Magog Paratriathlon World Cup Race Report

Magog Paratriathlon World Cup

July 13, 2019

Magog, Canada

750 m Swim, 19.8 km bike, 5 km Run

“Just go out there and go for the win.”

“It’s not like you have any competition here, right?”

There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. I’ve flirted with that line many times throughout my life but especially as I continue to see success on the international level of Paratriathlon racing. I was once again walking that line heading into Magog. Having looked and analyzed the start list from every possible angle, I was convinced that no one could beat me unless they had the race of their life. After all, I’d beaten most of these guys at previous races and my current efforts should be enough to keep those I haven’t raced behind me. I knew one thing though, I wasn’t going to be happy with anything less than my first ITU win.

A Stormy Arrival

I and several members of the Paratriathlon Resident team loaded up a couple of vehicles and drove from Colorado Springs to Denver on the morning of July 11. We had to laugh because we were a motley crew indeed. Melissa Stockwell (above the knee amputee), Howie Sanborn (wheelchair athlete) and myself (totally blind). Somehow we all managed to pull together three bikes, several suitcases, a racing wheelchair, and navigate successfully without leaving anyone behind.

We were joined in Denver by our fellow resident teammate Kendall Gretsch (wheelchair athlete) and several other athletes and support personnel who’d flown from Colorado Springs or other parts of the country. Then it was onto the plane bound for Montreal.

We arrived in Montreal and it was raining which would quickly turn into very stormy conditions. Howie and Melissa had each rented vans and we were able to get all of our gear into them. Howie’s handler (who assists him in transition during the race) met up with us in Montreal and drove one van, while Melissa and I rode in the other. It was getting on toward 7 PM and we were all starting to get hungry and cranky. Zack, my guide had been delayed more than two hours out of San Francisco so I texted him to just meet us in Magog once he got the rental car. We drove around an hour before finding a Canadian version of a Chipotle. We were in the French speaking part of Canada, but thankfully most people also spoke English. While I can understand the most rudimentary French thanks to studying French until my junior year of high school and then taking two semesters in college; I hadn’t used it in a long time. While I could get the gist of what people were saying, it was often too fast for me to comprehend clearly and when I tried speaking, it was often easier to just be the stupid American who couldn’t understand or speak French. So I found it amusing that we were in Canada, eating Mexican style cuisine and the primary language around us was French.

After a delicious meal of burritos, we got back on the road. Shortly after leaving the restaurant, the skies opened up and we were in the midst of a rainstorm the likes of which I hadn’t seen since I lived in Florida. Melissa cautiously drove as this was easily the most intense rainstorm she’d ever driven in and we seemed to be having issues with out headlights. Melissa was having a hard time seeing the road and even the other vehicles around us on the road. Howie eventually texted saying that we appeared to have no headlights on whatsoever. After turning a couple of knobs, Melissa suddenly exclaimed “I can see!” Guess we just hadn’t tried locating the right headlight setting hard enough.

We eventually made it safely to our hotel in a small town about a 15 minute drive outside of Magog, Canada. We got checked in, put the bikes in the Team USA conference room, and headed to bed. Zack got in a couple hours late having also driven through the crazy rainstorm which thankfully let up some time during the night.

Magog’s Monkey Wrenches

“Shit!” Zack exclaimed as I heard a metallic snap while tightening the bolt on my seat post. Fortunately the Team USA Coach, Ken, had a spare seat post collar in his bag of miscellaneous supplies. Crisis averted. Then we got to the race venue and heard that the swim was likely going to be non-wetsuit since the water temperature had measured 25 degrees Celsius that morning–just over the wetsuit legal limit for ITU racing. Wetsuits generally provide a little more buoyancy in the water therefore promoting better body position which translates to better speed in the water. The less proficient a swimmer you are, the more advantage you get from a wetsuit. I’m a terrible swimmer compared to the top end visually impaired men but on the bright side none of the top guys were here. In fact, one might argue that I was the best swimmer in the VI field. Nevertheless I would’ve preferred to wear my wetsuit. But in preparation for a non-wetsuit swim, Zack and I dove into the shallow waters of the lake we’d be racing in tomorrow without wetsuits and proceeded to swim well. Then it was on to the bike to do a couple laps around the bike course. There were a couple small hills and some railroad tracks but apart from that, the biggest issue we seemed to be having was that the electronic shifters were acting up on the Chinook. However the bike mechanic had just arrived so we figured there was an easy fix like just charging the batteries or reconnecting a wire that he could help us with.

After bike familiarization it was time for the race briefing. The ITU official stumble-bumbled his way through the presentation leaving many of us confused. The printed maps of the swim bike and run courses didn’t match up with what was online. The official seemed unclear on what the rules were regarding wetsuits and how it applied to wheelchair athletes versus non wheelchair athletes. In the past wheelchair athletes could wear a wetsuit no matter the water temperature. However this year it turned out that wheelchair athletes would now be subject to the same water temperature regulations as the rest of us. But hold on, apparently wheelchair athletes could wear wetsuit bottoms. But could the rest of us?… It turned out that the ITU official giving the briefing had brought the briefing from a race that had taken place in Montreal two weeks before and hadn’t bothered to check beforehand if it was the correct briefing. Needless to say we were all a little frustrated at the lack of organization. I took a deep breath and just prayed that we could get the shifting on the bike figured out and then just go have a solid race the next day.

When we got back to the hotel, David (the Team USA mechanic) went to work on the Chinook eventually discovering that we needed to replace a battery that controlled the shifters themselves. Then we also had to charge the ETap batteries. Additionally the break rotors had gotten slightly bent in transit. So David slowly bent the rotors back into shape while the Tap batteries charged, and Melissa gave Zack and I a battery that she’d gotten from Howie so that our shifters would again work. To be on the safe side, David also reattached the shifter wires and programmed the shifting. It was after 10 PM when David texted Zack and I to let us know that the bike was shifting beautifully again and we shouldn’t have any mechanical issues… Hopefully.

In the meantime, I was getting my pre-race nerves and jitters. I set numerous alarms to ensure I got up in the morning, which always annoys Zack and I tried to cover my nervousness with bravado saying things like “Let’s just go kick ass.” Finally I fell into an uneasy sleep.

Race-Day

It was a fairly warm and humid morning as we loaded the bike into the car for the 30-45 minute drive to Magog. I was already sweating and I hoped the heat and humidity wouldn’t play as big a factor as it usually did for me. We found parking on a side road less than a kilometer from the race venue and set about doing our last minute checks. Bike was shifting. We had all of our gear now we just needed to get over to check in and get ready to race.

We hung out in the athlete lounge for quite a while chatting with our USA Teammates and fellow competitors. Before too long it was time to make our way down to the swim start. It had been officially announced that it was a non-wetsuit swim. So grabbing my swim cap, tether and goggles we headed down to the beach.

The Swim

Just before 9:55 AM a race official called out the names of the B1 men and women racing so we could line up. I was positioned somewhere in the middle of the group. Not ideal, but I’d grown fairly confident in my swimming ability that I could fight out of the throng and get out front away from the crazies. Normally we started much deeper in the water with it up around our chests, shoulders or where we were unable to stand. Today however the water barely came up past mid thigh. This presented a curious question, did we try to run for a bit before starting to swim? Or did we try to dolphin dive? Or did we just start swimming. I decided that I’d let my instincts kick in when the horn sounded. Then came the count down. “On your mark…Go!”

I took a couple quick running steps and dove into the water and started swimming. Later I’d learn that I was at the very back of the pack to start out as everyone else ran or dolphin dived, but it didn’t take Zack and I long to cut through the chop to get into the middle of the pack and then from there up to the front.

The water was choppy due to a breeze and the shallowness of the lake. I felt myself slapping someone’s feet and decided to stay on them for a bit. It turns out it was the feet of the South African team who’d Zack and I’d become friendly with the day before after swim familiarization and while we’d been standing in line waiting to check in that morning. They were swimming well, but I knew in my gut that I was the best swimmer in the field. Zack knew it too so just past the midway point of the swim, he maneuvered me around the South Africans and got us to the front. The water was still choppy but as we turned to start heading back in toward swim exit the chop was more behind us helping to push us forward. All I could do was focus on my technique and try to stay as smooth and steady as possible. I could feel that I wasn’t swimming as fast as I would like. I was working much harder than I should’ve been for the pace we were going. Eventually I began feeling weeds at my fingertips then sand and it was time to pop up out of the water and run. Zack ripped off the tether and hopped to my right side so he could better guide me. We ran up the steps out of the water and hit the timing mat leading into transition.

Swim: 13min 10sec; first out of the water

“You’re first,” Zack yelled as I panted and ran alongside him. I didn’t respond as we took a hard left and right and threaded our way through transition. My legs felt heavy and slow and it felt like it took forever to get to the bike. When we reached the bike, our momentum caused me to accidentally knock Zack’s helmet off the handlebars. I scrambled to put on my helmet and blacked out sunglasses, then it seemed to take forever to get my shoes strapped. “Smooth and steady,” I told myself, but I felt slow and sluggish.

Finally we ran with the bike through transition to the mount line, mounted up and took off.

T1: 1min 3sec

The Bike

We settled into the bike letting our legs spin up to a high cadence. I felt a little winded but knew I had to push the pace. Zack and I were strong on the bike and we knew this was where we had to drop the hammer and let anyone chasing us know they couldn’t hang. We made a right hand turn and headed for the first railroad track crossing. In the briefing the night before the officials had said they’d lay mats down over the railroad tracks but as Zack and I approached the tracks there were no mats laying over them. There were mats tossed off to the side of the race course doing the racers absolutely no good. I did my best to relax as we sped over the tracks and began a long straight away slight climb up a hill toward the turn around. We powered up the rise. We hit the first U-Turn and Zack caught sight of our first chaser about 30 seconds behind us. It was the Canadians. I’ll admit I was a little surprised they’d pulled back a bit of time. I figured they’d either swum really well or had really improved on the bike, or maybe I just wasn’t working hard enough. So I put my head down and attacked the slight downhill. Zack and I would fly down this slight downhill a total of three times often reaching speeds of close to 40 miles per hour. We hit the train tracks around 37 or 38 miles per hour, so fast that there was no time to tense up or be worried about crashing. We took turns aggressively and didn’t hesitate to hammer over each track crossing. We hit the second U-Turn and it seemed as though we’d either maintained or increased our lead over the Canadians. Additionally we seemed to be well ahead of one of the two French teams. Before the race I’d marked both Frenchmen as potential podium threats. It seemed though that I was holding a nice and consistent gap of 40ish seconds or more over Antoine Perel, who’d I’d marked as the one with a chance to beat me. “Stay ahead of Antoine,” I kept telling myself. I knew he could run like the wind so I tried to drop him on the bike.

Zack and I hammered away at each successive lap until we made the final turn to come into transition. Zack timed it and gave the command for me to slip out of my shoes. We cruised into T2 with a comfortable 45 second or so lead on the Canadians and at least more than a minute on Antoine.

Bike: 27min 27sec

We sprinted as hard as we could while wheeling the bike along. There were a couple of tight turns to get back to our rack in transition but eventually we got the bike racked, and I tossed my helmet into the basket next to the bike. I grabbed my shoes, yanked them on, and slipped the run tether over my head as Zack did the same while we ran for the run exit. Even though it felt like we were moving fast, I knew this was not a stellar T2 time.

T2: 1min 5sec

The Run

Coming into the race I’d set myself a goal of running as close to 19 minutes as I could. That meant holding about a 6:05 per mile pace. The day before I seemed to accelerate up to this pace with relative ease during our shake out run, but today my legs felt heavy and my foot speed and turn over wasn’t there. I screamed inside my head at my legs to get moving, but that first mile was excruciatingly slow. I had a gap and I knew if I could just run what I was capable of then the race was mine to lose, but as we ran I felt the heat and humidity begin to seep into me. My breathing became labored, my turn over slowed down and I began to crack.

