As any good coach or athlete will tell you, there is one rule of thumb to live by when preparing for a major race. “Nothing new on race day” means not trying out the latest electrolyte beverage, energy gel, new bike, food, new shorts or ANYTHING that could derail months and months of training. So, as a blind athlete who requires a guide (a sighted athlete who runs, bikes and swims in tandem with me), you can imagine my sheer panic when I had to change guides 10 days before my most anticipated race of 2016. One thing that living with a rare disease and vision loss has taught me- be able to think on your feet, adapt to change immediately or suffer miserably, and always have a plan B, or in this case, C &D.
My best friend and chosen guide Lindsey Cook was beginning her much anticipated first year as an associate professor at Hanover College. Her classes were scheduled to begin less than 48 hours after racing in Canada as my eyes, a job that in and of itself requires a lot of work, planning and logistics. After careful deliberation, Lindsey decided that she needed to focus on her job, especially right now, as next year we will be traveling even more with Team USA, and banking some time off for future races would be critical to our success and assuring she could be there as we got closer to the ‘big dance’, the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
I met Lauren Schrichten, an incredible surfer and triathlete when I signed up for the Challenged Athlete’s Foundation charity Triathlon last year and needed a tandem pilot. Lauren had had her own vision loss scare a few years prior due to an illness, and wanted badly to help someone with vision loss achieve their own dream of pursuing triathlon, and literally hopped on my tandem with no practice last October and rode 44 miles on a broken bike, laughing and smiling the whole way. So, when I needed a super fast runner who could handle a bike, this RAAM (Race Across America) Athlete was my first phone call. I explained to Lauren that I NEEDED to win in Edmonton to get the necessary points to be in consideration for the Rio Games, and expressed my concern about her being new to a tandem bike on a hilly bike course. Within an hour, my flight to Orange County California was booked, and I was packing my bags and bike for an early morning flight to spend a week giving Lauren a crash course in guiding a blind athlete for an international ITU triathlon race. My stomach churned.
Upon landing in John Wayne Airport, I went to oversized luggage, eagerly anticipating my beloved custom carbon fiber Calfee tandem to come off the belt and be on our way back to Lauren’s to enjoy some sun and a run together. What awaited me was a horror show. My bike, costing tens of thousands of dollars, had been damaged by United’s baggage handlers. They had opened the sealed hard-sided case, even though I watched TSA inspect and properly close the box when it left NY. The box was now a mangled mess. I took a deep breathe and headed to baggage services.
The ladies could not have been nicer or more helpful, and we had a plan to go straight to Lauren’s bike shop and have them inspect the bike. On initial exam, there were a few bumps and bruises to Bomber, but nothing jumped out at us, as she was still packed in a dark black case. My friend, a former pilot for a Paralympic track cyclist, Scott Evans, generously agreed to meet us on Saturday at a big park to teach Lauren how to corner on my bike, and how to stand up out of the saddle and accelerate. The tandem is much like driving a semi truck, with a 130 pound person on the back, it corners sometimes like a bus. With world Championships in Chicago coming up in less than two weeks, it was critical that Lauren not only LEARN how to ride the bike, but to ride it well and aggressively to assure us a podium spot. We would be racing against guide-athlete teams that had been training together non-stop for a year or more, and some even hired pros (which is indeed legal to do, as long as they have not used their ITU pro card within two years of guiding) to be their guide. To say I was nervous, and putting a lot of pressure on Lauren, would be an understatement. Fortunately, she was a fast learner, and eager to do the job.
After a great few hours on the bike, we headed back to Lauren’s and she dashed off to her job as a financial planner, one of the many hats she wears, between triathlon and nutritionist and personal trainer. I decided that washing my bike was therapeutic and grabbed Bomber for a little TLC. The frame was cracked. And not just a tiny chip, a solid break straight through the rear seat stay. There must have been a crack from the damage, and riding the bike caused it to splinter wide open. My brand new custom bike, 4 days before departing for Canada, at 4:45pm on a SATURDAY was devastatingly broken. I called my boyfriend Pierre in tears, who talked me down from my mental cliff, and got down to business tracking down help.
Fortunately I had the director of sales for my bike on speed dial. He had spent months designing every millimeter of my bike over phone and email, and was my first call in my sheer panic. Lauren helped me contact the local bike shop, who gave me the name of a guy who owned a carbon bike repair business only 45 minutes away. The chain was in motion. After 24 hours of phone calls and emails, the great folks at Calfee Design allowed the carbon repair service to fix my bike without voiding the warranty on the frame, saving me a flight to northern California with half my bike in my hands and begging for help at their headquarters. Bill Langford of Tri All 3 Sports, the manufacturer of my hard case, immediately went to work fixing my bike box, refurbishing it with new latches, wheels and a solid inner framework to prevent future mishandling. I could almost breathe.
After only getting another 2 hour practice in before we left for Canada, Lauren and I hopped the plane to Edmonton, ready for a chilly and thrilling weekend of racing together. The weather was cold. Not like crisp autumn air cold, but DAMN cold. The overnight low was 39 degrees and daytime highs were only in the mid 50s by very late in the afternoon. Our race would be Saturday at 1:15, and we crossed our fingers.
