Awareness

Is Awareness Enough?

I started doing these Thursday Thoughts posts for several reasons. I want to share some of the values, traits and lessons that have shaped me into the person I am today. I want to give people a glimpse into how I think, what motivates me, and some of the stuff that goes on in my head. The next two weeks, maybe three, I want to give you some of my musings on some topics and issues that have been circulating in my head.

I recently perused an article titled “Changing People’s Behavior: Awareness Alone Is Not Enough.” The article was Tweeted by one of my friends and fellow Visually Impaired sub 11 hour Ironman, Erich Manser. Erich is a major advocate for accessibility and inclusion. So I clicked on the article thinking it would be an article relating to disability. The article actually discussed the usefulness of “Screen Time.” You know that little report that pops up on your phone saying how much time you spent on your phone, computer or tablet this past week?

I quickly skimmed through the article which discussed the pros and cons of screen time and whether or not making people “aware” was enough to make them change the amount of time they actually spend on their various screens. In short, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. Awareness is critical, but if you really want to change your behavior then awareness has to be backed up with action.

The reason this article triggered this post is because October was “National Disability Employment Awareness Month,” and “Blindness Awareness Month.” So often people in the disability community say “If we just make people aware of the capabilities of people with disabilities then we will eventually whittle down the obscenely high joblessness rate that exists in the disability community.” I myself have often subscribed to this line of thinking. “People just dn’t know,” I’ve often said. I do think that there are a large number of people out there that aren’t aware of our capabilities, but I wonder if “awareness” is enough anymore.

In 1990, The Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law. This Act attempted to even the playing field and give people with disabilities a more fair chance in a wide range of the American way of life. The ADA has opened many doors and for the most part discourages blatant discrimination based on disability. Like it or not though, discrimination on disability still exists. There is a large segment of the population that sees a person with a disability and unknowingly down grades them in their mind thinking them less capable. It is by no means malicious, but it happens. We certainly see this in the blind and visually impaired community. For the past 30 or so years there have been claims by numerous organizations that 70 percent of the blind and visually impaired population is out of work. Are these numbers accurate, it’s hard to say for sure. We do know that there are numerous cases of highly qualified individuals who are blind or visually impaired that wind up either not working or working in jobs that are far below their qualifications. I’ve seen numbers suggesting upwards of 60 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired have a post secondary degree. When I worked for Lighthouse Works in 2014 and 2015 I wore numerous hats—inbound/outbound call center agent, quality assurance specialist, front desk manager, and Advocacy Coordinator. I had numerous colleagues who were also blind or visually impaired. One co-worker had a PHD in Marine Biology, another had multiple degrees in Psychology, other colleagues had tremendous experience in computer software development, construction management, etc. And we were all working as call center agents for an organization that specifically employed people who were blind or visually impaired. We worked there because we believed in the mission, but more often than not we worked there because we couldn’t get jobs anywhere else.

One of my duties as the Advocacy Coordinator was to lead tours of our facilities to members of government and high level community organizations to make them aware of what we were doing at Lighthouse. Some of this awareness generated business leads, some generated grant, State or Federal funding for certain programs. And sometimes I struggled because I felt like I was almost showing zoo animals. I felt very strongly that we were doing great things at Lighthouse though. So I busted my butt doing the best job I could and I encouraged my fellow blind and visually impaired colleagues to think outside the box, to find ways of becoming more valuable as employees and work their way up the ladder. I was hopeful that I myself might eventually work my way into a senior management position.

Eventually I was offered an opportunity to make more money and have a possible long term career with the Department of the Navy as a civilian. That job was much less glamorous but paid nearly twice as much as my job with Lighthouse. But I struggled in this job for a variety of reasons. One reason was because I couldn’t shake the thought that I was just hired to fill a quota or that I was a token hire. From my perspective I didn’t see the point of my position. The people I was supposed to be assisting didn’t need me. There were many more factors that led to my leaving that job, but I largely left because I didn’t feel it was where I was supposed to be.

In early 2017, a Facebook ad popped up on my news feed. A couple of blind and visually impaired businessmen were putting together a team of cyclists to participate in the Race Across America to raise awareness of the 70 percent joblessness rate in the blind and visually impaired community. I submitted my application to be considered as a cyclist, but wound up being invited onto the team as a Communication Coordinator and alternate cyclist. Later on I was elevated to the starting line up when one of the original stokers had to step away due to some family obligations. I of course was stoked about participating in the iconic Race Across America, but I was more excited about the potential awareness we could raise. Our team had three incredibly successful blind and visually impaired individuals that we could use as role models and examples of what you could do as a person who is blind or visually impaired. I really look up to my RAAM teammates for their success in business, life and athletics. In my duties as the Communication Coordinator for Team Sea to See, I eagerly pushed their stories out to the media attempting to drum up as much coverage of the team doing the race as possible. We got some decent publicity and I’m hopeful that we can continue to raise awareness once the documentary of our crosscountry race is finished—but that’s still probably a year or two away.