We tossed water over me at every aid station in an attempt to cool me down but it was as though I could hear the feet of Antoine coming behind me. I willed my body to go harder and faster. I dug myself into a hole willing myself to go to a level of pain I hadn’t experienced before while racing.

I still had a decent gap on Antoine at the first turn around on the run. The run was an out and back which we had to do twice so Zack was able to keep an eye on our competition. But Antoine was gaining.

We hit the second turn around and went out for our second lap. My legs were on fire, I gasped for air. I couldn’t get enough air in or expel enough air out. The run course was getting more crowded as more paratriathlon classes flooded the race course. Zack was yelling at people to move, and we were constantly slowing down a step or two then having to accelerate back up. Fortunately I’d bounced back after my first bad mile and was now running at least the pace I’d run in Milan back in April. It wasn’t enough though. Less than 100 meters from the final turn around Antoine caught and passed me. I tried to match his furious pace and was able to keep up for only a few steps before I fell off the pace.

As we made the U-Turn and began the last stretch back toward the finish line, Zack saw the second Frenchman–a newcomer to the ITU circuit–gaining fast. We had to really throw down the hammer not just to try and catch Antoine, but to stay ahead of this new guy. I pushed the pace desperately trying to reel Antoine in. I knew if I could just get back to his shoulder I could out kick him in the last 100 meters. Despite my best efforts though the gap continued to grow between Antoine and myself and shrink between myself and Thibaut. With less than 400 meters left, Zack started yelling at me “SPRINT, SPRINT, SPRINT!” Thibaut was closing fast and if I wanted to hold on to second place I had to dig deep. I put my head down, pumped my arms and kicked my legs out behind me sprinting with all my might.

I hit the line in a final time of 1 hour 2 minutes and 34 seconds just 31 seconds behind Antoine and a mere 6 seconds ahead of Thibaut. It was good enough to wrap up my fourth consecutive ITU podium and my third second place finish.

I wasn’t thinking about this as I staggered across the line and collapsed against Zack. All I could think was “First fucking loser again.”

Run: 19min 50sec

The Aftermath

One of the first things we did once we got our breath and became more human was to find out the fate of two tandem teams—one male one female—who’d crashed on the bike course. I’d heard the mens team wreck close to the railroad tracks and on one of our laps Zack had seen the women on the ground to the side of the course. The male team who crashed were our friends David and Tim, the South Africans. Tim, the guide, had some scrapes but David appeared ok. They’d been able to get up off the pavement, finish the bike and finish the race. The female team wasn’t so lucky. We later heard that an ambulance had to be called to take both the guide and athlete, from New Zealand, to the hospital. No one was sure if the crashes had happened due to the lack of mats across the railroad tracks, or if they’d been caused by something else. Nevertheless it’s never good when competitors crash and even less so when some participants are significantly hurt or injured.

The podium ceremony was delayed a couple of hours while judges reviewed times, splits and official finishes across all the sport classes. Zack and I indulged in some beer we’d found as well as a delicious pile of French fries, cheese, bacon and sausage. We cheered on as many of our USA Teammates into the finish as we could. My fellow resident teammates, Melissa and Kendall had strong races, with Melissa getting a win in the female PTS2 class and Kendall locking up a second place finish by less than 20 seconds in the female PTWC class.

The race organizers attempted to make the podium ceremony more lively by handing out bottles of sparkling apple juice to the podium finishers to shake and spray. Naturally they miscounted the number of bottles they’d need and the male PTVI class was the last podium to be presented. So Antoine, occupying the top step of the podium was the only one to get a bottle of the fizzy sticky drink. He shook it and definitely livened things up when he released his finger from the top of the bottle. Zack got a chest and face full and I also got the right side of my face drenched. We laughed and then Antoine passed the bottle around for each of us VI male finishers to take a swig. We congratulated each other on a great race but I knew I hadn’t performed up to my expectations.

We returned to the hotel, cleaned up, and packed up the bike. Then we grabbed dinner at a pizza restaurant with the rest of Team USA and I did my best not to analyze the race too much. After all, I had a chance at redemption as I’d be racing the following week at the USA Paratriathlon National Championships. So I took a deep breath and put my disappointment for yet another second place out of my mind for the time being.

Magog Paratriathlon World Cup Male PTVI Results

  1. Antoine Perel: 1hr 2min 3sec
  2. Kyle Coon: 1hr 2min 34sec
  3. Thibaut Rigaudeau: 1hr 2min 40sec

Six Months In

Six Months In

“Who wants it more? You or Brad?!” Derick yelled. My brain was foggy, sweat poured off me like I was my own personal rain cloud. I could feel the sweat pooling in my shoes and the shoe inserts beginning to bunch up at my toes. But Derick had said the magic words. I was already running at a sub 6 minute per mile pace but I knew that if I wanted there to be no doubt that I belonged on the Team that USA Triathlon selected for Tokyo next year I needed to push even harder. So with my heart thundering in my ears, my muscles screaming and my lungs burning, I cranked the treadmill speed up again. 5:30/mi, 5:15/mi, 5:00/mi, 4:52/mi…

“The Elite Paratriathlon Selection Committee can not decide who the better athlete is at this time and so they’ve elected to go with the athlete who’s points allow easier access into the top 12 in the world.”

“Bull shit!” I wanted to scream, but couldn’t since I was sitting on a bus riding back from Denver to Colorado Springs after having run a successful BolderBoulder 10K. I’d literally sat down in my seat and opened up my email and had gone from an immediate high to a crushing low.

Currently there are three of us in the American Male Visually Impaired Ranks who are battling it out for the opportunity to represent the United States in Tokyo 2020. Our top Male VI athlete—Aaron Scheidies–is recovering from injury and therefore it’s up to myself and Brad Snyder to pick up as many points as possible and get as highly ranked as possible in the world to ensure multiple slots at the world championship and multiple slots in the top 9 of the Paralympic Rankings. Given my performance at the CAMTRI American Championship where I’d taken 2nd to Aaron Scheidies by just 1 min 37 seconds, and where I finished 2 minutes and 34 seconds ahead of Brad it was decided that I would get the first World Paratriathlon Series start in Milan, Italy. I went to Italy and raced to a 3rd place finish—it turns out much to the surprise of everyone except myself and my coach. The only two guys to finish ahead of me were the guys who’d taken 1st and 3rd at the 2018 World Championship. So the only people to beat me in the 2019 season was the podium from 2018 Worlds—Dave Ellis, Aaron Scheidies, Hector Catala Laparra… I was feeling pretty good.

Brad was given the opportunity to race at the next World Paratriathlon Series Event in Yokohama, Japan. Brad was able to race to a 3rd place finish as well against a field that lacked anyone from the 2018 World Championship Podium. So I felt that I’d raced better against a stronger field so was confident I’d get the call to toe the start line in Montreal for the third installment of the World Paratriathlon Series. Not only that but I was on a very steep trajectory and if everything played out right I could improve on my 3rd place finish and begin collecting points for the Paralympic rankings which would open up on June 28, the same day as Montreal. Those hopes were crushed when USA Triathlon decided to send Brad Snyder to Montreal instead.

I was frustrated and bewildered. How could USA Triathlon say they didn’t know who the better athlete was? I’d decisively beaten Brad in consecutive races and had made the 2018 World Championship Podium finishers work their butts off to catch me thereby making them really earn their places ahead of me. After 48 hours of stewing over the “decision” and meeting with my coach and a USA Triathlon official who explained the decision further, I decided to just put my head down and train even harder. It wasn’t the first time I’d been doubted and it won’t be the last.

The Decision Explained

To the best of my knowledge here’s how to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in the sport of Paratriathlon. Beginning on June 28, 2019, races will begin counting toward a separate Paralympic Ranking. The races that are eligible to be used as points collectors are the World Championship (valued at 700 points for 1st place), the World Paratriathlon Series Events (valued at 550 points for 1st place), the Continental Championships (valued at 500 points for 1st place) and the Paratriathlon World Cups (valued at 450 points for 1st place). How you get into each of these races is based on your World Ranking. The Paralympic Rankings will close on June 28, 2020. In the span of that 12 months we have the chance to race at these various races. Our top three races will be added together to get our Paralympic Ranking. The top 9 in the Paralympic Rankings will qualify slots for their country but no country can receive more than two qualifying slots. So even if the United States had three athletes ranked in the top 9 of the Paralympic Rankings, the US would only be allotted two slots. The USA can then decide to whom those two slots go.

The International Triathlon Union (ITU) has decided to have a 12 man field at the World Championships this year for the Visually Impaired category. Since World Championships are worth the most points in the Paralympic Rankings, USA Triathlon decided to try and get either Brad or myself into the top 12 in the world so we’d be assured two slots at Worlds and therefore have a good chance at finishing the 2019 season with two athletes ranked in the top 9 of the Paralympic Rankings. Then in early 2020 USA Triathlon will ensure that the best Visually Impaired Triathletes face off in a race and at that point it will be mano-e-mano and the top two athletes at that point will get the full support of USAT to ensure we both go to the games.

So how do I make sure I’m one of those two that goes to the games? Train hard, race harder, and rise to the occasion.

Six Months into this journey of being a full time ITU Paratriathlete, living and training at the Olympic/Paralympic Training Center, I’ve experienced some extreme highs (including two podium finishes and some truly unbelievable workouts where I pushed myself to new levels) and crushing lows (being left off the team that traveled to Montreal for the first opportunity to collect points toward Tokyo Qualification as well as some truly horrific workouts that left me broken and questioning why I’m doing this to myself).

It has been a learning experience managing the load and stress of training, knowing when to push hard and when to throttle back. When I need a break and when I need to just suck it up.

It was barely two weeks after USAT had made their decision regarding Montreal that I needed a mental break. I’d been hammering away for five months doing nothing but eat, sleep and train. I’d done little else but think about triathlon, run calculations on what it would take for me to get into the top 12 in the World Ranking; what paces I’d need to hold to ensure I finish ahead of the best triathletes in the world… And that stress was beginning to catch up with me. I struggled and fought through every workout trying to complete them perfectly only to fall short. My swimming in particular seemed to be reverting back to beginner level. Immediately after racing in Milan I was effortlessly gliding through the water at speeds I would’ve considered impossible a year before, now I struggled to hold the paces I’d held when I first moved to the training center in January.

I needed to get away and not think about triathlon for a couple of days, even just 24 hours would be a big relief. Fortunately the opportunity presented itself. A friend invited me for a weekend camping trip to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Having heard that the dunes were an amazing experience and not having camped in about six years I leaped at the chance. And I got my wish. While triathlon lingered at the back of my mind for about 36 hours I blissfully focused on running barefoot through hot sand, splashing in icy cold river water and enjoying a camp stove cup of coffee early in the morning. Tension that had gathered seemed to slowly melt away as I finally realized that my 2020 hopes weren’t over. I knew in my soul that I’m one of the two best triathletes in the country and when given the opportunity I’ll prove that I’m one of the best in the world.

Granted it’s not just me on this journey. I’ve received nothing but support from my friends and family as I pursue what really amounts to a very selfish pursuit. In particular I have to give my guide, Zack Goodman, some mad props for being so incredibly patient with me as I struggle with the highs and lows of this profession. Zack has been at times motivator, voice of reason, frustration sounding board, and ultimately a friend. Whereas I’ve just primarily been a premadonna pain in the ass ITU triathlete 🙂

Between Zack and my coach, Derick Williamson, I’ve reached heights in the triathlon world I’d only fantasized about before now. And as they both continually remind me, the hard work is just getting started. I may be six months into this journey, but we have a long way to go on this road to Tokyo. So stay tuned because if there have been highs and lows in these first six months I can’t wait to see what the next six months bring!

