Multisport

Feed the Good Wolf

Feed the Good Wolf

Penticton - Part One

A friend of mine recently posted about this, and it has been on my mind since, so bear with me as I begin with a story . . .

There is an old Cherokee legend known as the tale of two wolves A grandfather explains to his warrior grandson that there are two wolves within each of us: One wolf is positive and beneficial, while the other wolf is negative and destructive. These two wolves fight for control over us. The grandson is curious and asks, “Which wolf will win?” The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”

I am going to be honest, my “Bad Wolf” was howling loudly as I took off for Penticton. I got home around 3am on Monday morning after driving with my father straight from Omaha and USA Triathlon Age Group Nationals. I unpacked, cleaned, and repacked my race gear. I worked. I tried to get some training in. And I spent as much time as I possibly could with my family. Similar to the majority of people who traveled to Penticton, my travel arrangements were a little crazy. What sounded perfect months ago when I made them - not so much in reality. I left my house at 1:30 am, drove 2 hours to Nashville, flew to Atlanta making it just in time to board for Salt Lake City, was sitting on the runway in Salt Lake as my flight boarded to Vancouver, did the classic ‘run through the airport’ (because of course my flight was on the opposite end) and somehow made the flight, found my way to pick up my rental car, drove 4 1/2 hours to Penticton getting in around 6pm, and found my way down to the event venue where thank heavens Marc from Raceday Transport was still there and graciously let me pick up my road bike so I could do the course ride the next day. Whew.

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With Marc from Raceday (actually in Bend, but one of my favorite pics)


     Meanwhile the howls went something like this. . . “Really? You are going away for 11 days?” “You should be home with your family.” “Can you really afford to take that much time off work?” “Why are you traveling all that way to race?” “Why do you feel the need to do four races?” “And why are you going by yourself when no one in your family is traveling with you?” “Are you really going to be able to find your way around and figure out what you are supposed to do?” etc. etc. etc. Yep, it was howling LOUD.
Thankfully, enter the good wolf. “Yes, I am going for 11 days.” “My family understands, they know that I love them, they respect my passion for racing, and they support me wholeheartedly. Yes, I will miss them and they will miss me, but we will be fine and it just makes us value our time together that much more.” “My work understands and supports me as well, and I will make it up by working longer hours when I am home.” “I am traveling to Penticton because I have always wanted to go there (my father and I had hoped to do Ironman Canada there together but alas it was discontinued before we were able to do so), and because it is the first Multisport World Championship - and I WANT to do it, and I’m doing four races because I CAN and I LOVE to race.” And, “I know other people who will be there, Team USA is hugely supportive, and I will figure things out eventually.” Scared? Slightly. But you know the saying:

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So - Exit Zone

 

    At risk of being annoyingly repetitive, I have to say this again. Whenever the bad wolf howls and I allow myself to worry about what people think about me and my racing (bad mother, doesn’t work, races too much, etc etc), my good wolf’s reply always comes back to the same thing . . . You just never know. I see it so often - at work and on a personal level. You just never know when everything could change. Nothing is a given. I have a friend who loves to swim more than anything and one day received a diagnosis of ALS and is no longer able. I have friends who have been hit by cars while riding their bikes - or even running. I have a friend who had an earache that ended up being tonsillar cancer. I know people who had planned on coming to Penticton to race and were unable due to illness or injury.  You just never know. There very well may come a day when, heaven forbid, I am not able to race. When that day comes I want to look back and know that I seized every opportunity I had when it was presented. It is my passion, it balances me out, and it makes me very happy. Yes, I took time off and time away and spent money I probably should have saved, but it is the memories of the races and the people I shared them with, and knowing that I dared to put myself out there and toed that line, that I will remember. And I hope if that day ever comes, that will be enough.

OK - enough of that. PENTICTON!!!!! Beautiful Penticton. I was really excited because a friend of mine from Memphis who I know through bike racing, was here to do the draft legal race - Pam Tate. We met up for the Team Ride of the sprint course Friday morning, and she and her husband Byron let me tag along with them and join them for meals.

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USA triathlon goes above and beyond for the athletes at these events - there are team massage therapists, bike mechanics, and a chiropractor (all of which were just amazing). There are coaches who talked us through the courses, rode the bike course with us, gave us tips on what to do (and not to do) to ensure a good race. Five star treatment all around.

The duathlon was Saturday morning - a 5k run, 20k bike, and then a 2.5k run. The run was along the lake which has a distinct ‘beach’ atmosphere with restaurants lining the way. The bike was 2 loops including a pretty good climb, and then a fast descent which looped around for a view across a beautiful vineyard and down across the lake - absolutely stunning.

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I was very fortunate to have a great race Saturday. And it was very special to see so many other Team USA members have great races as well. I spent about as lazy of a Sunday as I could, and had a beyond amazing race on Monday doing the Standard distance duathlon - 10k run, 40k bike, 5k run (no drafting). The course was flat, fast, and fun - the crowds were fantastic, and by the time I rounded the last corner to the finish line I had given it all I had. Just an incredible experience.

