My First Triathlon as a VI Athlete (Visually Impaired)

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It’s been a while since I’ve sat down to write, and my sore muscles forced me to finally take a much needed break from training for my first triathlon this morning, so here I am at the computer.  I cannot begin to describe the amazing journey I’ve had to get to this point- one week away from my very first triathlon with an amazing and fearless sighted guide to help me navigate the course safely.  I’ve fallen, crashed into stationary objects, bonked my head on the pool’s edge, and had emergency bike dismounts along the way, but still managed to get here in one piece, fitter than I ever remember being, and feeling like I can conquer the world thanks to the amazing team of supporters, trainers, and cheerleaders along the way.

I got the ‘bug’ honestly after breaking my foot last year, falling down the stairs ironically at a local running store, after signing up to begin running with their weekly training group.  It really is true what they say, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.”  I was horribly disappointed that my eye doctor had FINALLY cleared me to go back to exercise following multiple surgeries on my right eye, only to end up in a cast for 6 weeks during the height of the summer.  I begged the orthopedist to allow me to do SOMETHING, to which he suggested Aqua Jogging.  Having swam competitively from the age of 6, I was rather excited to get back in the pool, and joined my local YMCA, a life-changing decision.

My friend Carol, a sufferer of Polio as a child, is wheelchair bound and swam their several days a week to keep her strength up.  She was a member of a lovely group of ladies who did something called “Aqua Fit”, a series of resistance based exercises in the water.  ‘Perfect” I thought to myself.  I was horrified at the thought of having to put on a bathing suit, given the 45 pounds I had gained.  One of my eye surgeries had gone horribly wrong, causing an anaphylactic reaction to one of the drugs they gave me for pain.  The high doses of steroids they gave me to combat the reaction had permanently destroyed my adrenal glands and thyroid, to the point that they no longer were functioning.  I was living on egg whites, Greek Yogurt and bananas, but the scale continued to climb.  I became depressed and embarassed to be seen in public.   However, I felt safe with these ladies in the pool, and kept myself covered with a towel the second I got onto dry land.

Within weeks I felt stronger thanks to the encouragement of these wonderful women.  I began walking more with Elvis as my foot allowed and worked hard 3 days per week at Physical Therapy to rehabilitate the foot.  By fall, I had re-discovered spinning on a spin bike, and could sneak into the bike room at the Y to do 30 minutes without an audience of other people to laugh at my lack of fitness.  When I finally did decide to brave a full hour spin class with other attendees, I was delighted to see my favorite instructor from my old gym, Wendy, had joined the training staff at the YMCA.  I was instantly hooked.  Her crazy energy, heart-pumping music and supportive fellow classmates were the perfect cocktail to push me back towards my old, healthy self.

After finding the right Endocrinologist and starting medication to kick start my thryoid and adrenal system, the weight FINALLY started dropping off.  Within a month, the first ten pounds disappeared like magic.  I decided that I wanted to begin running, but realized that running solo was no longer an option.  I joined a Facebook group called, “Visually Impaired Runners and Guides” which paired local blind and visually impaired runners with guides in their area.  It was here that I met my angel, Caroline Gaynor.  Caroline is the Triathlon Director for a veteran’s advocacy group called Team RWB (Red , White and Blue).  She had guided blind athletes in many triathlons, including a few Ironmans, the ultimate test of endurance.  What happened next changed the course of my life forever.

Caroline invited me to a ‘spin-a-thon’ in Danbury CT to benefit wounded soldiers and help buy them an adapted handicap van for them to be able to drive again and get their independance back.  I signed up, and off we went.  There were hundreds of people there to support these vets, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when they were presented their new keys to freedom.  I hopped on a spin bike next to a double leg amputee, who was spinning on his hand-cycle, grinning from ear to ear.  He got a real kick out of Elvis, my guide dog, who slept quietly at the front of my bike, despite the crowd and the loud music.  I realized how great his spirit was, how grateful he was to all that was being done for him, and what INCREDIBLE shape he was in despite his disability!  After an hour, he had hardly broke a sweat.  I was in awe.

Caroline introduced me to many veterans that day, and explained to me that Team RWB is an organization that helps returning vets with PTSD, and physical wounds by getting them active both socially and physically by training and competing alongside their civilian friends.  I immediately signed up.

I started spinning like a mad woman, 4 days a week, and got my butt off of the aqua jogger, and put my head down into the pool.  I was reluctant to do this at first, because normal goggles hurt my eye socket where the surgery had taken place, and I was concerned about disturbing my valve.  I did some research and found ‘open water’ goggles that went over my brow rather than my orbital bone, and dove in.  Elvis would lay by the pool, his eyes constantly on me as I did lap after slow lap. In the beginning, ten laps felt like miles.  With each week, my fitness and my confidence built, and I was up to 40 laps continuously.  I was checking the bulletin board one day at the Y, and saw there was an event to raise money called the Mile Swim.  A mile in a 25 meter pool is 66 laps +/- and I was almost there.  I signed up.

