I have no idea how to put into the words the flood of feelings that I’m experiencing right now. I’m at the 8 hour mark after finishing my very first triathlon as a Visually Impaired Athlete, and I’m just buzzing- with adrenaline, exhaustion, joy, incredulity, gratitude, and a sense of awe. NEVER five years ago, when my diagnosis was made horrifically clear would I have imagined this day. Never would I have imagined that my impending blindness would actually open me to a whole new culture, lifestyle and group of amazing friends from such a diverse and wonderful group of people.
My most recent of 11 eye surgeries was back in August of last year, only ten short months ago. The chronic pain, multiple follow up appointments, and stress took a major toll on my body, leaving me with Addison’s Disease, (a malfunctioning of the adrenal system, and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, where my metabolism simply shut down. A 45 pound weight gain in only three short months left me depressed, and feeling hopeless that my life would return to normal. Because of the weight gain, and a broken foot, my exercise was strictly limited. I couldn’t bike or run with the ankle, and I couldn’t swim because I couldn’t run the risk of infection or injury to my eye. I felt trapped in a body I didn’t ask for.
An ‘Aqua Fit’ class at the local YMCA was the beginning of a life-changing event for me. I could ‘jog’ in the deep part of the pool without getting my eyes wet or needing goggles, and I could wear a belt that kept the impact from my legs! Perfect! After dropping the first 8 pounds in the pool, and getting stronger on my foot, I snuck upstairs at the Y to the spin class room. There I started slowly cycling 20 minutes a couple times a week while the classes were not in session, so I could embarass myself in private.
As my spin sessions grew longer, and my fitness began to slowly come back, I was brave enough to try a full hour spin. I felt like I might expire then and there, but I was doing it. I happened in on a Saturday morning class, and was absolutely stoked that my favorite instructor from New York Sports Club had joined the team at the Y, and couldn’t wait to start sweating to her great energy and fantastic music.
Quickly the weight began to come off, and I crossed the 10 pound threshold. I was going to do this if it killed me. Through the power of Facebook, I met a woman who works for a veteran’s advocacy group called Team RWB who specializes in guiding visually impaired and blind athletes all around the country. I wanted to start running with someone, but was afraid that no one would know how to help me as well as Elvis, my guide dog could. Caroline was from New York City, and suggested we meet up at a local veteran’s fundraiser for a spin-a-thon, where she could introduce me to some local RWB athletes that might want to help.
I met a passionate woman named Laurie Hollander, the co-founder of Help Our Military Heros Charity, who has two sons in the military. The event was so incredibly inspiring, as I got to meet combat wounded veterans who were being given their freedom back thanks to the power of exercise with adaptive technology, and the handicap adapted vans that this charity helped buy for them. I was hooked. I had to meet more guys like this and help however I could. They were amazing!
I started spinning like a mad-woman and tried my first attempt at laps in the Y pool with special goggles to protect my precious new glaucoma valve that had just been surgically implanted. I re-developed an old fear of deep water that I had had as a child, and worked hard at only swimming on days that the pool was set up with shallow lanes to keep me from freaking out. It worked, and I was suddenly swimming- first ten, then 20, then 40, then 66 laps/ 1 mile! I told Caroline I was ready to put my money where my mouth is and sign up for a triathlon this spring.
Caroline and her boyfriend Jared came up on Saturday, the day before the race to help me go over any last minute issues and get the bike ready to go. We grabbed a bite to eat with my mom and headed home for an early bed after we loaded my tandem bike onto the custom roof mounted bike rack on mom’s car. So we thought…..
The bike was a generous gift to me by a former US Paratriathlon Director. This tandem cycle has been to two Paralympics and is more than 30 years old. It is an amazing piece of equipment of which the guys at the bike shop are in awe. As we sat down to take the front wheel off the bike, it became painfully clear at 9pm in my dark condo parking lot that this wheel had not been off the bike for a very long time. It was also not planning on coming off any time soon. Lacking the proper tools, we began calling and texting to anyone I knew locally who knew bikes or may have the proper tools. A trip to Home Depot was discussed, but at this point they were about to close. Dammit.
