Blondes on Bikes- Part One

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I gazed out the window from the back of our donated mini-van, looking at the thousands of beautiful windmills that faded off into the pancake flat landscape. “They’re stunning” I said to Lindsey and Joe, my tandem pilot and her bike mechanic beau who was navigating from the passenger seat.  “I hope this represents the topography of the course we’re riding in tomorrow.”  I smiled, thinking of a nice, flat, open road to try to make the time standards on during our Cycling Time Trial.  

Tomorrow would be July 4th, almost two months to the day since Lindsey and I met in person.  While we had spoken via Facebook, it was fate that brought us together as a team back in Colorado on May 6.  We had both been invited by the United States Association of Blind Athletes to participate in a Tandem bike racing camp to develop a new crop of blind athletes in preparation for the Paralympics in Rio.  Lindsey had been assigned to me, the stoker (the blind person on the back of a tandem bike), as my experienced pilot.  Lindsey had a history of guiding several blind athletes to Marathons and Ironman Distance Triathlons.  A little cycling would be cake for her. 

We had immediately hit it off at camp, and it was a perfect match by Pam Fernandes of USABA and the coaching staff that would guide us through Drills, skills, long rides, and races for the week.  We walked away (more like limped after all the time in the saddle) with an arsenal of new knowledge, and a renewed faith in our potential as cyclists.  We were encouraged to check out some local cycling races near our homes, and to come to USA Cycling National Championships.  Now here we were, taking the 7 hour drive from Lindsey’s home in Indiana, to the US Cycling Mecca of Madison Wisconsin, home to the Trek Bicycles world headquarters.  We were giddy and completely excited to try something totally new.

With a borrowed WAY-too-big bike, borrowed helmet, and no aero bars  attached to the bike, we were a little bit outclassed at this big event.  We felt like the newbies that we were, gawking and pointing at all the elite Para-cyclists and Junior Cyclists warming up in air-conditioned tents on fancy computerized bike trainers, riding $10,000 bikes.  Some even had their own sponsored vans, busses and cars with their logos plastered from bumper to bumper.  Lindsey had literally only completed one cycling race before today.  I had NEVER ridden in one.  This would be one heck of a first race for us as a team.   Yup, we were in the big leagues now. 

We arrived just in time to go on a course preview ride.  Lindsey took out the map while her boyfriend assembled Palomino, our nickname for our beautiful borrowed bike.  After all, we were two blondes, with a blonde guide dog and a blonde bike.  The name fit.  We headed out on the course and immediately hit a substantial climb.  “So much for making the standard on THIS course,” I whined.  “Yeah, well, at least we are good climbers.  Maybe we can hit talent pool.”  “We can try,” I replied. “We’ll see!” 

USA Paracycling has standards in place for athletes to hit in order to get funding and coaching from the Paralympics.  At our camp 7 weeks prior, we had hit the military standard in our very first attempt at a Time Trial, having only ridden as a team for 4 days.  We were confident going into Nationals, after 7 weeks of tough training at home, that we could hit the next standard, which would be the “Emerging Athlete” standard.  The next level up from there was ‘Talent pool’, which would put us on the watch list to make the USA Team, and finally, there was the National Standard, which would require us to average a blistering 24.8 MPH for a minimum of 20Km.  With the topography of this 28 kilometer course leading to some serious rolling hills and ‘false-flats’, we would have to ride the race of our lives and have a serious tailwind to hit National Standards. 

We settled into our home-stay with Team Red White and Blue Teammates who we had met through social media.   Jason and Daphne Madaus had generously offered to host us, and their sweet son Mikhael would be in charge of Elvis for the weekend while we raced bikes.  Daphne, a talented amateur photographer, would play paparazzi and Jason would cheer-lead and keep us hydrated.  Joe spent our first evening working on Palomino, while Lindsey and I battled giant mosquitos that seemed to take a shine to us.  After ten minutes, I relented and sprayed myself from head to toe with deet, praying that it didn’t get in my post-surgical eyes.

The morning of the Time Trial loomed, and we were grateful for the cooler weather that would help us maintain our fastest possible time.  Our friends Greg Miller, Greg Hoffman, Kathy Champion and Ray Middleton from Cycling Camp, pulled up alongside us, patting us on the back, and offering words of wisdom and encouragement.  We heard tips like, “Don’t over-gear on that first climb.  Go hard from the start.  If you don’t puke, you didn’t try hard enough,” and many other sage tidbits to help us do our best. 