In 2019, we live in the digital age where we can drum up awareness easier than ever before through outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, blogs, etc. And yet I still wonder if the awareness we are drumming up is enough. A recent decision by the US Supreme Court to not hear a case regarding whether Dominos Pizza should have an accessible website and mobile application certainly brought discussions about digital accessibility and inclusion to the forefront of many people’s minds. The “Let us play us” campaign which champions Hollywood hiring more disabled actors to play the roles of disabled individuals in movies and TV shows has also been gaining traction as well. So yes, I think awareness has been critical and has worked overall but I’m curious to see what companies, individuals, and organizations that aren’t necessarily related to promoting people with disabilities is going to take action and show that the disabled and able bodied worlds can not just live side-by-side, or co-exist, but thrive together.

Personally, I think the wider circles that I run in—triathlon and the Olympics/Paralympics—have a golden opportunity to show ultimate inclusion. It’s just a question of who is willing to find a way of making it happen rather than finding ways it wouldn’t be possible… Whoa Kyle, what are some of these ideas you have? Well, I’ll cover those in next week’s Thursday Thoughts.

Grit

“I suggest we adopt the term grit!” (Tom Coughlin)

Have you ever been to the beach? You know how the sand will cling to you for what seems like forever, even after you try to wash it off? Or have you ever had some renovations done on your house and the dust and grit seems to hang around for weeks no matter how much you vacuum, mop, sweep or dust? That dust, sand, debris is often called “grit” and we’ve adopted that term to describe a trait that can define us as people.

I recently read an article written by Dr. Paul Stoltz who co-authored a book with my friend and mentor Erik Weihenmayer—the Adversity Advantage. Dr. Stoltz’s most recent article that I was reading discussed how Universities and employers should admit and hire people based on their “grit” factor or score. That article made me remember another article I’d read by running coach Jason Coop. Jason Coop discussed some of the key traits in ultra runners. He pointed to grit being one of those key traits. These articles sent me down the rabbit hole of exploring “grit” which caused me to read an article in Forbs which cited research from Angela Duckworth—a leader in grit research.

The Webster dictionary defines grit as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.” Duckworth says it’s “perseverance and passion for long term goals.” And Coop interprets it as “a trait that allows some people to work harder more frequently and give up on tasks less frequently.” They’re all correct. And Dr. Stoltz is correct in saying grit plays a vital role in our success. It’s not the only factor in determining success, but it is important and it has certainly been critical in my life.

Grit is a trait that’s made up of characteristics such as determination, perseverance, persistence, resilience, toughness, and many others. We admire these characteristics in people and teams. Just like that sand, dirt or dust that refuses to go away no matter how much we scrub. Why? We admire grit because when we have grit we’re never out; we’re always in the fight with a chance to win. And we all want to be in the position to win. So how do we develop grit?

Speaking from experience, grit is developed over time. We learn grit through facing adversity. I have the distinct advantage of beginning my grit development very early. Spending the first six years of your life in and out of cancer treatment is a great way to begin developing grit. I didn’t view those years of fighting cancer as character development until I was in my 20s though. Many of my cancer memories are beginning to fade, but they served their purpose. Those years made me willing to embrace sucky circumstances and situations a little easier. They made me willing to push my body and mind far beyond comfort, sometimes to my detriment, sometimes my benefit.

I got a taste of hard core grit building in July 2008 on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens. Accompanied by my friends Brad Jaffke and Peter Green, we climbed from our camp at 4200 ft to the summit in around five hours. We then descended and got lost in our greedy pursuit of glissading opportunities. So we wound up having to traverse across a broad expanse of the mountain. That traverse included clambering over massive volcanic boulders, tiptoeing across a nearly 60 degree snow slope, and nearly 12 hours in rented plastic mountaineering boots half a size too big for me. As I staggered and stumbled my way into the parking lot I had little cuts and scrapes all up and down my legs, as well as some bashed up forearms and elbows.

Two years later I had a similar experience on Gannet Peak—tallest peak in Wyoming. I’d poorly prepared physically for the demands of a 50 plus mile round trip hike on one of the most grueling peaks in Wyoming. Day one was a grinding 16 mile day with several thousand ft of elevation gain that took more than 12 hours. Half dollar sized blisters on my heels plagued me the remainder of the climb, which for me ended 2000 vertical ft below the summit. Over the course of the final two days of the climb I hiked about 25 miles over grueling rocky terrain carrying a 60 pound backpack and shouldering the disappointment of failing to be the first blind person to summit Gannet.

Those two trips, St. Helens and Gannet, hardened me both physically and mentally allowing me to draw on those experiences when I got into endurance racing. I was able to draw on the physical pain and mental anguish of not achieving a goal during my first marathon to walk/jog my way to a nearly six hour finish despite being severely undertrained. A little more than a year later I again drew on the experience from Gannet and St. Helens to grind out a nearly 16 hour finish at my first Ironman, despite again being severely undertrained—do we see a pattern here?

In 2018 I battled a minor stress fracture in my foot at the beginning of the season which limited my running in my build up to the Boston Marathon. Then at Boston itself I ran my first sub 4 hour marathon in the worst weather conditions Boston has ever seen—40-43 degrees, raining and windy. In June my pilot and I crashed our bike during Race Across America causing me to fracture the radius up near my right elbow. I gritted out the remaining 1500 plus miles to be a part of the first team with all blind and visually impaired stokers to finish RAAM. And later that year, despite frigid water, rubbing breaks, and an upset stomach I gritted my way to a sub 11 hour finish at Ironman Arizona.

