Tokyo Para-triathlon World Cup
August 17, 2019
2.5 km Run, 19.2 km bike, 5 km Run
“National team is on the line.”
“This is like my world championships.”
“You’re running well, so attack early and keep that podium streak alive.”
“You come off the bike with a 90sec or 2min lead on Aaron and/or Ellis then anything can happen.”
I arrived in Tokyo on the evening of Wednesday, August 14. I’d flown from Colorado Springs via Chicago with few hiccups. This was actually the first time I’d traveled completely solo internationally, but fortunately the flight attendants and airport personnel in Japan spoke wonderful English. We located my bike, spare wheels and got me into a cab bound for our team hotel. I fell into bed exhausted but unable to sleep for several hours. I finally fell asleep around 4 AM and got a fitful few hours of sleep before I made my way down to breakfast where I successfully navigated the breakfast options with help from our team nutritionist, Sally. Then it was time to build the bike and get in a swim. Our team mechanic, James, helped me put the Chinook together in record time and he had it shifting and running beautifully. Everything was moving along smoothly.
I accompanied the team to the lap pool where we executed a quick workout. Most of the team had already been in Japan for several days, but we all still complained about the heat and humidity. Every time I stepped outside it was like being engulfed by a wall of warm water. Occasionally a breeze would blow, cooling us off ever so briefly only for the heavy air to envelope us again.
Zack arrived that night having flown directly from San Francisco and having barely slept on the plane. This it turned out worked in our favor as Zack was able to sleep hard through the night and woke refreshed and ready to go on Friday morning for the bike familiarization.
Japan has a law against tandems and hand cycles on the roads which really baffled me. I’d been told that Japan was so incredibly accommodating to people who are blind or visually impaired and in some aspects they were. On every sidewalk a raised line split the sidewalk in half which was meant for a blind person to drag their feet or cane along. At the bends and turns in the sidewalk was a different pavement surface notifying you of a turn. However as soon as we’d step inside, the accessibility seemed to go from wonderful to extremely limited. No hotel room had Braille or even a raised print number on the signs. The elevator buttons were almost like a touch screen in that you just touched the button and the elevator registered your touch and assumed that was the floor you intended to go to. In one elevator a couple of the buttons had Braille next to them, but not next to all of the buttons. The elevators also gave off no indication as to what floor you were on. No voice saying a number in Japanese or English, no beeps to count, nothing. So for this totally blind guy it was very disconcerting. My first morning in Japan I spent riding the elevator up and down a couple times trying to get to the breakfast level so it was a relief when Zack finally arrived and we could go places together.
Despite Japanese law stating we couldn’t ride tandems on the streets we biked over to the race venue just hoping a police officer wouldn’t catch us, We rationalized that anyone would assume we were stupid/ignorant Americans. We performed two laps of the bike course, paying attention to every turn and the condition of the pavement. On the course map provided, the bike course appeared extremely technical. However once we got out and rode the course, Zack and I became excited by the prospect of taking some of the turns aggressively at race pace. The course seemed to suit our punchy quick surge style of riding and, with Zack’s tandem handling abilities, we thought we might have a good ride.
We returned to the hotel for a large breakfast of eggs, fried rice, fruit, bread products and coffee before heading back to the race venue for swim familiarization.
The wind was blowing strong making little waves in the bay where we’d swim. Race officials elected not to set out the swim buoys because it would be too difficult because of the wind. Instead they had lifeguards stationed where the buoys would be. This didn’t work out great either though as the lifeguards kept moving around. Despite everything, Zack and I swam well and I was feeling good and confident. My swim was stronger than it had ever been even with the slight chop in the water. This was going to be my second race in a month without a wetsuit as water temps were hovering above 80 degrees. The saltwater provided a certain amount of buoyancy though that was similar to wearing a wetsuit. We returned to the hotel to rest and prepare for the race briefing.
After the briefing we rested, had a meeting with Derick to strategize our race, and then we met up with Howie and his handler, Sarah, for dinner. We found a conveyer belt sushi restaurant a short walk from the hotel. Not being one for raw fish, I selected only cooked fish as well as a bowl of ramen. It was a delicious meal and we returned to the hotel to sleep and gear up for the next day’s race.
Race Day: Rolling with the Punches
“A meeting took place this morning and it has been determined that the water quality is unsafe therefore the paratriathlon race has been modified to a duathlon.”