After an emergency call to my good friend Alan, we drove to his house at 10:15 5o retrieve needle-nose pliers. On the way there, we were frantically texting other Team RWB folks and my coach to see if someone had an SUV that could come get the bike at 5:30am if we couldn’t make it fit onto the bike rack. My head was pounding, my chest started to hurt, and I was ready to lose it. Laurie Hollander came through like a champ, and was already coming to cheer me on at the race, and offered to pick up the bike en route to the race. Perfect!
The next morning, Laurie showed up bright and early and off we caravaned to the race in Westchester on the Hudson River. I was nervous about the swim, but had practiced with my coach a few days prior, and felt that other than the gross brown water, I would be ok, as long as I could spot Caroline occasionally beside me and knew that the tether would keep me safe. The drama with the bike had actually settled my nerves, as I had hopes that this was the end of my bad luck for the race, and it would be smooth sailing from here on.
We arrived early and my stomach was in knots. The parking lot was a mile from the nearest porta potty, and Caroline and I hustled along while our ‘crew’ grabbed the bike and our gear and followed behind. I met the race organizer, an Aussie gentleman, who I had been emailing regarding my needs for the race. He had been so helpful in making sure that I was starting in my own wave, safely away from other athletes who might unknowingly interfere with our race by getting tangled in my tether in the swim, or getting frustrated trying to pass us on the run as Caroline and I ran side by side. There were already hundreds of athletes there, and it was electrifying with loads of adrenaline and nerves!
The Bike mechanics were our first stop, who did an amazing job working with my troublesome front wheel, and adjusting our seat height and handlebars. We headed off to transition, where I went through my checklist and hit the porta-potty for the second time. The nerves were kicking in. We walked over to the pre-race meeting where the organizer gave a great pep talk to all of us first timers. I was incredibly grateful my swim coach had convinced me to buy a pair of neoprene booties, as we had a long walk from transition to the swim start over lots of ruts, tree roots and grass.
Watching the first swim wave head out, I stopped and realized how incredibly beautiful the scenery was. A lighthouse jutted the shore, the sun was shining, and the outlines of the Catskills were off in the distance. The water appeared much clearer than my swim 4 days prior, and I started to settle down. I would be the final wave to go- with no one else in our wave but Caroline and myself. It relieved my fear of being swum over, but I felt a little sad that I would have no one to ‘chase’. I reminded myself that this was my first race, and there would be no chasing, just FINISH. I also told myself that it would be kind of fun to catch people in the swim wave that left 2 minutes before me. I could be fast in the water, so anything was possible. Judging by some of the really beginner swimming I was seeing out there, I totally had this covered.
We waded into the water, which was surprisingly warm, although I was grateful for my borrowed wetsuit from my coach. I reminded myself to get my face in as quickly as possible to check my goggles for leakage. We were good. Caroline and I had never actually practiced swimming together, so we got down in the water and did a few strokes parallel to the shore. Done. The gun went off.
I told myself, ‘head straight to the buoy. Trust her- she knows where the heck we’re going. Get a rhythm and be steady- just like a regular pool swim. Let the suit work its magic to help me float, and conserve my energy for the bike and run where I would be needing it most.” I could still be faster than most and go at a slow steady pace. The current kept pushing me to my right and towards Caroline. I was grateful she had used my bright yellow Achilles swim cap so I could see her. The race officials had given us a BROWN swim cap in brown water. Not conducive for a blind athlete to be visible or have visibility. I pulled hard with my left arm with each stroke to keep from getting pushed into Caroline. She pulled up twice to adjust her goggles, which had started leaking along the route. Within 15 minutes, we were out of the water. I was a little shocked when i got to my feet and saw dry land. Even more shocked when Caroline told me there would be stairs coming up out of the water. WHAT? A challenge to say the least. I got to work right away unzipping my suit, as I knew that was going to be a challenge. It was really snug. As we jogged hand in hand towards the transition area, we were routed up a long dark staircase to get to the park. We laughed at how insane this was, and kept jogging as my stepfather and coach and mother cheered us along.
