Up at 3:30am, the goal was to arrive at the race by 5:00 to set up transition. As we drove to Buffalo Springs Lake, lightning broke through the darkness and rain started to fall. Really? Is that how this day is going to start? I was now glad that I didn’t set up my bike and racing chair the night before, and thought back to the Defi Sportif race I did in 2014. It rained so hard that most of the fast guys skipped the race and I got 3rd place. I didn’t think that would happen today, but I reminded myself that I can take whatever is thrown at me. “Fine, bring on the rain, show me what you’ve got,” I said to myself. Fortunately, mother-nature backed down and cooperated. From 5:30 on it was clear and a little cooler than normal.
My nephew, Callum, and my good friend’s brother-in-law, Anthony, who lives in Lubbock, helped me get everything ready and we did a practice transition. Wet suit on and I was in the water at 6:25. I did some sculling to ‘feel the water’, like Beth told me to, burped up some of my breakfast, and then we were off.
During the swim I stuck to my plan and what I had practiced. Stay relaxed, swim straight, and draft whenever you can. 42 minutes of swimming without a break gives the mind a lot of time to wander. I didn’t think I was doing that well and my brain started questioning why the hell I’m swimming in a lake in Texas at 6:45 in the morning, and why on earth I’d want to do twice the distance in the ocean in Kona. I kept trying to bring my focus back to the plan and not stress. I was surprised when they picked me up out of the water and told me I was the third handcyclist and only a few minutes behind the leaders.
Leaving the transition area for the 90km bike, you start climbing right away. There are two reasonable climbs before you leave the park. As I topped the second bigger hill and started on the first flat portion, I hit my lap button on my watch so that I could have a clean lap to measure my average power. Because my watch was in AutoSport mode for race day (not a mode that I practice using), hitting LAP put the watch into ‘transition’ mode. FUCK. Okay… lap, lap, lap, reset, select bike 1, start…. watch was now measuring my data and I was just passed by another handcycle. No problem. With a light morning wind at my back, I was soon averaging over 33 km/h and took back third place. As I turned with the wind hitting me from the side, I was still at 31 km/h. Awesome.
Just over an hour into the bike is the first turn around. I checked my watch just as Scot and then Zach passed me from the other direction. I was down 7 minutes on Scot and 4 on Zach. 40 minutes later, after the second big climb, I reached the second turn around. Scot’s lead was down to 4 minutes and Zach’s to 2. Game on. Before turning the corner to attack the last big climb outside of the park, I passed Zach and he gave me the thumbs up. Zach is a strong, young guy, who excels at shorter sprint distance races. I was trusting that the added mileage had to be hurting him by now.
As we climbed I held my target power, wanting to save something for the last hour or 35km. Looking in my mirror as we crested the hill I saw that Zach was still there. I was pumped and started chanting in my head with every push and pull of the crank… MUST…. CATCH… SCOT… He had to be tired after winning Ironman Luxembourg 70.3 last week, flying home to the USA, and driving from Atlanta. By now the heat and the winds picked up and heading back into them was tough. Trying to not let my power fade, I reminded myself of all the training I’ve done since November. Reminding and convincing my brain that I’ve trained my body to go harder and harder throughout the ride. As we turned into the park I made sure to top up on another gel and to drink lots in prep for the run. By this time, the really bumpy roads had taken their toll on my head and my handbike. It started making a funny sound and I wondered if something was going to fall off my bike and end my day. That would suck so badly. Fortunately, the bike was fine and as I approached the bottom of the last hill of the course, I saw Scot spinning up it. He was in my sights.
Scot got out of transition and on to the run a little before me. I was having trouble getting my feet into the racing chair properly. I said screw it and started to leave. Still not feeling right, I pushed my body off the seat and tried to wiggle my feet down into the pocket. As I did this my front wheel started lifting up into the air. I almost went over backwards, but saved it. Not wanting to risk an accident, I headed out of transition.