2019 Six Month Statistics

Swim: 369762 yards (338100 meters)

Bike: 2250 miles (3620 kilometers)

Run: 526 miles (846.5 kilometers)

Races: 2

Podiums: 2 (2nd Place at American Continental Championships; 3rd at World Paratriathlon Series Milan)

Next Race: July 13, 2019 Magog Paratriathlon World Cup, Magog, Canada

BolderBoulder Quick Race Report

BolderBoulder 10K Race Report

May 27, 2019

Boulder, Colorado

10K (6.2 mi) Run

Banana, bagel, peanut butter, coffee, bottle of Nuun… “Why are you bouncing around?” Dani asked as I finished my 5 AM breakfast while my legs, arms, mouth and body in general were all in constant motion.

“Race day jitters,” I said.

No matter the race or distance there’s always a little extra jitter on race morning. 5K, Ironman, or ITU Sprint… Doesn’t matter, a race is a race. And BolderBoulder was one of those races where I was both excited to break the monotony of training as well as burn off nervous anxiety regarding whether I’d get into my next ITU race in Montreal.

From High to Low

The first week of training back at the OTC after my best performance in an ITU race looked like I was ready to catapult to a whole new level. I was swimming faster with far less effort, my cycling power continued to rise, and holding a sub 7 min per mile pace was suddenly easy. At least for the first few times. Then throw in some unscheduled travel for my grandfather’s funeral, beginning a new strength training block, increasing the volume of swim/bike/run and a little—ok maybe a lot—of anxiety of whether I’d be racing in Montreal at the end of June and the last couple of weeks have not been as positive despite my attempt at a positive attitude toward my training.

Swims where only a couple of weeks before I was averaging 1:30/100m I was now struggling to swim 1:45/100m. Run paces that seemed easy are now almost impossible. And my heart rate is WAY too high for the amount of watts I’m producing. Am I distracted? Or am I thinking too much about ITU and triathlon in general? I needed something to get me away from the OTC and focus my energies toward a race. Fortunately, just such an event existed right up the road in Boulder.

I hadn’t done a stand alone road race in more than a year. My last road race was the 2018 Boston Marathon, and prior to that I hadn’t done a stand alone road race since the Sopris Runoff 4 Miler in Carbondale in July 2017. So I was long overdo to test my pure running legs. So I texted my buddy and Ironman Arizona 2018 guide Alan asking for a guide recommendation. He put me in touch with one of his athletes who was a very solid runner and who had guided my buddy Michael Stone on some runs before. Dan drove down from Boulder just four days before we were scheduled to race BolderBoulder. We weren’t about to jump into a massive crowd without running together first. We cruised on some of the running trails in Colorado Springs while Dan and I got used to each other’s running styles and what type of communication we could use. I run very differently depending on with whom I’m running. There are a certain few select people that have guided me who are so flawless that I don’t have to run with them for months or years and we can pick up right where we left off. Other guides want to give too much information, others don’t give enough. Some give information that seems important but that is really quite trivial. Guiding a totally blind runner is also a very physically and mentally taxing ordeal. Your running gait changes and your stress levels go through the roof without you noticing it.

My coach wanted me to really “race” BolderBoulder and was worried that I couldn’t find a guide fast enough to keep up with me. However I know myself too well and knew that even if I found someone who could easily run a sub 35 min 10K that wasn’t necessarily going to translate into them being a good guide for me. I wanted to do well, but I wasn’t trying to qualify for the 10K in the Paralympics—I don’t even know if there is a 10K event that I could participate in at the Paralympic level. I was a triathlete looking to have fun and push myself a little in a fun event. I set myself a goal time of 40-42 min just to have something to shoot for. And when I ran with Dan for the first time I knew we’d make that goal easily. More than that though we were both easygoing and laughed freely and got along. Sure we talked about primarily running, triathlon, making fun of Alan… but I tried to impress upon Dan that I wasn’t very concerned with setting any records. All I had to do for a personal best in the 10K was break 48 minutes. Yes, I wanted to shoot for sub 40 minutes but it wasn’t going to crush me if I didn’t meet that. This race really was just fun for me. Plus I felt I needed to get out of Colorado Springs for a couple days.

A Mental Break

Saturday morning dawned just like any other, except that I’d be bound for Boulder that afternoon to spend time with one of my newest friends, Danielle (or Dani) and her family. Dani also happened to be pushing me in my writing, especially of the book that I perpetually keep picking up and putting down since I never think my story is truly good enough to tell in book form.

So I cranked out my bike and run work out first thing in the morning and then Dani drove down to both give me a ride to her house as well as do a little work in discussing scope, theme and target audience for my book. Then from that time until Monday after the race I hardly thought about triathlon unless I was directly asked about it. I just had fun being in the moment, getting to know Dani and her family better. It was a blast trying to best Dani’s kids in games of Uno and trying to explain the concept of Texas Hold’em to them. We had many great games of Uno over the next couple of days…. Texas Hold’em? Not so much. It was also great fun watching Skye, my guide dog, attempt to make friends with Dani’s mom’s dog—a 15 year old, blind dog about the quarter of the size of Skye. Skye would go up to sniff Corky and Corky would whirl around and bark like crazy, but because he couldn’t see where Skye was he often wound up turned around barking in the complete opposite direction. We laughed hysterically imagining Corky as some grumpy old “get off my lawn” kind of guy, whereas Skye was the mischievous/fun loving punk.

On Sunday I accompanied Dani and her daughter to a horseback riding lesson. Fun fact that not many people know about me, I love horses and most farm/ranch animals. My first horseback riding experience came on a dude ranch in Montana only a month before I lost my right eye. I loved riding through the brilliantly colored trees, seeing the vivid blue sky overhead with fluffy white clouds, and the vibrant colors of a triple rainbow after a rainstorm. I remember the green snowcapped mountains rising to meet the sky and those images all have stuck with me the past 21 years or so.

After going blind I didn’t have many opportunities to ride horses or hang out with ranch animals but when I did I enjoyed every second of it and my memories of just before I lost my sight came back to me. Those thoughts and feelings were really reinvigorated when I worked as a summer camp counselor at Sanborn Western Camps in 2011. I’d become friendly with our ranch manager and all of the ranglers and they thought it was crazy that no one had ever let me just ride on account that the horse would run away or accidentally throw me. (Every time I’d ridden before it had been in extremely controlled safe conditions in an arena or while someone else was holding my horses reigns. So it wasn’t as fulfilling as when I’d been six years old riding an appaloosa through the mountains of Montana.) So several days throughout the course of that summer the ranglers invited me to just come ride with them. I learned how to lope and how to just work with the horse. I also spent a bit of time feeding the horses and just spending time with them.

So it was great to hang out with Dani while we watched her daughter learn some of the same things I’d learned while riding horses in the mountains of Montana and Colorado. The nervousness manifesting to joy once she got the hang of cantering was pretty special. But I was here to run a race and I still had to pick up my race packet. So Dani and I headed to the expo that Sunday afternoon to get my bib and T-shirt and to also meet up with Dan so he and I could get an easy 40 minute run in.

Race Day

Dan and I were in the second wave of runners. Dani, who was also running, was in a later wave so she planned to just hang out at the start line until her start time. We parked at Dan’s town house which was conveniently just a little more than half a mile from the start line. Dan and I jogged over as a little warm up and got into our start corral. Just before getting into the corral I saw a couple friends from the Springs who’d come up to race as well, so that gave me a bit of a boost. My heart was thumping with excitement and I was just giddy to race. The gun went off and we started running.

The start area was crowded. It felt like we were running so slow as we tried to dart around people looking for a clear path. There was no real clear path though and we’d have to deal with a crowded race course virtually the entire 6.2 miles. I’d run numerous races ranging from 5Ks to Ironmans. I’d run the Boston Marathon twice, the Disney Marathon twice, and BolderBoulder was just as, or maybe even more, crowded as any race I’d done. Dan and I had to run tight, shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow and weave in and around as many people as we could.

A few times the crowd seemed to disperse a little and I cold drift away from Dan allowing the tether to become tight allowing me more room to relax my shoulders and get my arm swing and leg turn over back to race pace. We had a couple of close calls with fellow runners. One runner stopped and started walking directly in front of us causing Dan to react and quickly grab my wrist and pull me to the right to get around her so she wouldn’t become snared by the tether. Several other runners got the misfortune of getting their heels run on as we came up on them. Sorry folks, no hard feelings I hope.

It was exciting running with the crowd, despite it being stressful. The energy of a race is something that is incredibly infectious. Every mile or so there was a band or music playing. There were people cheering and urging runners on. As far as my physical ability? The first 5K seemed to pass by in a blur. It felt so easy and it wasn’t until mile four that I felt I was really working hard. From a physical standpoint my legs and lungs didn’t hurt nearly as much as other races, but I was mentally fatiguing as we wove around people and I had to concentrate extra hard when we ran through an area of loud noise. I could tell that Dan too was stressing a little about the crowds and a couple other little obstacles in the road. So I tried to keep the mood light and just smile. After all, I was genuinely enjoying myself. I honestly had no idea what pace we were running, but it felt maintainable and I was just happy to be running outside with a new friend and running guide.

With about a quarter mile left in the race we hit the biggest hill on the course. One of the really cool things about BolderBoulder is that it finishes inside Fulsom Field, home of the University of Colorado Buffaloes. It is a bit of a booger to get up into the stadium but the visual once you’re inside is pretty epic from what I’ve been told. The hill was longer and steeper than any I’d run up in quite a while so my breathing became labored and when I get tired I tend to run with my feet a bit closer to the ground. Dan was also working hard and focusing on getting us around a couple more people. So I don’t think I heard his mention of the timing mat part way up the hill. So I stumbled a bit killing my uphill momentum, but didn’t eat pavement so all’s well. We crested the hill shortly after my little stumble and then plunged downhill into the stadium and onto the field. The field was protected by this uneven and very slippery covering so I ran the last 300 meters or so cautiously thinking it would be a really bad look to slip and fall in sight of the finish line. We crossed the finish line 41 minutes and 57 seconds averaging 6 minutes and 46 seconds per mile. It was a new personal 10K best for me and physically I felt I could’ve run a whole lot longer. I turned to Dan and hugged him, thanking him for sacrificing his own race to guide me. “Next year, let’s break 40,” I said. Then it was off to celebrate with friends and fellow runners.

The Aftermath

We tracked down Alan, who guided our buddy Michael Stone. Then we all headed to breakfast since the crowd inside the stadium was getting bigger and bigger and we all just wanted to hang out and shoot the shit. Dani also ran her best 10K time and joined us as soon as she could after finishing. Then it was back to Dani’s house for one more afternoon and evening of relaxing, playing with the dogs, a couple fierce games of Uno with the kids before it was time for me to head back to Colorado Springs the next day.

I woke up Tuesday morning feeling refreshed and not like I’d raced a 10K the day before. My mind felt clear and I was eager to get back to the training center and attack my next block of workouts. “What’ve you got for me Derick? Bring it on! I can’t wait to crush some hopes and dreams in Montreal as I climb the rankings.” Were just a few of my thoughts as Dani dropped me off at the bus that would take me back to the Springs. I got Skye settled under my feet, connected my phone to the bus’s WiFi network and opened up my e-mail…

What was in that e-mail? I guess you’ll have to come back to find out when I put up my next post. So stay tuned until then.

#eyeronvision

Not Your Average Joe

Not Your Average Joe

In Memory of Joseph Paluch: February 28, 1932-April 30, 2019

A couple weeks ago my Grandpa Joe passed away after a long and fulfilling life. This past weekend I attended his funeral and spent quite a bit of time reflecting on what I learned from my grandpa. I wasn’t always the best at keeping in touch with him or any of my extended family (shoot I struggle to call my parents and sisters on a regular basis). The time I did spend with my grandpa however, helped to shape me as a person and an athlete.