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There is something about a world championship race that makes it like no other. Perhaps it is all the travel involved in getting to the race, or just being in another country racing. Perhaps it is being out there racing for Team USA and encouraging each other throughout the race. I always try to take a moment to give thanks, “How cool is it that I am in Penticton, and able to race?”. And always, ALWAYS the crowds are unbelievable. Nothing like cheers of “Go USA”, and “Go Sass”, to make me smile a little bigger and dig a little deeper. And, of course, the BEST part of the race is grabbing that USA flag from Tim Yount or Lauren Rios, or any of the other Team USA members and carrying it proudly across that finish line. That is just the best.

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Tim Yount - ALWAYS makes me dig deeper...

If you ever, ever have a chance to participate in a world championship event, it is so, so worth it. All the doubts, worries, and howls will disappear - I promise. The experience is just priceless.

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And remember - always, ALWAYS feed the good wolf.

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Omaha - It's the heart that matters...and MY DAD WAS THERE!

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Somewhere in middle America
Get right to the heart of matters
It’s the heart that matters more…

 

     Thanks to Tami Winston who sent me the link to that Counting Crows song - this was on ‘repeat’ in my mind for most of the weekend. Oh, Omaha. It was good to me last year, landing me on the podium for my first ever overall win at a USA Triathlon National Championship, in the Sprint distance. That was especially sweet because (apart from being totally unexpected) my coach, Suzanne Atkinson, had made the journey to come watch my races - so it was very cool to have her there for that! This year I was excited to have my hometown friends - the aforementioned Tami, and Gwin Anderson coming to race, and my father was meeting us there as well. However, I honestly had no hopes of repeating an overall win this year. While my training was going well I had a number of setbacks basically all summer which meant my ‘5k’ pace in training was more like my ‘10k’ pace. It was improving, but I was out of time. Plus there are always girls who show up for nationals that are just so, so fast; I had raced one of them at the Duathlon nationals this year - and my bets were on her to sweep both races. And, I was ok with that. I had already decided that I would race as hard as I could, but would be very happy just to podium in my age group - there are plenty of speedy girls in that division!

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Race day for the olympic distance was just beautiful. Last year's blistering heat had given way this year to very mild temperatures. I was lucky to be in one of the early waves to start (in years past I’ve waited for hours to start - so I was very happy to start early!), and took my place on the dock. I just love how friendly triathletes are. Here we are, lined up on this dock at a national championship race, and everyone still takes a moment to give a high five and wish each other good luck. Just awesome. And - the race began.

I was happy with my swim, and headed out onto my favorite part - the bike. Oh yeah. The highlight of my ride was coming in and spotting my friend Gwin heading out. Now, there is one pretty good hill on the course, and when I met Gwin he was coming down the other side, but interestingly enough there was a guy wearing a red-white-and blue speedo riding one of those fat-tire bikes (I mean really fat tire bikes) just in front of him. Hmmmmm - surely that guy didn’t pass Gwin going up that hill?!?!?! I filed that away to be explored later….

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Off the bike, onto the run - and there was my dad about 1/4 mile in cheering me on! That made me pick it up - let me tell you! It is very seldom we race together, but even less often that he is there spectating (neither one of us willingly chooses to spectate - we do much better racing as well), so that was such a special thing for me. I managed to have a solid run, and was thrilled to cross the finish line and hold up that banner. There were a couple interviews and a trip to the USADA tent for testing (which I love doing because I want that on my record at EVERY opportunity), and the whole time I was kind of laughing because I knew those girls in the later waves were going to beat my time handily. Regardless, I was really happy with my race because I felt I gave it everything I could have based on my training leading up to it. And - my dad was there.

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Back at the hotel, my dad was on his tracker watching the rest of the race. "Oh, it’s going to be close", he told me. He started scribbling numbers and calculating - "I think you may have it". No way. Not a chance. But he was so excited to think so, I just kind of shook my head.

We met Gwin and Tami for lunch - unofficial results came through - "You did it!!!!!!" my dad told me. No way. I have a hard time believing any results until awards are announced . . . but according to the race timing - I had the fastest time. NO.WAY. How very ironic - there were years in the past that I felt like I had a chance at standing on that top step - but not this year. I hadn’t even contemplated it. But, it happened. And the best part? My dad was there.

Sunday morning. Parking is always crazy, and I am one of those people who much prefer to be an hour early and drive in by myself than sit in traffic for an hour worrying. So I was at the venue super early, laid my seat back, turned on some tunes, and just hung out. When transition opened I went in and got my tires pumped, but it started raining so back to the car I went with my gear. I didn’t even know it was supposed to rain?!?!? I was tired, and stiff, and sore, but today was like a ‘celebration’ race - and there is something about racing back-to-back days that I really like. It’s a test of the mind probably more so than the body - and I just like the challenge of seeing how I can overcome that. Gwin and Tami were heading home, and my dad was unable to race today for a number of reasons. With the race schedule and the drive home, I calculated I wouldn’t be home until 2am the next day, and he was supposed to ride with me - but I messaged him that if he would rather ride with Gwin and Tami I understood - it would be much more civil for him.

