I will admit that I am not in ideal race shape. And I’ll admit I still have a few physical issues that need ironing out. But I still have the heart for racing, so here I am in North Carolina reflecting on the Duathlon World Championships, which took place yesterday in Concord.
When I started this season, I knew I didn’t have it in me to do a huge quantity of racing, so I went for quality. I wanted to compete in the Triathlon World Championships in Gold Coast, Australia, but I also knew that would be a long shot financially, so when I found out that duathlon would have a ParaTri (formerly known as AWAD-Athletes with a Disability, and more formerly known as PC-Physically Challenged) division, I jumped at the chance to qualify. My VISA card could handle a trip to the east coast better than halfway around the world. Therefore, Steve and I traveled to the Apple Du in Sartell, Minn., in May where I qualified for Duathlon Worlds. Since then my season has consisted of four time trials, a sprint triathlon and a super sprint tri. Much less than I normally do in a year.
We arrived in Charlotte, N.C. on Thursday night and were fortunate to have the offer to stay with a friend, Mike Savicki who lives just about 35 minutes from the racecourse. The great thing about staying at Mike’s house is that it is totally accessible (he’s in a chair too), it’s right on the lake (BEAUTIFUL), he has all the spare equipment I could have needed and tonight he took us out on his boat. Not only that, but his pantry is stocked better than the shelves at Safeway and he’s very “motherly” for a guy…he would not let us leave the house yesterday without raincoats, an umbrella, enough food and Gatorade…we were definitely prepared!
On to the race! The event took place at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, home to the two of the biggest races on the NASCAR circuit. And even part of the race took place on the apron of the track. Looking at the map the course was anyone’s guess as it was so confusing, but by the time we got my equipment to the transition area (which was in the infield by all the car garages) and took the Team USA picture, we didn’t have time or the means to travel the course. I had no idea what I was in for. Good and bad, looking back.
Yesterday we had a leisurely morning, which is rare in racing, but my division didn’t go off until 3:30pm, so we didn’t even leave Mike’s place until 12:30 or so. I liked not having to get up early, but I don’t think afternoon is my ultimate time for racing. As we backed out of the driveway, the sky was overcast and misting rain. It didn’t seem like such a big deal as it helped cool things down a bit, but as we approached the track, the mist had turned into a light rain. We got there as the elite men were on the bike course and seeing them go downhill through the tunnel and make tight turns, in a group, on wet, painted roads made me flinch every time. We could see a couple of racers had already gone down and once we got into the infield we saw a one guy crash just feet away from us. Things were starting to get real slippery and the age group race hadn’t even started yet.
Once that race was over, they had the elite and junior award ceremonies and then it was on to the age groupers. We all lined up at the start line with the PC athletes in front and racers from 18-years-old to 84, behind us.
Since this was the first time for a ParaTri division in the duathlon it was SMALL. Just five of us to be exact and I was the only female and the only wheelchair. There were fours Americans and one Italian. I was feeling pretty good about things. I figured that I would be able to take off on the run and get a gap on the field, then hold steady on the bike and then catch back up on the second run. Funny how I always have great plans and they almost never work out. The horn sounded and off we went.
