The morning of July 14 was clear and still. I was gently awoken by Deedee, who discovered that my well-intended alarm had accidentally been set to 4PM instead of 4am. I thought to myself, “Thank GOD she’s here!” I stumbled into the kitchen where Deedee cheerily was making her healthy breakfast, and I attempted to make my usual protein shake. “DAMMIT,” I shouted, “Crap!” Heather came running in, to discover that the blind chick (me) had accidentally spilled the entire contents of my breakfast on the counter. The low lighting and early hour wasn’t helping one bit. Heather sweetly calmed me down and helped me re-make my spilled protein shake. We grabbed our bags, and hopped into a cab downstairs.
It was interesting being up at that early hour, seeing people JUST getting back to their homes after a fun Saturday night out. It felt strange to pass these folks, knowing that we were about to undertake the greatest physical challenge I had ever attempted. The butterflies were getting the best of my stomach, and I asked the cabbie how much longer to the boat Basin on the West Side, and prayed I would make it.
The transition area of the triathlon is where athletes keep their bikes and running gear once they’ve completed the swim and “transition’ into the next phase, by stripping their wetsuit, cap and goggles, then putting on their bike shoes, helmet, race belt, and sunglasses before running out with their bike to the bike starting line and heading up the West Side Highway. Once we completed 25 miles on the bike, we’d do the same thing with the run; change sneakers, ditch the helmet, and grab a visor. We dropped off our chilled water and electrolyte bottles, laid out the necessary supplies, and got the final adjustments done on the tandem with seat height and pedals for Deedee. The announcer shouted over the loudspeaker that the transition area would close at exactly 5:40, and we were urged out of the area.
The plan was to carry our wetsuits to the swim start, over a mile away on 99th street and wear flip flops to get there safely. We had clear plastic bags to put our personal items into which would be delivered to us at the finish line hospitality tent. The area was lined with ATF officers and police and K9s to search the areas and sniff for explosives. We had to show credentials at every check point to ensure everyone’s safety. It was at first unnerving, then suddenly comforting. The swim started at 6:10am with the elite men going first. We watched them dive into the Hudson off of a barge, and swim SO fast that these guys were actually PASSING the kayaks that paddled alongside them. The current was so quick that one guy had paused briefly in his swim and got slammed hard into one of the marker buoys. Deedee and I smiled, knowing that the current was going to be our new best friend in the swim, my best of the three endurance efforts.
I ran into Mom, Rick and my sister Cindy along the water and briefly paused for photos before locating the Para-triathletes’ tent right next to the starting line. It was great to see old and new friends, and work out some of my nerves by asking the old pros more detailed questions about the course and how the day was likely to go. At about 7:10, we walked over to the barge jetting out into the Hudson River. Our strategy was to stay as far from shore as possible to take advantage of the strongest current. There would be 13 people in my heat, and each heat would leave approximately 20 seconds apart. As I stood out there, they began to announce our names and our past achievements. My heart began to swell, and I hugged Deedee with all of my nervous energy. We chatted with neighboring para-athletes and their guides and handlers who awaited their turn into the river. The amazing folks were the amputees who had to either be carried, use crutches, or crawl up onto the swim platform, as their prosthetics were already being carried to the swim exit for them to strap them back on and run or use their chair to get to transition, a good 400+ yards from the actual swim exit. These guys and girls were incredible athletes to be able to tackle this event. I was touched and inspired by the great men and women who surrounded me on that barge.
Deedee and I held hands as we jumped off the barge into the Hudson and stretched upward to break the murky surface. It was not nearly as salty as I had thought it would be, and much browner than the last time I competed in these waters, further upstream in Sleepy Hollow. I reminded myself right away to keep my strokes long and fluid and to start slow, allowing myself to build speed as we went. As I reached my tenth stroke, the rubber tether that bound me to my guide Deedee suddenly became taut. Something was wrong. I looked back over my right shoulder and couldn’t see her head, which should be there in a bright neon green cap. I turned over to see that she was behind me a ways’ back. She was fixing her goggles and shouted at me to keep going. “We got this!” I said aloud.
Ten strokes later, the line became taut again. I began to realize that Deedee was having some trouble with her visibility. She was helping me by keeping her head up, and breast-stroking through the water, and yelling directionals to keep me straight and on course. I relaxed as I knew she had my back. I was smiling at the realization that the course was going by quickly and grateful that Deedee’s equipment issue forced me to slow down and keep my nerves in check and to save my strength for the vigorous bike and run in the heat that awaited us. I could see the exit barge looming about 100 yards away, and I asked Deedee to sprint so we could get our legs fired up for the bike. She responded with gusto, and we passed a few swimmers. I was beaming.
Race Officials helped pluck us from the swift water and helped us rip off our wetsuits within seconds. Gear in hand, we ran and laughed and smiled barefoot all the way to transition. I could hear Rick shouting to us as we exited and ran along the water. I was pumped! Transition was smooth and we fluidly gathered our gear and the bike, jogging out to the start. We had been warned of a tough abrupt uphill climb from 79th to get up onto the highway on-ramp, and boy, they were NOT kidding!