The day of the mile swim, I was incredibly nervous.  My mom and friend/ spin instructor extraordinaire Wendy came over to count my laps and hold Elvis during the chaos.  I raised about $250, and was determined not to be the slowest swimmer in the pool.  As mom, Elvis, and Wendy watched, a nice woman walked me to the far side of the pool.  I was a jumble of nerves with such an audience, and wondered if I could actually do this without stopping.  I dove in.

At the half way point, I was completely breathless, due to a combination of nerves and going too fast to try to keep up with those in neighboring lanes.  Watching the giant scoreboard on the wall didn’t help, seeing folks that were 15 laps ahead of me at this point of the swim.  So I began to laugh.  And joke, and carry on.  It’s what I do when I’m incredibly nervous, and it usually works.  Having Wendy give me high fives, and cheering me on gave me the strength to keep going.  Every now and then I flipped over on my back to do backstroke when my breath simply ran out.

After 38 painful, breathless minutes, I completed the swim, and a huge roar came out from the crowd.  I didn’t realize it, but apparently a blind swimmer draws quite and audience, and I was both elated and embarrassed at the same time.  I didn’t realize it, but the woman watching and timing my lane was a former Olympian, and I was honored and humbled when she presented me with my finisher’s medal and walked me back to my dog and family.  The local newspapers took lots of photos of Elvis and I that day, and ran the story the following morning.  I had no idea that it was that big of a deal at the time.

I was relieved to know that I wasn’t in fact the slowest person that day of the 75 swimmers who participated, but newly determined to get that time chopped way down and become the swimmer I once was and knew I could be.  I even started contemplating triathlons.  “Am I crazy?” I thought to myself.  Perhaps, but you only get one chance to do these things in life, and perhaps I could tough it out.  I called Caroline and asked if she would be my guide.

Caroline invited me to a paratriathlon seminar and training clinic at Columbia University so I could see what it was all about.  We walked through the expo, with lots of different gear and clubs advertising and selling their wares.  I treated myself to a pair of compression socks and got ready for our clinic in the pool.  When I got there, there were two other disabled athletes, one with partial paralysis due to a stroke, and the other a veteran who had suffered a leg amputation.  Both were in amazing physical shape.  Our coach from USA Paratriathlon, Joan, took us through some basic drills and worked on our speed and breath control.  It was awesome swimming with these guys and I started to feel like a triathlon could be within my reach.

Afterwards we went up to Joan’s laboratory, where she studies how to measure or rate disabled athletes’ degree of impairment, and is working hard with the USAT to set a new standard for rating the disabled.  We had a great question and answer period, and I learned more in an hour than I had in a lifetime about the rules applying to disabled athletes and what technology was out there to help us compete.  Afterwards the group grabbed pizza, and I literally bounced the entire train ride back to Connecticut with excitement.

One of the exciting introductions made that day was to a former Paratriathlon coach named Eric who generously offered me his old tandem cycle that was sitting in his garage in Massachussetts.  I was floored at this incredibly kind offer, as buying a tandem bike is very expensive and cost prohibitive for me while I’m not working.  We exchanged emails and made plans to get the bike down to CT.  This was actually happening!

Through Team RWB, I found a local man from Fairfield who loved to pilot tandems for visually impaired athletes and owned a very fancy bike which he used to do long distance rides on to benefit veterans.  We met and I had my first tandem ride in Old Greenwich CT, which was both terrifying and exhilirating at the same time.  I hadn’t traveled that fast since driving a car, and it felt amazing to have the wind in my hair and the freedom to go wherever I wanted to, all the while staying safely behind my pilot, Scott.  I became hooked on the feeling, and eventually we worked our way up to 20 miles with hills and lots of traffic after several rides together.

When my tandem arrived, I immediately dragged Caroline up from NYC to come for a test ride.  Even though my bike was ancient, it could really move!  Eric hand maintained it beautifully, and after some minor tweaking to unfreeze the frozen seatpost, we were off and cycling!  I attended a meeting of the local Greenwich Triathlon club, which met at a local physical therapy and training studio.  There I was introduced to some great people to train with, and told which triathlon would be a great, fun, easy first experience competing locally.  I went home and signed up for the Sleepy Hollow Sprint Triathlon for June 9.  I had 12 weeks to get ready.  One of the women swore by her swim coach, an Ironman triathlete by the name of Joanne who trained members at the Boys and Girls Club.  Joanne was impressed by my swimming, and made small adjustments to improve my strength, glide, stroke, and breathing to make me incredibly fast in the water.