Pierre picked us up, and the three of us headed on Thursday for our own bike course preview to get Lauren acclimated to the tandem further. Our hands, feet and faces were numb from the cold air, and my lungs burned from my asthma, making me realize that despite my misery in hot conditions, it better suited me. This would be a tough race. Friday we had the ‘opportunity’ to check out the swim course. We were told that the lake temperatures would lie in the mid 60s. This was for sure not the case. I screamed at the top of my lungs as my wetsuit filled with frigid water, and spent nearly ten minutes breast-stroking until I got the nerve to put my face in. I’d been in cold water before, but this actually hurt to breathe. Again, not ideal for an asthmatic. But as my sports psychologist, Simon Marshall says, “Control the controllables.” So I donned TWO swim caps to stay warm, and tested out ear plugs to see if they helped with the dizziness I felt when exiting the freezing lake.
Race day was in the 40s and overcast. I wondered aloud how the juniors were faring with their early morning start time in the freezing cold. I was optimistic that the sun would come out and the temps would rise for our race by 1:15. They didn’t. Lauren and I had a nice jog around the lake to warm up, and hopped in for a final swim warmup, which proved even colder than the day before. I could barely stand the pain in my hands from the water, and had to lift my hands in the air several times to get the blood flowing again. Pierre and I huddled awaiting the start draped in a towel and gloves, shivering uncontrollably. While my Xterra wetsuit was doing a fantastic job of keeping my body warm, my hands, face and feet were in agony.
The gun went off and I took off, with a plan to go hard the first 100 meters, then settle into an aggressive race pace. I was getting bumped for about 25 meters, but Lauren managed to steer me to the right and get me away from the fray quickly. My heart rate jacked through the roof, and I found myself gasping for breath, and started to panic. Badly. This is not an unusual phenomenon for triathletes to panic in the swim, especially in cold water, and particularly if you’re visually impaired. But for a moment, I simply stopped swimming, picked my head up, took three big breathes and had a total freak out. I put my face back in only to feel like I was inhaling beneath the water, and stopped again 50 meters later and smacked Lauren on the shoulder. “STOP! STOP! I can’t! I can’t breathe!” I screamed. “Yes you can, you’re TALKING! SWIM!” she yelled furiously back at me. And with that, I laughed to myself and got back to the job at hand- getting the hell out of this freezing lake as fast as I could.
Before I knew it, we were running to the bike, both gasping from the cold, and stripping off the swim tether and wetsuits. I wiped my feet as best I could on the blue carpet, and dashed off to mount Bomber. “HOLY SHIT I CAN’T FEEL MY HANDS!” were the first words Lauren uttered to me. “Me neither” I replied miserably. We swapped to a higher gear, and prayed that as we dried off and worked harder that our bodies would warm up. The course was a sweeping 4 lap loop that went out and back from a beautiful park onto a closed highway. The pavement was horrible, and I prayed with each and every bump that we didn’t get a flat. As we circled back for our first loop, the second place women’s team was just heading out. We were solidly in first place by a good 3 minutes in my guesstimate.
Each lap we pulled away slightly, opening up the gap on the Canadian and Irish teams, but getting colder by the minute. My hands were numb, as were my wet feet in my bike shoes, and we both wondered aloud how the heck we were supposed to run after this on frozen toes. I wiggled my feet aggressively, hoping the blood would come back. The Canadian could outrun me, and had in 5 previous races. I had beaten her twice, but it was going to take a solid and fast run to keep her behind us.
We headed into transition, and somehow ran the bike to the rack, despite completely no feeling in my feet. I could hear the announcer going crazy as we came in, telling us we were still in first place, and I decided to run hard until my feet came back to me. Lauren did an amazing job pacing me to 7:11 pace for the first mile. Not feeling my feet was scaring the heck out of me, especially with not being able to see, I really relied on physical feedback to give me my bearings. On the second loop of the run, I began to suffer. My breathing was taxed with the cold air, and my feet went from numb to pins and needles. Lauren pushed me every ten steps, calling out my pace to me, and telling me to speed up or to stay steady. She also lied to me.
“They’re coming! The Canadians are back there- probably 200 meters! Faster!” I argued with her. The math didn’t make sense. They would have had to run sub 6 minute per mile pace in order to catch me at this point. But I couldn’t see, so I had to believe her. And I was becoming delirious. So perhaps she was indeed telling the truth. I gutted myself for the final half mile, pumping my arms hard to maintain my pace, begging my body to move faster. As we ran onto the blue carpet, Lauren thankfully started counting down the distance to the finish. “50 feet! 20 Feet! 10 Feet! Reach out and grab your winner’s tape! You did it!”
Grabbing the coveted ITU Tape at the finish line on the famous blue carpet for the USA was sweeter than I ever imagined. I hugged Lauren tightly, so grateful for her guidance and tough love on the course. She brought out my best when I needed it and helped me secure a gold medal. I even got excited when the drug enforcement officer immediately escorted me from the finish line to a private tent to pee in a cup! She said she had never seen anyone so excited to get drug tested before. I told her, “It means I WON if I get to pee in a cup, right? So why wouldn’t I be excited? It means I’ve finally ‘made it’”.
So, broken bike, new guide, an impromptu emergency training trip to California, and a decisive win by two whole minutes. Not the way I would have planned it for sure, and certainly not the ideal stress or rest level before an important race, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It’s not our successes or the easy days that make us stronger. It’s the setbacks that set us up to succeed and grow and learn and WIN. Thank you to the dozens of friends, guides, family, coaches Ray and Simon, and teammates who came together to help me on such a difficult week, assuring I made it onto the podium. This one’s for you. #loveandgratitude #blondesonbikes
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