I gulped down some water, and fortunately got some help from Caroline getting out of my wetsuit, which was stuck on my timing chip on my left leg. Great. We grabbed our helmet, shoes, glasses and my bike and headed out of transition, which no one seemed to know the way out of. We yelled at a couple of folks to help and they finally pointed us out. A little stressful, but we were clear.
Once we clipped in, we wound our way out of the park, and into the town of Sleepy Hollow NY. Police had closed some roads and were stopping traffic for us as we flew around the first series of pretty tight turns. One was so tight, we saw a guy go flying into someone’s yard! Laughing, we peddled on. A fellow competitor had warned us that the course was 5 miles uphill , then 5 miles back down.
Not 5 minutes into our ride, we were on the first decent sized hill, and our chain suddenly came off. Crap. So much for that bad luck running out last night. We coordinated clipping out of our pedals, and worked on getting the chain back again. Dammit. It slipped again. Caroline rides competitively, so mechanics are nothing new to her. I felt confident she would get it working again. After the derailment, the bike began to skip gears any time we tried to use an easier gear. We decided to stay in the hard, tougher gears, and just figure it out as we went. Man I was grateful at that moment for my strong pilot!
We were getting frustrated as the climb continued, and the bike just kept skipping around from gear to gear. It made it incredibly hard to push the chain as hard as we needed to climb. So I did what I do when I get stressed. I laughed and I prayed. “OH PLEASE dear lovely bike of mine, PLEASE help us! Please let us finish this race! I LOVE you bike! Oh BIKE! you’re the BEST! I promise to give you love and attention and a SPA DAY at the bike shop when we get back! ANYTHING for you! Just PLEASE let me finish this race! PLEASE! I Love you bike! you’re the BEST!” Caroline and I began to laugh. We were going to DO this!
Well, laughing and praying work, because the bike started skipping less, and behaving more. I crossed my heart, and got pumped as we began to pass people. First one, then 4 , then 6. It was a pretty amazing feeling. I felt invincible! I knew the run was going to suck, so I wanted to make up as much time on the bike as I could. Around mile 8 we began to have a series of tight turns- no easy feat on a bike that is as long as a limousine. As we came barreling down on one street, it appeared that we continue straight. However, two volunteers were standing in the middle of the road chatting, oblivious to our impending collision. We began to shout at them. “WHICH WAY?” To which they just stared! Again, louder we yelled. Suddenly, right before we missed the turn, they pointed to Caroline. We wooshed by their bodies, and narrowly missed a street sign, and cursed out loud. “HOLY SHIT”, said Caroline. “What the hell was that?” She said she had never seen an incident like that in her racing career. These people were practically asleep at the wheel. We agreed to be vigilent and slowed down for the upcoming series of tighter turns.
As we rolled into the bike finish, I could hear my family shouting our names. I was beaming. We did it, and the ornery bike agreed to let us finish. I saw Elvis wagging close by and smiled again. This was amazing. I love him, but there’s nothing like having your hands totally free to just run, bike and swim to make you feel independent again. Elvis gave me my life and my freedom back, and Caroline was making me fly.
We dashed into transition and it felt fast. Bike shoes off, run shoes on, visor and race number on, and off we jogged to the exit. We were laughing the whole way. I realized very quickly how critical Caroline’s guiding skills were going to be on the run.
The run began on a grassy area under the shade of a grove of old pine and oak trees alongside the Hudson River. Shade and running for blind people is not helpful. While the temperature was lovely in there, it was going to be one horrific stumble after another. I began to doubt myself. At the first big tree root, Caroline grabbed my arm. We had an awesome elastic running tether to connect our wrists, but in this hairy situation I was going to need a little more help. I lifted my knees and toes up high, and pranced through our little forest run. Phew!