I’m a total Groupon addict, and found one for a triathlon one day camp at Chelsea Piers CT, a HUGE indoor facility that had every sport covered, from lacrosse, to swimming, climbing, hockey, and gymnastics.  There we swam, biked and ran all day, and I took feverish notes, and hung on every word from their experienced coaches.  I met a woman my age who lived a few blocks from me who was also about to do her first tri.  We agreed to swim together at least once a week at the YMCA and she was also going to join the Chelsea Piers Endurance team to further her training.  Since it was out of my budget, she kindly offered to teach me what she learned each week so that I could apply it to my own training.

The dog attack and resulting sprained ankle that I had suffered put a major kink in my training schedule, causing me to be off for a few weeks, and halted me from being able to do any running.  I was determined to get back on two feet and off the bike and out of the pool, but my weak ankle reminded me that I wasn’t ready.  I religiously did my exercises to strengthen it, and foolishly signed up for a Boston Tribute Run in Danbury.  I slogged through 3 miles with NO training prior to it, but was bouyed by the camraderie of these amazing veterans and athletes all coming together to show their support of Boston.  We said a prayer at each mile for each one of the victims, and I pushed myself to run the entire length of the course.  I was breathless and felt like I had a piano on my back, but I got it done.  The running ‘bandaid’ had been ripped off, and I was on the road to recovery.

While searching for a tandem to share with Caroline in NYC for training, I was introduced via Facebook to Kathleen Bateman, the Director of Achilles International, a multi-sport group of disabled athletes, based in NY.  She invited me to join their team, and to come down to one of their workouts in Central Park every Tuesday and Saturday.  Elvis and I suited up and hopped the train.  We met up with the group at the NY Road Runners’ Club on 89th and 5th avenue.  There were 6 other blind athletes there for the workout, and I spent the evening getting to know them all and met their guide dogs.  One of the athletes was using a walker, and he told me he was here every week doing a mile.  I was speechless.  If he could get himself out to participate with this amazing group, so could I.

The group was amazingly well organized.  They had an army of volunteers who would walk our guide dogs, and guides who would run or walk with us, guiding us with a tether or rope throughout the crowded portion of Central Park.  We would tell them what pace we wanted to run and how far, and they’d match us up with the appropriate pacer.  The guides were amazing.  They would shout at runners with IPods on, “Blind Athlete!  Coming through!” and miraculously people jumped out of our way.  They warned me of potholes, and told me when the terrain was going to change, and basically cheerlead me through my first 3 miles.  I ran out of air by the end of the run, but was grinning like a kid when I returned back to our home base.  I didn’t feel different.  I felt part of a team.  Everyone here was just like me, and had accomplished marathons, triathlons and more.  I had found a new home.

Kat sent me home with a goodie bag of Achilles gear, all beautifully brightly colored to remain as visible as possible while running and biking.  After meeting the other athletes, I bravely signed up for the monster of all triathlons, the NYC Tri in July.  It was an Olympic Distance (one mile swim, 25 mile Bike, and 10K Run), and I was terrified of the thought of running in the heat of July, and swimming in the Hudson River, but I thought if those guys and women could do it, I had no excuse.  Achilles generously paid my entry and I was officially registered.

I scheduled myself to go visit my best friend Shelly in Texas before she moved into her new house.  About this time, I hit Facebook looking for a guide for the NYC triathlon, as Caroline was already slated to guide someone else.  Through the power of the internet, and the camraderie of Team RWB, a woman from Austin Texas offered to guide me for my first ‘big girl’ triathlon.  Heather had done several Ironman tris, and wanted to give guiding a shot.  I coordinated a training session with her during my visit to Texas, and was totally pumped to meet her.

Upon arriving in Austin, my friend drove me to Heather’s amazing gym, complete with an indoor pool, outdoor pool, and a limestone quarry, which had kayaks, paddleboards, and a 750meter swim course all ready to go.  It was blistering hot, so I let Elvis cool off in the water after a little swim, then Peter generously offered to hold onto him so Heather and I could figure out how to swim together with a rubber and nylon tether holding us side by side.

The water felt amazing in the hot sun, and we began swimming tied together to the first bouy.  I looked down into the black water, and felt my nerves kick in.  I had never really swam in a lake with goggles before.  The black water and vastness freaked me out.  I stopped swimming and started laughing nervously.  I soothed my nerves by doing a water-polo crawl with my head above water, chatting all the while with Heather.  We seemed pretty evenly matched for pace, and I forced my head back into the water and got down to business.  About ten minutes into our swim, we reached the far side of the quarry, and I turned around to gaze back at the dock we had left from.  Suddenly I realized that Elvis was about ten strokes behind us, paddling furiously to catch up.  “Oh my God,” I thought.  “How is he going to get back to the dock?”  When Elvis reached us, he began swimming figure 8’s around us, his yellow feet getting caught in the rubber tether tying Heather and I together.  I tried pushing him off to the side to keep his sharp claws from scratching us, and to encourage him to swim beside me, but not in front of me, but it was no use.  He was determined to ‘herd’ us back to the dock or to join us.  We couldn’t swim forward, as he kept blocking us and getting tangled, so we breast-stroked to the far side of the lake, where I flagged down a jogger up on the ridge.