As we sat in the saddle in the starting tent, where a race official held the bike upright for us from the back wheel, I rubbed my pilot Lindsey’s back.  “Love and gratitude, lady.  Love you.  We got this.  Smooth and fast.  We can DO this. Trust your training.”  Lindsey shifted in her saddle.  “love and gratitude.”  I patted Palomino for good luck as the official began the countdown.  “Ladies in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO!” The miles ticked away.  I stayed with my head and back low and tight to Lindsey, trying to stay as aerodynamic and still as possible, while maintaining my power to each and every pedal stroke.  I worked hard on managing my asthma, exhaling forcefully on each climb. I watched my Garmin watch, showing us our average speed.  It showed 23.4.  we needed 23.7 to hit Talent Pool standards.  “Push Lindsey, PUSH!” I yelled.  And off we went.

Lindsey expertly handled the bike for 28 kilometers.  Each turn was effortless and fast, the climbs tough but fluid, and the descents fun and terrifying all at once.  As we approached the final turn for the finish line with less than three miles to go, I began to cheer Lindsey on.  “Go Lindsey!  Push!  Harder!  Do it!  We GOT this!” And with that final cheer, I tilted my chin to the right and puked underneath my outstretched arm and smiled. We gave it everything we had.

NEXT WEEK?  PART TWO- Our First Road Race- At Nationals!

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Bronze for Team Dixon in Canada

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This Blind Chick attempted to put on her own race tattoo Numbers.  Fail.

This Blind Chick attempted to put on her own race tattoo Numbers. Fail.

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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My Second International Race with Team USA

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As i waited in the holding tent, my stomach did its final flipflop. The announcer shouted, “and from the United States- Amy Dixon!”

The crowd gathered against the barriers formed a chute, and my guide Lindsey and I marched proudly down the blue carpet.  I stuck my hand out, and high fived the outstretched hand of my coach and several spectators. We made our way down the slippery steep dock to the water. We said “LETS DO THIS” as we lowered ourselves into the water, making our final goggle adjustments.  We swam a few hard strokes in our tight long-sleeve wetsuits, and readied for the starting gun.

About 3 minutes into my swim, I began to smile.  Our pace was rhythmical, and our strokes were smooth and powerful, perfectly matched to my partner swimming tethered to my waist off to my right.  We were swimming along the seawall, when I looked up to the sidewalk running parallel to us, and saw Debbie, my Team Red White and Blue teammate and volunteer, walking along with us, leading my beautiful Labrador Guide Dog Elvis.  I began to relax and smile, and settled into a fast and easy swim despite the slightly choppy water of Lake Michigan

We ran out of the water and got onto the bike quickly after a fairly fast transition.  We were almost positive we were the First Ladies out of the water, but there were a few tandems kicking about.  We headed out for our first bike lap.  As we hit the first straightaway on the T-Shaped course, we went to switch from the middle ring to the big ring on the bike, only to discover that it wouldn’t shift.  I begged Lindsey to keep trying.  Finally, before we made our first 90 degree turn, it mirculously cooperate3d and we patted the bike and said “good Girl Palomino”

The team manager, the night before had gone over each specific lap of the bike course with us. It was a very very technical course and several athletes were confused, ourselves included. After my Guide Lindsey had stood up during the athletes briefing, and directly asked the technical delegate of the race about the number of laps on the bike course we were more confused than ever. Our team manager took us aside and explained each individual lap to us and encouraged us to cut seven pieces of electrical duct tape and tape them to the bike, one for each lap. He explained that we needed to take the first piece of tape off when the fountain was to our right on the course. This seemed confusing to us but we deferred to his expertise and went home to sleep.

Our bike split time was fast and furious. The bike course was very technical with three 180° turns, no easy feat on a tandem bike. My neck was beginning to cramp up from turning my head sharply to the right and laying my forehead down on Lindsey’s back. I tore the final piece of tape off of the bike and discovered that we were keeping pace with some of the men!  Both of the ladies teams were behind us and we were well on our way to victory!

we ran out of transition in the blistering heat next to Buckingham fountain to the screams of “Go Dixon! Go team USA!”   Lindsay pointed out to me almost immediately that I was running way too fast given my plan for my race. She and I both knew that I could not hold that pace for the entire 3 miles.  I worked on slowing down and slowing my breathing and grabbed a water from the first aid station. Lindsay gave me the rundown on where the other two teams were in relation to our race. We were a full lap ahead of both the Canadians and about half a lap ahead of Patricia the current reigning national champion. I settled in and knew I had tough work ahead.