Now, you don’t have to have cancer, scramble your way through volcanic rock knowing that one wrong step will send you at best to the hospital and worst to your death, or ride your bike half way across the country with a broken arm to develop grit. More than anything I was able to survive these and many other experiences and big days through the daily grind of life. Comfortable with being uncomfortable is an athlete mindset and mantra that we develop through day in day out simple, consistent, repeatable actions. Consistently push yourself a little further mentally and/or physically each day. The key is to go just far enough so that when adversity strikes you can draw upon those little experiences and say “I got this!”

One of my favorite ways to develop both physical and mental grit is a one month daily challenge. In the build up to Ironman Arizona 2018, my guide, Alan Greening, challenged me to do 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats and drink no alcohol every day during the month of October. The first week was easy, it was the last three weeks that were hard. The physical push of doing the calisthenics every day did get easier but the mental discipline to keep getting after it and the mental exercise of denying myself something pleasurable (a beer at the end of the day) helped prepare me to gut out the last 10k of the Ironman Arizona marathon when in order to hit my goal of sub 11 hours I had to push myself physically and dig deep mentally to deny simple pleasures like water and a quick walk break at an aid station. Sure, I also had years and years of grit and toughness in the bank to draw from, but it starts with the daily push to go a little harder and a little farther.

Maybe you aren’t ready to rip off 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats and give up alcohol for a month. Maybe your not concerned with developing physical grit. You can still adopt these same principles. Say you want to develop mental grit by monitoring your diet. Get a notebook and write down everything you eat, every day, for one month. Don’t use fancy fitness tracking apps or take photos or anything like that. Physically write or type it out. The primary goal here is to build grit with a side effect of seeing exactly what you’re consuming. You don’t necessarily have to consciously make×anges in your diet. I guarantee the first few days you’ll do it no problem and write everything down in great detail. After a while though you’ll start to skip the snacks, skip the sugar packet or dash of creamer you put in your coffee. Don’t skimp! Knuckle down and finish what you started! Later on down the road when your boss comes to you and says they want detailed reports for the next month. As those final days of the month are dwindling away you’ll harken back to that daily log you kept and realize that if you could withstand writing down every single thing that you put in your body you can certainly get this work done that you’re being paid to do. This exercise works with journaling, reading, saving money, whatever you want. Grit development is consistent, repeatable discipline. To borrow a cliche shoe company slogan, “Just do it!”

Chasing Your Best

Chasing Your Best

Eragon: “I’m doing my best.”

Oromis: “No, this is not your best. We shall recognize your best when it appears.” He paused thoughtfully. “Perhaps it would help if you had a fellow student to compete with. Then we might see your best.”

(Passage from Eldest by Christopher Paolini.)

There’s a plastic shoe box in my closet in my parents house in Carbondale, Colorado. In that box are a bunch of ribbons and medals. Most are finisher/participation medals from triathlons and road races that I’ve completed since 2014. There are also a handful of ribbons from my brief career as a competitive rock climber in 2002 and 2003. A handful of medals hang on a display rack on my bedroom wall—Ironman Boulder 2016; Ironman Arizona 2017 and 2018; Walt Disney World Goofy Challenge 2015; Boston Marathon 2017 and 2018; as well as a few others. In my dorm room at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center I have my ITU medals hanging in front of my bed where I reach to grab my guide dog’s harness or a change of clothes. Every time I reach I hit the medals and they clang together. 2nd Sarasota Paratriathlon World Cup; 2nd CAMTRI American Championships; 3rd World Paratriathlon Series Milan; 2nd Magog Paratriathlon World Cup; 2nd USA Paratriathlon National Championship. In my almost 28 years I’ve never been the best at something… Well, except once. Buried in that shoe box is a crumpled Blue Ribbon from the 2005 James Weldon Johnson College Preparatory Middle School History Fair, Research Paper Division. That year’s history fair topic was “Communication in History.” At the urging of my seventh-grade geography teacher I wrote a research paper on Braille and how it contributed to the improvement of the lives of the blind and visually impaired.

Nearly 15 years later I’m fascinated by this 1st place Blue Ribbon. The History Fair topic “Communication” wound up being what I studied in college, it’s what I technically do for a living, and it’s something I’m at once good at as well as terrible at. Another thing that fascinates me is the subject of that research paper—Braille. A system of reading and writing developed by a young French boy who just wanted to read. Once he developed the system he began teaching it to others, and then made it a goal to spread it to as many blind people across the globe as possible. Roughly 176 years after Louis Braille’s death, Braille is seemingly threatened by digital technology such as screenreading softwares and fewer kids than ever are learning to use Braille. However, this isn’t a post lamenting progress. I mention Louis Braille because, in my opinion, he’s possibly the most influential—some might say the greatest—blind person in history.

As people we all want to be great or the best at something. We want to be the greatest employee, boss, co-worker, spouse, sibbling, parent, athlete. As an athlete competing on an international level representing the United States the goal is to stand on top of podiums. It’s spelled out in the agreement/contract I sign as a resident athlete at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center. If I fail—i.e., finish off the podium—then I get no funding and am subject to dismissal from the program.

Growing up I chased being the best. I was frustrated at how much easier it was for so many others. In my first year of competitive climbing I consistently placed in the top five or six at competitions even placing as high as second once. The next year, despite increases in strength and experience I struggled in every comp never finishing higher than second to last place. The next year, I was completely out of competitive climbing.