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Gwin and Tami

As the rain continued to drizzle on, I finally put the rest of my stuff in transition and made my way to swim start. My swim start was later this time, with the younger girls finishing about the time I started. And, once again, far from hot it was closer to chilly waiting to start. Finally made it to the swim start, and again I was happy with my swim. Out on the bike, a little extra cautious around the corners on the wet roads, just gave it what was left in my legs. Off the bike, out onto the run - and there was my dad, right where he was the day before! That made my heart leap and put a spring in my step. "You gotta go, Kirsten" he called. "Every second counts", and then something about 20 seconds but I couldn’t hear. Well, ok. I didn’t have much left, but I gave it all I had. I turned off my mind, focused on my Bobby McGee run form - and just ran with everything I had for as long as I could. Coming back in there he was again, "GO, GO, GO!" he cried - and I went. I came into the finish line stretch - and I will never forget it. The crowds were going crazy, the announcer was saying, "It’s going to come down to the line, to the second" - and let me tell you, that’s as close to falling across a finish line as I have ever come. Once I crossed the announcer had me wait to do an interview - but refused to tell me the final result. He had me tell about my race and how I felt, and after it was all over told me that, indeed, I had won - by a matter of seconds. And, my dad was there. And he was SOOOOOO excited. And - I was just in disbelief.

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I am 38 years old. I have 2 kids. I work. I had setback after setback this summer largely because I fell off my bike multiple times and had to take time to recover. I even got to the point that, for the first time ever, I sent my coach a desperate plea to help me through and keep me going. I came into these races knowing I was not where I wanted to be, but determined to give what I had. And - somehow, that was enough. What an amazing sport that a person can still find success against the odds. It just really blows me away. But you know, the best part is - my dad was there. The.Best.Part.  

 

Oh - and for the record, that guy on the fat tire bike? He passed Gwin….going up that hill.  However, Gwin assured me that he passed him back shortly thereafter....

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Gwin Anderson - finishing it up strong!

 

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Somehow I managed to NOT get a SINGLE picture of my dad and I together.  However, I have to share with you what was going on back home while I was racing . . . it seems that the National Championships fall the same weekend as the Elvis Presley 5k at Graceland, and in my household that seems to be the priority...

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My husband, Jeff (right) and his buddy Troy (left) - Elvis 5k
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My Sebastian

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Meanwhile my amazing sister, Robyn, was sharing adventures with Bella!


 As always, thanks for reading! 


Memphis In May Triathlon Weekend

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Ahhhhh Memphis in May. Triathlon weekend. One of my very favorite race weekends. Although I feel this story is getting worn out - I still want to share it again. You see, this is where my triathlon story begins. My first triathlon. 1999. 19 years old. My father excitedly signed me up. I rode on his old bike - and didn’t get in the aerobars at all. At that time there were over a thousand racers - and most of them passed me. And - most of them encouraged me on. The finish stretch of that race is across a grassy levee that overlooks the swim course, then down a little hill to cross the finish line - and I was SO proud to make it to that line! And - the after party… Live music. Memphis BBQ (of course). Beer trucks. Elvis. People everywhere - swapping race stories, tales of past races and those planned for the future - all ages and abilities. Suddenly a roar arose from the crowd - there was the final finisher, crossing the levee - escorted by Elvis himself, complete with a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Everyone stopped to cheer as they crossed that finish line. I was inspired - I decided I liked this triathlon stuff. Maybe if I worked at it, I could even get a little faster.

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My dad framed my race pics from that 1999 race - and I have them hanging in my 'tri room' - and still look at them every day.

I have done the Memphis in May triathlon every year since then, except for two. In 2007 my father, my husband, our good friend Jimmy Crossett and I all went to do Ironman Lanzarote, which fell the same weekend as Memphis. And in 2011 I was about 8 1/2 months pregnant - I’m pretty sure the race management was relieved I decided not to race. The Memphis in May Triathlon has been a big part of our lives. Jeff and I even used the DJ from the race (appropriately named Elvis - I kid you not), at our wedding party.

The race itself has seen some ups and downs. It changed locations from Millington, TN (just outside Memphis), to Tunica, Mississippi for a few years. Then, for a number of reasons, it ended up back in Millington. While the number of competitors has decreased, the quality of the competition certainly has not - and the race continues to draw amazingly talented athletes from the region. Driving home on Sunday after the race, I pondered what exactly it is that makes Memphis in May so unique . . . so here are the top 5 reasons why I would recommend coming to race . . .

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1.  Elvis. I mean - it is Memphis you know.
I can remember when I first started racing, I was in University up in Canada at the time, and managed to convince a group of my friends to come down and do the race. The guys all grew out their ‘Elvis chops’ - then had the race Elvis judge who had the best. Funny story - one guy was so proud that he painstakingly shaved his chops into Elvis’s logo - unfortunately he ended up with TLC (vs TCB). Now, in a funny twist of fate, my husband has been the ‘Elvis’ for a couple years - and my pre-race anxiety only involves him remembering all the words to the National Anthem . . .


2. The Amateur Challenge
It is no secret that I like to race a lot. So, it is right down my alley that this race offers the opportunity to race a sprint distance on Saturday, followed by the Olympic Distance on Sunday - take the combined time from the two, and split a prize of $5,000 between the top 10 males and top 10 females. And - the competition is pretty serious.