The heat went from uncomfortable to absolutely insufferable in mere minutes. I did my best to manage my heat exchange by dumping water on my head at Each aid station. The water was uncomfortably warm and did little to cool my head. On the second half around final lap Patricia breezed easily by us. We pushed into our final lap and saw the finish line as we rounded Buckingham fountain for the third time. I would be taking home the silver medal and my second international race!  We hugged and smiled as we crossed the finish line and jumped for sheer joy and excitement.

As we grabbed ice and cold towels in the athlete recovery area we were so utterly excited and in sheer disbelief.  I called my mom immediately to share the good news. Current reigning world and national champion male blind triathlete Aaron Scheidies gave us a huge hug and congratulations.  Then we saw the white board up on the wall of the tent. “why is our number three up there?” Lindsey and I both asked our coach. “Did you do the correct number of laps on the bike course?” “Yes absolutely!” We replied at once. “We followed your plan to a T!”

We stepped into the tent where the international triathlon union officials were gathered. Both our coach and team manager located the timing director for the race. We waited nervously while he grabbed our results from the computer. Our hearts sank as he showed us that we did not cross the timing mat for an eighth time. We were speechless.  There was no arguing with the official. We had indeed not done enough laps. It was not seven laps, but in fact eight laps that we were supposed to do. We were told the wrong plan.

We spent the rest of the day trying to focus on all the good things  that happened leading up to that huge disappointment. We ran an incredible race despite the disqualification. We learned to make sure we are the only ones responsible for knowing the course properly going forward. Our teamwork was impeccable, our paces were exceptional, and our communication was flawless. Given the tough result, I couldn’t be happier with my race and with my wonderful guide Lindsey.  We learned a very difficult lesson and that was to trust our gut.

So next we are onto USA paracycling national championships in two days in Madison Wisconsin.  We will have a chance at redemption. We need to trust our training and put our faith in our strength as a team.   I couldn’t be more proud of that day.  My next race with team USA is in Magog Canada on July 19. Nothing but the podium will be acceptable! Go USA!

If you or your company would like to help Amy reach her Paralympic goals with team USA, you can contribute here:

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What an International Podium finish feels like

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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.   Through my pinhole of eyesight, which was fading rapidly with each elevation of my heartrate, I could see snapshots of the long, straight uphill road in front of us, the air shimmering with heat above the pavement.  It was like something you see in a movie. I was grateful when my vision faded to bright white light and alternating blackness as my heart-rate continued its steady climbed.  “At least I don’t have to look at that anymore,” I thought to myself as we began to ascend the small, but gradual hill.  At the top, I slowed for the magnificent tiny breeze that flowed there.  Caroline took a hard left, and we crossed the first timing mat, signaling our turnaround on the run.  I caught a glimpse of a motorcycle cop gazing off into the horizon.  I wondered how he managed to stay cool wearing the black uniform in this oppressive heat.

The slight downhill did little to boost my spirits.  The air simply stopped moving as we dropped down the incline.  I saw the second water station, like a mirage in the distance, and smacked my lips loudly in thirst and desire.  Caroline immediately started screaming, “Water!  Ice!  Both please!”  Their response, “No Ice!”   Crap.  Caroline dumped two full cups on my head, salt running into my already compromised vision, but it felt so damn good.  I chugged two cups, and attempted to pick up my knees.  There was little fuel in the tank.  As we rounded the final turn of our first lap, my friend Thomas Lee, was headed out in the opposite direction.  Tom is normally the first person on course to give you a ‘shout-out’, but he was stone-faced.  Not even a thumbs-up.  I knew he was suffering in this mid-day sun.  “one Mile to go, Dixon,” I said aloud.