In middle and high school I chased academic and athletic greatness. Despite winning a 1st place ribbon for my research paper on Braille in seventh-grade, I failed to place at Regionals and never went on to the statewide competition. In high school, I always came second to my older sister in grades and test scores. In my chosen sport of wrestling, I drove myself crazy trying to make it to the Florida State Tournament, but never placed higher than third in a tournament and never made it out of the second round of the Regional Tournament.

In college I vowed to wrestle all four years of my eligibility but fell out of love with the sport and quit halfway through my second year because I was sick of the injuries, skin infections, and I just wasn’t any good. A year and a half later I graduated after just three years of study and went into the workforce ready to prove I could be the best at whatever career I chose. A year later I was turned down for a bagboy job at a supermarket. A year after that, the relationship that I’d been in for four years with a girl I thought I was going to marry fell apart as well.

In 2014, I turned to running as a distraction, as a way to chase away my mental demons. That morphed into triathlon, Ironman and eventually chasing representing the USA at the Paralympics in Paratriathlon. So far my chase to represent the US at Tokyo 2020 isn’t going bad, but it’s not going great either. In major races I’ve failed to deliver either by not getting onto the podium or not finishing within the correct time percentage of the winner to earn a spot on the National Team (which is how we receive funding from USA Triathlon). I’ve been passed over several times to represent the US at other major international competitions and now I’m currently battling my biggest physical setback.

I’ve been told I need to have a more positive attitude/mindset, that I need to live more in the moment, spin things more positively. It is something I’ve tried very hard to do, but it’s really hard. When you’ve chased being your best your entire life, and quit more often than not, it’s hard to not look back over your results and question whether they really were successes. Did I really do my best? Did I really give everything I had, or was there a little more that I could have given?

Yes, this post makes it sound like I’m purely chasing medals or outside recognition, but to be truthful I’m chasing something deep inside. An urge, a fire that life continually tries to put out. My friend and mentor, Erik Weihenmayer was once given the advice “Don’t let Everest be the greatest thing you ever do.” Well, I haven’t summited my Everest just yet. Triathlon is that thing that has made me turn my life inside out and up side down. It’s something that I wasn’t particularly talented at, something where I really had to build from the ground up. Right now, chasing those who continue to finish ahead of me on the race course is the closest I’ve been to finding my best, but I’m not there yet.

I’ve had many setbacks, physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally. Many of them I don’t talk about. Those setbacks, bounce backs, triumphs and failures all define me. There have been many times that I’ve quit and others where I haven’t. Retired Admiral William H. McGraven said in his 2014 commencement speech at the University of Texas “If you want to change the world don’t EVER, EVER ring the bell.” Winston Churchill was once asked to give a piece of advice to a group of middle school-aged boys. He stood up and said “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up,” and then sat back down. So when I reach for Skye’s harness, a fresh T-shirt or pair of pants, my hand hits those second and third place ITU medals. When I’m back home and I rummage through that box of participation medals to find that crumpled blue ribbon; when I re-read my previous race reports; when I scroll back through my memories of past successes and failures; I’m reminded to never give up, to never quit, and to never ring the bell.

If you want to be great or be the best, find that passion that makes you sick and satisfied at the same time. Find the thing that reminds you to keep pushing for your best. And whatever you do, do not settle or be satisfied with anything less than your best, no matter how others try to spin it. You’ll know when you find it.

Quality or Quantity

 Quality or Quantity

I hung on the side of the pool my head leaning against my arms. My shoulders burned, my lats screamed in protest, and my mouth felt coated in chemicals from all the chlorine that had passed through it. My goggles were squeezing my face a little tighter than usual and my brain was foggy from both concentrating on the new technique changes in my stroke and from general work out fatigue. I was 2800 meters into a swim set which included a 1200 meter warm up and I’d just completed the fourth 400 meter set of a 2000 meter main set. I’d done ok on the first set—going out a little hard as I’m one to do. Second set was a bit better. Third set I’d fallen off the pace and fourth set I felt was absolutely horrible. Derick stood on deck and a very big part of me wanted him to say “Kyle let’s call it a day. You’re going backwards again.” But I didn’t hear those blessed words. Instead I heard, “10 seconds… 5… 3, 2, 1, Go!” And so began my fifth 400 of the main set.

After the swim was over I sat on the pool deck with my head in my hands, physically and mentally drained. Derick came over and asked me what I did today? Thinking back to some of the themes we’d been working I took a stab at it. “I went out too hard again?”

“Even bigger picture than that,” Derick said, “You paid some dues today.”

For the majority of my life I’ve identified as an athlete. “Push through no matter how hard,” “If I don’t mind it don’t matter,” “Pain is weakness leaving the body,” are mantras that were pounded into my head as a kid.

In recent years the “less is more” philosophy has gained popularity amongst athletes—particularly the endurance community. High intensity interval training (HIIT) and high quality training is all the rage. Athletes who came from the older school mindset of high volume low intensity training, or the Eddy Merckx philosophy of “ride lots,” now rave about low volume high intensity and how they wish they’d switched sooner. It’s only natural that we want to do more with less. We want to go faster by going slower; longer by going shorter; make more money by spending less time in the office. So few people seek out the hard ways of doing something.