“What the fuck!” I exclaimed as I read the email, time stamped 4:32 AM, only 30 minutes before Zack and I’d planned to depart and head to the race venue to check in. Originally our race had been scheduled to start at 6:30 AM but now with the swim canceled the format was drastically changed. The bike course was still the same but the run course was modified from three laps to four for the 5K. Our race would now consist of two laps of 1.25 km (totaling 2.5 km), followed by a five lap bike totaling 19.2 km followed by a four lap run of 1.25 km totaling 5 km. Start times were shifted around as well. Now wheelchair athletes would race first, starting at 6:40 AM and the Visually impaired racing wouldn’t begin until 7:55 AM. More problematic from my point of view was that now the course was going to be much more crowded once we got to the second run as we’d have to dodge around all of the upright para categories on narrow running paths. Temperatures were also supposed to be 10 degrees warmer at 8 AM as opposed to 7 AM. Not to mention, the top guys in the VI class against whom I’d be competing were significantly better runners than I was.
PTVI Men’s Race Outlook
Dave Ellis: 3x World Champion who competed as a Paralympic swimmer and track athlete prior to switching to triathlon. He was being guided by Ironman pro Tim Don (former Ironman 140.6 world record holder and who’s probably best known for surviving a horrific bike crash two days before racing in Kona and then making a comeback which included spending several months in a halo to help heal his broken neck). Ellis is like a dolphin in the water and a gazelle on the run. The chances of Zack and I beating him in a triathlon were slim at this point, but in a duathlon?…We could only hope that we had a ridiculously strong bike and I could run fast enough to hold him off.
Aaron Scheidies: 7x World Champion, possibly considered the greatest Visually impaired triathlete of all time. My USA teammate who was racing his second race post hip surgery. A wicked strong cyclist and runner; but he and his guide had been known to struggle in the heat and Aaron didn’t quite have the running legs he’d had the past few years. Possible? Maybe, after all I did finish 46sec behind him at Paratriathlon Nationals just three weeks ago.
Jonathan Goerlach: An Australian who’s a ridiculously strong runner. This was the guy I was most worried about. Apart from Dave Ellis, Golach was the only one ever to finish ahead of Aaron in a race. I knew that if we’d been competing in a triathlon, I could out swim Golach, our bikes were fairly similar, but he would destroy me in the 5K. Now I needed to have the run of my life and possibly the bike of my life if I wanted to finish on the podium.
Arnaud Grandjean: A frenchman who could also run like the wind and who’s bike was similar to mine. I’d been run down and beaten by his countryman Antoine a month earlier in Magog, and a new French athlete Thibaut had nearly caught me at the line.
Apart from these fine gentlemen, I thought I could hold off the rest of the field. The bright side was that these four were all starting now 3min and 4sec behind me. I didn’t have to be the fastest at run, bike, run, I just had to be fast enough to hold them off. Could I do it? Derick texted me and said “Strategy doesn’t change. Go out hard and go for the win. You’re running strong right now.”
Pre-Race Jitters, Cooling and Warming Up
The night before the race Zack and I’d each swallowed a pill that would lodge itself in our intestines and through radio frequencies would notify our team physiologist, Carwin, of what our core body temperatures were. Carwin would be able to analyze the data after the race and come up with more effective cooling strategies for the future. For the meantime though I wore an ice vest and stuffed a stocking full of ice under my trisuit. Zack and I spun our legs out on the bike trainer, then performed a short 10 min jog with a couple pick-ups to get the jitters out. Then it was time to head to the start line.
We lined up with the rest of the B1 men, shoulder to shoulder under the hot sun with the humidity pressing down on us. My heart thumped and I focused on taking slow deep breaths as I listened to the countdown over the loud speaker. When the horn sounded, I launched myself forward, but there was something wrong. The buzzer used to signify the start kept going off. We all faltered and came to a stop. “False start,” Zack said to me. Apparently one of the Ukrainians had jumped early. We were all brought back to the start line and reset. I again focused on breathing and set my feet, right leg back, shoulders and hips down and relaxed ready to spring.
The countdown began again and the horn sounded. We were off.
