Blind Travel

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Planning, logistics and networking.  These are the three buzz words on every person with vision impairments’ brains.   Gone are spontaneity.  Gone forever from your lips is the phrase, “I’ll stop by.”  I can’t ‘run to the store to pick-up bananas’ without assistance.  Relinquished from your ‘Type A’ personality is the control over your own schedule, and doing ‘what you want; when you want to.”  But it’s not all bad. It just takes a village.

7 years ago, on December 11th, I drove a car for the last time.  It was a day like any other monday, and I turned the key to my beautiful brand new convertible, and made my 30 minute commute to my job as the Fine Wine Director for Stew Leonard’s in Norwalk CT.   I pulled into our parking lot, and stared straight out the windshield.  Something was wrong.  I turned my head to grab my lunch on the passenger’s seat, and suddenly the world began a terrible tailspin, a blur of light, color and bending, wavy lines.

I called our Administrative Assistant, whom I knew arrived before me from my car.  “Kerry, I can’t get up.  I’m outside in the parking lot and I need your help.”  “Yes, I can see you out there.  What are you doing?  It’s freezing, get inside.” “I can’t.  My legs won’t work.” “What do you mean, your legs won’t work?”  “I started chemo today.”  “Oh, I’ll be right out.  Hold tight.”

Hours passed and my dizziness and vertigo went from bad to worse.  December in the wine retail business, at CT’s largest wine store meant non-stop 14 hour days, with no sitting, no bathroom breaks and limited opportunities to eat.  There I sat, draped on my office chair, unable to move or turn my eyes or head without throwing up. I cried uncle, and the security guard half-carried me to his truck and took me back to my couch in Fairfield, where I remained for three months.

For three months I cried, was terribly ill, and stared hopelessly out the window at my shiny black hard-top convertible, with its handsome white leather seats and brilliant chrome trim and rims.  It taunted me from my new home, the sofa, where I needed to sleep, eat and attempt to check in with work between vomiting and attempting to lift my head from the pillow.  I lusted for the feel of the burled wood steering wheel between my hands.  The thought of running to the pharmacy to pick up yet another anti-nausea medication made me salivate with anticipation.  But it was not to be.

I had officially crossed the threshold of being ‘legally blind’, which means that you trade in your driver’s license for a social security disability card, a discount bus and train pass, a handicap placard for the people that will now be carting you to doctor’s appointments, you get a free snazzy white cane to attempt to walk from point a to point B, and a free fishing license.  Yup!  Apparently in CT you get your own laminated fishing license to spend your days now trying to catch your own dinner.  Sounded like fun.

It took me about 3 months and two car-pedestrian accidents before I realized that I was much better suited to a dog than a cane.  While the cane was great at telling you WHAT it was you were about to run into, it didn’t do a great job with silent hybrid vehicles that seemed to have a way of getting in my way.  Enter Guiding Eyes Elvis, the first and best good decision I made as someone living with vision loss.

After a lot of false starts and being stranded living in Suburbia, I realized that there really is an art to traveling while disabled.  I lived in a bad community for a visually impaired person.  The trains were sporadic, the busses more so, and the sidewalks were often uncleared in the winter-time, forcing my guide dog to navigate me in the street, playing chicken against distracted drivers in poorly lit areas at night.  When I finally reached the bus stop, often there was no access to the street curb due to huge mounds of snow plowed against the sidewalk, leaving Elvis and I unable to board our bus.  If we didn’t stand at the EXACT bus-stop sign, drivers would cruise right past us, spraying us head to toe with muddy snow and salt, thinking that I didn’t “Look” blind, and must just be some lady walking my dog.  In a harness.

After being left by the even more unreliable handicap transit in a dark office park with no cell phone service one night in Trumbull, freezing in the cold, I made the decision that it was no longer safe for me to live in an area where these horrors kept happening.  I’m not a city girl, having grown up on a horse farm, so a large town with good walking access and transit would be the goal.  So I moved to Greenwich.

After getting my guide dog, moving to Greenwich was the SECOND good decision I made for myself.  While it’s not financially accessible for someone living on fixed social security disability pay, it was ideally set up for someone living with vision loss.  So, at the ripe age of 35, I would get my first roommate.  The streets have cross-walk lights, there’s grocery, pharmacy and retail access, a beautiful YMCA with a pool, and a huge infrastructure for pubic transit thanks to the wealth of the hedge fund businesses that reside here.  I found a new home.

