Sunday, June 9, 2013

CapTex USA Triathlon Paratriathlon Nationals

This year's Capital of Texas Triathlon was a completely new experience for me. It's fitting that the race that three years ago inspired me to attempt a triathlon, and two years ago was my first Olympic-distance tri would offer something else new. CapTex was once again the site of the Paratriathlon National Championship. I was inspired and kind of fascinated watching the paraathletes last year while waiting for my race to start, so this year since I wasn't racing (I had no intention of doing a race one week after Ironman Texas), I signed up to work with the paratri. I wound up working as a handler, randomly paired up with a challenged athlete. Myself and another handler helped out Ashley Cooper-Heath, a wheelchair-bound athlete from Georgia. Because of the logistics involved, my complete lack of experience, and having somebody relying on me, I was a nervous wreck all the night before and through the race. Even though Ashley's race didn't go as well as she hoped, the part I was involved with (the transitions) went relatively smoothly, with some room for improvement. Overall, it was a great experience, and if the championship is in Austin again, I would definitely be part of it.

CapTex is one of the biggest races held in the city every year, which is saying something considering the number of races and great athletes in town. In addition to the paratri championship, the race is part of a national series for professional triathletes, so it draws some big name athletes. I had the opportunity to meet and chat with Matty "Boom Boom" Reed, four-time Olympian Hunter Kemper, and Sarah Haskins, who is currently very pregnant and not racing. All of them were very nice, and it was cool to be able to ask them some questions, and just chat about triathlon. Hunter wound up repeating his victory from last year. Probably the biggest name for the paratri was Sarah Reinertsen, who was on The Amazing Race and was featured in Sports Illustrated's Body Issue. I didn't get a chance to talk to her, but I did see her at a triathlon shop on Saturday.

I had not idea what I would actually be doing for the race until I went to a meeting Sunday afternoon where I met Ashley and her husband James, who is also in a wheelchair. The wheelchair athletes got two handlers each, while the other physically challenged (PC) athletes got one. Some athletes already had their own handlers, while others got ones from the pool of volunteers. I found it interesting to see the variety of athletes, which included various amputations, blind athletes, those with paralysis (like Ashley), and others (there are 7 categories of PC athletes). Ashley's other handler, Sandra, actually works for a company that makes prostheses, so a few times she pointed out ones from her company. My main regret with the whole experience is that I didn't get much chance to talk with many of the other athletes. After the initial meet-up, we went on a tour of the transition areas (the wheelchair division had two transitions, separate from the other divisions). After the general stuff, Ashley, Sandra, James, and I strategized and did some dress rehearsal. Ashley had done a few triathlons previously, but not quite the same way, so we tested some things out and came up with a plan. We went through everything a few times to make sure we were all sure of what we would do. I tried to visualize everything, and think of anything we hadn't already covered. Around 5, we felt like we had a handle on things, exchanged phone numbers, and went our separate ways for the evening.

I got almost no sleep Sunday night. About 12:30 my mind started racing. There were too many variables out of my control, too many small details. I tried, but couldn't get back to sleep. I never get a lot of sleep the night before a race, but usually I wake up a bunch of times and fall back to sleep. Two hours is definitely the least amount of sleep I've gotten before a race. I gave up even trying to get more sleep about 3 and started getting ready for the day. I got downtown a little after 4, well before I needed to be there. I helped unload a truck by chance, but otherwise mostly stood around for a while. The paratri volunteer coordinator showed up around 5 to get handlers checked in and for us to get t-shirts. It wasn't completely clear to me where Sandra and I would meet Ashley and James. I thought they might meet us by the volunteer tent, but I still hadn't seen them and it was almost 6 o'clock. I was headed down to the water when I got a text that that's where they were. The hand cycles had been stored overnight near the transition for the other paratri divisions, and had to be moved to the tri-1 transition area, right next to the swim exit. It was open racking, and when we got there the closest spot was about 40 feet from swim out. We started setting things up and figuring out some of the remaining logistical questions. With transition 1 mostly sorted out, Ashley and I went up to transition 2 to check her racing chair, and properly pin on the race bib (we couldn't find safety pins Sunday so just used a hair tie). The only other thing needed to get T2 ready was to set out her "gloves," a piece of plastic custom-molded to Ashley's hands with a rubber pad. She uses these to push on a smaller ring on the rear wheels that is covered with an old tire, so there's rubber-to-rubber friction. With everything set up, and all plans in place, the waiting game started.