I launched myself forward, determined to seize an early lead so that Zack could dictate the lines we took around the turns. We opened up a sizable gap on the rest of the field surging up a hill and taking a hard right then left. Even though I was running well, I was a little hesitant around the corners not knowing how aggressive or wide each turn was. On the straight-a-ways I was able to get my legs up to speed, but as soon as I reached a sustainable speed I had to slam on the breaks to go into the next turn. Very quickly this acceleration and deceleration caught up with me. One of the Ukrainians, Anatolii Varfolomieiev, reeled me in and took a slight lead. I knew I was stronger than Anatolii on the bike so I wasn’t overly concerned if he got into T1 before me, but I knew I had to minimize the gap. Plus, I wanted to be the one dictating the race, so I pushed myself a little harder. Anatolii was running at a different level than me though and pulled away little by little.
Zack and I blazed through the transition area which was part of the run course and began our second lap by surging up a steep ramp. Running uphill is not one of my strengths despite living in Colorado. When I’d lived and trained in the Roaring Fork Valley I relished hills because that was what I trained on. Now though Derick and I had focused on pure speed so hills had once again become an achilles heel. Trying to run up a 5 plus percent grade on a slippery vinyl material slick with humidity drained me and as we started the second lap of the run my foot caught on a lip nearly sending me down. I caught myself but a “Fuck!” Flew from my lips and spiked my heart rate. Once again I had to get up to speed and the trip cost me a few seconds. I wasn’t sure what was going on behind me but I knew that guys like Ellis, Scheidies and Golach would be running much harder and faster than I was currently. I did my best to run hard but not to overdo it. I went into what Zack calls the “Maybe Zone” or is it the “Navy Zone?” I’m never sure because the only time he mentions it is when when I’m running at 5K effort. It could be the “maybe zone” because I’m running at a pace that I can “maybe” hold on to. Or it could be “navy zone” because I’m hovering between the black and red zones… But I digress.
We blazed into transition and made it to the bike a little less than 20sec behind Anatolii and his guide, and only a few seconds ahead of Donnacha McCarthy of Ireland. I yanked off my running shoes and put on my helmet and cycling shoes. Then we were running with the bike toward the mount line. We stopped, threw our right legs over the top tube, clipped in, and took off.
Run 1: 9min 9sec
Transition 1: 55sec
On the map, the bike course appeared quite technical with multiple turns and several U-turns. When you throw in five laps, intrigue is added. Zack and I powered out of transition and took the first few turns cautiously. We knew we had to reel in the Ukrainians but we weren’t overly concerned. While I wanted to blow by them on the first lap I knew I couldn’t over cook it too early. We took the first lap to get a feeling for the course at race pace. There was one U-turn which had a sketchy portion of pavement, but we handled it with ease. From a pure fun and challenge standpoint, the bike course was incredible. It not only tested our physically ability of throwing down huge power numbers, but also Zack’s decision making on how and when to take turns. What turns could we pedal through, which ones did we need to stand up out of, and how wide or tight could we take each turn?
It wasn’t until the third lap that we finally caught the Ukrainians and passed them. Once we made the pass though we dropped them quickly. We opened a gap and never saw them again. We were now in the lead where I wanted to be and where I was much more comfortable. They say it’s more difficult racing from the front, but I’ve only ever raced from the front so it’s comfortable for me.
On our fourth lap the course was beginning to get more crowded. An athlete from another sport class (not a visually impaired athlete) was riding on the left hand side of the road. This course was a “ride right, pass left” course. This means that cyclists are supposed to ride on the right hand side of the road and only can ride on the left when they’re passing another cyclist. Zack was yelling at the top of his lungs for the cyclist to move to the right by screaming “On your left, on your left!” However the cyclist either ignored him, didn’t speak English, or thought there was plenty of room to the left. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough room on the left, so as we entered the “drafting zone” Zack had no choice but to pull hard right and pass. This occurred right in front of an official on a motorbike. We thought for sure we were going to be penalized for passing on the right especially as the official pulled up alongside us. However, he didn’t penalize us but rather just told us that we had only one more lap to go. Our best guess was that the official had heard Zack yelling and saw that he had no choice but to pass on the right because of safety reasons.
Now Zack and I were leading the PTVI race and I had no intention of relinquishing the lead. I hammered at the pedals squeezing every watt I could out of my legs. I drained my bottle of electrolytes less than one minute out from transition. With about 30sec to go Zack gave the command to take off our right shoes, then the left. We hit a ramp and dived down into transition. We leaped off the bike and ran hard toward our rack. Zack quickly racked the bike, I tossed my helmet into the bin, yanked on my shoes and pulled on the run tether. Then we were sprinting toward the run start.