My grandpa was born in the early 1930s, toward the beginning of the Great Depression. His parents were Polish immigrants and Joe was the youngest of 13 children. The Paluchs lived and worked on the south side of Chicago. I believe they were all factory workers. My grandpa grew up in a strict household which also overflowing with love and care. When WWII came around, several of Grandpa’s brothers joined the military and served in Europe. After all, WWII began with the invasion of their homeland, Poland. Initially during WWII, US citizens all came together to massively support the war efforts in Europe and the Pacific. The war helped bring us out of the depression and create a generation of hard working, passionate, and patriotic Americans.

In the late 40s, Grandpa was in high school and played sports such as basketball and baseball. I distinctly remember him being proud of his high school athletic career. His basketball team had a couple of future NBA players on it. Grandpa saved an article from a Chicago newspaper telling about how Joseph Paluch pitched a 1 hit shut out during the 1950 high school baseball season. Supposedly Gramps was drafted by the Chicago Whitesox and offered the opportunity to play in one of their Minor League organizations. However, he didn’t take the opportunity instead electing to go into the Airforce and serve his country during the Korean Conflict.

After that I really don’t know much about my grandpa’s life until my Mom’s memories of him begin and even those are just snippets and fragments. I know my grandpa was a disciplinarian and liked organization. He pushed his kids to not just be theirbest, but to be thebest. I remember him reflecting with my mom saying “You know Annie, you were a great golfer in your early teens, but you could’ve been a pro if you’d just practiced more and worked at it a little harder.” My mom did go on to be a distinguished student in school and was enrolled at Arizona State University before meeting and marrying my dad.

I knew my grandpa was a very successful businessman. He was the President of Fulton County Cold Storage in Chicago, and served as the President of the International Association of Refrigerated Warehousing. When Dad got out of the Marine Corps he was planning to work for United Airlines but United went into a hiring freeze and Grandpa Joe offered him a work opportunity. That opportunity?…Cleaning toilets and doing other maintenance tasks around Fulton.

Grandpa didn’t believe in handouts. He believed in “hand ups”–helping out family by giving them a chance, but they needed to earn their own way. That’s what happened: my dad scrubbed toilets and worked in the engine room at Fulton County Cold Storage until one day an employee passed away from a heart attack. Grandpa needed someone to step into this logistics role and offered the opportunity to Dad. He took it and moved his way up. My grandpa taught my dad a lot about business in those early couple of years at Fulton so when Dad was offered an opportunity to manage a chain of Cold Storage warehouses in Florida, Grandpa encouraged him to take the opportunity and make the best life possible for his family.

Over the next several years grandpa was involved in our lives. He and his first wife (my Grandma Dorothy) helped out where they could as my parents dealt with numerous hospital visits for the first six years of my life. They didn’t smother us. Grandma and Grandpa had more of a “be with each other in the moment attitude” rather than a “be involved with everything attitude.”

It was around this time that I started developing my own memories of my grandpa. He could be stern and strict, but he was also fun. He loved playing card games with us kids. Early on it was things like Go Fish and Uno. Once we got to be teenagers the games changed to Gin and Gin Rummy. The most memorable thing about Grandpa was his competitiveness. I couldn’t beat him in a game of cards until I reached my teens when I finally bested him at a game of gin. Every time he won a game he had this little victory song he’d sing. As little kids we hated it. “Grandpa, that’s not fair. You should let us win because we’re kids. This isn’t fun.”

“Of course it’s not fun,” Grandpa would say as he munched away at a Louigie’s Italian ice, “Winning is fun! And someday you’ll beat me and you can sing the victory song and you’ll realize that.” The day did eventually come for all of us grandkids whether it was in a game of cards or a board game. We all eventually beat Grandpa at least once, but we had to bust our butts for years to do it. When we did win, we sang that victory song with gusto and realized that Grandpa was right… Winning is fun – when you earn it.

That lesson in particular has defined my athletic career. There are some who’ve asked me why I’m so hard on myself when I take 2nd or 3rd in a race. “That’s an incredible result,” they say. Or, “as long as you’re having fun, nothing else matters.” If you’d grown up doing everything you could to beat your Grandpa at Gin, you might understand. Grandpa taught that lesson to a lot of people and everyone has their own “winning is fun” story, but Grandpa taught us a lot more than the value of winning.

The want to win certainly taught me the value of perseverance and persistence. It also taught me the value of good sportsmanship because after the first time I beat Grandpa in cards I definitely rubbed his big Polish nose in it. He then proceeded to absolutely obliterate me in every card game for a long time. I eventually learned how to both win and lose a little more gracefully and not toot my own horn when I did win (most of the time at least).

Grandpa also taught me the value of family. Grandpa Joe wasn’t always physically present in our lives but he was always a phone call away and when we visited him in Naples, Fla or he came to Jacksonville to visit, it was like no one else mattered.

In 1999, my Grandma Dorothy passed away from colon cancer and in 2004 Grandpa Joe married a wonderful Italian American woman named Roz. To this day Nanna Roz still makes the best Chicken Parmesan I’ve ever had—and that includes what I’ve had at high-end Italian restaurants, as well as my mom’s own chicken parm which follows the exact same recipe as Nanna’s, but still doesn’t compare.

Roz softened Grandpa up as he got older. He became a much more fun loving and easygoing man. As I grew up I enjoyed sitting at the table listening to Grandpa reminisce about days at Fulton and how proud he was of my mom and dad for doing so well with the opportunities they’d made for themselves. He was always quick to tell us all when we made him proud.

It was through my Grandpa Joe that I got my biggest speaking engagement—the 2004 International Association of Refrigerated Warehousing International Convention. I was 12 years old and had spoken at some Rotary Clubs and American Cancer Society Board meetings and events. I’d spoken in front of schools and churches, but nothing compared to speaking in front of nearly 1000 business professionals, many of whom English wasn’t their first language. Fortunately I didn’t have to give the speech alone. My dad was going to anchor the keynote presentation. I got the first 30 minutes (the event organizers thought 60 minutes was a bit much to ask of a 12 year old boy) and Dad would tie everything back to business for the last 30 minutes. The topic on which Dad and I chose to talk was “Values”.

As a kid I vaguely understood the importance of having a value system, but I wasn’t an expert. I knew that family was important; hard work yielded results; it was always better in the long run to be honest; trust in people and yourself is critical to success; staying humble will yield more rewards than bragging; showing respect made others respect you; and so much more. Nearly 15 years after that speech, the value topics I barely understood are more prevalent in my life. Those values are what has molded me into the person I am. I think many of those values were the very same ones my Grandpa lived his life by and passed on to his children and grandchildren.

Some might say that you have to be cut throat, nasty, or a jerk to truly be successful and make a lot of money – only the average people bother with that moral compass shit. My Grandpa wasn’t an average Joe yet he proved that sticking to your core values will help you become successful in business and life. I will continue to live my life based on the values my Grandpa Joe exemplified. This is how I will honor his memory.

Milan World Paratriathlon Series Race Report

April 27, 2019

Milan World Paratriathlon Series

Milan, Italy

750 m swim, 19.5 km bike, 5 km run

 

Podium Pressure and Expectations

“I think you’re a dark horse to get on the podium.”

“Dave’s going to be hard to beat but I think there’s a chance you can get on the podium.”

“I’m expecting a top 5 finish for Kyle, but there’s a chance he could get on the podium. Not going to be easy though.”

“Just go out and execute your race.”

These were the words that people kept saying to me in person or posting on social media. And it was hard to block it out and just focus on the process of training and racing. Yes, I expect to do well at any race I start but I’ve fallen short of expectations (I’d even say I’ve choked a couple of times) in previous races.

My previous three International Triathlon Union (ITU) races have all been at the same venue in Sarasota, Fla. My first ITU race was a disaster with getting tangled on a buoy in the swim and then my guide cracking on the run. In my second race I used a strong bike to propel me to the front of the field but then couldn’t hold on and slipped to second place having been run down by a 50 something year old Japanese athlete. I went into my third career race with high expectations and knowing that my stiffest competition was fellow American Aaron Scheidies and he was racing on a bomb hip. I could totally take him down. Turns out, Aaron on one leg still kicks my ass. So I felt stressed and pressured. If I couldn’t hang with Aaron on a bum hip, how on earth was I going to be able to compete against the Europeans on their home turf where the racing is much more fierce? Fortunately I’d get to find out at the first World Paratriathlon Series race of the season which took place just outside of Milan, Italy.

 

Paratriathlon ITU Procedures

The ITU calendar for paratriathlon follows a similar vain to the elite ITU calendar. There are four levels of racing. World Championship, three World Paratriathlon Series races, Continental Championships, and World Cups. World Cups and Continental Championships are the easiest races to get into as they are introductory races and don’t require high world rankings. World Paratriathlon Series races are stacked with the top talent in the world. These races are worth the second most amount of points and so spots on the start lists are highly coveted.

Coming off the American Continental Championships I was ranked 27th in the world for visually impaired men. So it was a long shot that I could make any WPS start list without a miracle since only six to eight spots were reserved for visually impaired men and those spots would first be filled by the highest ranked athletes who applied for those slots. Then the ITU could issue a couple of invitations, but their invites seemed to be completely random so I couldn’t rely on an invite. However, there was one sure way I could make a WPS start list and that was by USA Triathlon placing Aaron on the start list and then substituting me in for him. This is a tactic commonly used by National Federations. It allows countries to send various athletes to events to see how they perform against international competition while saving their highest ranked athletes for certain races. Because Aaron has never been ranked lower than second in the world, the USA was almost always guaranteed an entry to any race on the ITU Paratriathlon schedule. Since Aaron was now in recovery from hip surgery and wouldn’t be available until later in the season, the USA Paratriathlon Competition Committee had to decide what VI athlete they’d send to the first two WPS races of the season. It ultimately was decided that I would get the slot for Milan and Brad Snyder would get the slot for the next WPS race in Yokohama, Japan. Phew, at least I made a start list. Now I just had to swim, bike, and run faster than the other seven guys – some of whom had been racing internationally longer than I’d been in the sport. No matter, I knew I had the potential to beat anyone… If I didn’t race like a dumbass.

 

Assessing the Competition

Zack and I’d be racing against seven other VI men and their guides. Of those seven, six had competed at the 2018 World Championship and at least one of the 2018 WPS races. Of everybody on the start list there were three names that stood out to me and I knew that these three were the ones I had to mark.

  • Dave Ellis of Great Britain. Three time ITU VI World Champion (2013, 2017 and 2018). A guy who swims like a dolphin and runs like a gazelle.
  • Hector Catala Laparra of Spain. Two time ITU VI World Championship Bronze Medalist (2016 and 2018). One of the strongest bike/run combinations on the circuit.
  • Vasyl Zakrevskyi of the Ukraine. Four time ITU VI World Championship Podium finisher (2nd in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 3rd 2017). Consistently the top B1 (totally blind) athlete in most races over the years.

There was always the chance that one of the others on the start list could have an incredible day, but my gut told me these three were the ones to mark and do my best to stay ahead of.

 

Bound for Europe

I’ve done a bit of traveling in my life. Nowhere near the amount I’d like to do and not nearly as much as others I know. Despite my travel experiences, travel in general can still be a stressful endeavor. Add on top of that I was traveling to attend a race where I was expected to perform and bring home some hardware… My heart was lodged in my throat and I had to exercise greater patience than normal while navigating through airports. Fortunately I wasn’t flying to Italy alone. I was able to get on the same flight as my teammates Allysa and Hailey, as well as our coach Derick, the USA Para Triathlon Team Manager Amanda, and our team mechanic Joseph.

We flew from Colorado Springs to Chicago and then on to Frankfurt, Germany. We had a two plus hour layover in Frankfurt and everyone (except me) was a United Club member since they’ve all flown so much. But, hold on a sec, Derick was able to get me in as a guest. Score! I could hang out in the swanky airport lounge too! And what a lounge this one was. It was quiet and we each got our own comfortable couch or chair. Plus unlimited delicious coffee and some tasty pastries. About an hour into us just chilling in the lounge, a woman came through and offered each of us a fresh soft pretzel. Talk about living. How quickly can I get status with United? Darn it, I still have to spend $1000 and fly about 10000 more miles. Oh well, I’ll get there.