 

“Come on, Amy, let’s go!” Caroline urged.  “I Can’t!  I need to walk!  I’m done.”  “No you’re not!  Use those arms!  You’re not walking in front of all these people.  Come on girl.  you’ve GOT this!  Stop talking like that.  Almost done.”  She smacked my shoulder- hard.  With that, I screamed to the ladies handing out water at the third station.  “Water, Please!”  It was like a magic potion had been dumped on me.  Goosebumps gathered on my burning skin.  My feet felt lighter.  I shrugged my shoulders back and down, and focused on my form.  “Let’s do this!” I said to no one in particular.  In the distance, the crowds by the hotel and finish line gathered and roared.  “USA! USA! DIXON!  Go Amy!  Go Caroline!  Run, Amy, Run!”  I could see Shelly holding Elvis off to my left, and heard Jared, Caroline’s boyfriend, a Marine veteran, commanding me to RUN.  So I did.

 

After rounding the turn for our final lap, Caroline gave me the lay of the land.  Patricia was way in front of us, and was heading back towards the finish, smiling with her guide running smoothly beside her.  I surprisingly wasn’t discouraged.  The Brazilians were behind us, and just as we neared the 2 mile mark, the Canadian team trotted past.  “Damn” I thought out loud.  “She’s a good runner, Amy.  Don’t sweat it.  Keep going,” said Caroline.  I struggled mentally for the next quarter mile, trying to determine if I could either hang behind her or if I should hold back and wait it out.  I realized that I was moving slower than I had the previous two miles.  My energy was fading, not building.  I cursed myself for puking up that energy gel on the bike.  Lesson learned.

Christine (the Canadian) was gaining her lead by the step as we rounded the final stretch for home.  I grabbed another water.  I was breathing so hard, that I aspirated the entire cup, puking, coughing and wheezing.  I stopped dead, trying to stop the choking.  But I was.  Caroline pounded on my back.  It helped immediately, and i threw the cup on the ground in frustration and took off as fast as my legs could carry me.  “Ok, now when I tell you, you’re going to SPRINT as hard as you can to the finish.  Amy, you MADE THE PODIUM!  I’m so proud of you.  Show them what you’ve got.”  “I’ve got nothing; I can’t sprint.  No way, ” I squeaked out between jagged breaths.  “I don’t want to hear I can’t!  You’re doing it.  Come on.  Use your arms,” she was yelling now.

I heard Jared’s scary Marine voice commanding me to sprint.  “Man this couple is fierce,” I thought to myself.  I could hear his voice following along, and I picked my head up, tilted my shoulders back, and pushed in front of Caroline.  The rules were very specific that she could not cross the finish mat ahead of me at the end.  Caroline began the countdown. “We’re there in 50 meters; 20, Lift your arms, Amy, you did it!”

An hour later, the announcer proclaimed, “And our Bronze Medalist in the PT5 Division at the Pan American Triathlon Championships is Amy Dixon!”  As USA Team Manager Joan Murray handed me a rose and placed the shiny bronze medal around my neck, I flashed back to that cold pool at Columbia University a short 15 months prior, where Joan and I met.  I could barely swim 5 laps without grabbing the pool’s edge in desperation and for lack of air.  I hugged Caroline tightly, then squeezed her hand as we covered our hearts, the tears flowed, and the National Anthem played. The best day of my life.

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Race Day (Pan Am Tri Championships Part 2 of 3)

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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!

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My First International Triathlon (Recap Part 1 of 2 of Pan Am Championship)

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As I entered the doorway to drop off my heavy luggage, the leash suddenly became taut.  Elvis, my Guide Dog, had firmly planted his feet in the vestibule, and was attempting to back out of the hallway as quickly as possible.  “Shit!” I yelled to Shelly, as I dropped one of my bags on her condo floor.  “What is he DOING?” Shelly asked.  “being a turd, that’s what.  I guess the issue with the shiny floors has reared its ugly head again.  Dammit.  Not today, Elvis.  Not today, “ I impatiently begged. 

My poor guide dog had wiped out on the hospital floor last fall while in the waiting room, as he was being watched by my mother during  yet another surgery for my eye disease.  Afterwards, he had refused to walk on shiny linoleum floors, and the trainer had come out to work with us to get him over his fear.  Apparently it was back.  Well, honestly I couldn’t really blame the poor guy.  We had just had a long flight from New York to Dallas, where I was nervously preparing for my first international  race as a blind triathlete.  His stress was a direct reflection of my mood, so I gave him a well- deserved break and took his working guide harness off to go play with Shelly’s Pugs.