For the most part I can agree with this mindset. Quality work and training will trump quantity every day, but sometimes you gotta get the work done. Let’s look at my “real job” as an example. I’m a Marketing Assistant for Hickory Foods, the company that owns Bubba Burger—You’ll never bite a burger better than a Bubba. My primary duty is to expand the Bubba Burger brand through various marketing techniques. These include wearing Bubba Burger apparel, giving away Bubba Burger merchandise (hats, T-shirts, coupons, stress burgers, etc) and posting on social media. There are several of us that have access to the Bubba Burger social media accounts. My boss is incredible at consistent “serial posting.” He’s the guy that travels to hundreds of events across the country and has more opportunities to post a wider variety of content. On the other end of the spectrum, I spend the majority of my time at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center sticking to a pretty strict training schedule. Our 62000 plus Facebook fans would get pretty bored pretty quickly with me posting photos of me in my Bubba Burger gear on the treadmill, bike trainer or lifting weights. So I have to be more strategic with my posts. However, my strategic and targeted posts wouldn’t be as effective without my boss’s consistent wide variety content posts. The two go hand in hand much like HIIT and high volume low intensity training do.

In a previous post I talked about the differences between elites and amateurs and how elites do simple better. One of the ways elites/pros do simple better is knowing when to go hard and when to go easy. Granted, some of us still have issues with that. I probably go too hard on my easy days and not hard enough on my hard days, but I’ve gotten much better at managing that. However, one of the reasons I’ve been able to understand the differences between going easy and going hard is because I have a lot of meters and miles (both from training and racing) in my body and mind.

As I progress in my elite/professional triathlon career I learn how to make more workouts higher quality. A wrestling coach once imparted the wisdom to me that “practice makes perfect, only if you practice perfect.” This means that there’s no such thing as a wasted practice or training session as long as you go in with the right mindset. If you practice poor technique and effort then you will compete with poor technique and effort. For a very long time I was frustrated that I wasn’t swimming faster so I pushed myself hard. However, once I started swimming five days a week it became really hard to keep up that effort output. So I had to make a mental shift. When it was time to go easy I went really easy and spent that time really dialing in my stroke technique. Slowly over the course of this season I’ve swam more than 500 thousand yards and have gotten significantly faster but it wasn’t by doing more with less effort, or more with more effort, or less with more effort. I did it by correctly managing how and when to focus.

So when it comes to the question of “quality or quantity” the answer is really pretty simple. It depends on your goals. For me, and most triathletes who seek to get faster at our chosen distances, one can’t exist without the other. More importantly the path to success lies in understanding that there are no shortcuts. There are going to be days when we have to “pay our dues” and days when we’ll have to check our egos at the door. Find what works for you in your chosen pursuit, whether that be triathlon, running, swimming, cycling, social media, nutrition, etc.

21 Years

Last Friday night

Yeah we danced on tabletops

And we took too many shots

Think we kissed, but I forgot. Last Friday night.

Yeah, we maxed our credit cards

And got kicked out of the bar, so we hit the boulevard

Last Friday night

We went streaking in the park

Sky dipping in the dark, then had a

Menage a trois

Last Friday night

Yeah, I think we broke the law

Always say we’re gonna stop-op, oh whoa

—Last Friday Night (TGIF) by Katie Perry

Ah 21… The age when we in the US can legally drink alcohol, when we think we’re really adults, and think we know absolutely everything. I often cringe, laugh, and shake my head at the things I did around the time I was 21. Seven years removed from that “wild age” I feel significantly older and a touch wiser. But if I want to relive those wild and crazy days I have the opportunity because “Blind Kyle” turns 21 today!

On October 9, 1998 mom and dad drove me to the hospital just like they’d done hundreds of times before. But something was different. Mom had gotten up extra early and instead of her usual sweat pants and ponytail, she’d dressed nicely, done her hair and put on makeup. Dad was extra quiet and the early morning before sunrise appeared extra dark outside the car window. Walking into the hospital everything seemed extra dark as well.

I knew why we were here. I knew our last option to beat the cancer I had was to remove my right eye. After all, Dr. Hered had removed my left eye just the year before.

I was tired. Tired of waking up early to go to the hospital. I was tired of needles being driven into my chest to put me to sleep so the doctors could do whatever they did to my eyes. I was tired of being sick from chemotherapy, having to swallow all different kinds of pills, having radioactive material sown onto my eyeball. I was tired of the smell and sound of the hospital. I was also tired of straining my one eye to see the chalkboard in my first grade teacher’s classroom. I was tired of the lights either being too bright or too dim. I was tired of feeling strange for having to walk around with this long white cane practicing for when I couldn’t see. I was just ready to be done with it all.

Normally only one of my parents was allowed to walk back with me as I was wheeled into the operating room. Today though, both mom and dad accompanied me, one on either side with their hands on my arm or shoulder. I’d already been stuck with the needle and the anesthesia was working it’s way through my system. Mom touched my face and asked me to look at her. I did and that was the most beautiful I’d ever seen her. As I closed my eyes and the crushing crackling haze of the sleep drugs closed in around my mind I do remember saying “It’s going to be ok mommy.”