Most of the run course was better than I expected. Some shade, good pavement, and a wide enough road to navigate around runners and a lot of local cottage traffic. I started the run at a comfortable pace that I knew I could sustain, and hoped that I would be faster than, or at least just as fast as, the guy behind me. This run course has a stupid steep and long hill that is demoralizing. I climbed the first quarter of it forwards, then turned around and hauled up backwards until my biceps started to protest. Then I turned around again and grinded up the rest of the way. As I crested the hill, Scot was just starting to come down it. A few minutes later on my way down, I saw Zach climbing half way up.
Just before lap two of 21.1km run, I saw Zach again on an out and back section. The gap seemed to be the same. Now, do I chase down Scot for first place and risk blowing up, or stay the course and achieve my goal? I opted for the latter. My goal was to get the Kona slot, and as long as I was first or second after Scot, who already has a Kona slot, I’m good. This entire last lap I maintained my pace as best I could. I monitored the gap with Zach, and reminded myself of some advice my friend, Greg, gave me before the Ironman in 2013…“don’t write the race report until after the race.” I kept telling myself, stay focused, stay safe, finish the race.” By now, it’s so difficult to lift my head and look where I’m going in the racing chair, but I can’t afford to have a wreck, and I don’t want to hit anyone. Staying on course becomes like sighting on the swim: glance up, find an open spot, aim the chair and push, push, push, push, rest for a second and repeat.
As I pulled into the finishing chute, I felt a little overwhelmed. In 2008, while lying in bed and recovering from breaking my back, I saw Ricky James featured as he completed the Ironman World Championships in Kona. I was inspired, but didn’t know if that could be me someday. Now, almost 8 years later, and after two years of very focused training and racing, I’ve finally earned my spot to what some triathletes call ‘The Big Dance’. I’ll be one of four male handcyclists (and the first Canadian wheelchair athlete) to race around the big Island of Hawaii. And these are serious athletes whom I’m thrilled to be racing with. Today, my goal for Kona is to finish and enjoy it, but I what an honour it will be to have seasoned professionals to chase. I'll enjoy trying to rise to their level.
At the awards ceremony Sunday night, they dropped the news that there was actually only one male handcycle slot, as originally planned. They were not allowed to give the unused female spot to the men. I felt really badly for Zach, but grateful that I went all out, and that luck worked in my favour this time with Scot and his friend Jason winning slots in Luxembourg (there were 2 slots up for grabs there this year).
Thank you all for supporting and encouraging me along the way. Many have said that they knew I could do it, but honestly, it was never a certain thing for me. I knew I could do the training, but there was also a bit of luck that things came together the way they did for me on race day. Special thanks to Sabrina and my girls for the love and confidence. Coach Mark, Beth, Petrina and Jeff. Jean and Val for swimming with me these last two weeks. Oakville Cyclepath. Alex, Joey and Mark. Anthony and Callum. Carlos. And on and on…
Four weeks ago at the end of a tough 3 week training session, I was exhausted, frustrated, and questioned whether or not I should bother coming down to Texas. After a few days of recovering, I started to feel better and a little more optimistic about my chances. Then my nephew Callum agreed to come with me on the trip, and it made a world of difference. I hate being alone, and I have some pretty awesome nephews, so knowing that one could take the time off to join me was just the best. Last year, my nephew Zoey and his girlfriend Nina helped me in Luxembourg. This year it is Cal. He’s such a great kid and I’m such a proud Uncle. Thanks to my sister, Doralyn, for lending him out :).
As I write this, it’s 2am and I can't sleep. We're stuck in Dallas overnight as we missed our American Airlines connection (yet again). I’m looking forward to getting home and relaxing for a few days before the training starts for Kona. If anyone reading this wants to go for a bike ride or swim with me this summer, say the word. I’ll be up at the cottage training around the Kawartha lakes, getting ready for the World Championships and would LOVE the company.