From Frankfurt it was a quick 45 minute flight to Milan. We then loaded all of our luggage into two vans that Team USA had rented and made the very short drive to our hotel.

While I was feeling anxious about the race coming up on Saturday, I was also excited. I could hardly sit down or stay still. Derick and I went for an easy 4+ mile shake out run to clear out the jet lag. Then the team elected to eat at a sushi restaurant for dinner. Then it was off to bed to try and sleep.

The next day was more relaxing apart from a quick run with Derick where I did some race pace efforts. Joseph and I also took time to build up my tandem including putting on a new set of shiny race wheels that David from Cycles Chinook had custom built for me. That night Zack arrived and things started to feel like a normal race week. I was settling in and thus far, apart from traveling across the Atlantic, my race week was shaping up just like all of the other race weeks I’d had.

Thursday was an important day as it would be the only time we could preview the bike course. Zack and I are strong on the bike and were eager to test out our new wheels as well as see what kind of fun twists and turns the course would have. We took one lap of the course nice and easy analyzing each turn and patch of gravel discussing where we should stand, open up the throttle, and take it easy. Then on our second lap of the course we took a few of the turns aggressively just to test how we’d feel. We also kept an eye on a few of the other tandems. Even though we knew we couldn’t take anything concrete away from observing, we couldn’t help but feel confident.

Friday was highlighted by a sumptuous multi-course dinner of grilled vegetables, pasta, salad, and either steak or chicken. By this point in the week I’d happily taken on the role of “team garbage can” but had to exercise great caution as I didn’t want to over fill myself the night before a race. I still wound up eating my own meal of chicken and half of our team physiotherapist’s steak. And what a steak! Everyone that ordered steak received a massive hunk of meat with a beautiful trimming of marbleized fat. The beef was seared on either side and was nice and bloody in the middle. (Side note: The proper way to cook a steak is to knock the cow’s horns off, wipe its arss, and drag it across the grill once on each side.) I only prayed that the beef wouldn’t sit too heavy in my stomach for the following day.

 

Race Day

“It’s just another race,” I kept repeating to myself as I went through my race day routines.

  1. Eat a big breakfast early.
  2. Sit and chat with teammates for a bit.
  3. Get back up to the room to organize gear and put on race tattoos displaying my number.
  4. Put on headphones and listen to music and focus on my breathing to get into a zone. Go through each segment of the race in my head. Picture everything that could go right. Picture everything that could go wrong and how I’d fix it.

This might have just been another race for some people, but I couldn’t help but feel that my season was hinging on this race. If I did well I’d gain more respect from my teammates and maybe USA Triathlon would think about sending me to more races. If I did poorly I might as well pack my bags and head back to Ironman because USA Triathlon wasn’t going to continue to invest in someone who didn’t have medal potential. And I felt the pressure. It was like a weight pressing on my chest making it hard to breathe. My temper was short and the littlest thing threatened to set me off. I was tense and moving into control freak mode. It drove Zack crazy but his efforts to get me to relax only wound me tighter.

We finally made it to the race venue, which was almost directly across the street from the hotel. We got checked in; had our swim tethers, black out goggles, and glasses approved; and headed out to set up transition.

I placed each transition item as precisely as I could given that our transition area was a little tighter than I’d previously had. We had to angle the bike diagonally in our transition box so that it wouldn’t stick out into the aisle where people would run. My helmet and sunglasses went on the handlebars, cycling and running shoes next to the bike with run tether resting on top of my running shoes. Our transition baskets were placed near the back of the bike so that as we stripped equipment off our bodies we could quickly toss it into the baskets. Then it was time to get out of transition and get focused for some actual racing.

 

The Swim

750 meters in clear lake water. Breathe in, breath out. Pull the shoulders of my wetsuit up and pull the zipper up. Arrange the strap so that it sits just right so that I can quickly grab it and rip it down my back as I’m running up the steps out of the water. Adjust the crotch of the wetsuit so that it fits snugly to my body. Another couple deep breaths.

“Zack are you ready?”

“Relax Kyle. I’m a pro wetsuit getter-onner.”

Time to line up. B1 men and women are going off together. I think there’s eight of us in total. Since I’m number 633 I’m positioned on the far left of the group as we lower ourselves into the waters of the lake which is a chilly 64ish degrees. I quickly dunk my head and blow some bubbles willing my heart to stop racing. There’s definitely more of a crowd here than there was in Sarasota. I can hear them buzzing in a grandstand. Not to mention they’re blasting music.

30 seconds. Deep breaths. Focus on staying long in the water. Stay tight and streamlined. Keep those fingers pointing toward the bottom of the lake and push the water behind you.

“On your mark… GO!”

I put my head down and charged out hard angling to the right toward the first buoy. I could feel the Australians buffeting me on my right. Instinctively I pushed the pace surging ahead of them and suddenly I was slapping someone else’s feet. I wonder if this is the Ukrainian. Stay on the feet if you can but if they’re going too slow get around them.

Zack and I had decided on a new method of signaling when to turn. Previously I’d just waited until the tether pulled taught and I angled my body to the left. If we needed to turn right then Zack would punch me in the ribs. We wondered if we could save time and swim less by Zack signaling turning left with a double tap on my left shoulder. As I pushed the pace in the swim I waited for that first double tap hoping someone wasn’t going to swim up between us and yank on the tether or that I wouldn’t mistake a double tap for just a general pummeling. But then I felt a quick double tap on my left shoulder blade and I quickly turned left. I no longer felt the feet of whoever I was following so I figured they’d either dropped me or we’d gone around and dropped them. No matter. I refocused on my technique.

“When you swim smooth you swim fast,” Derick has told me time and time again. So I tried not to think about pushing the pace. Instead I focused on how my hand entered the water, keeping my fingertips pointed down and pushing the water straight back behind me while keeping my lead arm/shoulder tight to my head. The result was an intense but relaxing swim.

The lake was infested with tangles of weed which got tangled up in the tether and around my hands and arms. But the weed shook lose nearly every time I stroked. I found my rhythm. Stroke stroke breathe, stroke stroke breathe. Another couple left turns. Then Zack punched me in the ribs and we turned right. I knew now that we had a straight-a-way to the steps leading up out of the lake and into transition so I pushed it. My hands touched the steps and I popped up. Zack was right next to me as we bounded up the steps. I grabbed for my zipper and ripped it down my back. Then as I reached the top of the steps I heard Mark Sortino, the other coach supporting us in Milan, yell “2nd place, 20sec down.”

Swim: 12min 1sec

 

Transition 1

I sprinted as best I could in a wetsuit. I yanked the shoulder straps of my wetsuit down to around my waist and then ran flat out between bikes while holding Zack’s elbow. Zack had gone with the full sleeved wetsuit so it took him a second or two longer to get his wetsuit down, but no matter. In practice we’d discovered that the fastest way for me to get a wetsuit off is to sit down and have Zack rip it off my legs. So when we got to the bike I quickly got my wetsuit the rest of the way down to my calves and Zack ripped it off tossing it over my head and into the basket as I yanked off my swim cap and goggles and put on my cycling shoes. Then I put on my blacked out sunglasses, buckled my helmet and grabbed the bike off the rack. Zack was ready and we quickly ran to the mount line. We stopped, swung our right legs over the top tube, clipped in and took off.

Transition 1: 1min 27sec

Total Time: 13min 28sec

 

The Bike

“Yeehaw!” I yelled as I felt the surge of power course through my body and the Chinook beneath me seemed to come alive. She was eager and ready to race just as much as I was. We were about 30-40sec down on the Ukrainians but elected not to blow our legs out immediately trying to chase them down. Instead we settled in to a steady effort and reeled them in slowly. We hit the first technical left hand turn. Zack breaded hard, leaned the bike left and then we stood up and charged ahead surging up to roughly 30mph.

Little by little the gap between the Ukrainians and us closed. We were fast approaching the first right hand U-Turn. We hit it only about 10sec down on the Ukrainians. We stood out of the turn and accelerated again. This time we threw down a little extra power and took the lead. Now it was time to open a gap.

The second half of the bike lap had some tricky little S turns, one of which had a spitting of gravel. Fortunately Zack is a very confident bike handler and took the turns aggressively. Every time we hit a straight-a-way we put down a little extra power. We hit the second right hand U-Turn, stood up and charged down a slight hill ready for lap two of three. I heard Sortino once again “1st place now! Stay strong!”

Zack and I merged with some other cyclists coming out of T1 including our fellow Team USA teammate racing in the PTS4 category, Jamie Brown. We zipped past several cyclists doing our best to drop any tandems that might be coming up on us. In the back of my mind I wondered where Ellis and Catala Laparra were. I knew they were both extremely fast swimmers but I felt I was a stronger cyclist. Could I hold them off until the run?

We hit the U-turn half way through the lap and Zack caught sight of Ellis and his guide coming fast behind us. As we accelerated out of the turn Zack counted the seconds to see how far up we were on the two time defending world champ. “About 15-20sec up,” Zack yelled. We both knew that wasn’t good enough so we put down a little more power. Zack took the S-turns a little more aggressively and we hit the end of the second lap. As we stood out of the U-turn Mark yelled that we were now about 45sec up on Ellis.

Now it was time for our third and final bike lap. This had to be our best one if we wanted to come out ahead going into the run. I gritted my teeth and willed my legs to turn over faster, putting more power into each downward and upward stroke of the pedal.

We flew through the lap taking each turn and curve aggressively without being stupid. Now it was time to execute the flying dismount. This was something we’d executed almost perfectly in Sarasota, but we didn’t do so this time around. Zack called for me to take off my right shoe. I did and placed my foot on top of the shoe and pedaled a few strokes. Then we did the same with the left foot. But we’d mistimed our shoe removal. We should have waited an additional 50 meters or so. Ultimately it didn’t cost us any time though so no harm done.

Zack gave me the countdown, “3, 2, 1, dismount!” I popped my right leg over the top tube and hit the ground running barefoot into the second transition.

Bike: 28min 17sec

Total Time: 41min 45sec

 

Transition 2

We sprinted barefoot through transition, quickly racked the bike, tossed our helmets into the baskets. Then it’s on with the shoes, slip the run tether on and sprint for the exit. As we ran by Mark again he yelled “still in 1st about 45 seconds up on Ellis.” Then we hit the run.

Transition 2: 47sec

Total Time: 42min 32sec

 

The Run

“Don’t forget to roll into the run,” I told myself. “No suicide pace to start out.”

I took the first 75-100 steps out of transition to find my running legs and then settled into what felt like a sustainable pace. I had no idea that my “sustainable pace was around 6:20/mi however. And I was able to hold onto that for the majority of the first lap.

The run course was pancake flat and consisted of three out and back segments with a tight left hand U-turn at either end. Zack and I hadn’t practiced a ton of left hand U-turns so it was an interesting twist for us. But we handled me pivoting on my left foot while Zack leaned his left shoulder into my right quite nicely. Surprisingly I think we were able to maintain our speed better on the left hand U-turns than on the right handers we’d so often done in training and racing.

It was part way through our second run lap that I was finally caught. I’d held onto 1st place for the majority of the bike and it appeared as though I’d made the “runners” work a bit harder to catch me. It was early on in the second lap of the run when Hector Catala Laparra of Spain came flying past me as though he were on wheels. I attempted to match his pace for a hot second but quickly realized that if I tried to run with him then I’d blow up in about 100 meters. So I settled back into my pace and did my best to minimize losses. Ellis was still behind me but coming fast.