The next thing I remember was drowsily coming awake in my hospital bed, hooked up to an IV with a massive wad of bandages covering my right eye. There was nothing in front of me, or around me. There were the familiar sounds of my parents voices, the ding of the hospital intercom calling for this doctor or that nurse. The hospital bed felt like hundreds of other hospital beds I’d woken up in after some procedure or another. The smells were all the same and the hospital food was as plain and tasteless as it always was. Could I get a bigger helping this time? Or better yet, could you just bring me a pizza? Do you have any idea how hungry surgery makes me?

The only thing that was different was that I couldn’t see what was around me.

What would happen to me as a totally blind kid, teenager, adult? The answer to that question was as absent as my light perception. I had no idea. My family had no idea. All I knew was that I wanted to somehow still play with my friends, play basketball, and ride my bike. I wanted to watch Disney movies, Star Wars and football games. I wasn’t really sure how I was going to do it all, but I mst’ve known that I could, otherwise I wouldn’t have said “It’s going to be ok.”

It was just a short while later that I met world-class blind athlete Erik Weihenmayer. He was a rock climber, sky diver, downhill skier, and did all kinds of stuff I’d never heard of or thought was possible.

Erik’s dad, Ed, lived less than an hour drive from our house in Jacksonville. A family friend heard Ed speak and passed his contact information along to my dad. Ed and dad had both served in the Marine Corps so they instantly hit it off. Erik was coming to town for a series of speaking engagements and Ed arranged time for Erik to talk with me.

My parents told me about this Erik Weihenmayer guy, but come on, who did that crazy stuff. Climb walls? Jump out of airplanes? I imagined this guy to be some kind of super human.

When I met Erik he shook my hand and asked our dads to just step away so the two of us could talk. Erik introduced me to his guide dog. He asked me questions about myself. What I liked to do, my favorite subjects in school. We talked about Braille, computers and eventually he got around to telling me about his adventurous lifestyle.

I was fascinated. The only experience I’d had with other blind people were the handful of blind/visually impaired kids at my elementary school. I’d never really interacted with any adult blind people. Erik wasn’t treating me like a normal adult would either. He was talking to me like I was an equal, like he knew the struggles I was having adapting to a world that was now dark.

When we parted ways Erik told me to not be afraid to live and be a kid. He told me to give rock climbing a try and that he’d always be there if I needed a friend. Less than two years later, my sisters and I were competitive rock climbers. My family was taking long camping and rock climbing trips up into the Appalachian and Smokey Mountains. We then started taking family ski trips. My dad and I began tandem biking a lot.

In 2003, I was a surprise guest to Erik on the Oprah Winfrey Show after he’d climbed the seven summits—tallest peak on each continent. In 2006, I accompanied Erik and a team comprised of visually impaired and sighted students from across the US to hike the Ankascocha Trail into Machu Picchu. In 2007, I joined up with many of those same visually impaired and sighted students to summit Mt Kilimanjaro—tallest mountain in Africa. I climbed some more mountains; became a high school and college wrestler; graduated from an academic magnet high school; and earned my B.A. in Communication from the Comniversity of Central Florida after just three years of study. Then I took on life as an adult blind guy.

Post college I had the millennial mindset of “I’m going to apply for every job CEO and above.” That didn’t work out so well for me. Then I began applying for any and every job. At every turn it seemed I wasn’t getting a fair chance. The low point was not getting a bag boy job at a local supermarket. I was spiraling down fast after having been so positive and optimistic for so long.

I eventually started running as a distraction. That led to meeting my buddy Mike who introduced me to triathlon. Then began an emotional roller coaster.

I began working for a nonprofit about who’s mission I cared deeply. I then developed a cancerous bump on my upper right eyelid which was surgically removed. I was finding success in a sport I loved. My engagement to a girl I’d been dating for four years fell apart. Now I was not in that relationship and I needed a place to live. I struggled with thinking I was in a dead end job. Then I got a raise and changed jobs. I blew all of my money on pizza and craft beer. I lost my faithful guide dog of seven years to a sudden heart attack. Then completed my first Ironman and decided that I wasn’t truly happy with my life. I quit my steady well-paying job and moved to Colorado.

Once ensconced in Colorado, I focused on improving athletically. I went on to qualify for and run the Boston Marathon, twice, and set personal bests at various distances of triathlons and road races. In 2017, I broke the 12 hour barrier at Ironman Arizona. In 2018, I stepped into the world of ITU racing with fourth and second place finishes. Then I broke the 11 hour mark with a 10:59:17 finish at Ironman Arizona. Then I set my sights on qualifying for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

In January, 2019, I moved to the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, having been offered a spot through the USA Triathlon Resident Program. I happily submitted myself to the daily routine of wake up, train, eat sleep, repeat. I’ve thrived with the structure and taken my short course racing to a completely new level. In my five triathlon/duathlon starts I hit the podium four times including three seconds, a third, and fourth place finishes. My loan race off the podium came in my last race of the season in Tokyo which was modified to a duathlon due to poor water quality.