Bike: 28min 40sec
Transition 2: 45sec
As we exited transition I powered my way up the steep ramp/hill that would begin each lap. My heart rate immediately went through the roof and I felt the heat. “Ignore it,” I told myself, “This is why you spent so much time in the HATC.” I knew I was capable of running close to 19 minutes on this 5K and if I did that, who knew what would happen behind me. I gritted my teeth and took each turn on the run as fast as I could. At every aid station Zack threw water over me and I got as much water into my mouth as possible. Fans were all over the run course clapping and cheering, but I tried to only focus on Zack’s directions. Step left, come right, right turn, now left turn. I tried to keep my forward lean and to kick my legs out behind me. I pumped my arms trying to keep my run cadence high. We entered into the transition area plunging down a steep hill. As we ran toward the start of the second lap I heard a British voice call out “On your left,” and then Tim Don and Dave Ellis went streaking by me like I was standing still.
“Go with them!” Zack encouraged me. “You’ve got it in you, dig deep.” I really tried but Ellis was running like a man possessed. He ran away from me so fast I thought I was running backwards. Now the only thought in my head was to minimize the damage. I had to finish within 3 percent of Ellis’s time to earn a spot on the USA Triathlon National B Team, and with the way Ellis was running, I’d have to have the run of my life to make that time cut off.
With each successive lap my legs seemed to get heavier and heavier. My breathing became more and more labored. I was weaving from side to side and it took immense concentration to keep running in as straight a line as possible. On every lap Derick tossed a stocking full of ice to Zack which we wrapped around my neck to try and keep me cool. But my second and third laps passed in a haze of heat and pain. Despite that I entered the third lap still holding on to second place. About three quarters of the way through lap three, Aaron came up running fast on my left. The path was tight and Zack got us over to the right side as far as he could, but now Zack, Aaron, Ben and I were running four across and the course was crowded with other sport classes not running as fast.
Aaron’s right foot got tangled with my left nearly sending us both crashing to the ground. Fortunately we both stayed up and Aaron moved ahead chasing after Ellis who was already more than a minute up the road. Hot on our heels now was Jonathan Goerlach of Australia. He and his guide passed us chasing Aaron. Now I was desperately clinging on to fourth place. I had no idea who was behind me and I was starting to wonder and think that every person that ran passed on my left was a VI male. I dug deeper going to a place of hurt I hadn’t gone to before.
We began the fourth lap and I was pretty much going on will power alone now. I knew I could survive 1.25 km. There was a scary moment when Zack told me we were passed by the team from Hong Kong and that we’d just passed the Ukrainians. “I thought we’d dropped them far behind,” I wondered. As we approached the final few hundred meters I knew every second was going to count so whatever was left in the tank, I emptied it. I vaguely heard the announcers say something about me coming across the finish line and I heard Zack say we were done, but the next thing I knew I’d sunk to the ground–hot, dripping in sweat and shaking from exhaustion. Zack supported me as he half dragged, half carried me over to the side to allow other runners to come through the shoot. Two thoughts filled my head at that moment. The first was that I was really happy the race was over. The second was, “I’ve got to get better at running.”
Run 2: 20min 13sec
Total Time: 59min 42sec
As I lay on the ground to the side of the finish line a medical volunteer draped several cold wet towels over me and kept asking if I was okay. I was fine, just exhausted and hot. Zack was able to support me as we walked into the medical tent. I sat on a chair and tried to drink water. I just needed to cool down and stay off my feet a few minutes. Anatolii, who’d crossed the finish line a little more than 20sec behind me had to get taken away on a stretcher because of heat exhaustion.
Eventually I was able to stand and slowly make my way to the recovery area where there were some ice baths set up as well as volunteers plying everyone with food, electrolytes and water. I sank into an ice bath and immediately felt rejuvenated. I didn’t want to run another 5K, but my head cleared and I was able to think and talk coherently. I eventually got more fluid into my body and some food in my stomach.