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2017 Edition

3. T-shirts
Every year the race pays tribute to a different country, and designs a t-shirt accordingly. They are always unique, good quality, and are some of my favorite, most worn race shirts. This year was Columbia.

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The awards...
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Bella is as excited as I am...

4. The Awards
For the award winners of the Olympic Distance race on Sunday, the prize is a glass pyramid with the design from the country of the year in the center. To receive one of those has always been an honor - and they are the lone trophies that my father proudly keeps on display in his office at work. 

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I didn't get the 'big picture' of post-race celebration - but this is what mine looked like!

5. Post-race Celebration
The race has continued the tradition of live music, BBQ, and beer. We jokingly say that we first set up our ‘race transition’ but equally important is our ‘post-race transition’ of blanket and chairs in the shade near the band and food (and some years that has even been set up before the race transition . . . ). Over the years I have come to know more and more of the racers, and enjoy catching up with them afterwards - swapping race stories, tales of past races, and those planned for the future. And - we all stop to cheer as Elvis runs in across that levee with the final finisher.

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The "King and Queen" of Memphis in May - Elvis with race director Pam Routh

I can’t tell you that the swim is in pristine waters - because it’s not. The roads are rough in places, and tend to flood if it rains too much. It can be hot and humid. The run is deceptively challenging. But the race is very well directed, the volunteers are fabulous, and it has a true family, grass-roots feel to it. It certainly has character, and continues to be one of my very favorite races that I make a point to do every year.

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This year I am VERY excited to be racing on my first ever DISC WHEEL! I feel like I have graduated into a select club . . . Thank You Frank Rehnelt!


So - the races this year had some added challenges for me. However, I was able to complete both days, and I gave it the best I had. I enjoyed seeing my friends out on the course - and of course Elvis and my kids cheering me on always makes my heart happy. There were some faces missing this year that I closely associate with Memphis in May . . . my father was racing Chattanooga 70.3 with Gwin Anderson, Tami Winston, and Jimmy Crossett. I always think about Shane Long, Jack Dawson, and my dear friend Ron Turney (Ron - you would have beat me handily on both swims this weekend).

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(L-R): My dad (Volker), Jack, Ron, Shane, and Lance - back in the day!

My sister Robyn and her husband Fred were missing as well. And, I always, always think of my Canadian friends who for many, many years loaded up, drove through the night, and spent the weekend with my family. On the flip side - it was really cool to know so many people racing - and share words (or nods, or just thumb’s up) of encouragement along the way. As I crossed that levee on Sunday, I took a moment to take it all in. The crowds, the finish, the memories - and I was just so incredibly happy to be right where I was, in that moment, back where my triathlon story began.

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Out to the run!
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Finish line - with my good friend George!

 

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One more flashback - post-race party - my dear friend Colleen, Gwin, my dad, and Ron


If you are perchance interested in hearing more about my ‘challenges’ since returning home from Japan, and those that arose during the weekend’s races . . . I debated long and hard about recording them. However, the ‘rest of the story’ (seems my favorite phrase these days - anyone remember Paul Harvey news? I always listened to that with my dad when he drove me to school as a kid . . . but I digress) is available. You will have to go to my website -
www.kirsten-sass.com  and scroll down - it will be just below the Memphis in May post and is titled - 

“A Series of Misfortunate Events - May The Light Shine”.

Read at your own risk . . .


Jumping In With Both Feet

Saturday, April 29. I am driving home from Cary, North Carolina, after racing the Long Course Duathlon National Championship. Just as I’m stopping for food and a stretch, my phone rings. To my surprise, it is Ivonne, the girl I guided for in a triathlon earlier this spring. I hadn’t heard from her since the race - so I was very excited that she was calling. As it turns out, she was calling to inquire whether I would be interested in guiding for another visually impaired athlete - Amy Dixon. Well, sure! No sooner did I get off the phone with her, I received an email from Helen Phipps (who helped connect me with Ivonne and the world of guiding in the first place) - making the same request. Hmmmmm - interesting. Within the next ten minutes Amy herself contacted me. And here’s the story . . . this girl has been training like crazy in preparation for a race taking place in 2 weeks. Then she was notified that her current guide would not be allowed to guide her (part of the guiding regulations are that you cannot race as a professional triathlete in any ITU sanctioned race within the past 12 months - and her current guide had). Her backup guide had an unfortunate bike crash in Ironman Texas and was awaiting an MRI on her ankle. Basically, any other guide she had used in the past was unavailable - and she was faced with the possibility of not being able to race . . . simply because she had no one to guide her. Can you imagine? There was one slight logistical challenge . . . she was scheduled to leave for the race in 9 days - the location, Japan.

Wow. What a situation. I have to say, I am a big believer that things happen for a reason. I knew immediately that - if I had no obligations (i.e. a family with two little kids and a job) - I would have told her yes immediately, without hesitation. There is just something about guiding that I am very passionate about, and although I readily admit I am very inexperienced, I am willing to put in the effort and work to change that. However, I needed to clear it with family and work, so I told Amy I would let her know by the end of the weekend. I also let her know in no uncertain terms about my newness to guiding, and asked her to use me as a last resort - if any of her other guides could possibly help her their experience would definitely be more of an advantage.