Apart from training I’ve slowly become more friendly with my fellow paratriathlon teammates as well as several other resident athletes from other sports. I’ve also made a few friends outside of the training center and am overall enjoying my life in Colorado Springs. So, how does blind Kyle plan on spending his 21st birthday/anniversary? Well, I plan on rounding up a crowd, doing 21 shots of Don Julio, dancing on bar and tabletops, and maxing out multiple creditcards… Or maybe I’ll get together with a few friends around a fire pit and drink a few good craft brews… Or maybe I’ll go out for a decent steak… Or more likely I’ll eat whatever is here at the training center and go to bed around 8 PM ready to get after it tomorrow. But have no fear, I’ll toast 21 years of blindness with a glass of chocolate milk, or a nalgeen of water. Yeah, 21 year old blind Kyle is likes to party hard.

Cover Fire First

Before you become a sniper, learn to lay down cover fire.

In May 2013, I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a BA in Interpersonal/Organizational Communication. In a nutshell that means I can speak to various sized groups of people and write a decent research paper. I initially planned to enroll in a graduate certificate program in Nonprofit Management thinking I wanted a career in the nonprofit sector. To make a long story longer, I enrolled in the program, quickly realized I didn’t have the experience to contribute anything to class discussions, that I don’t do well with online learning, and I was sick and tired of doing school work. I wanted to start doing something, applying myself in the real world, making money, etc. I was a millennial after all, these were the days of young people succeeding early, the days of FIRE (financially independent retire early), and who needs extra education anyway?! So I quit the program and dove into the job search with the very millennial mindset of “I’m going to apply for everything CEO and above” forgetting of course that one of the reasons I cited for quitting grad school was “not enough experience to contribute to online class discussions.”

In my mind I had the experience to at least be a mid-level manager or at least make a decent living. So I figured I’d be able to pick and choose my opportunities. My dad on the otherhand felt differently and continually told me “You can’t be a sniper until you learn to lay down cover fire.” In other words, I couldn’t be a specialist without first learning the basics and building a foundation.

Eventually I learned that I didn’t have as much experience as I thought and I needed to lower my expectations. I applied and interviewed for many different jobs under the sun ranging from grocery store bagboy to in store salesman, to call center agent. I got a job working for a social enterprise nonprofit called Lighthouse Works, worked my way up over the next couple of years before being recruited away by the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division. Personal circumstances caused me to decide to leave my comfortable job with the Navy and move out to Colorado. Once in Colorado I filled my time with triathlon training.

My triathlon career has followed much the same arc as my limited professional career with a few exceptions. I began racing triathlon with the goal of becoming the fastest blind Ironman of all time. At the beginning of 2015 the fastest Ironman time posted by a visually impaired athlete was 11:40:27. That time was soon lowered to 11:10:28, then 11:08:30 and 11:03:31. By the time I set foot on the start line of Ironman Arizona in 2018 the fastest visually impaired Ironman time was 10:42:59, and the fastest by a totally blind Ironman was 11:03:31. I did set the fastest time for a totally blind Ironman at 10:59:17 only after four full years of figuring out how to be a triathlete.

Over the course of those four years people kept insisting that Ironman wasn’t where I should be focusing my efforts. Several people said I should go to race on the Paratriathlon ITU circuit. I resisted for several reasons. I initially looked into ITU racing but it was harder than pulling teeth trying to figure out how to get onto the circuit. I’d send emails and get back a generic response with a link to lots of paperwork. I sent Facebook messages to athletes who were on the circuit seeking advice or guidance. I got little of either. So I summized that getting onto the ITU circuit was much like trying to get into an exclusive fraternity or club and I wasn’t about to beg and plead to get into some snobbish club. Not to mention ITU racing is significantly more expensive than Ironman (maybe I’ll get into those specifics in a post down the road). Plus those ITU blind guys were rediculously fast and I decided that I wouldn’t set foot on the same course with them until I had a fighting chance. In order to have a fighting chance I needed to become a better triathlete in general. And Ironman gave me that opportunity to develop as a triathlete more easily than fighting to get into the ITU club.

On the surface people view triathlon as the longer the event the more advanced. Sometimes that’s true. Ablebodied ITU athletes generally race sprint and Olympic distance for a while before stepping up to 70.3 before stepping up to 140.6. The idea is to develop speed and then add distance. But you can’t develop speed without a foundation. I quickly learned that I was not going to be fast at any distance of triathlon if I didn’t first have a tremendous base of swimming, cycling and running under my belt. So I did what I should have done much earlier in my employment search, I put down cover fire, training and racing at all distances.

In 2015 and 2016 I completed 18 races (10 triathlons and 8 foot/road races) ranging from 5k runs, to sprint triathlons, to marathons and an Ironman. If you’re interested here are those races listed out:

Date: Race; Time

01/10/2015: Disney Half Marathon; 2:24:42

01/11/2015: Disney Marathon; 5:49:06

04/26/2015: St. Anthony’s Triathlon (1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run); 3:25:14

06/07/2015: Pineapple Man Triathlon (0.34 mi swim, 15.4 mi bike, 3.4 mi run); 1:32:27

07/11/2015: Clermont Sprint Triathlon (0.25 mi swim, 10 mi bike, 5k run); 1:21:59

08/08/2015: Clermont Sprint Triathlon; 1:17:21

09/27/2015: Augusta 70.3 (1.2 mi swim, 56 mi bike, 13.1 mi run); 6:10:24

11/21/2015: Run Nona 5k; 26:59

11/21/2015: Run Nona 15k; 1:43:33

12/06/2015: OUC Half Marathon; 2:17:00

01/10/2016: Disney Marathon; 5:12:29

03/20/2016: Great Clermont Triathlon (1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run); 2:55:29