Zack and I eventually made it back to the athlete lounge where the rest of the team was congregating. I was trying to not be disappointed with myself. Zack and I weren’t really sure where we’d finished. Were we fourth or fifth? I knew we weren’t within the 3 percent time we’d needed to make the National Team. It was the first time Zack and I’d finished off the podium and I wasn’t pleased with myself because of that. At the same time though I don’t think I could’ve gone harder. I tried to rationalize with myself that if there’d been a swim the results could’ve been different, but you have to race the race you’re presented with and today I wasn’t podium worthy.
Our team physiologist, Carwin, downloaded the data from our temperature pills and did a quick scan of the data. Based on what he saw, he said that during the first run my core temperature went up to 102 degrees then came down to about 101.5 on the bike before going straight back up on the second run. My peak temperature was around 104. He wanted to analyze the data more closely before making any conclusions. The good news was that Zack appeared to regulate body temperature a bit better than I did meaning that he still had more to give. Well, no fear in my guide overheating 🙂 We talked briefly about maybe having a more aggressive cooling strategy pre-race for me but ultimately I just wanted to get out of there and get back to the hotel.
We did find out the official results which had Zack and me in fourth place. Ellis had indeed had an incredible race running a 16min 39sec 5K. Aaron had held on to second place 1min and 46sec behind Ellis. Right on Aaron’s heels was Goerlach 6sec back. Then there was me in fourth 2min 41sec back of Ellis, 55sec back of Aaron, and49sec back of Goerlach. Anatolii came in fifth just 23sec behind me. Thank goodness I’d had such a solid bike.
Later on when the splits were published online I actually sat down and analyzed the times. I was pleased with both of my transition times, very pleased with my first run, and so-so on my bike. I was pleased with the bike in the sense that I was only 57sec slower than Aaron who had the fastest bike split of the day, but disappointed because it was the first time in my ITU career that I didn’t have the second fastest bike split of the day. In fact I had the fifth fastest. Ellis, Goerlach and Grandjean all had faster bike splits (Goerlach and Grandjean only out biked me by 7sec and 2sec respectively though). I was disappointed that I hadn’t broken 20min on my 5K and resolved to train smarter and harder to get that 5K to where Derick, Zack and I knew I was capable.
On the walk back to the hotel, Zack and I had a brief chat with Dave Ellis and his guide Tim Don. We congratulated them on a superb race and they said they were looking forward to racing us in Lausanne in a couple weeks. Unfortunately we had to inform them that we hadn’t made the Lausanne start list and we’d have to do battle some other time. They both seemed surprised but wished us luck in whatever races we had coming up.
After showers and a bit of rest, we headed out to find some real food. We wound up hanging out with Howie and his handler, Sarah, for lunch and a bit of exploring. That night we again met up with Howie and Sarah for a sumptuous meal on the 30th floor of a hotel overlooking the Tokyo skyline and the Rainbow Bridge. We ate numerous courses of steak, rice, vegetables, soup and dessert. We occasionally chatted about the race, but for the most part we all just enjoyed the incredible food and even better company. After all, none of us were 100 percent sure if we’d get this opportunity to be in Tokyo again, so we just soaked up the atmosphere and experience.
The next day we all made our way back to the USA. Some of the Team was preparing for the World Championships coming up on September 1, and some of us weren’t sure what we were going to do. I was in the latter category. I’d put in for a race in Banyoles, Spain on September 8 but hadn’t made the start list. Zack suggested maybe racing at the World Cup in Turkey the week before he was due to race Kona, but Derick said for us to hold off on making that decision. So for now it looks like my 2019 triathlon season is on hold until further notice.
My final thoughts on the Tokyo Paratriathlon World Cup? I’m disappointed with fourth place, but I gave it everything I had in a race format that didn’t play to my strengths. I still have reached the podium four times in six ITU starts and have never finished lower than fourth place. This was also the second race in a row in which I finished within 1min of Aaron who is the best VI triathlete in the US. There were many positives mixed in with many areas in which I need to improve. As we went wheels up from Tokyo I vowed to give it everything I had to ensure that I’d be back in Tokyo in August/September of 2020, fighting for a podium spot at the Paralympic Games.
Tokyo Para-triathlon World Cup Results
- Dave Ellis, GBR, 57min 1sec
- Aaron Scheidies, USA, 58min 47sec
- Jonathan Goerlach, AUS, 58min 53sec
- Kyle Coon, USA, 59min 42sec