     I am blessed with the most incredibly supportive husband. No sooner did I explain the situation to Jeff he was behind it 100%. Without a moment’s hesitation he told me I absolutely should go. He is amazing, and I don’t take for granted how lucky I am. Now, what to do about work? Again, I am fortunate that my job (and boss) is also supportive of my racing and opportunities - so we managed to schedule some extra hours of work in the week coming up in order to get the next week off. It indeed takes (more than) a village - let me tell you. I owe big thanks to my work scheduling department and my absolutely wonderful, hard-working, never-complaining, go-the-extra-mile nurses who helped me through the week. I gave Amy the green light, and as she had found no other guides available, on Tuesday I found myself with a ticket to fly to Japan in 6 days. Pretty crazy.

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    So, as I have mentioned, I am still very new to guiding. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I have been on a tandem. And - I’m not a fan of doing things half-way. If I was going to fly across the world to help someone with a serious race, I wanted to be as prepared as I could be. All accounts said that the course in Japan was very technical on the bike. That was fine - except for my concerns with handling a tandem. I needed to find SOMEONE to ride a tandem with, to work on some handling skills. My brave sister, Robyn, was kind enough to ride with me before I went to race with Ivonne - and might I add that when she trusted me enough to ride with me it was the first time EITHER of us had ever been on a tandem. I knew I could count on her to help me, but what I really needed was someone experienced with handling a tandem who could teach me. I contemplated driving to Chattanooga (a 5 hour drive one way for me) to ride with one of Amy’s teammates - but the weather was iffy and time too valuable. Suddenly, I had another idea . . . a long-time family friend lives an hour from me, has a tandem, and is an experienced bike racer - maybe he could help me. So, I messaged Shane Long. This was Wednesday night - and incredibly it worked with both our schedules to meet the next morning. The day dawned grey and rainy, which was actually just what I needed to practice in. Shane was amazing - he took me around (and might I add he is the first person I have been brave enough to ride a tandem with as pilot), and I was able to appreciate the back-seat perspective. As we switched positions and I practiced cornering and turn-arounds I had to laugh as Shane made my favorite comment of the day . . . “Woah, it’s scary back here”. Let me add that was just when we first started, and he was more comfortable (at least I hope) by the time we finished. However, it still makes me laugh . . .


    And before I knew it, I was landing in Japan. Amy and I arrived on Tuesday night, checked into our hotel - and slept. Wednesday morning we did a little run together - which went really well. After breakfast my lack of bike mechanic skills were again blatantly obvious as I watched her put together her tandem.

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And - let me tell you about her bike. It.Is.Amazing. She calls her ‘Bomber’ - she is a sleek, black, custom designed Calfee with Di2 shifting, and race wheels. A cadillac of bikes to put it mildly. Beautiful. And fast. We did our first ride together, appropriately enough, in the rain. Not only that, the practice course was on a cobble-stone type surface, slippery, and was probably less than 1/2 mile long with 3 turn arounds. For those of you who don’t like to do a turnaround on your bike in the middle of a 2 lane road by yourself - I want you to picture this: Raining. Wet. Slippery. Tight corners. Other riders in front of and behind you. Officials at every turn watching you. Barricades. On a tandem. With someone visually impaired trusting you. Now flip that and imagine the same scenario except you are on the back - and you are visually impaired. Riding with someone you have never ridden with before and don’t even know if they can handle a bike. I hope you get the picture.

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    However, once again it was just the type of conditions we needed to practice in. And - we did not go down, or even come close to it. And, we felt a lot better having practiced. In fact, on Friday morning when we did our actual course preview, none of the turns seemed like a big deal at all.


    Amy and I hit it off right from the start. She too has an amazing story. She grew up in Connecticut, and by the time she was in her 20s she was a pharmacy student at the University of Connecticut by day and waiting tables by night. Then, things started to change. One evening, as she went to pour a glass of wine, she missed the glass. She found herself bumping into objects she simply didn’t see. At first it was easy to chalk it up to being overtired, “burning the candle at both ends” - school, work, studying, and little sleep. But things continued to progress - she started tripping without knowing why, and even missed steps taking several tumbles down flights of stairs. This seemed to get worse at night or when the lighting was poor. Her mother visited and was alarmed by the number of bruises covering her body, and knew something was amiss. Since childhood Amy had suffered from migraines, and as fate would have it, her neurologist refused to refill her medication without seeing her for a check-up. During the visit, Amy mentioned her strange vision issues, and when her neurologist tested her visual fields found her peripheral vision was absent. He immediately recommended that she see an opthalmologist. Amy stalled, her busy schedule with work and school did not leave time for another appointment, and she had no health insurance and really could not afford to pay another bill. Sensing that she would not follow through, her neurologist cleared the rest of his schedule for the day and personally escorted her to the specialist. What followed were a series of tests and consults ending with a diagnosis of multifocal choroiditis - a very rare, progressive eye disease that generally results in complete vision loss…blindness.