I’m now a visually impaired Paratriathlete, racing and training with Team USA for the Paralympics in Rio 2016.  My life is dramatically different, and I’ve become savvy at making all the moving parts of my busy life work, between selling wine, working out, public speaking, and traveling to races all over the world.  I make it work.  How?  PLANNING, NETWORKING AND LOGISTIC management.

Prior to my vision loss, I had the luxury of being late for appointments and meetings.  Now, my life is relegated to public transit or the kindness of my many friends and Facebook aquaintances who help ‘Team Dixon’ get to doctor’s appointments more than 40 miles away in New Haven, Danbury, Boston, and all the spots that public or handicap transit cannot get me to.  The countless emergency eye surgeries and exams on the weekends have all been made possible due to my network of incredibly kind, loving and generous men and women.

For surgery, I’m not allowed to take public transit, and someone has to be arranged to assist me with my dog and cooking for a few days, as I’m usually too medicated to do normal functions, and not allowed to bend over while my eyes are bandaged.  16 surgeries in 5 years, and it has taken at least a dozen people to help me with transit to follow-up appointments and procedures.

When traveling for triathlon and cycling races, a lot goes into planning.  Glaucoma and Uveitis are nasty diseases, and the thought of losing my $800 per month medications in checked luggage frightens the Dickens out of me. So, carry-on luggage becomes an art.  I need someone to help me find my hotel when I land, and plan how to get to my race or watch Elvis while I run with my guide. My guide dog needs to remain on his strict diet of Iams’ Lamb and rice, each day at 6 am and 6pm.  These need to be packed in individual baggies, with extra in case of flight cancellations.  When traveling abroad, I need to call the hotel and ship the food and confirm its arrival in advance in order to avoid heavy baggage fees for more extensive stays. Plus, there’s the paperwork with Elvis.  He needs a health certificate and exam within ten days of travel, adding a visit to Westchester to Guiding Eyes on my ‘to-do’ list.

Finally, I have a GIANT bike.  My tandem racing bike (borrowed by a generous team Dixon supporter) is 8 feet long, weighing 36 pounds on its own and about 55 with the bike case it flies in.  I’ve been restricted to getting to the airport via friends and family with SuVs and Mini-vans due to the cumbersome size, as regular shuttles simply won’t take me.  When I GET to the airport, someone has to fetch a gate agent to come out and assist me with luggage, bike and dog as I drag my triathlon gear onto the plane.  Our coaches ask that we carry on all race essentials- uniform, helmet, shoes and pedals, in case of luggage loss.  I basically look like a hiker ready for Kilimanjaro.

Elvis is easy.  I feed him as normal on the day of our flight, and do one last potty-break before going through security.  I try to get direct flights when I can, but when I have a layover, I prefer it be at least two hours so he gets a chance to go out in between flights.  He travels beautifully, and gets lots of admiration from flight attendants and other travelers as he sleeps his way through a 5 hour flight with ease.

Finally, each Sunday night, I look at my calendar, check the bus and train schedule, and set reminders on my phone for each bus or train I need to take, allowing time to walk to the station and stopping for coffee.  The alerts keep me on track, and force me to stay organized with my time.  I look at my training schedule and hit facebook, email and text to line up guides for my runs, bike rides on the tandem, and open water swims at the beach.  My roster of guides builds each month, and I’m delighted that I now know more than 15 fantastic local guides willing to donate their precious time to help me achieve my athletic goals.

Monday morning, I try to fill in the gaps in transit with lining up rides to dr appointments by calling or texting friends and relatives, and using handicap transit as my last resort due to its unreliable nature.  Sometimes, you get what you pay for.  And lastly, when the plan all goes out the window, and I forget my phone on the dresser at home?  It’s an expensive taxi ride home to get it.  It’s like running a full-time ‘driving Miss Amy’ business, as my family likes to call it.

I’m blessed that I have a charge account with the local taxi service and wince each month, especially during the cold winter months, as I look at my statement.  I use it so much that they send me a box of chocolate each Christmas.  Apparently, I need to walk more.  Even with networking, facebook, and planning, sometimes you’ve just GOT to go get bananas at the store at 9pm.  Hey, I may be a blind athlete and sommelier, but I AM human.

Thank you to my friends and family for making my days a blessing and all of this success possible.  LOVE and Gratitude.