 

Shelly is my best friend who I lived with more than 15 years ago who then relocated after having a family, back to her hometown in Dallas, Texas.  The International Triathlon Union (ITU) Pan American Triathlon Championships was being held just minutes from her house, and I was there to compete with the USA Paratriathlon Team.  My morning had started off rather rough.  My borrowed, $8,000 custom tandem bicycle had arrived via the shipper, terribly damaged.  I received the email shortly before boarding my flight, and was frantically calling every carbon fiber bike parts dealer in the country, desperate to repair the bike in time for the biggest race of my life.  I was literally a basket case.  The local shop that had received the shipment of my bike  was miraculously able to locate the part and have it overnighted.  I could breathe.  At least for now….

Thursday I hung out at the bike shop, watching the nice mechanics do their important work on “Palomino”, my aptly named blonde Co-Motion Cycles tandem bike.  My tandem partner, Lindsey Cook and I had come up with the name after we made the realization that we were two blondes, with a blonde guide dog, and a blonde bike.  My bike needed a fast sounding name, and we combined our love of horses and speed for the perfect name, Palomino.  I was blessed that the founder of C Different, a non- profit focused on blind athletes, lived right around the corner from the shop, and we took her out for a test ride around a gorgeous lake.  She rode beautifully, and I slept well, eager for Caroline Gaynor, my triathlon guide, and Triathlon Director for the veteran’s charity, Team RWB to arrive the next day. 

 

One of the cool things about this trip was being shadowed for the week by an award-winning photographer who had taken photos of me earlier this year for the Wall Street Journal article that was published about my triathlon and wine careers.  Kate Lord is a sweet young, vibrant blonde, who is freckled and upbeat at every turn.  I was delighted to have her shooting me for my big race.  When Caroline arrived at Shelly’s, we hugged like long- lost college roommates, and got down to business right away with the bike.  We did a 20 mile loop in some nasty heat, and got the bike as adjusted as possible for the best speed and comfort for the both of us.  After a quick, ‘loosen up the legs’ jog on a hot High School track, we settled in to discuss the intricate ITU rules and our race plan for Sunday.  It was starting to get real and my nerves oddly settled.

 

Saturday morning I woke up a little stiff, and stood to stretch.  “SHIT!  OW!” I screamed as my back seized up in a knife-like pain, causing me to catch my breathe.  “What is it?  What happened?” Caroline was up, immediately concerned.  “My damn back!  I should NEVER have gone kayaking last week!  I’m an IDIOT!  Who does something like that 6 days prior to a big race?  Dammit!”  I slowly lowered myself into a painful catcher’s squat, with my head tucked between my legs. I let out a deep exhale and slowly stood, hobbling into the shower to attempt to loosen it with hot water.  This was not the start to my day prior to the triathlon that I had planned. 

The Marriott in Las Colinas was packed to the gills with fit, gorgeous athletes from all over the United States and South America.   There were the able-bodied pros, who were finishing the race today, the junior elites, and us disabled, or ‘para-triathletes’ all milling about.  The Pan Am ITU Championships was one of the first races in the United States to count towards points for the Olympics.  All of the athletes competing at this race had been hand selected by the USA Triathlon organization or by their host country’s governing sports body.  There were animated Brazilian athletes, singing and dancing around the patio overlooking our swim course in the canal.  The Argentine folks were more quiet and serious.  The Canadians were on the floor, surround in red and white top-of-the –line triathlon gear, stretching and chatting about their race.  And the few Mexican athletes were glued to the lobby’s flat screen TV, watching a soccer match.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars -worth of bikes lined the walls of the Marriott lobby.  I drooled with bike envy.   The energy and excitement was palpable.

Caroline and I ran into several other disabled athletes there from team USA in the lobby.  We were awaiting instructions from our team managers and the head of USA Paratriathlon regarding our swim practice in the canal.  It was intimidating and awesome to meet all of the athletes I had known through Facebook, several of whom had been to the Olympics in other sports, such as swimming or cycling.  Rio in 2016 would be the debut of Paratriathlon at the Paralympics, and every single athlete, from the amputees, paraplegics, and us blind athletes wanted one of the coveted spots on the team headed to Rio.  Tomorrow would begin our journey. 