It was on the back half of the second lap was when Ellis finally made the pass, although much slower than Catala Laparra had. It was kind of surreal. Here I was sitting in 3rd place only steps behind the two time defending world champion. As long as I didn’t have an epic collapse, I wasn’t losing my 3rd place position. I had maintained a steady lead over Zakrevskyi and maybe even lengthened my lead with this incredible run. So I pushed myself a little harder.

The second half of the run was much more crowded than the first half. The visually impaired women had joined us on the course by this time and I found myself pacing off of Spain’s Susanna Rodriguez (the current world champion on the women side) going into my final lap and a half. With a little more than 800 meters to go in the last lap, Zack and I darted around Susanna and surged. Zack could still see Ellis up the rode and Zakrevskyi had dropped back over a minute behind us. In fact, Italy’s Federico Sicura had moved into 4th, but I wouldn’t know that until post-race.

Over the last stretch of the run I dropped my pace down to close to 6 min/mi pace and hit the line with a new 5k personal best. Yep, I have never run 5k faster in my life. I’d wrapped up 3rd place and gotten on the podium in my first ever World Paratriathlon Series race and became only the second visually impaired American to podium at a WPS. I’d finished 1min 57sec behind race winner Hector Catala Laparra, and only 57sec behind Dave Ellis. Even though I’d given everything I had on that particular day I knew there was still more in the tank that I just hadn’t tapped into as of yet. That made me giddy with excitement to see what I could do.

Run: 19min 35sec

Total Time: 1hr 2min 6sec

 

The Aftermath

“Have I seen you before?” Dave Ellis asked Zack and I as we stood around in the recovery zone immediately after the race.

“No, this was our first WPS,” Zack told him.

“But hopefully you’ll be seeing a lot more of us,” I mentioned.

Third place (or second loser as I fondly call it) previously would be a disappointment for me. However, Zack and I executed a nearly flawless racing strategy. The only thing that kept us from finishing higher up the placings was physical ability. I’d swum and run faster than I have ever in my life. And I’d executed the second fastest bike split of the day (only Hector had biked faster).

As soon as we saw Derick after the race he was like a kid on Christmas morning. He gave each of us a massive hug. I imagine it’s got to be rewarding to see an athlete you coach make such dramatic progress in a short four months. Then Mark gave Zack and I the advice “Don’t analyze today’s race just yet. Just enjoy it because you crushed it. There’s time for analysis later.” And so that’s what we did.

We headed out to cheer on our teammates as they came in one by one. Team USA had a pretty dominant performance on the whole as we collected five medals—one gold, three silver and one bronze—across the various paratriathlon categories. It was a busy podium ceremony.

As soon as we were all done receiving our medals we made our way back to the hotel to clean up before heading out for gelato and drinks.

The next day, several people headed home, but Zack, Allysa, Hailey, Jamie and I spent the day exploring Milan. We walked around town visiting an old castle, checking out a small museum, eating good food and drinking great wine and coffee. The two highlights of the day were spending a couple of hours in the Duomo—a massive cathedral which took nearly 600 years to build. We capped off the day by visiting an all you can eat buffet which only cost us each 11 euros. Then it was off to bed since we all had to fly out the following day to get back to our lives and training.

What’s next for me? Well, we’re in a wait and see period. Hopefully my next race will be World Paratriathlon Series Montreal on June 28, but we won’t know that for sure for a couple of more weeks. In the meantime Zack’s crushing it in San Diego and I’m doing my best to crush it at the OTC. I’m focused on just training one race at a time while keeping an eye on the overall vision of making it to Tokyo in 2020. The road is tough but the path is becoming a little clearer. So please keep following along on this journey with me by following me on social media and continuing to read these posts.

Until next time 🙂

 

#eyeronvision

 

Milan World Paratriathlon Series Results

  1. Hector Catala Laparra; Spain: 1hr 9sec (Swim 11min 0sec, T1 1min 7sec, Bike 27min 1sec, T2 44sec, Run 16min 57sec, +3min 21sec B2/B3 factor)
  2. Dave Ellis; Great Britain: 1hr 1min 9sec (Swim 9min 54sec, T1 1min 7sec, Bike 28min 45sec, T2 39sec, Run 17min 24sec, +3min 21sec B2/B3 factor)
  3. Kyle Coon; USA: 1hr 2min 6sec (Swim 12min 1sec, T1 1min 27sec, Bike 28min 17sec, T2 47sec, Run 19min 35sec)

The Madness of March

The Madness of March

“1:33, keep it there,” Derick yelled on deck as I hit the wall on my 12th or 13th 100 meter repeat. I had just a couple more measured efforts before it was time to dig deep for the 16th 100 which we were to perform at the “edge of our ability.” I executed that 16th 100 meter sprint right around 1 min 30 sec, maybe just a touch faster. In short it was one of the greatest swim sets I’d had since moving to the training center at the beginning of January. But there was something not quite right either. While I was pleased I was also frustrated. I’d had my best performance at a sprint triathlon only a few days before setting personal bests in my 750 meter open water swim, 20 km bike time and a new overall 5 km run personal best. Despite these metrics I’d only taken second and had finished 37 seconds short of finishing within 2 percent of the winners time. This 2 percent metric is key because that is one of the metrics USA Triathlon uses to determine which athletes receive actual monetary support. I’d finished within 2 percent of the winner’s time at my previous race back in October and would need to do so in two more races to receive the lowest level of funding that USA Triathlon allocates to Paratriathletes. I’d missed out on that margin by a mere 37 seconds and it soured my outlook. I also tend to put a high demand of pressure on myself to perform and I felt I’d lost an opportunity to win while the guy who won, Aaron Scheidies, was nursing a long time hip injury and was preparing to go under the knife to repair it. If I couldn’t beat Aaron while he was at best 75 percent then how on earth was I going to be competitive against the dominant Europeans? The following two weeks post CAMTRI didn’t inspire much hope in me either.

Brought Low

After my race in Sarasota, Fla I went back to the training center ready to slay every workout Derick could conceivably think to throw my way. I was going to push so hard that my numbers in Sarasota would seem like a beginners. And in the first couple of swim practices it looked like that was going to be the case. Then Derick assigned us a 2 mile all out time trial on the treadmill which I demolished in 11 min 50 sec including my second mile being at 5 min 17 sec. Much of the second half of that last mile I somehow ran at a sub 5 min per mile pace. So I was feeling good about my fitness. But for some reason I was feeling more drained than usual.

I took several naps a day lasting at least an hour or two in addition to sleeping a solid six to eight hours at night. My appetite was also slowing vanishing. It was a struggle to eat breakfast, lunch and by dinner I couldn’t stand the thought of food. It culminated on the evening of March 18.

That morning our entire paratriathlon team had struggled to hit our slowest times in the pool during a 4400 meter day. I was able to choke down some breakfast and then head to the bike trainer to spin my legs easy. I struggled through my strength and conditioning session and then took a very hot bath to try and loosen up. My stomach felt funny and when I walked into the cafeteria determined to at least eat something I felt extremely nauseous. I took a few sips of orange juice hoping that would give me some hydration, a couple calories and maybe calm my stomach down. I then walked back to my room and promptly started praying to the porcelain goddess. I did that off and on through the night praying that it would all be out of my system in time to swim. It wasn’t.

I had to miss an entire day of training, most of which I slept. I was able to drag myself to the pool Wednesday morning and get through a modified swim set. That only served to piss me off more because I was already one of the weakest swimmers on the team and I felt I was sliding even further backwards.

I struggled physically and mentally trying to hit my sets in the pool, on the bike trainer and treadmill. The Friday after my being sick I cracked for the first time on a bike workout. I managed to push through until the fifth set, but half way through my legs gave out and no amount of coaxing or cursing brought them back to life. I was stressed and frustrated. If I couldn’t get through a bike workout how could I get through the following week’s workouts when my guide, Zack would be flying in to do some intense training with me? I could only hope that whatever sickness was in my system made it’s way out.

The Zack Attack

As it’s been told before, by myself and other blind/visually impaired athletes, one of the most difficult aspects of trying to be an elite blind endurance athlete is that you have to find guides to both train and race with. The guide needs to be borderline elite athlete themself, or at least a much better athlete than you yourself. My general rule of thumb is that my guide must be 10-15 percent faster than me when I am having my best day and they are having their worst. So if I run a 5k at a 6:30/mi pace on my best day, my guide must be able to easily run a 5k at a 5:51/mi pace on their worst day. If I run 2 miles in 11:50 (5:55/mi) my guide must be able to run that same distance in 10:39 (5:20ish/mi). Through in the complications of work, school, different training schedules and it makes it very difficult to find consistent training and racing guides. That doesn’t even include the fact that we have to jell as people and be on the same page in terms of communication. Most of the time, those people fast enough to meet these rule of thumb requirements are professional or elite athletes themselves, have their own training and racing to do and don’t have the time or desire to guide. Fortunately for me I was able to at least find a guide to race with who meets just about all of the requirements of speed, time availability (mostly) and temperament.

I met Zack in January of 2018 when I attended Camp No Sight No Limits hosted by Elite Visually Impaired Triathlete Amy Dixon. Zack was guiding another blind athlete but we hit it off as friends. Later that year I was in a bit of a pickle as I was in need of a guide for my second ITU race of 2018. My first ITU race guide didn’t have the running speed to guide me at the pace I wanted to hold, plus he was tied up with work obligations. My buddy Alan who would be guiding me for Ironman Arizona didn’t have the top end speed for a sprint triathlon, although he could seemingly run forever at a slower pace. And all of the other guides I could think of were busy with work or racing. So I shot Amy a text asking if she knew of anyone and she immediately recommended Zack. I jumped on the phone with Zack. I admit I’d thought of asking him before but I’d known that he was attempting to qualify for Kona at Ironman Maryland which was only a week or two before my race in Sarasota and I wondered if he’d be ready. Amy assured me he would be so I gave him a shot. Zack scored major points with me when he said “I’m happy to do it if I’m feeling good, but if you can find someone faster kick me to the side.”

Zack went on to take sixth overall at Ironman Maryland including having one of the top swim and bike splits of the day and earning his slot to Kona for 2019. Two weeks later he guided me to a 2nd place finish at the Sarasota World Cup which had been modified to a duathlon. We threw down the fastest bike split of the day and one of the faster runs and Zack didn’t appear to be tired at all whereas I was wiped out.

When I moved to the Olympic Training Center in January, Derick immediately mentioned the possibility of having Zack come out to do some training with me from time to time. Since Zack lives in San Diego we don’t get many opportunities to train together. So we arranged it so that Zack would come out during his spring break. I didn’t like it that I was coming off of a week of sickness and struggling but maybe Zack being here would give me a motivational boost. Fortunately it did.

Our week kicked off with a nearly 4000 meter swim followed by a two hour spin on the tandem during which we did a bit of climbing. Then we cranked out a lifting session. After Tuesday’s 4400 meter swim set we headed to Memorial Park to do 1.5 mi repeats at 5k race effort. It was during runs like this where having Zack was invaluable. Instead of cranking out the session on the treadmill I was able to join the rest of the team outside. The running path we followed was winding and being a beautiful spring day in Colorado it was crowded with people. So Zack and I got some good practice weaving in and around people while moving at a sub 6:40/mi pace.

Wednesday was another tough swim followed by a gnarly strength session. Then that evening the entire paratriathlon team headed up to Denver to take part in the Karen Hornbostel Memorial Time Trial Series. This 9 mile bike time trial was a good time for Zack and I to really go all out on the tandem. We, along with the rest of the Paratriathlon team, crushed the race riding strong despite some windy conditions. Zack and I rode the 9 miles in 20 min 34 sec averaging just over 26 mph and taking top 20 in the overall standings. I slowly felt like my legs were starting to come back, but my lungs were still hurting and I felt like I was still operating at an overall calorie deficit. I just couldn’t seem to get ahead.

