Caroline and I stood overlooking the canal behind the Marriott, assessing the placement of the bright orange buoys in the distance. “I think they’re in a different spot than yesterday,” she said, sounding concerned. One of the International Triathlon Union Officials was within earshot. “We’re in the process of moving them back now with our Sea-Doos. They were moved for this morning’s Pro Race.” Caroline sighed, “Phew! I was worried!” Dozens of disabled athletes, assistants known as ‘handlers’ for the prosthetics and wheelchair athletes, and coaches milled about on the hotel’s patio overlooking our swim start for the Pan American Triathlon Championship. Athletes chatted nervously about the heat, the layout of the bike course and its rather complicated tight turns, and the water and aid stations for our run.
The minutes ticked by, as the sun got higher and higher in the Texas sky. I was scheduled to start at exactly 10:04:16, due to a new ruling by the ITU that required athletes with partial sight like myself, categorized as B2 or B3 athletes, to give the B1 or totally blind athletes a 4 minute and 15 second head start. Patricia Walsh, the current reigning national champion athlete was a B1 athlete, so catching her with that kind of deficit to start would require a miracle, AND the perfect race from me and my guide for all three phases of the triathlon, Caroline Gaynor.
Our start was now delayed by several minutes due to the long lines we had to navigate to check in our gear to the transition areas where we would keep our bike and run equipment for the latter portions of the race. Each piece of equipment and uniform had to be measured and photographed extensively by the ITU officials as part of the rules, to be sure each athlete and guide was compliant to the complicated set of new rules made for the upcoming Paralympics in Rio, and Paratriathlon’s debut at this event. It was a bit disorganized and athletes waited, growing impatient by the second, to drop off their things and get ready to hop in the muddy canal waters.
We were allowed a quick practice swim, where Caroline and I debuted our new swim tether, borrowed from World Champion Blind triathlete Aaron Scheidies, who was such a great friend and ambassador to the sport of triathlon. The tether was far superior to the one I had been using, as it fit perfectly around our hips, where it connected me to Caroline by a one meter length of elastic cord, that was nicely out of the way of our arms while completing a full swim stroke. Caroline swims on my right hand side during the race, calling out verbal commands to navigate me, or allowing the tether to keep me in a straight line and on course. Mine had been in the way, fitting too snugly and higher up at my waist. It was a total game changer.
We opted to wear our wetsuits, given the 80 degree temperature of both the air and the water. Although we ran the risk of overheating from the thick neoprene at these elevated temperatures, it would give me a huge advantage over athletes that chose to go without, lending buoyancy and speed. After the announcer read our names aloud, “And representing the United States, Amy Dixon!” Despite the hot Texas air and my furnace-like wetsuit, my body was immediately covered in goose-bumps. I did everything I could not to get choked up. I had read an article recently about the science related to becoming emotional either prior or during a race. It would only sap my much-needed energy and mental focus. I needed all the help I could get. We lowered ourselves into the canal, gave each other a last minute, “I love you” and adjusted our goggles to do battle. “BEEP!”
I focused on long, smooth, elegant strokes in the water, imagining my hands like a platypus, grabbing as much water with each pull of my arms and shoulders as my body could leverage. I focused on keeping my chin down, staring into the muddy, red-brown darkness below, and looked to my right with each breath for Caroline’s white swim cap beside me. My body rotated like a pendulum, twisting effortlessly through the water, driving constantly forward with my hips to the first buoy, where we would turn sharply right and head for the swim dock at the finish line. At one point, I noticed another team to our right over Caroline’s shoulder, and my confidence soared. I knew that while I wasn’t swimming my fastest in order to save some gas for the tough bike course, I was definitely gaining on the leaders who had their 4 minute head start.
Suddenly, the carpeted stairs leading out of the water appeared in my pinhole of remaining vision through the darkness. Someone grabbed my arm to keep me from slipping, and I heard Caroline shout with excitement, “We almost caught Patricia! Amy, you’ve GOT this! Nice swim!” I smiled as we started jogging in bare feet on our tip-toes to the transition area some 100 meters away in the dark parking garage. I could hear Kate, Shelly, and Addie shouting my name over the barricades. “Go Amy!”
