaniards would close the gap ever so slightly.
“Just keep this pace,” Zack kept telling me. “Hold this pace and you’ll break him. He’s dying. He can’t stay with you. You look so smooth Kyle. Stay on it!”
We completed the first of three laps on the run and the Spaniards were still right there two or three steps behind us. I upped the tempo just a touch more. “Descend each lap,” I told myself. Derick and Andy had been working with me on my run pacing and tactics and I felt confident I could finally negative split this run. So I just continued to turn up the pace little by little.
Zack kept reminding me to maintain my forward lean especially on the long straight aways.
The 2nd lap passed in a blur, and now I knew it was time to really throw down the hammer. My pace seemed to lift ever so slightly. My breathing was labored although I fought to control it. “Don’t show your opponent you’re struggling. Maintain that poker face.”
With about 800m to go in the run Zack and I both knew that this was the time I had to make my move. We hadn’t discussed it beforehand, we both just instinctually knew that I had to launch and break the invisible rubberband that Jose and his guide Pedro had seemingly latched on to us. “Go now!” Zack yelled. I could hear Pedro yelling behind me and I knew I had to go faster. I pushed my body to a level of pain I’d not experenced before. I was running flat out. I gained one step, then two steps, then three. The invisible rubberband that had connected us right from the beginning of the run was now stretched impossibly tight. “Drop him!” I screamed inside my head. All the while Zack was yelling “Go, Go, Go! You got this, he’s dropping!”
I was entering a world of hurt I’d not experienced. This was all brand new territory. Did I have the strength to hold on. Would I have enough left for one final kick?
We made the turn onto the blue carpet of the finishing shoot. Zack took one more glance over his left shoulder and screamed at me “GO NOW! SPRINT! 100m! 50m! ALL THE WAY…!” Then Zack let out a yell of triumph and pure joy and I knew it was over. We’d finally done it. We’d won.
Run Time: 17min 45sec
Total Time: 59min 45sec
Zack and I barehugged. Without Zack holding me up I would’ve collapsed to the ground immediately. As it was I kept telling him, “I need to lay down.” Finally I lowered myself to the ground and lay on my back struggling to get air into lungs that felt flat. Finally, after what seemed an eternity I dragged myself to my feet. Jose came over to me and we hugged. I don’t think either of us cared that we were breaking COVID protocol. You can’t race within spitting distance of each other the entire race, push each other to collapse, and have that kind of race without expressing your gratitude and admiration for each other at the end. The best way we all know how to do that is through a hug. I think Jose and I both knew that this will be the first of many races where we are battling it out.
We didn’t have to wait very long for the 3rd member of the podium to cross the line, Thibaut from France. We all made our way to the recovery zone and grabbed bottles of fluid along the way. I sat on a bench and just couldn’t believe that I’d won. I couldn’t believe not just that I’d won, but how I’d won. I’d finally stayed with the leader, made my move and stayed away, winning in a sprint finish. Sure it’s gratifying to win with lots of daylight between you and 2nd place, but this win at the WTPS level was so much more gratifying than when I’d run clear of Aaron by thre and a half minutes back in March. I was also aware that this win was significant. Until I’d crossed the line first, Jose had been the only B1 to win a WTPS (Yokohama 2019). Additionally, we hadn’t had an American VI stand atop the podium at a WTPS since 2017.
This race was just a glimpse of what’s to come in the Visually Impaired Men’s field. Our class is getting stronger, faster and more competitive. I can’t wait to see how the rest of the season plays out.
Congratulations to Jose, Thibaut, and their guides for an outstanding race. It’s an absolute honor and pleasure to share the podium with such strong athletes.
Thank you to my entire USA Paratriathlon team for believing in me and always pushing me to get better. Thank you especially to my coach Derick Williamson for never wavering in his conviction that I would one day very soon stand atop a podium and for continuing to ensure that I keep an eye on continual improvement. This isn’t the end, it’s only a beginning.
Thank you to Aaron Scheidies for paving the way in the US and wearing that target of being the best Visually Impaired Triathlete for your entire career. You still motivate me to keep pushing myself and working to get better.
Finally, thank you to my good friend and guide Zack Goodman. Bro, we finally did it! Thank you for being a stellar guide and always making sure I give my very best at every race.
Last but not least, thank you to you my #eyeronvision family for your unwavering and continual support. You are all amazing and I always feel the strength and positive vibes you send. Until the next race 🙂
As always, Keep an “Eye On Your Vision!”
World Triathlon Para Series Yokohama Results
1. Kyle Coon, USA, 0:59:45
2. Jose Luis Garcia Serrano, ESP, 0:59:54
3. Thibaut Rigaudeau, FRA, 1:00:34