While in graduate school at University of Washington, I enrolled in a triathlon course through the student recreation center. That coach, Aaron Scheidies, turned out to not only be an amazing coach, athlete, and mentor, but was also legally blind. He, like Adrian Broca, had experienced vision loss during their teenage years, with both individuals struggling with depression and self-doubt until they turned to endurance sports as a venue of self-expression and personal achievement.
Aaron trained me through my first ironman – Vineman 2012. He introduced me to heart-rate based training, periodicity, intensity versus volume, and generally changed the direction of my life. While legally blind, he could ride his bike so long as he followed the white line or rode right behind me. At first, I thought he was totally crazy, but later I realized that he had to do these things. It’s so true but so often we don’t realize what we have until we do not have it. Both Aaron and Adrian, and I suspect many people in their situation, embody courage and bravery, two traits I highly admire. While inspiring, I also learn a lot about life by just being around them.
In fall, 2017, Aaron called me up and asked if I might guide a Los Angeles-based visually-impaired athlete in Ironman Canada 2018, which is currently held in Whistler, British Columbia. He described Adrian’s athletic profile, noting, in particular, that he was a sub-three-hour marathoner (2:50 PR). In other words, Adrian is a beast. I had a busy spring with travel for work, so only got to train with Adrian for a weekend in April/May. We did a 93-mile bike on his tandem in the Santa Monica Mountains, two-mile swim in the choppy LA ocean, and a nine-mile run. That session helped us get a feel for one another. In addition, Adrian’s wife, Brenda, told me I might be the funniest guide they’ve had, which pleased me greatly.
I had paced several half-marathons and a marathon, but guiding is obviously much more involved. With run pacing you just stick to a steady pace (say 6:52 for a half-marathon); whereas guiding requires constant awareness and communication (which is the fun in it). Adrian can sense levels of lightness/darkness and can sort of detect peoples’ positioning say on a bike trail (which is critical since he’s always burning by everyone). He described his vision this way: open your eyes in a muddy pond and look up towards the surface. With these challenges, it was my responsibility as the guide to adjust to the needs of the guided athlete to ensure their protection with the goal of letting them reach their athletic potential.
The Ironman Canada swim is held in Alta Lake surrounded by beautiful snow-capped mountains. Challenged athletes can either start just behind the lead professional athletes or in their “expected” swim finish time position (ironman and half-ironman races now usually have a staggered start as opposed to everyone starting at the same time). With the former you get a bit of a lead on everyone else, which might help one ease into the race, but then you risk getting mowed down by faster (and more aggressive) front-pack swimmers. Adrian opted to start in the staggered pack with everyone else, as he is on the newer side of swimming, so we situated around the 1:30-40 range.
We are tethered together around the hip and upper thigh during the swim. I swim on the left and slightly ahead, he swims on the right just behind. Adrian can tell where to go when he feels the tension on the cord, adjusting accordingly throughout the entire 2.4 miles. For the most part, the swim was not overly crowded, and we only got knocked a bit. We did get caught up in the 70.3 lead swimmers who started about an hour after us so I had to keep an eye on all that glancing behind me every so often. One guy mowed through the center of us and got tangled in the tether resulting in a ferocious response from me to the likes I didn’t know I had. But he apologized and obviously he didn’t swim through us on purpose. But when you are charged with essentially protecting someone in those conditions your instincts are powerful. Thus, we moved off to the side and kept swimming all the way through. We exited the swim in 1:42.
Moving into transition our first task was to hit up the wet suit strippers who help strip your wetsuit off facilitating your transition to the bike. Honestly, we cannot thank the volunteers enough. We grabbed our transition bags, headed into the tent, put on our helmets and bike shoes, got our gear (Adrian opted for a backpack with two hydration packs to make refueling at the aid stations easier) then jogged over to our tandem bike. During this time Adrian would put his hand on my shoulder to make sure he didn’t trip or fall.
The Ironman Canada bike is one of the more grueling bike courses on the ironman circuit, with 8-9000 feet of total climbing. Bike courses are not equal, and your time is generally dictated by three things (holding fitness level constant): temperature, wind/rain, and elevation gain. Ironman Canada has a ton of climbing, the temperatures got to over 90F towards the back-half of the ride, and there was some wind (not crazy, but some). Combining that with a tandem bike that probably climbs about half the speed I would climb on my own tri-bike made for a long and grueling bike ride. At one point, someone in running shoes rode by us on one of the climbs. To make up for "lost" time we descended like maniacs hitting speeds close to 50mph passing tons of people descending and ascending in the other direction. Luckily, I do a lot of climbing and descending so felt generally cautiously comfortable but it must have looked ridiculous.