While none of us was thrilled about jumping into a muddy, giant canal of 80 degree water, it was still cooler than the 88 degree air temperatures that threatened to bake us to the flagstone patio that lined its sides.  The wheelchair athletes wheeled down to the water’s edge, and their designated ‘handlers’ would help get them both out of and into their chairs before and after the swim began.  For the amputees, their handlers would take their prosthetic arms or legs from the start of the swim to the swim finish line, exactly 750 meters away.  For us blind and visually impaired athletes, we would be tethered by an elastic 1 meter cord tied around our waists to our chosen guides, who would swim alongside us, calling out verbal instructions, and helping to choose a safe path if we got into a lot of traffic or needed to pass slower swimmers. 

Caroline explained the layout of the course in the water.  It was a giant triangle, with two orange buoys far off in the hazy distance.  We decided to forgo the allowed wetsuits for our practice due to the extreme heat, but chose to wait and see how hot we felt after completing the swim and to see what our competition was doing in the morning.  Wetsuits are a HUGE advantage over a regular bathing suit.  It provides both buoyancy and speed; to the tune of gaining 5 seconds per 25 meters of distance, which in a long race, really adds up.   However, you run the risk of raising your heart-rate and overheating if the water temperature is above 82, the legal cutoff for allowing wetsuits in the race.   Our swim was relaxed and smooth, and I focused on staying long and smooth in the water, as my coach had taught me so well.  Caroline safely guided me past some slower swimmers, and we ended up at the finishing dock, where carpeted stairs would then lead us to our bikes and the transition area in the hotel parking garage.  We walked the area on foot, mapping out the route in our heads, so that the morning would leave us with no surprises.  I felt ready. 

My friend Tom Lee, an Army veteran who is also an amputee triathlete, his handler, Jared, and Caroline and I prepared for our pre-race briefing in a mandatory meeting to be held at the hotel.  After the swim, we were starving, so we did what an good athlete will do, we ATE!  I watched Tom inhale a giant steak, and Caroline worked on a burger like a champ.  Knowing all too well the extent of my gastro-intestinal issues, I opted for Salmon and sweet potato fries.  Somewhat safe.  For nearly two hours, more than one hundred athletes, handlers, coaches, and guides hung out in the hotel conference area’s hallway.  Athletes were Facebooking, Tweeting, and sharing photos from the practice today, and lined up to take endless selfies to take up the downtime.  Our meeting was supposed to begin at 6.  It was now 7:15, and we were getting anxious.  I had booked a massage for 8pm, with the hopes that it would fix my back before the race.  It was becoming clear I needed to cancel.

 

After nearly 90 minutes of a vague PowerPoint presentation, each of the more than 90 athletes had more questions than answers in regards to the race and the very specific new rules.  There were dozens of them, and it was like learning an entire language in one sitting.  Near impossible.  Each of us was more confused than when we entered, and the four of us agreed that we would hop in Jared’s car and go drive the bike course so that we could be clear on where the turns were and how the elevation would change.  We waited on line, and received our coveted race numbers, race tattoos to mark our bodies, and bike stickers before bolting down to the car, rushing to beat the dwindling sunset.  We were about to see what tomorrow would bring for each of us in the Texas heat and hills.  

If you want to help Amy Dixon Compete towards Rio in 2016, you can make a tax deductible donation here:

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Paralympic Cycling Camp Part 2

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“Mike, your shorts are inside-out.  The bike chamois goes on the INSIDE,” Jimmy giggled aloud. The group gathered in the hallway of the Olympic training center dorms burst out into uncontrolled howls of laughter.  “Well, why didn’t you tell me sooner?  You know I’m BLIND, don’t you?” Mike started to crack up himself.  One of the other cyclists chimed in, “Come on, Mike, you can’t FEEL that it’s wrong? Chamois; INSIDE.”

We stifled our giggles as the coach began his morning speech.  “Riders; eyes and ears!” The crowded hallway fell silent.  “Your bikes are loaded into the vans.  We are going to drive out to the desert and ride 3 or 4 loops of tomorrow’s Time Trial Course.   Be sure to ask lots of questions of the more experienced tandem teams, and note all the turns, lines, and opportunities to make up some speed.  Any questions?  Let’s roll.” And with that, ten Para Cycling teams made their way out into the Colorado cool spring air.  Through my tiny pinhole of remaining eyesight, I could see the sun was just starting to strike the tip of Pike’s Peak, located another 8,000 feet above the Olympic Training Center of Colorado Springs.