The following day was great as Zack and I joined the rest of the team for an easy coffee ride and then Zack and I enjoyed an easy hour run. So many of my workouts have been so carefully constructed that it was nice to just get out and run on some dirt roads.

Friday, Zack, Allysa and I headed to Gold Camp road for some grueling race effort hill repeats. The day was cold and windy and by the time we got back to the training center our extremities were rather chilled.

Saturday was Zack’s last day in the Springs so Derick assigned us a 3 mile run at 5k effort. So being who we are, Zack and I just tacked on an extra 0.1 mi onto the effort to make it a 5k. The day was chilly but thankfully there were fewer people out so Zack and I only had the winding sidewalk to contend with. Zack pushed me hard as we attempted to hold the pace we’d held at sea level a couple of weeks before. Ultimately we fell just short of that pace, but it was still a very solid and consistent 5k effort. And even though my lungs were burning and I was spitting up flem, I was relatively pleased.

I still didn’t feel full strength, but I was beginning to calm down and trust that my body wanted to heal and it would come around back to full strength. I’d had a maddening couple of weeks, but despite the frustrations of failing to meet my lofty expectations I still saw some marginal improvements in my swimming, biking and running. And the first couple days of April have been showing even more promise.

The Three Month Look Back

I’ve essentially been living and training full time at the Olympic Training Center for three months now. Early on I was fueled by adrenaline and excitement. Then I struggled through physical fatigue and broke through to make some massive fitness gains. The third month has been a mental battle for sure. Learning to manage my expectations and trust the process of training rather than obsessing on outcome goals has been a learning process.

Early on in my professional career—immediately upon graduating from college—I wanted a job so desperately and I wanted to be making and earning money. When I eventually did find a job I worked my tail off attempting to get promoted or catch the eye of another company that would pay me more. That eventually did happen but it turned out not to be the right fit for me.

My triathlon career has eerily mirrored my professional career. Early on I thought busting out sub 12 hour Ironmans would be a walk in the park. World records would fall before the outstanding athlete that was Kyle Coon. Fortunately for me though that didn’t happen. It turned out I wasn’t so good at triathlon early on and had to learn to struggle and scrap and fight my way to near the top. I somehow managed to learn to be patient with my Ironman racing and I’m learning the same lesson in my transition to sprint triathlon.

My last two coaches Lesley Paterson and now Derick Williamson, aren’t all that dissimilar. They both have stressed the importance of trusting the process to me. And while I generally have considered myself to be a patient person, I have not been patient when it comes to my athletic career. Little by little though, if there’s anything that this past month of madness has emphasized to me it’s the value of patience and trusting my fitness and my mental game. Sometimes it’s ok to let go of the big picture and to let go of the tiny details and find the middle where we just enjoy being triathletes.

So my personal goal for the month of April is focus less on the result that I’m going to post in my next race—April 27 at the Milan World Paratriathlon Series—and more on steady improvement day by day and workout by workout. Yes, I must keep an “eye on my vision” but I can’t obsess on outcomes.

#eyeronvision

2019CAMTRI Paratriathlon American Championship Race Report

CAMTRI Paratriathlon American Championship

March 9, 2019

Sarasota, Fla

750 m Swim, 20 km Bike, 5.225 km Run

Stroke, stroke, breathe. Right, left, breathe. Focus on rotating your body around a single point. Only bring that right goggle out of the water. Stay relaxed. Don’t push too hard, and don’t ease off. Are those Brad’s feet I keep slapping? I’m feeling good. Maybe I’ve got a little more in the tank and we can get around Brad and Colin and… Oh fuck! We can’t be caught on a buoy again?!

Travel and Classification

Zack and I met up in Tampa, collected the rental car and loaded it up with our luggage—including my brand-new tandem from Cycles Chinook. After filling our bellies with a bite to eat we made our way to Sarasota and checked into our hotel. We then proceeded to piece my new bike together before turning in for the night.

On Thursday morning my coach, Derick, had assigned me some race pace efforts and above in the pool, so we tracked down a pool we could swim in and cranked out a 1500 yard workout before taking the Chinook to a bike shop to have them look over the bike to ensure we’d put it together correctly as well as do a quick safety check on it. Then it was off to an eye clinic so I could be officially “Classified.”

Competing on the International Triathlon Union (ITU) circuit as an elite paratriathlete means that your disability needs to be verified by a small panel of officials with medical experience.

After it was determined that I was officially totally blind, Zack and I made our way to the nearest Publix for sub sandwiches and to pick up a 12 pack of beer as payment for the bike mechanics at Ryder Bikes who were checking over the Chinook. Then it was time to actually test ride the Chinook and do a little shake out run with some race pace efforts before turning in early for the night.

Friday we continued tinkering with our fit on the Chinook before heading to the race venue to preview the swim and bike courses. Zack and I’d never actually swam open water together before so the swim course recon was very important for us. We plunged in without wetsuits as the water temps weren’t terrible. They were certainly considerably warmer than when Alan and I’d taken on the 58 degree water temps in Arizona back in November. We then proceeded to do one very easy lap of the entire swim course. We only had one mishap when one of our fellow Team USA female visually impaired counterparts, Liz Baker and her guide Jill, accidentally swam up between us and got a little tangled in our tether. But no harm done. Little did we know that would be a bit of a precursor for the following day’s race.

Immediately after previewing the swim course we had a meeting for all of the Team USA athletes, many of whom were competing in their first ITU race. It’s definitely exciting to see the sport of paratriathlon grow. Across the six paratriathlon sport classifications there were around 40 athletes competing for the USA. Personally I also liked seeing the field of visually impaired men grow with stiffer competition.

At the end of our “Team USA” meeting it was time for the bike course preview. The previous two times I’d raced on this particular course the bike was a fast three loops totaling 18.3 km. This year a small out and back section was added for technical difficulty as well as to make the course a full 20 km. Unfortunately they only gave us one chance to preview that new section of the course. When Zack and I went around that turn around we were very cautious as the road was fairly narrow and we had to avoid going off the road into the dirt. So after they shut the course preview down we went to an empty parking lot and worked on taking tight 180 degree turns at higher and higher speeds.

Then it was time to make our way back to the venue for the official pre-race briefing and then off to find food and sleep. After all I had high expectations and I wanted to be ready to deliver.

Assessing the Competition:

The previous year at this same race I hadn’t performed up to my potential. I was determined not to let that happen again. On the start line were five Americans, two of whom—Aaron Scheidies and Brad Snyder—I’d raced against previously. Aaron is ranked 2nd in the world and over the past decade has been a prohibitive favorite at any race he’s entered. In fact, he’s never taken lower than 2nd at any ITU race and has only taken 2nd a total of three or four times in his more than 20 ITU starts. It was a very long shot that I could beat him, but I was going to try my hardest. Brad is a seven time Paralympic medalist in swimming and has been making the transition to triathlon the last couple of years. Brad was able to out run me at last year’s CAMTRI American Championship and beat me by an overall margin of only 14 seconds. I’d bounced back later in 2018 to out race Brad at a World Cup by more than a minute. Today my competitive side wanted to bury Brad. The previous day at breakfast, Brad, his guide Colin, Zack and I were eating next to each other and Colin jokingly said “Hey Brad don’t give away any race strategy cause I know Kyle’s eves dropping over there.” We all laughed and I half jokingly replied, “Doesn’t matter because my strategy is to just kick your ass Brad.” So needless to say Brad and I were keeping an eye on each other.

There were also two Americans making their first ITU starts. Owen Cravens was a 16 year old who’d I’d heard vague whispers about. The social media buzz was that he was a star in the making and that he was possibly faster than Aaron. The final American in the field was my buddy Francesco Magisano who’d I’d met at Amy Dixon’s No Sight No Limits triathlon camp the previous January. Francesco’s still new to triathlon but has a ton of potential. He also happens to be a retinoblastoma survivor so we bonded over that.

Outside of we five Americans, there was a Canadian, John Dunkerley, who’d taken 2nd at CAMTRI last year and who’d shot up the rankings throughout the course of 2018. Going into today he was currently ranked 5th in the world. But having scrolled back over he’s previous year’s results I felt I could out swim, bike and run him. There was also an Israeli, Oren, and a Mexican, David. Zack and I’d met David on Wednesday evening when we were checking into the hotel. David was fairly new to triathlon but seemed like a great guy. Oren had previously raced on the ITU circuit but it had been several years so I wasn’t sure what to make of him.

At the end of the day my gut told me it was going to come down to Aaron, Brad and me. I knew that I was swimming, biking and running better than I ever had previously and that Aaron was nursing a hip injury. Despite that though I knew that if I was going to beat Aaron I’d have to race harder than I ever had before. One of the last things Derick said to me before I headed down to Florida was “Go turn some heads and let’em know you’re here to compete.” I planned to do just that.

Race Day

I woke up early, probably around 6:30 or so to feed and take Skye out. The race wasn’t until 2:30 so Zack elected to sleep in as much as possible. I like to stay on as much of a routine as possible so I stuck to my early wake up time. Once Zack got up we wandered down to stuff our bellies with breakfasts of eggs, bagels, peanut butter, fruit, bacon, waffles and coffee. We’d snack on fruit, carrots and other various snack items a couple of hours before the race and top off our glycogen stores with an energy jell 10 minutes before we got in the water.

Zack and I then finished packing our bags as we were checking out of the hotel prior to heading to the race (we had an early flight out of Tampa the following day so we’d elected to get a hotel in Tampa Saturday night post race) and spent some time just getting into our own zones.

Around noon we’d packed the car and checked out of the hotel. We drove over to Nathan Benderson Park and got ready to race.

We checked in and got my blacked out swim goggles and running/cycling glasses approved as well as the length of our swim tether. There are so many rules in ITU racing in general, now through in a few more on the para side and it can make your head spin if you think about it too much. But here are a few of the basics as it pertains to the Visually Impaired Division, or PTVI.

Some Rules Explanations

PTVI is actually separated into two categories—PTVI1 and PTVI2. PTVI1 is for those athletes who are totally blind—like me. There are generally three levels of visual impairment in the international sporting world, these are known as B1, B2 and B3. Athletes who have a designation of B2 and B3 have a certain level of visual acuity which can range from best corrected vision of 20/200 to a visual field of X percent (sorry I don’t exactly know the designations for B2 and B3 classification since it doesn’t really pertain to me). In short, B2 and B3 triathletes are placed into the PTVI2 category because they have some level of usable sight.

In 2010, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) established Paratriathlon as an official Paralympic sport. Rather than separating B1, B2 and B3 athletes into three separate categories they combined them into one. There just weren’t enough athletes with visual impairments competing in triathlon to warrant three separate medal events. However, controversy arose almost immediately because there was a blanket rule that all athletes with a visual impairment would be required to wear goggles and glasses that had been blacked out to make a “level playing field.” However, this didn’t go over too well. B2 and B3 athletes pointed out that they should be able to use their level of usable vision in triathlon just as other athletes with similar eye conditions could in other sports. It was also a safety hazard having those athletes who were used to training using their sight to suddenly not be able to do so in an event such as triathlon. Eventually it was determined that B2 and B3 athletes had a point. So a new system was developed which took swimming and running data from other Paralympic sports to create a time factor so that B2 and B3 athletes wouldn’t have too much of an advantage. This allowed B2/B3 athletes to not wear black out glasses/goggles. However, B1 athletes are still required to do so. This time factor continues to be adjusted year to year as more and more data from triathlons roll into the ITU’s database. In the early years of ITU racing B1 athletes got a little more than a 2 minute head start on B2/B3 athletes. In 2018 during my first year of ITU racing that factor was increased to 3 minutes and 16 seconds. This year in 2019 that factor was again increased to 3 minutes 21 seconds. This means that I as a totally blind athlete get a 3 minute and 21 second head start on my B2/B3 counterparts. Again, this is to make a more level playing field and is supposed to promote actual racing against each other. Is it a completely fair system? No, but right now it’s the best we have. Maybe one day there’ll be enough athletes to separate B1, B2 and B3 athletes into separate medal events, but at last check there are only 75 men who have done at least one ITU event in the past 18 months or so. Also at last check, I don’t think a B1 athlete has won a world championship or won a “Major” International race that had a field of more than a handful of visually impaired athletes.