04/10/2016: Florida 70.3; 6:31:01

04/17/2016: Starwars Half Marathon; 2:18:45

04/24/2016: St. Anthony’s Triathlon; 2:50:32

06/05/2016: Pineapple Man Triathlon; 1:28:12

08/07/2016: Ironman Boulder; 15:47:11

12/04/2016: California International Marathon; 4:31:16

Laying down this foundation of racing allowed me to then narrow my focus in 2017 and 2018 to become more of an Ironman specialist. Becoming an Ironman specialist also continued to build a tremendous base for me to pull from when I then turned my whole focus to the ITU circuit at the beginning of 2019. After four years of laying down cover fire I finally felt I was ready to go head-to-head with those really fast blind guys on the ITU circuit. So how can you apply my dad’s advice to your circumstance? “Before you become a sniper, learn to lay down cover fire.”

Consistency

 “You never study for a test. You review for a test. Studying is what you do every day.”  These were just some of the words of wisdom that my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Sciullo, dropped on his classes throughout his career. It’s a common theme throughout life. We hear about the all night study sessions for high school and college final exams. I myself had one or two all-nighters in college, but it wasn’t because I needed to cram in study time for an exam. They were because I ran out of time to write the final draft of a research paper. In short, I got lazy.

Last week I discussed what separates elites from amateurs and that is… Elites “do simple better,” and they “keep it stupid simple.” One of the easiest ways to begin doing simple better is to do the equivalent of studying every day. For my sport of triathlon that means consistent, high quality training in swim, bike and run. (We’ll discuss the “high quality” part of this in a separate post.)

My first triathlon was April of 2015. For the first two years of my triathlon dabbling I was consistently inconsistent. I’d occasionally have big weeks of training where I’d crank out massive yardage in the pool, have a long 70 plus mile bike ride on the weekend and also get in a 10 plus mile run. More often than not though I had many weeks of mediocre inconsistent training. Then in the two weeks leading upto a race I’d crank out some big sessions. In other words I was cramming for the test, not consistently studying every day. Somehow, even with this cram style training plan, I stumble bumbled my way to finishing an Ironman—much like how so many students who cram for their exams and pass.

Sure I was proud of my accomplishment. Finishing an Ironman isn’t easy. I knew I could do better though, but it wasn’t going to happen magically. Triathlon, more than most sports, is a sport that rewards consistent hard work. Beginning in 2017 I began taking steps toward studying every day. The first four months of the year I dedicated to improving my run since my first event of the year was the Boston Marathon. Once I was done with Boston I began consistently spending time on my bike trainer. After nearly every bike ride I spent 15-20 minutes running on the treadmill to get my legs used to that feeling of running off the bike. Then I added swimming back into the mix and began consistently swimming three or four times a week. In 2016, my build up to Ironman Boulder was marked by inconsistency with a long bike ride of more than 80 miles. In 2017, I was more consistent and my longest bike ride was just over 60 miles. However, my overall mileage was up. There was more in the bank from which to pull. At the end of 2017, I completed Ironman Arizona in 11:46:43 (4 hours and 28 seconds faster than I’d completed Ironman Boulder in 2016).

I went into 2018 with the goal of breaking 11 hours in an Ironman. I again chose Ironman Arizona. If I’d become consistent in 2017, then 2018 I became boarderline obsessed. I was very balanced across swim, bike and run training and rarely missed a workout. Because I was consistent in 2017 and 2018, that allowed my coach and I to also increase the volume of key workouts. In my build up to Ironman Arizona 2018 I had several 100 plus mile bike rides and numerous 20 mile runs. As a result of both consistency and big training sessions that allowed me to have an epic result at Ironman Arizona where I went 10:59:17.

Moving to the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs has only reinforced the importance of consistency. The correct balance of consistent hard work with big blocks has resulted in positive results. However, I would not have had a successful 2019 without having had a consistent 2017 and 2018. Yes, it’s sexy and badass to have the massive 100 plus mile bike rides with 10000 ft of elevation gain. But those big days are not the reason behind why I continue to be successful and near the top of the podium at races. They certainly had their place in my training, but consistency above all else was the simplest way to make that jump from average triathlon or Ironman finisher to competing for podium sponts on the Paratriathlon ITU circuit.

I’ve spent a lot of time illustrating the importance of simplicity and consistency in my sport of triathlon, but these principles exist in all areas of our lives. Sure we here about the seemingly big splash successes, of the people winning the lottery, selling a company for millions or billions of dollars. Sometimes we get lucky but more often than not we make our own luck through consistent work. And contrary to what we might think, consistency is not easy. It gets easier especially once you see the success start to pile up, but in the beginning it’s really hard. Whether it’s starting and continuing to take money out of your paycheck and putting it into an investment account; or getting up every morning to workout; or practice a musical instrument; or what have you. The second hardest thing to do is get started, the hardest thing to do is become consistent. The simpler things are the easier it is to become consistent and the better you will become at doing the simple things.

Simplicity leads to consistency, which leads to quantity, which allows you to focus on quality. So for now I’ll leave you to think about how you can “consistently do simple better.” Remember the words of my high school chemistry teacher… “You never study for a test. You review for a test. Studying is what you do every day.”