The upside was that at least Adrian and I had a good time making jokes for at least the first 80 miles or so. The other benefit of a tandem is that all the fans notice and express special cheers. The amount of times I heard, “hey look, a tandem” were countless, but the best was: “look at that wicked tandem.” I said to Adrian, “I think that guy was from Boston”, to which he agreed. Also, I should add we received lots of encouragement from fellow athletes, which is small, but helps a lot when you are beginning to struggle.
The last 30 or so miles for me were a real struggle. The bike positioning of course is not my normal setup, and I had some challenges with hydration and nausea. But given the heat it was imperative to continue taking in liquid, electrolytes, calories, and salt even if that resulted in the occasional Gatorade burp. The end of the bike in some ways is the hardest part of an ironman because you are starting to fade, are generally feeling shitty and sorry for yourself, but begin to dread the marathon. Our bike split was 7:33.
Coming into transition we were both elated but shot. However, Adrian is a solid runner, so I knew we were going to be passing people the whole way. Moving into the change tent we found seats and began changing into our running shoes and socks, gathering our running water bottles and the like. During this time, I tried burping a bit and realized I might need to puke. So I vomited all that built up liquid (combination of water, Gatorade, Coke, Red Bull, Perpetuem) into the nearest trash can. No bile or anything, just enough to get those air bubbles out of the stomach. Immediately I felt better and we were off on our way to complete what we had started.
The Ironman Canada run is a beautiful two loop out and back with a finish in Whistler village. We began the run during the hottest part of the day but for two Southern California boys that wasn’t really an excuse. I’ve trained and raced in significantly worse conditions (e.g., Kona and Palm Springs). The course has about 1,300 feet of elevation gain so isn’t “fast” per say, but relative to the bike there were pockets of shade. In addition, the views were insane: snow-capped mountains, cloudy turquoise lakes, lush green forests, truly beautiful. We got into a steady groove but given the crowded bike-trail conditions and run traffic coming the other way, it was a constant battle of acceleration and deceleration, navigating turns, moving up short climbs and descents, and making sure to consume the proper nutrition at each aid station. While our splits overall may not look that impressive (due to aid stations, turns, navigating through traffic, etc.), we were running 7:50s-8:30s (per mile) in the open section for a good part of the marathon feeling more like a 3:40 effort rather than the 4:15 posted split.
Ironmans are very uncertain events, even top athletes break and have to walk during the run. Early on, I wondered if Adrian would crack; at mile 11 he stopped, bent over, and loudly dry-heaved. I thought maybe this was the moment and that stomach problems would begin to slow us down. But, like my T2 puke-fest, it was a momentary weakness and we recovered our running form shortly thereafter. At that point, I realized Adrian was a true warrior and that we were going to grit this thing out if it killed us.
We continued one foot after another, runner up, Adrian pass on the left I’d pass on the right. “Adrian, the line is clear, two runners ahead on your left”, etc. “Trail now bending right, now left, look out for that root, there’s a cone, now a sidewalk curb, etc.” At the final turnaround with about five miles to go we picked up the pace and just started trucking. Adrian asked what mile we were at, I said, “Mile 21.” He said, “Wow, that’s awesome.” The final miles were a bit of a blur, but I saw Sarah around the 24.5-mile mark, providing us inspiration. With that extra boost of energy the last bit of adrenaline started to kick in, the kind where you get the sheets of electricity running through your body and your emotions begin to get the better of you. I was so proud of Adrian hanging tough (and me too), and proud to guide someone through such an accomplishment. As we came down the finish line shoot I think both of us were overcome with emotion as the cheering got louder and fans/supporters realized what they were witnessing. We crossed in 13:48, with a total run time of 4:15.
If you are interesting in guiding challenged athletes or learning how to support them you can visit Challenged Athletes Foundation on Facebook or their website.
By day I am a political scientist studying campaigns, public opinion, and race and ethnic politics. By early morning and/or night I am an endurance athlete.