We then continued to a concrete pier, which zigged and zagged its way out to an old lighthouse. There was a tiny metal footbridge to get out there, only wide enough for people to run single file. We were laughing our butts off at the absurdity and difficulty of this portion of the race, and I dropped behind Caroline to keep from getting clothes-lined.
Once clear of the obstacle course, it was a beautiful run along the pier by the Hudson through wildflowers and parks. I was quickly regretting my decision not to carry water on the bike portion of the race, and my head started to pound with the 80 degree heat and dehydration. “Stupid Idiot” I thought to myself. Well, lesson learned. I got this.
We were desperate for water, and looking forward to the water station. the first was barely a sip of water. We told ourselves to tank up at the next one. Well the next station was OUT of water! What? OUT? They handed us a precious cup of ice, which I promptly dumped down my sports bra to cool off. My knee began to protest after the challenge of the slipping gears on the bike, and I wondered if I could finish. The answer was absolutely. It would be silly to stop now. The knee could wait. I focused on my form, attempting to lean forward and take short strides to keep my momentum steady. I felt good. The pace was comfortable, and my breathing was ok despite the dryness of my throat.
All along the route people shouted for us, saying, “Great job! or “Way to go”! It felt amazing having these other athletes take the time out to urge me on, and I felt amazing and so lucky to be there and have this moment. Caroline started talking more to me as I think she realized I was fading mentally. She suggested that once we hit the grass, let’s turn on the sprint. I wondered if I had it in me.
As we rounded the final turn to the grassy finish line, I knew I did. My family, friends, Guide Dog, and hundreds of other folks had gathered there to bring us in for our epic moment. The smile that had faded at the empty water trough came back ten-fold. I was about to be a triathlete. And a darned fast one at that. Caroline said, “when we get to the orange, hit it girl!” Another gear that I didn’t know existed came out.
I grabbed her hand for both moral and physical support (the grass was still full of tree roots) and held it tight. The crowd roared as we came down the finish shute. This was all for us! Oh my god! We crossed the line, our hands held together high in the air, and I nearly stumbled. Not from exhaustion, but from relief and joy and disbelief. Instead, I grabbed Caroline and gave her the biggest hug, holding on until I felt I could stop the tears from flowing. In typical Amy fashion, I started to laugh.
The finish line volunteers laid our medals on our necks, and I was greeted immediately by one very happy Labrador, ready to serve and with a huge supply of congratulatory kisses. My mom, Rick, friends Jared and Laurie were all there to welcome us back and give a big hug of congratulations. My coach came by for a high five, and photos of me and my fellow Greenwich CT triathletes. OMG- I just said the word triathlete! Oh YEAH!? That’s ME!
I’ve never had a harder time holding back tears. The race director presented me with an award, even though I wasn’t being timed against other para-athletes. He even insisted on doing it as the first award of the ceremony so that everyone in the entire race could be there to cheer us on and help celebrate. I was so grateful for the hundreds of people who watched Elvis, Caroline and I go up to receive that award. It meant more to me than he’ll ever know. As it turned out, we put in a pretty awesome time. We passed people on the swim, bike, and the run. It felt amazing to blow past people even after being started two minutes after the very last competitor had gone out on course. 1:34 was the official time. We took a peek to see what that would be against my age group of 30-39. 16th place! Hey- I’ll take a top 20 finish for my first tri! That was like the cherry on top of the sundae! I was just shooting to have a safe, fun, easy race- to finish fast was simply intoxicating to feel.
For the first time in 5 years I felt STRONG and Able-bodied. Not disabled. Not Visually impaired. Not ‘less than’ or ‘broken’. I felt alive and like I could fly and be fast. What an amazing feeling. After 5 years of surgeries, chemotherapy, a new guide dog, changing jobs, moving and heartbreak, this was absolutely one of the greatest moments of my life. I cannot think of a better person than Caroline Gaynor to share it with.
I am Amy Dixon, and I am off to do my first Olympic Distance Triathlon in 5 weeks in NYC! Go Team RWB and Team Achilles! My name is Amy Dixon, and I am a TRIATHLETE!