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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!

https://usaba.myetap.org/fundraiser/athletedevelopmentaccounts/individual.do?etapCacheBuster=1399865747593&participationRef=849.0.453599289&shareMedium=label.facebook

Paralympic Pursuits at the Olympic Training Center- part 1

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“Up on two, back on one, forward on Go,” I repeated to my tandem cycling pilot as the countdown started.  The announcer began his countdown.  “Fifteen,” he shouted into the microphone.  I rubbed Lindsey’s back with my gloved hand.  “We’ve got this girl.  Just like we practiced.  Same thing, but faster.” “Love you!” was her muffled response over the cool mountain air of the Velodrome.” “Ladies, that’s Five, Four, Three, two, one- BEEP!  The man holding our bike upright released his grip on our bike tire and seat-post.  The bike was in the heaviest gear possible for the maximum amount of speed on the track, forcing us to bear down with every ounce of our combined nearly 300 lbs on the pedal.  “Woosh” went our deep exhale as we breathed the air into our strained quadriceps muscles, pushing with as much torque as our bodies could manage. 

It went dead quiet.  The cheering spectators and coaches were instantly muted.  The bike sped silently forward and I closed my eyes, leaning forward, pressing my head against the back of Lindsey’s jersey.  “Breathe, Amy, just breathe” I thought to myself.  As if emerging from a submerged concrete bunker, the world came flooding back- light; flickering, the track a grey blur with a thin red line below us.  “Go girls!” I could hear Jimmy screaming from the infield of the track. “Nice work ladies” I heard in quiet praise from Coach Mike as we passed the starting line for our first hot lap.  “Eight more,” I thought to myself, and I began to wonder how I could possibly hold on. 

My breathe went from loud, powerful, forced exhales to ragged, desperate gasps.  “Fucking asthma,” was all I could manage to think of.  “Don’t panic, just breathe” I begged myself, remembering Mike’s advice and wisdom that asthma can be sometimes more mental than physical.  I could do this.  I forced a labored, searing breathe from my lungs. My legs were nearing the anaerobic phase of the sprint, left spent with no oxygenated blood to keep them supplied at this pace, with lactic acid building by the second.  “Strong; you are STRONG” I pleaded with myself, looking for that ‘other gear’ I knew existed somewhere in my trained athlete’s body.  With that mantra repeating on endless loop, the final lap bell rang, “Clang!”  “Go Amy and Lindsey!” I heard as we crossed the start line at lap 8 for our final push. 

Blood.  I tasted blood.  That distinctive iron-infused, dry ,tannic, meaty feeling like having your teeth cleaned at the dentist.  I started to panic.  “Why blood?” I wondered to myself. Was this dangerous?  What could be happening?  I went deaf again. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore, but I was aware that they were moving; WE were moving- nearly 40mph on the Velodrome at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado.  I wondered if this was the moment I would pass out, and who would contact my family if I ended up in the hospital after the resulting horrific crash that was about to ensue. 

I was snapped back to the present when I felt the pedals suddenly become slack and Lindsey slumped forward, mumbling, “I have tunnel vision.  Don’t worry.  It’s ok.  I have the bike,” she gasped, breathless.  I reached forward with my shaky right hand, rubbing the small of her back.  “I love you! You’re amazing!” and I fell forward, resting my head on my forearms, trying to reach for the breathe that was escaping my lungs.  “I taste blood,” I wheezed, between deep, deliberate forced exhales.  “Why do I taste blood?”  “Me too,” Lindsey offered.  “That was hard.”

Training at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is a dream only a handful of athletes ever get to experience.  Being chosen for the Paracycling Development Camp by the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA), is an honor and privilege I wasn’t prepared to accept.  Initially I was prepared to say no, feeling the airfare and cost of the camp was prohibitive for one unemployed disabled triathlete (meaning me) and that it would simply have to wait for another time.  When Pam Fernandes, the head of the camp announced to me that a fellow Team Red, White and Blue Teammate who I knew via Facebook for guiding my blind friend in a recent Ironman triathlon had been selected as my pilot on the tandem bike, I jumped at the chance.  Lindsey and I had spoken via Facebook Message regarding potentially racing together this season in triathlon.  While ParaCycling was not in my wheelhouse, I figured I’d give it a try, and if nothing else, it would make that leg of my triathlon even stronger going forward.  I owed it to myself and my season to give it a fair shake. 