    Again, imagine the situation. You are 22 years old. You are in school, have a great job, a full and busy life . . . and suddenly out of the blue someone tells you that you are losing your ability to see and that within the next few years you will be blind. How do you think you would react? No. No way. Not me. I’m fine. I’ve always been fine. You must have me confused with someone else. There’s no way that’s happening to me. That can’t happen to me. You guys must be crazy. You’re wasting my time. I’m outta here.

    And, that’s what happened. Except, things didn’t get better. In fact, they continued to get worse. More spilled wine. Collisions with waiters whom she just couldn’t see. More bruises and falls and even a few broken ribs. Finally, Amy decided to seek the opinion of her long-time family doc (aka her pediatrician). She gave him the whole story, and he encouraged her to go back to the specialist. Still with no money and no health insurance, she saved all her tips and paychecks for the next 6 weeks, and made an appointment. The verdict was still the same. And, the treatments began. Numerous eye surgeries over the span of a few years. Medications and side-effects. Some left her sick. Some left her unable to move - resulting in her lying on her office floor until the security guards came to check on her. Some - lead to malignancy, melanoma, resulting in further medications and treatments. Yet, through all this she persevered. When the steroid treatments resulted in weight gain, she knew she had to take action. She started swimming and running - lost 60lbs, and found triathlon.

    And - that is the short version. Visually impaired, still plagued with migraines, and with bowel disease that has surfaced along the way (she suffered a bowel obstruction just days before leaving for Japan, ending up with a hospital stay), it makes “just” swimming/biking/running sound easy. Yet this girl refuses to be stopped. She trains hard, remains upbeat and positive, and is a true example of perseverance. There’s a gatorade quote I love that states, “You can throw in the towel or use it to wipe the sweat from your face” - well if anyone ever had an excuse (or 20) to throw in the towel, it is Amy Dixon - yet she continues to hold on fiercely and sweat it out.

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    Race morning. Grey. Windy. Rainy. But - spirits were high. Really, at the end of the day, we were here. Racing was better than not. We had nothing to lose. Our goals - stay safe, have fun, race hard. And - we did. We had a smooth, steady swim. We stayed on course.

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At swim course preview


 

We exited to transition feeling good. Onto the bike. During the first lap (it was a 4 lap course), coming around a corner we hit a slick spot and the back wheel slipped - it caught just fine, but it did get our attention. Then on the back of the course there was a really tight chicane of right-left-right, lined with barricades, and as I went to brake . . . we barely slowed. Hmmmmmm. “Amy - we don’t have much in the way of brakes. I’m just gonna warn you. So - the turns are going to be slow and cautious.” But - we did just fine. Every lap got a little better. We went hard when it was safe, and we kept the turns conservative. I got really good at avoiding paint and manhole covers - let me tell you. And - then it was on to the run. Just out of transition, Amy’s stomach cramped into knots. We had a 3 lap run, and despite the added challenge, Amy ran strong. She never gave in, never slowed, kept it strong and steady - and kept moving forward. She accelerated all the way down the blue carpet to the finish line - and crossed as a champion. Officially she finished 4th - but it was a win on so many different levels. We stayed safe. We raced hard. And - we had FUN.

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I met so many incredible athletes over the 5 days I spent in Japan. People who fate has dealt a hard hand to - and who have persevered and overcome - who have made the best out of tough situations. I don’t know all the stories, and I certainly cannot begin to imagine all the day-to-day challenges - much less how those challenges are multiplied by doing a triathlon (think different prosthesis needed from bike to run, different chairs from bike to run, needing a ‘handler’ or someone to help you, the list goes on).

I am so very thankful to Amy for giving me this incredible opportunity, and trusting me to be her eyes. To all those who I met, and who raced in Yokohama - I have nothing but respect. Thank you for letting me be a part of it. I cannot even begin to tell you how much it affected me. Inspired. Humbled. Honored.

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We seldom know why things happen the way they do. Sometimes we are given opportunities or challenges - and accepting them is not always the easy answer. But, sometimes you just have to trust your instincts, take a leap of faith, and… jump in with both feet.

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For more about Amy Dixon check out her website:  http://www.amydixonusa.com

 

And some randomness...

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Incredible floral display on the run course

 

 

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Pretty serious about umbrellas....
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...and their toilets. First place I've ever returned home from and been disappointed by our bathrooms....
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And - also serious about bikes!


 

 

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The beautiful red brick warehouse district - part of the bike course


 

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The "Garden Necklace" - beautiful run course


 

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Couldn't resist adding in my soccer players :)

 

 


Venturing Into New Waters...

Please allow me to introduce you to an incredible woman. Her name is Ivonne Mosquera-Schmidt. At age 1 she was diagnosed with retinoblastoma (retinal cancer), curable but with a steep price, the loss of both of her eyes. Despite this fact, she has tackled more challenges than most of us with both eyes and full sight. Growing up in New York City, she learned to dance tap, ballet and jazz with the National Dance Institute - and performed at places like the Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden (NYC), and the JFK Center (Washington D.C.). She can rock-climb, cross-country ski, downhill ski, and hike (she has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro). In 2001 Ivonne started running, and excelled. She has done 14 marathons (including a 3:22 in the 2008 Boston Marathon), and currently holds the American record for Totally Blind Women in the 1,500, 3,000, and 5,000 meters.
Eventually she ventured into the world of triathlon, and again excelled winning the Visually Impaired Female Triathlon USA National Championship in the Olympic Distance from 2007-2010, and she also holds Paratriathlon World Championship gold medals in both the sprint and olympic distances.

