I have had a triathlon on my list for almost two years now and yesterday I got to check it off. I was going to do TriRock Philly last year but was not allowed due to some limiting rules (see Do trikes belong in triathlon?) but the rules have been changed (see USAT Rules: Recumbent Style Tricycles Are Allowed!) and yesterday I completed the Atlantic City Triathlon Sprint Distance.
We left from the Philadelphia area Saturday and made the just under 2 hour drive to Atlantic City in a downpour. By the time we got there the rain let up and we met with some old and new friends to walk through the transitions and the tricky parts of the course.
We met in the transition area for a brief orientation and then walked down to where the bike exits and where the run exits. By that time it started to rain again and we got soaked to the bone but we needed to see the spots. I was not concerned about the bike but the run exit/entrance had a few bumps and a small slope. I am still a beginner on the pushrim so any slope has the potential to send me tumbling backward on my head. After the exit there was a bridge over the water that had me concerned also because it was a significant slope for me. All of my practice had been on completely flat terrain so the potential for disaster had me imagining the worst.
Through some para-tri friends I had heard of people putting weights on the front of their pushrim to avoid flipping backward so we thought we would give it a try. After we checked in to the hotel and changed out of our sopping wet clothing we headed to Kmart to buy the towels that I forgot to pack and some fishing weights to tape to the very front of the pushrim to keep it from tipping. We found what we needed but I had never done it before so I was unsure if it would work. I was more than a little concerned and nervous. I am usually pretty good at going with the flow but I felt myself physically tense up as I imagined what might happen. I did not say much at dinner and Felicia felt the tension so she busted out the secret weapon. Two of my FARA Teammates (Evelyn and Jamie) had sent emails out to our board members, a few people in the FA community, and my parents to get their encouraging comments for me before the race. To say I was moved would not do it justice. The comments were so kind and heartfelt and as Felicia read I felt the tension go away. Those messages put perspective on the situation and allowed me to get out of my own head. It was my turning point.
When we got back to the room we had work to do. I taped the weights while Felicia sewed the velcro that broke the other day…and somehow the theme from Rocky played in our room as we prepared for battle.
We arrived at the Tri at 5am and set up our transition area in the dark, using the flashlight on our phones to inflate tires.
Finally at 630 it was time to start. There were two other para-triathletes in the event, Daniel and David. I met these guys at a para-tri clinic in Maryland a last year so it was nice to reconnect and participate with some familiar faces.
We rolled down to the dock and took off the sweatshirts that kept us warm. We shivered a bit as we listened to a pre-dawn rendition of the national anthem.
The water was much warmer than the air so we were relieved to get in. We started first, and the other 1,300 participants waited patiently and cheered us on for our entire swim before they started.
My swim was pretty ugly for the first half. I tried to get into my rhythm that I developed in the pool. 4 strokes, breath, 4 strokes, breath…but it was not working. My breathing became really shallow and I kept running out and flipping onto my back. Then about halfway through I switched to a shorter breathing pattern. 2 strokes, breath, two strokes, breath. I started to sustain the rhythm and picked up speed. When I reached the dock I was pulled out of the water by some volunteers and carried to my chair on solid ground (same for the other two paratriathletes).
From the swim to the transition area is slightly uphill on grass. There was a carpet path but it was still pretty soft and uneven. I am not good at balancing on my back wheels in my chair so I lurched along laboriously up the slope. My arms were exhausted…plus, inching along in a race is a little demoralizing, but the path to the transition area led through all the athletes who were waiting to start their swim so the whole crowd was cheering and yelling stuff like “you got this” “get it done” “keep pushing”. I don’t think anyone likes to be patronized but it’s a little different when the comments are coming from other athletes in the same event, perhaps I felt like they were saying “we’re all in this together, let’s get this done”. I felt proud to be an athlete among athletes.
In transition, it was wetsuit off; shoes, shorts and jersey on, and get going!
I hit my stride during the bike. I was still pretty chilly as the sun came up and I dripped dry, but I kept a pretty good speed, relaxed a little and gathered myself for 10 miles.
Then it was madness again in transition. Switch shoes, gloves on, and go!…However it was a little anti-climactic as I inched along clumsily on the way out of the transition area. I straightened out and got a few full pushes in and started feeling ok about it. I made it through the exit without an issue, it was going to be the entrance on the way back that would be the hard part. Then I hit the bridge on the way out and slowed to a crawl.
After each push I would almost come to a stop as I inched my way up. Then I thought of what my 8 year old friend Gavin told me yesterday when he called to wish me luck “It doesn’t matter what place you come in as long as you finish” I relaxed and grinded it out and then I was at the top with a little downhill on the other side.
I inched my way through a few intersections in downtown Atlantic City while the kind policemen held the traffic for me. When I hit the boardwalk the first able bodied runner caught up to me and gave a few words of encouragement as he passed. A few minutes later more and more runners started passing and I was in the thick of it for the rest of the course. It is an out-and-back run course so there were runners passing from behind and approaching from the front. Almost every single person provided encouragement as I inched along the beautiful boardwalk. The only people who did not say anything likely could not because they were breathing so heavily but even that was encouraging…everyone was suffering together, a sufferfest!
On the way back I passed through downtown again and cars were backed up likely for miles while the cops held them for the runners. There was lots of honking, and yelling, one lady yelled from her window “We gotta get back to our lives, let us through!” the cop yelled back in a thick New Jersey accent “Lady, what do you want me to do? There’s 1300 runners here, gimme a break.” However as I passed, the honking stopped and people started yelling things like “way to go” and “don’t give up”. One person turned the radio up really loud during an inspiring U2 song as I passed. As I hit the bridge again I slowed to a crawl but I knew it was coming so I paused briefly, gathered myself and grinded it out.
I was about 1/4 mile away from the finish line when I had to cross an uneven spot with an upslope. I came to a stop as I popped my front wheel onto the plywood that had been placed to even out the potholes in the ground. As I pushed forward again my front wheel started to lift, and for a moment I thought it was all over. But I fought to keep my weight forward and the wheel made contact with the ground again. Another push and I was over the obstacle and back on the paved surface that would lead to the finish line.
During my approach, I soaked in the much appreciated cheers from the crowd and breathed a sigh of relief as I crossed the finish line.
I had done it! We thought of all the worst case scenarios, prepared as best we could, and when required, dug deep and pushed through.