If badass-ness is a word, then I think it needs to be used prolifically throughout this post. I had to find my inner badass to turn off the ‘what-ifs’ and the “I Can’ts” and the “It’s too hards”. Honestly, my toughest competitor this weekend at the ITU Magog Paratriathlon Canadian Championships wasn’t the world’s fastest female blind athlete, Patricia Walsh, or the tough, strong runner from Canada, Christine Robbins. My toughest competitor was me.
The beautiful quaint lakeside village of Magog, at the foot of ski resort Mount Orford hosted the PATCO Canadian Triathlon Championships. More than 40 Para-triathletes from around the world, coming from Europe, South America, Canada and the USA all emerged on the tiny town to compete for a spot at the World Championships being held next month in Edmonton Canada. I was blessed to find three-time Kona Ironman World Championship finisher, Anne Thilges of NYC to be my guide for the race. We had been introduced by my friend and guide Caroline Gaynor, who had moved to Austin and suggested that Anne and I eventually race and train together. Anne is also an amazing coach, and a very, sweet, calm focused individual, so I was incredibly grateful to have her attached to me while I ran, biked and swam, learning and following her each step of the way.
Our first practice on my borrowed bike revealed some pretty significant challenges. The bike is on loan to me by a generous gentleman who had it custom built for him. He is nearly 6 feet tall. Anne, is 5 foot 3 inches. She mounted the front of my bike looking like a flying squirrel mounted on a big old Harley Davidson, with her hands spread wide and outstretched. We would make do for the 20 Kilometer bike portion of the triathlon and hope for the best. The local bike shop in Canada provided a shorter stem for the handlebars for her to be ever-so-slightly more safe, as having her so stretched out provided some stability challenges. We were set to race.
The pre-race circus show of racing wheelchairs, custom adapted bikes, handcycles, and athletes milling about was incredible. Some athletes had no bikes or luggage due to airline screw-ups. Current World and National Champion Aaron Scheidies had his bike badly damaged by Delta. We were eager to put all the confusion of the race briefings, meetings, course previews and packet pickup behind us and get on with it. In the interest of saving time, I attempted to apply my race number tattoos on my biceps and calves while Anne ran to the porta-potties. I was wondering what all the snickering and giggling was about, until Anne returned, and stifled her amusement at the fact that I had indeed applied each #3 upside down. Blind girl plus stickers was a bad idea.
I’d never been in a beach start for a para-friendly triathlon, so starting on the rocky shore was a new and disconcerting experience. Fortunately the official took pity on our pedis and we were allowed to start in the water at knee height. Patricia is a totally blind athlete, a B1 category athlete, and got a 4 minute and 16 second head start on those of us with partial vision. I was determined to catch her on the swim as we had in Dallas. The gun went off, and I laughed, as I dove into the shallow water, while the ladies next to me (wisely) chose to run until the ground dropped away. I lost several seconds getting sorted out and swimming to the front of the pack, while suddenly realizing I had forgotten to hit the start button on my Garmin watch. Live and learn.
We settled into a nice, rhythmical swim, and made our way straight out into the lake. The wind had picked up, and I began to get choppy water slammed into my mouth, while battling the tall weeds that grabbed at my face and ankles. I laughed as I realized that I couldn’t find Anne. She was swimming with near perfect form. Her head was submerged below the water, in a perfect aqua-dynamic fashion, and as I put my face back down into the lake, I thankfully spotted her white cap beside me. “Phew!” I thought to myself, and relaxed while we made our way to the front, opening up our lead.
Our transition onto the bike was beautiful and smooth. Anne talked me through it, and we trotted to the start line with ‘Palomino’, my beautiful loaner Co-Motion tandem bike. The bike was a long hill going out, with a net downhill returning, with three 6.6 Kilometer loops. On the first hill, I began to suffer. My legs felt dead and like they had quit on me. “I need more,” I gasped and begged of Anne, as I realized that my legs were failing to help us on our initial climb. She responded with great raw power, and I found the break my legs needed to ‘re-set’ and get back to work. As we got near the turnaround for our first loop, we spotted Patricia, just ahead of us, holding her 4 minute head start comfortably, and looking strong with her great guide on the bike. After the 180 degree turn, we headed back towards the hill, and spotted the Canadian woman, Christine, about a half mile back. I needed to keep her there, or create a bigger gap, as her run speed was spectacular.
The bike course flew, and we headed out on the run, just barely 400 meters ahead of team Canada. My plan was to start at an 8 minute, 50 second per mile pace, and drop it 10 seconds per mile from there. If my speed could kick in for the final mile, I stood a shot at getting the silver medal I so desperately wanted. As I looked at my GPS watch, and realized how humid and hot the day was becoming, I began to start the cycle of doubt. It began when I saw Patricia steadily coming towards the end of her first run lap as I was going out. Her 6 minute 15 second per mile pace was blistering, and there would be simply no catching her today. I started the ‘what-ifs’ and the “I-can’ts” that we so often do.
Anne brought me back to present, forcing me to focus on breathing through my nose, and out through my mouth, like in yoga. My nose felt allergic and constricted. I simply couldn’t get enough air. My shoulders hunched up and I became tense. Anne said, “Hips up!” which forced me into a better posture, and allowed my strong glutes to do what they do best- give me push-power. All of those hard intervals on the bike were paying off. My speed picked up and I began to feel fresher. With that, the Canadian trotted by, smiling and congratulating us for giving her a tough race on the bike. My silver medal was now a bronze.
While I began to reel from disappointment and frustration, I found my inner badass. My legs burned, my lungs were devoid of oxygen, and I could only see shadows through my pinhole of sight, due to my high heart-rate, further compromising my small bit of vision. Somehow, somewhere, something in me just turned on. All of the anger I had at myself for not hitting my pace targets instead went into running. I straightened up, pushed up the tiny hill that signaled our final turn for home and RAN. Hundreds of people lined the path, shouting ‘Go USA!’ “Dixon”, and several positive-sounding things in French. I began to smile as Anne called out that she could see the blue carpet in the distance, signifying the finish line arches high overhead. The next thing from her mouth startled me. “Amy, she’s coming!” “Who?” I whispered, trying to find the air to respond. “I don’t know, but I need you to RUN AMY, RUN!! Faster! She’s gaining on you!” So I raced when I thought I just couldn’t.
Three hot, sweaty hours, one chiropractic adjustment, a quart of chocolate milk and two scoops of lemon sorbet later, I stood on top of the podium, tears running down my salted cheeks, as they played the sweetest sound any athlete could ever hear in a race. Her National Anthem. THANK YOU to each and every individual who made this weekend possible. Ron Hiner, Lori Hoefer, Coach Jon, and guide Anne Thilges. You all are the best team a girl could ever ask for. Bless you. Next up? NYC Triathlon in Two weeks, and WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS thanks to this incredibly important Bronze medal finish.
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