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Ivonne with her husband, John

When paratriathlon was excluded from the Paralympic games in London (2012), she switched gears and focused on her strength and passion - running. With her goal of making it to Rio (2016) she encountered a major setback . . . . experiencing extreme fatigue and other troublesome symptoms, she was diagnosed with a rare bladder cancer in May of 2014. She started chemo in July, and had surgery in November. Still not deterred, she went through her treatments and kept her dream alive, returning to running and competing in the 1500 meter finals World Championship in October of 2015. Yet another challenge reared its head when she began having pain in her left foot – and ended up with a stress fracture. Time was ticking, there were still races on the line leading up for a slot to Rio and a decision had to be made - run the race and chance the foot? The answer was yes - but sometimes a chance taken does not have the desired result, in this case Ivonne’s body had other plans and the stressed bone broke during the 2016 National Trials with 60 meters to go – but she completed the race and secured her spot on the Paralympic Track & Field Team for Rio.

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Ivonne had to wear 2 boots because one threw her off balance too much - especially with trying to juggle crutches!

 Intensive rehab followed yet again, and in her tenacious way she refused to throw in the towel. Her efforts paid off - Ivonne made it to Rio and finished 6th at the Paralympic Games for the 1500 meters!!!!!!

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After Rio, for a number of reasons, Ivonne decided to test the waters of triathlon again. Which is how our paths converged. She needed a guide, started asking some other guides, and eventually I was asked if I would be interested. This is something I have actually been contemplating for a while, and I tend to believe everything happens for a reason, so I jumped at the opportunity. Now, granted, at this time I had never been on a tandem bike (I have to admit, as much as I LOVE to bike, there just aren’t many people I trust with me on a tandem…..), and I sure had no idea what all being a guide would entail. That didn’t phase Ivonne one bit. She assured me I would be fine - and the race was on. I was still pretty nervous, and was kindly directed to a long-time guide, Caroline Gaynor, who took the time to chat with me at length, and gave me some valuable insight and tips - which made me feel much, much better.  (Check out https://carolinebikes.com )

So, the race? The CAMTRI in Sarasota, Florida. Saturday, March 11. My friend, Justin Lowe, lent me his tandem, and my sister, Robyn, was brave enough to ride it with me. We rode it twice - and it was time to head to Florida. I met Ivonne and her husband (John Schmidt) the Thursday before the race. I confess, I have never been around anyone completely blind before, and I learned a lot. The tandem they brought for the race broke down into 30 pieces. Now, my other confession is, I am no bike mechanic. I can clean my bike, I can change my tires, but for anything much more extensive than that I am more than happy to utilize my wonderful Gran Fondo Bicycles shop - or beg a bike mechanically inclined friend to help me with. So here is John telling me about how he taught Ivonne to put this bike together. Even taking pictures of all the different pieces so that if he wasn’t with her she could call him and he could look at his pictures, see what stage she was at, and help guide her through it. Yep, I was super impressed. And I witnessed it. And - I guess I have no excuses now. None.

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So, Friday was our first chance to actually practice together. Riding the tandem. Running. Swimming. Let me tell you, paratriathlon was like entering a whole different world. For the swim, you have a tether between the guide and athlete. The rule is no further than a meter apart. But - there are no standard tethers, so the athletes are left to come up with their own device that meets the regulations. Ivonne and John basically used small dog collars (easy to adjust) which were attached just between the top of the calf and below the knee, and were joined together by several elastic shoestrings. We practiced a couple hundred yards out and around a buoy, me trying to match her stroke - her left arm with my right, and keep us on course. It was all good until we turned around the buoy and I had to figure out how to get her to turn with me - the tether being on our legs meant when I turned left it pulled her leg and turned her right. Good thing we practiced!

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The tandem riding went well - kind of like a group ride where you point out the bumps and rough spots - except I was just talking her through it. “Bump coming up, curve to the right, turning left in 25 yards, uphill coming up, unclipping right foot, stopping in 3-2-1”, that sort of thing. We also had a slight uphill start - so we practiced that.

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Then, the run. So, you also have to have a tether on the run, and can be no further than half a meter apart. We used race belts and Ivonne just clipped a carabiner to mine, with the tether joining the two. It was easy to see running is where she was most comfortable. All I had to do was help guide her through the turns, make sure to warn her where the bumps or rough spots were, and make sure she didn’t get too close to the edge of the pavement. Whew. I felt better having practiced - but I was still pretty nervous. I mean, it’s one thing if you’re racing for yourself and something happens – but I wanted to make sure Ivonne had a great race (and had FUN) - and I could only hope that my inexperience wouldn’t jeopardize that.