The beginning of the run was only about 200 meters on the apron, then went into the infield, curved around like a snake through some grassy areas at the end of the track and out through the tunnel that leads you from the track to the outside world. Before I even got to the tunnel I heard my tire go “pssssssssssss” and I thought, “oh crap!” I don’t know how I already had a hole in my tire since we had checked them and filled them up earlier, but I kept pushing hoping that Steve had put some Stan’s in the tire. I headed for the tunnel and went full speed down the hill into the tunnel and as I hit the bottom, I hit a grate in the ground full force and it sounded like my disk wheels were going to crack and then the “pssssss” turned into “PSSSSSSSSSSSSS” and I was now facing a hill that went straight up. I started up forward and immediately knew that this was a backward climbing hill. In the meantime, my sunglasses were fogging up, I was breaking out in a massive downpour of sweat because of the humidity, so I threw off my favorite pink Rudy sunglasses, hoping I wasn’t saying goodbye to them forever (but knowing I would never get them back), turned around and started pulling up the hill. I finally made it and turned around only to have another hill staring me in the face. The course wrapped through the concourses of the track, to a bridge that went over the highway and came back over another bridge. As I pushed through the first lap (which was only 3.1 miles per lap), the rain started FOR REAL. Even though I had a huge supply of Klister on my chair, I kept coating my gloves and they’d grip for a while, but it was just too wet to keep them tacky for long. The hills were so steep and hundreds of runners had caught me and my gloves were so slippery, I had to go up everything backwards. That was FIVE hills per 5K lap that I had to turn around and pull up. It took me 1 hour and 11 minutes to go 10K, when I was planning for 38 minutes or less. The good news, the Stan’s sealed up the hole in my tire and though the air was low it was enough to keep me going. When I pulled up in transition, I was soaked! Steve helped me out of my chair and on to the bike. I grabbed my short-sleeved cycling raincoat, some gels and was off. The bike course was two 20K laps and I was wishing for more food. Based on my time at the Apple Du, I was going for 2:55 to three hours for this race, but it was obvious after the run, that I was way off my time. In the first 10K of the race, I went from chasing a PR to survival mode.
As I rode off to the bike course, I was surrounded with other racers, which was good for support, but bad for splash back. It was raining steadily and my front wheel, being exactly the height of my face, was throwing gallons of water and dirt directly into my eyes. Now I really wished for my Rudy’s, but they probably wouldn’t have helped. There were a couple of screaming downhills where I was going over 30 mph, but not being able to see a thing with all the water in my face and at the bottom, a sharp turn to the right. I’d go back and forth squinting one eye and then the other trying to keep at least some sort of sight on the course and hoping not to take out any cyclists.
After the first lap outside of the complex, we came back into the speedway and rode almost all the way around on the track. At one point the wind was behind my back and I was cruising. But as soon as I passed by transition and headed back out of the complex for my second lap, it began to POUR. And at this point, I was all alone on the racecourse. I was thankful for my jacket as I started to shiver and get very cold. The water was getting deep along the course and I was thinking to myself, “if I had wanted to get wet, I would have done a TRIATHLON.”
Finally I could hear a vehicle behind me and I kept waiting for them to pass, but then I realized that someone had sent a follow vehicle out for me. That was nice…maybe they could save me from drowning.
When I got back into transition to get ready for the final 5K, Steve told me to hurry up. He said the ITU officials wanted to pull me from the course (for “safety reasons” … it was getting dark and was VERY wet), but the USAT folks were sticking up for me to stay in the race. He helped me get in the chair and I told him to follow me over to the tunnel so he could be there in case of disaster. He jumped in a golf cart with Casey, a gal from USAT. As the sky got dark and all the street lights came on, they followed me through the whole course. I kept seeing racers leaving with their bikes in hand-most had already left. At that point, all I wanted was to finish.
When we pulled back into the track, they were taking down fencing and bike racks, but there was still an announcer, a finish line and a couple of straggling athletes. It felt like the two Ironman races I have finished late into the night, and it felt almost as difficult.
For a race that I was expecting to go three hours, fighting through to 4:10 was a killer both mentally and physically. The entire time, I kept telling myself that I had to finish no matter what. The last time I went to Worlds was in 2003 in New Zealand when I was pulled from the water with hypothermia and didn’t get to finish. It didn’t matter this time that I was the Lanterne Rouge or as Mike says, “DFL.” I finished and for that, I am the World Champion in my division.
As Steve and I walked to the car, the guy who had been following me on the bike, drove up, got out of the car and said, “I can’t give you a medal for your race, but I want to give you this.” He gave me a commemorative gold coin from one of the events at the track. He said, “you inspired us tonight. All the EMT and security staff enjoyed watching you and your determination. You are amazing.”
The things that made it all worthwhile, were wearing the read and blue, being cheered on by all of my USA teammates and the standing ovation I received at this morning’s award ceremony. No, it wasn’t the athletic performance of a lifetime, but I had to dig deep for this one. And maybe sometimes it’s just as well to inspire as to be fast.