We had never attempted a hill together on this bike, so it was trial by fire, and Deedee totally nailed the gearing like the pro she was. Within seconds, we were out on the highway, gunning down the bikers ahead one by one. We were flying! It was so fun to weave in and out of the crowds during the start of the bike, having people shout, “Go Achilles” as we flew by on Scott’s awesome bike. My favorite part of the bike was seeing all of my friends from Achilles and Team RWB out on the course. Even cooler was passing a few people I never thought I’d catch! My confidence started to soar, but I quickly reminded myself that I had a really tough run ahead of me, and I am NOT the best runner of my friends that I train with. A lot would change during those upcoming hilly 6.2 miles of Central Park.
What inspired me most on the course was seeing one double leg amputee laying on the side of the road, fixing a flat he had received on course. I asked if he was OK as we passed by at about 20 mph, and he told us not to worry, that he had it covered. He was correct, as it turned out he later PASSED me on the course. “Now that’s courage,” I said to Deedee. I felt the power in Deedee’s strong legs as we climbed each hill, and her agile bike handling on every turn and with every competitor we passed. I couldn’t stop myself from patting her back and telling her how awesome she was after each and every hill. I was having the time of my life, and started to get a little choked up.
With about 5 miles to go on the bike, I realized that I had failed to adjust my seat prior to the ride and was starting to experience some pretty uncomfortable feelings in my left knee, back, and butt. I said to Deedee, “HOW do people do 112 miles during an Ironman? This is like torture!” We laughed, and I discovered that the delicious two bottles of Electrolyte water I drank over the past hour were ready to be emptied from my bladder. I started to panic, trying to think of HOW to pee in transition without losing precious time. Caroline and Leona, an amazing visually impaired triathlete, were hot on my heels, and I wanted to keep the gap if possible. I knew that triathletes usually just pee ON the bike, but I kept thinking how gross that was, and didn’t really want to do that as an option. I had an idea……
Deedee and I fist-pumped as we dismounted the bike and jogged it back to it’s place in transition. I stripped my shoes and helmet, and grabbed the large green towel that came in my swag bag, and shoved it down my pants. Then I peed on it. Yup. I’m not proud, but I managed to pee in front of hundreds of people without dropping my pants. I felt totally disgusted with myself, but pleased with my clever plan to somewhat disguise the nasty and necessary deed, while saving precious minutes in a porta potty.
Deedee beautifully guided me down a tricky set of stairs and around some impossibly uneven terrain and twisty turns to get us back up to the street level from the river’s edge. The hill was straight up and short, and people were already walking. My legs suddenly felt like concrete, and I started to panic. I began to doubt my ability to even run at all, let alone run 6.2 miles further. The walkers beside me further fed my growing doubts of my ability and fueled my tiring legs. “Run, dammit” I said aloud, and run we did. Deedee reminded me that I could walk anytime, but I was determined to stick to my game plan of only walking at each water station at the mile markers. Anything in addition to that felt like defeat and failure. I knew I wasn’t really tired, but just couldn’t seem to translate that to my heavy legs. We ended up on 72nd street in front of thousands of spectators taking photos, holding signs, and cheering us on. “Go 2912! Go Achilles! You inspire us! Bless You!” I started to get choked up, and KNEW at that moment that walking was no longer an option. I had to do this.
I was so grateful when we left 72nd street and entered the shade of Central Park. The blaring sun was starting to cook us out there on the hot pavement. I did however realize that I had trained and raced before in far worse heat and humidity, and told myself that it was NOT going to get the best of me today. Deedee was so sweet and quiet and encouraging. She ran easily, and seemed to have a ton of gas in the tank. I knew I couldn’t let HER down. She had flown more than a thousand miles, taken time out of her busy life and trained for this day just for me. The least I could do for her was give it my very best. Then the cramp started.
“What the HELL?” I shouted. It felt like I was being stabbed in the abdomen. Deedee asked again if I wanted to walk. “No” I croaked, though I secretly wanted to. I was pissed because I knew my nutrition was perfect and my hydration could not be better. WHY was I having this cramp? I was so frustrated with my body. I tried drinking at the next water station, but it hurt to even move my arms to tilt the cup. I figured out that running with my arms folded behind my neck with my back arched was the most comfortable (though extremely awkward) way to run, and minimized the pain. I heard Caroline cheerily say hello as she and Leona passed me on the left. I was deflated. Although I knew ultimately that would most likely happen due to Leona’s greater experience and running skills, I was disappointed that I couldn’t maintain the gap I had established on the awesome bike and run. I asked Deedee to talk to me. “What about?” she asked. “Anything to get me out of my own head right now would be great,” I replied. So we carried on like that, for the entire length of Harlem Hill, chatting and running, until I started reading some of the funnier signs along the route. “Embrace the Suck” said one. Another read, “It’s 5:00 somewhere!” And with that my cramp was gone. I was running a little low on air as the hill began in shade and ended in open sunlight when I spotted my stepfather Rick, hopping up and down and cheering for folks up ahead. “Oh my God!” I said to Deedee. “He RAN all the way from the West Side Highway to the East side of the park to cheer us on and get a photo. WOW! I couldn’t believe he did that, and even worried a little about him in this heat running all that way just to see me. He jogged alongside us for a minute or two, encouraging me and boosting us up with every step. His last words were, “You GOT this! I’m so proud of you! You just conquered Harlem Hill!” At that moment, I realized that I was actually going to finish this race.