 

Race day. We didn’t race until after 2:30. Talk about a leisurely start. It was a beautiful day - upper 70s, slight wind, blue skies. We went through all the check-in procedures, set up transition, and were ready to go. So the visually impaired category is divided into totals and partials. There was one other athlete/guide in our “total” category, and several racing in the “partial” category. All still compete against each other, but the totals got to start first. Ivonne was called to the line, we took our place, and off we went. Things went really well - there were no sharp buoy turns, we stayed on course, and I was pretty well able to match her strokes. 750 meter swim down. Out of the swim, unhook the tether, and into transition. I put Ivonne’s hand on her bike handlebars and she knew where all her gear was. Then it was out on the bike. We made it up the hill (yay), and it was a 3 loop course (18K) with a winding section on the far side of the lake, and a straight highway, headwind section back towards transition. We made it through uneventfully, made our dismount before the line (yay), and back into transition. Change into running shoes, hook tether, out on the run which was a one loop 5K.

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About 3/4 of the way to the turnaround Ivonne started to slow a bit. She mentioned maybe needing to walk. We were almost to the turnaround - so I told her. Now, yet another confession, I am not the greatest judge of distance. She - being a track runner, knows much better than I the distance covered. But - I could see the turnaround, so I made my best guess. I figured it worked, ‘cause she kept running to the turnaround, and even picked it up afterwards. Then she asked about a water stop. Well, there was one up ahead, so I made my best guess again. I tried to distract her by talking about some things I had seen during the race, but then she asked, “OK, but I’m wondering where that water stop is” - and I made my next best guess, then told her how close we would be to the finish when we reached it. We finally DID make it to the water stop, and then we were 1/2 mile out, so I just kept talking her through the course. She did amazing (and never did walk) – and crossed the finish line strong. She did call me out on my distance guessing afterwards, and we got a pretty good laugh out of it.

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Ivonne ended up 4th, and we were both happy with that. It was her first tri back in several years, our first time racing together, and the whole goal was to test things out and have fun. I think we did both successfully. I have to say, I have the utmost respect for all those athletes. For those of us who race and get caught up in our pre-race nerves, and think our training is so tough - it is easy to take what we have for granted. For those facing obstacles that make every-day life a challenge and yet are undeterred, unstoppable, and refuse to be limited - that I find extremely humbling. Think about it, next time you go out to swim, bike, run, or walk; think about it when you wake up in the morning and it is completely dark and you try to get out of the bedroom and down the hall without turning on any lights and waking up the family. Imagine the courage needed to swim in unknown waters, bike without seeing the course, run without knowing how much farther you have to go - and the absolute trust you have to put in someone who is guiding you. That is pretty freaking brave. And that’s just my experience with Ivonne. My hat’s off to all those parathletes out there - doing what they do, triathlon and otherwise. You are incredibly inspiring and reinforce the belief that Anything.Is.Possible.
Thank you.

As a side-note, it seems there is always a need for guides - so if you are willing I would highly, highly recommend it. It’s an incredible experience. You will be inspired, humbled, awed, and grateful - in a number of ways.

Thanks for reading.

And thank you, Ivonne, for trusting me to be your "guide" - although it was really you who were guiding me.

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Team WE Spring Camp

I have to tell you - I had such an amazingly fun, inspiring, good-for-the-soul weekend. You see, I am fortunate enough to be a part of a women’s cycling team . . . Team WE.

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This past weekend WE gathered together for our ‘Spring Camp’ - but more importantly it was a chance to celebrate friendship, family, and, of course, cycling. In reflection, I think one of the main reasons the weekend was so special is that it went beyond a pure ‘training’ camp and reaffirmed the knowledge that it is possible to train hard, have fun, and be family friendly. Because - WE did.

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WE rode, we ran, we swam, we cycled, and we did yoga. WE had husbands who helped watch the kids and cooked fantastic meals. WE had a mom who brought her daughters, and who took photos and helped with the sag stop. WE had kids who played hard, gave hugs, kept GrandPapa busy, and were happy to snuggle on the couch at the end of the day.

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WE had dogs to run with (even when they shouldn't have), cats, and ‘baby bunnies that will fit in the palm of your hand’ (just ask Bella).

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WE shared stories and laughs, we rode hard and spun easy, we had headwinds and tailwinds, uphills and down - and, for a few days, we embraced the luxury of letting the rest of the world go by and just enjoyed the freedom to do what we love to do.

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It is hard to carve out the time to make a weekend like that happen - so I don’t take it for granted when it all comes together. I am so very honored to know such strong, beautiful, supportive women and to call you my teammates. Thank you all for taking the time to spend your weekend with me, to Jeff for being over-the-top amazing, and to Lynn Greer at Gran Fondo for sending all kinds of goodies for us!  #BeyondBlessed

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 And . . . as usual, pictures tell the stories SO much better . . . 

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Sunday's ride with some extras - my sister and her husband, and my father (otherwise known as GrandPapa) :) - oh, and Ringo (the German Shepherd) really wanted to come...

 

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This is how we check on GrandPapa...
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My amazing husband - did all the cooking and route marking for us!

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Oh - and we had a puppy come visit too!
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Rolling on....

 

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The flip side - the brothers and neighbors checking on Jeff
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Loretta. Enough said.
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And . . . my Waylon