Arriving at the OTC (Olympic Training Center) was not only like heading to sleep-away camp, but like going back to college.  We would be living in dorms, eating from the cafeteria, and have a full schedule each day from 8:30 am to 8:30pm, with lights out by ten.  It became real the moment I hopped onto my connecting from Dallas to Colorado Springs airport, and was seated next to one of my many facebook idols, Miss Kathy Felice Champion, a blind triathlete, motivational speaker, and combat wounded veteran.  She and her fairly new Guide Dog, a black Labrador named George were headed out to the same camp and we finally had the chance to catch up in person.  I knew my week was about to become amazing. 

At the airport, we were on a long, flat desert plain, with huge snow-covered mountains to the west.  As we stepped out into the warm sunshine, we were greeted by a uniformed USA Olympic Training Center employee, who helped us with our gear as we loaded into the OTC’s shuttle bus.  We met two more blind athletes, and one sighted tandem pilot, and got to introducing ourselves on the ride to camp.  We pulled through a security gate, where the driver scanned her pass with the guard, and stopped in front of the Athlete Center, our social center for the next seven days.  After posing for some photos in front of the OTC sign and the American flag, we each received our security badges and photo IDs, then headed to our dorms.

The OTC was a former Air Force military base, with long concrete three-story buildings, housing hundreds of soldiers, the perfect solution for the great many athletes that resided here both full and part time.  As I entered the long corridor after scanning my ID, I heard my name from a tall blonde athlete at the far end of the hallway, “You’re HERE!!” Lindsey shrieked, as I dropped my bags and my guide dog’s harness handle and we ran to each other, like long lost family after months of missing each other.  We hugged tightly, and started giggling and chatting like old friends.  But we had never actually met.  But I knew her instantly.  Lindsey gave me the grand tour of our room, helping me unpack each carefully rolled pair of cycling shorts, jerseys, and sneakers that packed my 46 pound suitcase.  My guide dog Elvis gulped down two full bowls of water after our long journey, and we sat on the bed, gossiping and chatting like we had been doing this our whole lives. 

Pam Fernandes, our blind camp director and her guide dog Cameron appeared in the doorway.  “Welcome Ladies!” she heartily announced.  “After you’re settled in, I want you to head next door to the bike room.  Check on your bike, get your pedals on, and we are going to meet in the courtyard at 2pm for a shake-down ride, ok?”  Lindsey and I jumped up and down on our beds. “OK!” we said in unison.  I scrambled, fingers shaking to get on my gear, tightening the Velcro on my cycling shoes, then headed out the side door to the bike storage room.  There I met Dan, who would become the single most important person (other than my pilot for my bike) of the week.  My beautiful borrowed $10,000 CoMotion Tandem bike had arrived safely.  She had been fully assembled by Dan, and Lindsey and I set to installing our pedals and seats on the bike to our desired length and height.  Anxious to mount up, we straddled the middle bar for our first effort as a team.  We had to communicate which pedal we wished to start with on the upstroke, and decide in advance what our key words or phrases were going to be on the bike. 

Riding the tandem is extremely difficult, because for the blind athlete, you can’t see where the pedals are to lock your cleat into them, nor can you anticipate stopping, sharp turns or obstacles ahead.  Everything is either verbalized or completed by feel.  You have to have complete trust and faith in your pilot’s abilities, and being the ‘Type A’ personality I am, this has been no easy task.  Stopping and starting are really the toughest part of tandem riding.  You have to click out of your pedals at precisely the same moment, and catch yourself, your partner and the bike on one slippery, metal spiked shoe, in a smooth, controlled motion.  This takes practice, and with our first push-off, “Three, Two, One, Go!” we were off.  Lindsey was very skilled as a pilot, having guided my friend Tina to a strong Ironman finish, so I had complete confidence that she would ultimately take care of me and my beautiful loaner bike. 