Each team was made up of a sighted person piloting the front of the tandem bike, where they were left in charge of steering, braking, and shifting this elaborate racing bike built for two people.   The second half of the team was a blind “stoker’, referring to the blind or visually impaired individual who helped power or ‘stoke’ the bike from the rear position.  All of the pilots were volunteers with extensive cycling experience who had been recruited to this Para Cycling Development Camp in preparation for the upcoming Paralympics in Rio.  The stokers, myself included, had been recruited from both military and civilian backgrounds as people who had shown an aptitude for tandem cycling and might have some interest in trying a racing career.  It was an incredible honor to be surrounded by such a group.

Riding in the van, I because I have a tiny bit of vision left, I took the time to describe to my fellow blind stokers the terrain as we neared the course.  “The mountains are to our West, covered in snow at the top, and the view around us is nothing but flat plains as far as the eye can see, dotted with cattle and the occasional new housing development and the Air Force Base, surrounded by high wire fencing.”  We began to drive on the course, and the coaches began describing the turns to the riders without sight.  “Here, you have a 110 degree turn, so take advantage of the shoulder, and you can afford to stay tight there.” Although the blind cyclists wouldn’t be in charge of steering the bike on any of the turns, it instilled confidence in each of us to know what was coming at every bend in the road, and how to stay in sync with our pilots to maintain the best aerodynamic position.

The van finally pulled over on a dead end street next to a tiny grouping of new homes.  Our bikes were already being unloaded from the cargo van by our amazing volunteer mechanic, Dan.  After making some last minute adjustments to our seat, my pilot Lindsey and I took our loaner CoMotion bike, “Palomino” out for a test ride.  The air was frigid.  Barely 45 degrees, and the flat plain made the wind chill absolutely biting.  Where was the 70 degree weather of the day before?  I prayed for the sun to hit this street, and soon.  Over my bike shorts I had thermal tights, two long sleeve shirts, a wind jacket, and fuzzy gloves. I looked more prepared for skiing than going for a bike ride.

After three days of being together 24/7 and a good ten hours of time in the saddle, my pilot Lindsey and I were starting to really mesh as a team.  We chatted like old friends, and had shortened our on-bike communications to mono-syllabic words to convey exactly what we either needed or were about to do.  “Drinking!” I would pronounce before I carefully and smoothly leaned forward to grab my water bottle. “Shifting,” Lindsey would announce before an impending hill climb.  “Right,” should would shout before a turn, or “bump!” before a giant pothole bruised my seat-bones.  We became fluid, smooth and closer and closer to that singular unit that we knew we could achieve with simply more time spent together on the bike.

On our first climb of the 4 loop, rectangular 5km race course, our friend and mentor Greg Miller and his blind stoker pulled up alongside.  With his Tennessee southern drawl, Greg explained the necessary strategy to ride the course most efficiently and safely.  “You’ve just got to pick this line, drifting from out to in on these turns and push hard on this first uphill.  With the tailwind, you should be hitting no less than 20mph here.” Lindsey and I listened intently as we softly pedaled alongside for our lesson.

The course turned right up a steeper incline, and he advised that we maintain this speed by standing up on the bike for a short burst.  Lindsey and I both sighed as we hit the long gradual downhill.  “Hey Greg this seems like a great spot to catch our breath after that hill!” I offered.  “No way, man, “ said Greg, rather emphatically.  “This is where you make up some speed.  USE this hill to get going on the course.  There is no rest in bike racing, young lady.”  Both Lindsey and I couldn’t hide our disappointment, as it must have been written all over our faces. “Hey, ladies.  If you want to make the time, you’re going to have to ride the shit out of this.”  And with that, he pedaled forcefully ahead.

We finished our third loop, and were about to head out for one more, when my fingers finally went numb.  Thankfully, Lindsey felt the same way, so we decided that we’d had enough of riding the windy, chilly course, and would go warm up in the waiting vans.  Several other riders must have concurred, as there was a pretty large group gathered back on the side street as we arrived.  We all chatted nervously, discussing strategy and info on the course, hoping that someone might offer new insight.

This time trial meant a lot to many of us.  The USA Paracycling team has written standards in order to achieve recognition and funding for budding athletes.  There is a military standard, an emerging standard, a talent pool standard, and finally a national standard, with the latter being the fastest.  If we could hit the talent pool time standard after only 3 days of training as a team, Lindsey and I could get some much needed financial assistance and coaching to go further in the sport.  After handing our ‘Palomino’ off to Dan for transport, we high-fived each other.  “We’ve got this” we both said at once.  “Jinx!”

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