“Excuse me!” I shouted. “Can you help me? My Guide dog jumped in the water to rescue me, but he needs to get back to that dock on the far side of the lake, and I’m worried he won’t make it in the water.  Can you jog him back over there to my friend?”  The guy laughed and offered to take Elvis for me, who was clearly getting tired and exasperated with me.  Heather and I were finally able to get in a groove, and I peeked up at the ridge to see how Elvis was making out on his safe return.  No such luck.  I had a feeling he wouldn’t stay with a stranger for long.  Back in the water he leapt.  So much for that idea.

Fortunately by the time Elvis reached us again, he was just tired enough that he stopped swimming circles around us, and contented himself with swimming between us.  We laughed and joked that he was worried about job security, and was assuring Heather that he was capable of guiding me in the water.  We swam him back to the dock, where poor Peter apologized profusely and snapped the leash on him.  Elvis whined as we set out for another lap, determined to nail our timing and communication down, so that I could swim without bumping into her or straying too far off course.  We finished the course and headed back to the dock, much to Elvis’ delight.  I learned that in the future he’ll need to be out of sight or tied up to something solid to prevent more swimming episodes!

The following day I had an amazing opportunity to swim in the Aquatic Center at the University of Texas, Austin.  They had produced several Olympic swimmers out of this training facility, and I was excited to see it first-hand.  There was a Master’s swim team practice at noon, and I paid the $12 guest fee and walked into the locker room.  After quickly changing, I entered what can only described as a mecca for swim geeks.  The pool was by far the largest I had EVER seen, 25 meters by possibly 100, with an additional diving well behind it, complete with giant 10Meter platform diving boards and several other springboards.  There was a huge grandstand to my left, and a vaulted ceiling that nearly touched the sky.  I felt like a peanut there in my cap and swimsuit, totally unprepared for this experience.  The Olympian who coached us for the next 90 minutes was amazing.  She was tough and gave few breaks in between sets.  Halfway into my 4th lap, I looked down towards the bottom of the deep pool, lit with hundreds of underwater lights, to see PEOPLE behind glass below the water’s surface.  OH MY GOD!  They had underwater viewing rooms!  It was both creepy and amazing at the same time.  I spent 90 minute swimming my heart out, pushing with each and every stroke, and thrusting my hips forward with each kick.  I had just been prescribed an inhaler for what my doctor determined was sports’ induced asthma, but had somehow inconveniently left it in my purse.  I toughed it out, and was grateful for the much-needed kick in the rear.  I had some work to do when I got home.

I scheduled myself for more involved lung testing when I returned.  The simple inhaler wasn’t enough, and my training runs with Achilles left me frustrated and breathless, because the rest of my body felt amazing and fit.  After the testing, we tried different inhalers, and I set out to do my first tandem cycle with the group, followed by a four mile run.  The day was hot, up in the 90s, and I thought to myself, “this is the perfect test’.  My guide for the bike was a breast cancer survivor and fellow Autoimmune disease sufferer, and we chatted the entire ride, including the dreaded Harlem Hill on a BEAST of a mountain bike tandem.  As we started passing other cyclists, I became more confident in my fitness.  We finished the ride with me wanting to do another lap, but several other blind athletes were awaiting their turn, so I decided to go for a run with another guide.  Not only did the run feel great despite the heat, I could actually breathe!!!  I talked the entire run of 4 miles, and ran the fastest I’ve run in years, with plenty of gas left in the tank and air in my lungs.  I felt on top of the world.  All my fears of the scary 6.2 mile distance of the NYC triathlon faded.  I knew that I had just run in terrible heat after cycling and simply needed to work on keeping cool and icing my neck during the upcoming race.  If I stuck with that strategy, I would be just fine.

Now I’m one week away from my very first triathlon in Westchester County, NY with my beloved friend and guide, Caroline.  Not only do I KNOW that I will finish the sprint distance (1/2 mile swim, 10 mile bike, 3 mile run), but I feel like I might even put in a decent time!  It’s hard to believe a year ago that I could barely jog the length of a pool with a flotation belt strapped to my waist.  I am so grateful to each and every person that has helped me get here, and the inspiration I draw from the Veterans of Team RWB, and other athletes from Achilles NYC. It is an absolute dream come true. Here goes nothin’!!!

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4 thoughts on “My First Triathlon as a VI Athlete (Visually Impaired)

  1. Robbin

    That is awesome. I commend you on your stick-to-it-ive-ness. If that isn’t a word, it should be. All the best to your on triathalon day!!

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