A couple of other basic rules exist for PTVI athletes. First, all swim tethers must not exceed 80 cm in length and must be made of an elastic/bungee material. B1 athletes must wear blacked out goggles during the swim and can not remove their goggles until they reach their bike in transition at which time they can replace the goggles with blacked out sunglasses. The guide must not pull, push or propel the athlete forward in the swim or run. (For example, if your guide is significantly stronger than you in the swim they could potentially assist you by dragging you a bit in the water. So the rules state that the guide can not do this.) There is also a rule on run tether length. The run tether must not exceed 50 cm in length and must be made of a nonelastic material. The guide can also not physically “guide the runner except in designated “leading zones.” For example, when Zack and I are running I can not grab his elbow or wrist to have him physically guide me except at designated points on the course such as a narrow path or a tight turn around.

There are a few more rules and regulations, but those are the basics… Ok, got that? Now let’s cut out the boring talk and get to the racing shall we?

 

The Swim

“PTVI1 athletes, please make your way to the start.”

I lowered myself in my wetsuit off the edge of the pontoon and into the water. Zack was tethered to my left by an 80 cn length of bungee cord attached at my upper left thigh and his upper right. Zack, being an elite level swimmer and not being bothered by the water temps elected to go without a wetsuit. To Zack’s left were Brad and his guide Colin. To my right were the Israelis. On either side of us three athletes and guides I wasn’t quite sure but I knew that there were five B1 men and two B1 women in the water. Three minutes and 21 seconds after our gun went off the B2/B3 (or PTVI2) men would be sent off, and about 27 seconds after that the PTVI2 women would be sent off. Needless to say we who were currently in the water ready to race were packed tightly like sardines. My left shoulder was practically touching Zack and my right touching one of the Israelis.

The horn sounded and I put my head and charge ahead aggressively. I was being banged on my right side by the Israelis and Zack was being bounced into my left side by Brad and Colin. “Hey, it’s just like Ironman,” I thought. So I slammed my right elbow out creating a bit of space and then turned on the power to surge ahead of the Israelis. Then I felt someones feet at the edge of my reach and I instinctively knew I was on Brad’s feet. “Stay here and don’t let him get away,” I thought. And for the next 400 meters or so I continuously slapped Brad’s feet with each stroke. I occasionally felt Brad kick out as though he were trying to get me out of his draft, but I refused to ease up. I occasionally felt a tug on the tether as Zack turned us left. Then Zack pushed my ribs indicating if we needed to move right.

I fell into a rhythm of stroking, breathing and rotating. I was feeling strong and I felt like we were moving fast. Then all of a sudden I felt the tether get jerked part way down my leg. The previous year my guide and I’d gotten our tether tangled on a buoy and it cost us 30 or more seconds in the swim. “Fuck, we can’t be hooked on a buoy!” I screamed in my head. I reached back and thought I felt something on the tether. I popped my head up and Zack screamed at me, “Go, go go! Finish strong!” So I put my head back down and surged ahead. I again felt someone’s feet and stayed on them. However, it wasn’t Brad’s feet. It turned out that the Israelis tried to swim up between Zack and me and had grabbed onto our tether. Zack’s portion of the tether had actually come off but he was so quick in grabbing it and getting it back on that I didn’t notice. In that time though that I’d popped my head up and Zack took to get his tether back on the Israelis had darted around us and Brad and Colin had surged ahead.

I swam hard right up until my hands hit the swim exit. I came up out of the water pissed off at what ever had gone wrong with the tether.

Swim Time: 12 min 26 sec

 

Transition 1

I yanked down the zipper of my wetsuit as I sprinted past the Israelis and pulled the wetsuit to down around my waist. We made it into T1 and I quickly sat down on the ground for Zack to help me get my wetsuit off. It got hung up on one of my ankles costing us precious time but we eventually got it off and into the basket where we’re required to put things that come off our bodies. I tossed my cap and goggles in there as well as I grabbed and put on my cycling shoes. I stood, put on my blacked out sunglasses and helmet. Then I grabbed the Chinook off the bike rack and Zack and I ran toward bike exit.

Transition 1: 1 min 9 sec

 

The Bike

I threw my right leg over the top tube and luckily managed to clip in immediately. Zack pulled the pedal up and we launched. After a couple of quick pedal strokes with only our right feet clipped in we clipped in with our left and Zack shifted into a better racing gear. I felt the Chinook respond immediately as though it were coming alive beneath me. She was ready to race fast. After all, this is what she was built for.

We made it onto the bike course and immediately set our sites up the road looking for Brad. He wasn’t far ahead and we reeled him in slowly. We took a hard right hand turn to do the little extra out and back, made the tight left hand U turn and then another hard right to get on the main loop of the bike course. Then we put the power down and surged past Brad and Colin. “Let’s go boys!” I yelled as we passed. Zack and I were now leading the PTVI field. I had no idea what Aaron had swum, but I knew that he was going to be the fastest in the water and that he and his guide Ben were strong cyclists—injured hip or not. However, Zack and I were also strong on the bike and we decided that if Aaron wanted to win today he was going to have to earn it.

Zack took each turn aggressively in the arrow bars and I stayed tucked in tightly behind him. We completed the first lap in around 9 minutes and headed out for our second lap. Aaron still hadn’t caught us and Zack couldn’t see him and Ben when he glanced back. We took the out and back U turn a little more aggressively this time and accelerated out of the turn. Brad and Colin had managed to hold on about 20-30 seconds behind us but Zack and I quickly accelerated again and threw down an even faster second lap. Coming into the third lap Zack got his first glimpse of Aaron and Ben. We came out of the out and back U turn for the third time with about 20-25 seconds on Aaron and Ben. We pushed the pace but Aaron’s not a seven time world champion and the strongest PTVI cyclist in the world for nothing. They caught and passed us a little more than half way through the third lap.

Zack down shifted with about a mile to go so that we could spin our legs out a bit to get them ready for the run. Zack could still see Aaron and Ben as we rolled toward T2. About 45 seconds before we were due to get off the bike we put our left pedal down and unstrapped our right shoes placing our bare feet on the top of the shoe. Two or three pedal strokes later we did the same with the left foot. Zack waited til the last second to hit the breaks hard. We jumped off the bike and hit the ground running into T2.

Bike Time: 27 min 9 sec

 

Transition 2

I’d just successfully executed my first flying dismount in a race. We ran with the bike to our rack, racked it and tossed our helmets into the bins. I slipped on my running shoes (sockless) grabbed the run tether and headed toward run exit. I yanked on the run tether over my head and down around my waist as I ran and Zack did the same.

Transition 2: 58 sec

 

The Run

We made a couple of quick tight turns as we tried to find our run legs. Shortly after coming out of T2 there was a water stop. I didn’t want or need water just yet but the volunteer accidentally slammed an open bottle into my chest. “I can see he can’t” Zack yelled frustratedly. Fortunately it didn’t slow us down. We made it to an open area and turned up the pace.

In previous sprint races my strategy had been to go out as hard as possible and just hang on. Derick however had instructed me to ease into the run. He wanted me to hold no faster than a 6:30/mi pace for the first 0.5 miles. After that we could recess and with pick it up or hold steady.

“I can still see Aaron and Ben up ahead,” Zack told me as we started to settle into our groove. We came down the backside of a foot bridge running at a sub 6 min/mi pace. Once we hit the flat at the bottom of the bridge we reeled it back and settled into a 6:30ish pace. I didn’t speak. I just focused on my breathing, my cadence, my arm swing and not slowing down.

“Snake left. Step toward me. Don’t stop. Water coming up I’ll grab it. Toss it right when you’re done.” Zack kept up a constant stream of instruction and encouragement. “I can still see Aaron. Keep your pace. How many races have the Brownly brothers won because they just stuck to their pace and let the guys in front crack?”

I pushed my body to another gear. We began to approach the turn around and we saw Aaron and Ben coming back toward us. “Hang on to it! You got it man. It’s just a race between you and Aaron now. No one’s in sight behind us.”

The 180 degree turn around was a leading zone so I hooked my right hand under Zack’s left elbow and we executed a super tight right hand turn. We were half way through the run now and still in striking distance if I could only dig deep enough. Only problem was that as soon as we made the turn we now had a tail wind which was blowing at the same speed we were running. “Oh fuck!” I thought as the air became still. I tried to run faster to create a breeze to cool my body down but the heat was brutal. My breathing rate went up and so did my heart rate. “Stay with it. How bad do you want this?”

We hit the next water stop and I sloshed water over myself in an attempt to cool down. It didn’t do much as the water was lukewarm at best. We passed Brad and Colin going the other way. Hot on their heels were the Israelis and the Canadians. We had at least a two minute gap on them though so as long as I didn’t start walking the silver medal was mine. But I didn’t want Silver. I tried to dig a little deeper, but the gap between Aaron and me steadily grew. I tossed water into my mouth and over my body. Sweat poured down me. My legs, heart and lungs burned. Zack continued to coach and encourage me. “Lean forward, keep your form, don’t give in.”

We hit the second to last bridge and it felt as though my legs were made of lead. We came down the backside and I tried lengthening my stride. We executed some tight left an right hand turns before coming into the final stretch. I gritted my teeth and pumped my arms and legs willing them to go faster. We hit the finish line in 2nd place 1 minute and 50 seconds after Aaron and Ben. I’d run a 5 km personal record and secured my second silver medal and second podium in only my third ever ITU race. But as I staggered to a stop and nearly collapsed on the ground I was far from satisfied.

Run Time: 21 min 24 sec

Total Time: 1 hour 3 min 3 sec

 

Post Race

We were just beyond the finish line. I was supporting myself in an almost downward dog position on the ground as Zack poured cold water over me. Finally I staggered to my feet and we made our way to greet and congratulate Aaron on an excellent race. “I wanted to make you earn that one,” I said to him. “You did man,” he replied and then we shared a quick hand shake and hug then turned to wait to see who’d finish in 3rd to round out the podium. It turned out to be Brad and Colin who managed to out last both the Israelis and Canadians making it an American podium sweep. We congratulated Brad and Colin as they came across the line and then it was off to refuel, rehydrate and wait for other Team USA athletes to finish.

Once all of the PTVI men had crossed the line, the women started coming in. We all got together and posed for photos and chatted about our individual races. There was a buzz of excitement that only a hard fought race can bring. I was happy that I’d set new personal bests in each triathlon leg, but at the same time I wanted to do nothing else but get back to the training center and start working to narrow that gap between Aaron and myself.

We shared the podium with Aaron and Ben on the top step, Zack and I on the second, and Brad and Colin on the third. Team USA had swept the PTVI Men’s podium. After stepping down from the podium we again congratulated each other and said “Let’s do this racing thing again some time.” Then we left.

Zack and I made our way to an all you can eat pizza buffet and stuffed ourselves before heading to Tampa, disassembling and packing the bike and falling asleep for a few hours. Then it was up early, get to the airport and fly home to rest up for a couple days and get back to training. After all, Silver tasted sweet, but I want to see how Gold tastes. And in order to do that I got a lot of work to put in.

 

CAMTRI American Championship Results:

  1. Aaron Scheidies; 1:01:13 (Swim 11:00, T1 1:06, Bike 25:10, T2 0:49, Run 19:49, plus 3:21 factor time)
  2. Kyle Coon; 1:03:03 (Swim 12:26, T1 1:09, Bike 27:09, T2 0:58, Run 21:24)
  3. Brad Snyder; 1:05:37 (Swim 11:54, T1 1:27, Bike 29:20, T2 0:59, Run 22:00)

#eyeronvision