I could barely eek out a “thank you” and simply gave Rick a smile and a thumb’s up as we continued the long climb up the east side of Central Park. The sun began to bake upon us as we neared 100th street, but I was much giddier, and kept chatting with Deedee to convince myself that all was ok. I remembered that Achilles had set up a cheering section in the park at 90th street, the place we met twice a week for our training runs. I was excited to see who would be there and to let them know that we were going to finish strong. I was mostly excited to see John Eng, my Tuesday guide who was always so positive, and made all of our runs fun, even when it was dreadfully hot out. He had managed to convince me that I might be able to do a half Marathon this fall, something that I had never dreamed of attempting before.
As we came down the straight-away to 90th, a sea of bright yellow Achilles jerseys awaited us. I picked up the pace, straightened my visor and started grinning like I had just won the whole darn race. John was the first to spot us, and started screaming our names. It felt great to have people out on the course who knew us among the 3,400 competitors. He said, “I TOLD you that you could run 6.2 no problem!” I laughed, because I never really believed I could finish a whole 10K running race after biking for 25 miles, yet here I was actually doing it. I gave John and enthusiastic high-five and tried to work on my form going into the last 1.5 miles.
We were on one of the few downhills of the course, when I looked to my right to see Caroline, my good friend and former guide in distress by the side of the road. My Achilles friend Erica and some other folks were tending to her, but I was scared to death. I noticed that the athlete she was guiding, Leona, wasn’t by her side and I began to panic. Deedee calmed me down as I started with 50 questions, wondering aloud what could have happened to her. I was frightened that something happened to one of them, or that Leona had collapsed on the course.
I tried to shake it off, but couldn’t get her out of my head until the crowds began to thicken and the racing route became narrower and narrower. What I THOUGHT was the finish line, was in fact far short of where they actually had placed the finish. What I thought was going to be downhill, ended up being a series of short, steep uphills with several tight and confusing turns. Deedee handled it all beautifully, confidently grabbing my arm when I needed a little closer guidance, and giving me verbal cues about what was coming ahead.
People were screaming inspiring words of encouragement for us like, “Great teamwork”, “way to go Achilles!”, and many beautiful heartfelt cheers. I was starting to fade, and Deedee reminded me to smile, especially as there were dozens of photographers taking hundreds of pictures of our last painful mile. I was looking left and right constantly, trying to find the tell-tale high arch that would symbolize our finish line, but saw nothing but a sea of people shaking cowbells and holding up signs. I was beginning to get discouraged when I felt Deedee’s stride get longer for our final push.
She grabbed my hand as we neared the tall arch, and looked at me, beaming. I couldn’t believe we had done it. 32 miles of endurance, pain, laughter, and inspiration came down to a ten yard sprint. I was shocked at how good my body felt for the effort, and beaming with pride in both Deedee and myself for finishing a mentally and physically difficult race for both of us. I didn’t think I could be any happier, until the moment when someone placed a cold towel on my head, and draped our medals around our soaked necks. Relief came over me with that cold towel as I hugged my new friend and fearless leader. I was safe, I felt strong, and we had actually finished an OLYMPIC Distance Triathlon!
As we walked towards the hospitality tent for para-athletes, I was overcome with relief that Leona had made it safely to the finish, thanks to the kindness of a stranger who agreed to guide her the remainder of the race. Thank goodness Caroline had simply suffered an exertion-induced asthma attack, and joined us shortly thereafter. The bonus of the day? We stopped by the results tent, where a printout was handed to me of the preliminary results. We had finished SECOND in my para-athlete category, with an amazing time of 3:02, a full thirteen minutes faster than my anticipated finish. Thanks to my family for cheering, Achilles for supporting, and Deedee and Heather for making it all come together in a perfect race. I wouldn’t change a thing about this day.
The plan going ahead? To train and locate more local sighted guides for visually impaired athletes through social media and networking. Then, to train hard to become a faster runner, as I discovered that although my bike and swim times were at the top of the leader board, the top athletes were running close to 7 minute miles. My slow, steady 11 is not going to cut it if I want to make a real go of this sport at it’s highest levels. In the meantime? I’m loving the ride, and most of all feeling blessed by the kindness and generosity of almost every person I’ve met in this sport. Thank you to ALL the guides who donate their time and talents to us visually impaired athletes each week to make our dreams become reality. Bless you all, and I look forward to coming back next year faster, smarter and stronger!