The garage was black. Pitch black. I easily stepped out of my wetsuit, grabbing my helmet, sunglasses, race belt and inhaler, then put on my bike shoes. I fumbled extensively with the complicated clasp on the shoes, and cursed to myself that I had purchased such difficult shoes to fasten for a person with limited vision. At least they were white, so I stood a fighting chance of finding them in the dark. Caroline grabbed the bike from the rack, and we trotted on slippery bike shoes out of the garage, into the blaring Dallas sunlight. People screamed our names, and “Go USA!” as we clipped into our pedals and took off up the first incline.
Shortly into the first kilometer, I found myself panting from adrenaline and exertion. 19 Kilometers more to go, and it would be tough. After about 5 minutes, the resistance of the pedals increased dramatically and I tapped Caroline’s back, positioned in the pilot position of my tandem bike in front of me, and asked her why we were slowing down. “Hill!” she shouted against the air rushing beside us. “This is NOT a flat course. It’s a false-flat. Dig in Amy. We’ve gotta work!” Caroline then started explaining to me where we were on the course in relation to our competition. “Patricia is about half a mile in front of us, and we’ve already passed the Brazilians. The Canadians are back there too. Keep on the gas, girl. We’ve GOT this.” I smiled, and patted her on the butt like a good horse. “Awesome Caroline. Just Awesome. Let’s go!”
As our one-piece suits dried from the heat and breeze, the sun began its torture on our backs and faces. I adjusted my helmet to allow for better airflow and quickly reached for my electrolyte-infused water. As we completed our first 10K loop, the crowd increased in size near the start/ finish line, and the noise was deafening. “GO Caroline! Go Amy!” we heard at least a dozen times. We nearly missed the sharp U-turn thanks to an official, supposedly directing the athletes in the race, who wasn’t paying attention as we approached at great speed. Caroline is an expert cyclist, and handled the bike beautifully, braking with great force, and hitting the gas hard as we hit the apex of the turn. The bike leaned sharply, then righted itself. “Rock star!” I shouted at her as we sped off for our second loop.
My legs began to scream at me. Lactic acid was building with each rotation of my bike’s crank shaft. We were riding in a big, heavy gear, trying to maximize our speed with each stroke, which was the exact pace Caroline and I had discussed in our strategy meeting on Friday. I settled in to suffer. As I tried to forget my pain, the silly children’s song, “I’ve been workin’ on the rail-road, all the live-long day,” came into my head. “ Why?” I wondered, staring at the shadow of our feet, running along the pavement below us in a rhythmical, metronome-like pattern.
I opened up my race belt and pulled out an energy gel, much like a gummy bear, and chewed it while trying to get air into my taxed lungs. “Don’t choke” I said to myself. Within seconds, the gel came up. I reached down for my water bottle in a desperate attempt to wash it back down, but my body said no. It was in the ‘eject mode’, not ingest mode. I shook my head, smiled at my misfortune, and pedaled harder. For the final mile, my head was tucked tightly by Caroline’s tailbone, trying to remain as aerodynamic as possible. As the noise grew near the finish, I started going over our plan in my head. “Don’t forget to leave your helmet on until the bike is racked,” I said aloud, although I knew Caroline had already memorized this important rule. If we unclipped the chinstrap before the bike was put away, we would be immediately disqualified.
We jogged alongside the bike after dismounting, racking it again in the dark garage. Caroline handed me my sneakers and visor, and we quickly swapped our bike shoes off, tethered our wrists together by a spare shoelace, and headed out on the run. I was smiling from ear to ear. I knew we were in second place, and it was the most exciting feeling of any race I had ever run. My enthusiasm and excitement came back to bite me quickly. I looked down at my watch, noticing that I was running an 8 minute, 30 second per mile pace. While this would be a great last mile pace for the race, leaving on the start of a hot 5K road race in Texas at that pace wasn’t smart. I felt good, so I decided to just go with it, and hope that I would maintain this pace or get even faster on my second lap.
By the first aid station at the 1K mark, I was hyperventilating. We decided to walk a few steps, grab a cup of water, then go back to an easier pace until the 4K mark, and hit the gas again. Then came the first hill. “My feet are so…..HEAVY” I whined, gasping for air.
TO BE CONTINUED!!!!!
If you want to help Amy and her Guides compete at World Championships and National Championships this season, please click here for a TAX DEDUCTIBLE Donation through the USA Blind athlete’s Association. THANK YOU!