I was in bike heaven.  Typically, when I race, I’m one of only 3 or 4 blind athletes.  Here were ten seriously talented blind athletes, mostly veterans, all biking in a tight circle on the courtyard, each riding magnificent pieces of equipment, costing more than many cars.  A gentleman with rectangular glasses, spiky ‘California Cool’ hair, and a deep tan called the group over.  “Riders!  Eyes and ears!”  he shouted, as we chatted noisily with each other.  After the group settled, the man introduced himself as Michael Heitz, the US Junior National Cycling Coach and our mentor for the week.  To his right was a gorgeous, muscle-bound, tan cyclist, who straddled his sweet Felt-branded road bike.  His name was apparently Matt.  Lindsey and I pinched each other, as we both quietly giggled and blushed at the same time.  We would be riding what was known as a ‘crit’ or criterium course this afternoon, used for bike racing in a separate area of downtown Colorado Springs, a short few miles off campus.  As we started off, two by two, each of us let out a “Whoo-hoo!” and we were off. 

I focused hard on relaxing my arms and upper body, trying with all my willpower to convey to Lindsey my complete trust in her skills on the bike.  I knew stiffness on my part made her job even more difficult, and that I simply needed to pedal hard and remain motionless and fluid.  And then we fell.  It happened so fast.  We were at the stoplight headed towards the course, and my left foot got stuck in my pedal that was adjusted too tightly to my cleat.  The bike listed sharply to the right, and we took out our neighboring cyclists, my elbow landing hard on someone’s thigh.  Embarrassed and mostly unscathed, we righted ourselves, checked on our confused blind neighbor who unfortunately didn’t see us coming, then remounted.  Each of us took a deep breathe.  “You ok?” Lindsey shakily asked.“Yup.  Let’s get that left pedal up and push hard when the light changes.  Ok, 3, 2, 1. Go”  The bike propelled slowly forward up the incline.  I looked down to see a spot of blood on my shorts, and wondered if it had come from me or my neighbor’s unsuspecting leg. 

That night, we showered and headed for our first meal together.  The dining hall was elaborate, with motivational quotes posted along the rafters and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the entire complex of gyms, shooting ranges, pools and the hall of fame.  It was difficult not to point at the other athletes, as both Lindsey and I were a little awestruck.  There were weightlifters, wrestlers, Volleyball players, Pent-athletes, figure skaters, and cyclists all living on this incredible campus.  There was no shortage of eye candy for two young blondes women to ogle all week.  We laughed upon entering the cafeteria.  McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are the two largest sponsors of the US Olympic Team, and to see those two brands so prominently displayed in a cafeteria filled with athletes on strict training diets was ironic, to say the least.  We were relieved however, once we saw the giant buffet and grill that greeted us.  We could literally have anything we asked for, and it was simply overwhelming with all of the choices.  We quickly discovered that the only things Coke and McDonalds supplied were the beverage fountains and coffee machine.  It was just too weird. 

After grabbing our trays, we meandered over to a large table filled with both sighted and blind cyclists.  This would be our group for the week, and we began with the introductions while dining, each of us excitedly talking about our first ride of the week, eager for what was yet to come.  Dinner was followed by a meeting in one of the many classrooms located in the aquatic center.  Lindsey and I both squealed as we passed the gigantic pool, pressing our faces up against the glass, eager to dive in and check it out.  For now, it would have to wait.  Although we are both triathletes, Pam had urged us to put our running and swimming on hold for the week and focus strictly on cycling.  They were investing a lot of time and money into our coaching, and wanted us to reap the maximum benefit, with the possibility that we could then try to meet the time standards to become part of the US ParaCycling Team. 

Our meeting formally introduced each of the pilots, coaches, mechanic, athletic trainer and blind athletes, known as ‘stokers’ due to their rear position on the bike, where we ‘stoke’ the power to the equipment.  It was fascinating to hear why each and every one of the athletes were interested in the sport, and their background.  Most of them were combat wounded veterans or suffering from Retinitis Pigmentosa, an eye disease with a similar progression to mine.  Even more impressive were the resumes of the pilots.  Some had been to the Paralympics, others were Army Cycling Coaches, some were engineers who had a passion for tandem bikes, and others were there to simply learn a little more about helping blind people pursue competition.  Little did I know how each and every person in this room would forever change the course of both my life and athletic career. By Friday, I would become a Para-Cyclist.

IF YOU WANT TO HELP LINDSEY AND I GET TO A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP THIS JULY AND MAKE TEAM USA, PLEASE HELP HERE:

https://usaba.myetap.org/athletedevelopmentaccounts/individual.do?etapCacheBuster=1399865747593&participationRef=849.0.453599289&shareMedium=label.facebook

 

 

 

NYC Triathlon Race Report

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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! 

I am a Para-Triathlete Officially!

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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.

RACE REPORT:

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!