The pros went off at 6:45, and the first paratri wave was at 7. Ashley was in the second wave, at 7:05. Sandra and I made sure she got onto the dock and into the water okay. Once she was in the water and on her own, we got ourselves and her chair out of the way to watch the start of the 750 meter swim. Once the air horn went off and she was under way, we moved to the swim exit. This was the start of the second guessing, however. The original plan was to have the burly Army folks helping everyone out of the water carry Ashley all the way to the transition area. But then every other handler had their athlete's wheelchair up as close as possible to the swim exit. It wasn't clear how far the volunteers would carry the athletes, so Sandra and I moved Ashley's day chair closer to the exit with the other chairs, and I really hoped it wouldn't screw things up. Lots of people came out of the water while we were waiting. The pros finished their 1500m swim; lots and lots of PC athletes came out. There was wetsuit peeling, crutches, prostheses. There weren't many handlers left, and still no Ashley. There were at least a dozen people still swimming, but I couldn't pick her out. I asked James, nearby watching from the shore, if he had spotted her. He had, and she was rounding the last buoy. Finally they brought her out of the water and dropped her in her day chair. Ashley was pissed. The swim taken her way longer than it should have. For some reason she panicked in the water and reverted to back stroke. Ashley was a lifeguard and swimmer before the accident that left here paralyzed, and has been a swimmer since, so she was disappointed with a time of 28 minutes. She was cursing most of the two minutes we were in transition, getting her wetsuit pants off (she opted for just pants while many others had full suits), making sure she had her helmet and sunglasses on and was strapped in. When we were all sure everything was in place, she released the parking brake from the bike and took off. I ran behind her to the end of transition on the off chance there was something wrong. My job as a handler was confined to transition, I couldn't help anywhere on course. Sandra and I took the gear and day chair up to second transition while James went to watch on the course. We got through the first transition okay, if less than perfect, which was some relief to my nerves, but we weren't done yet.

In T2, handlers were checking and putting air in tires. I hadn't even considered that, so of course it got my brain spinning. I had no idea what pressure the tires were even supposed to be. To me, they felt like the pressure was lower than what I run in my tires, but of course I don't have a racing wheelchair. I managed to get James on the phone to check with him. Then I borrowed a pump from another team; when I put it on, all the air went out of the front tire, which didn't exactly help my concern level. I got the pump on properly and inflated it to the desired pressure, and it felt basically the same as it had before I started messing with it. Ashley's racing chair had disc wheels with tubular tires in the rear; the valve stems were a little crooked, and I didn't have a "crack pipe" to get a pump on properly. They felt like there was more than sufficient pressure, so I didn't mess with them. The tri-1 transition was in a corner of the highest tier of the enormous transition area (for the thousands of racers doing three different distance races), right next to the start of the run. We were near transition for the shortest distance, who started latest in the day, after a lot of the paratri racers finished. So in addition to waiting for our athlete to come off the bike, the handlers were doing a bit of crowd control to make sure people didn't get in the way of the paratri.
Again I had no idea what was happening on course, so I only had the time Ashley started the two-lap 20k bike leg and her anticipated time to guess when she might come back into transition. That time had passed and several other female tri-1 racers had come through before Ashley pulled in to transition. Sandra and I helped her out of the hand cycle onto her day chair, and from there to the racing chair. She would have pulled herself out of the bike, but she said her arms were dead, so I lifted her. There was a bit of a mishap getting into the race chair. There's a flap that velcros behind her back while she's running in a tuck position. When she got in she wound up sitting on the flap, so I had to lift her up and pull it out to secure it; Sandra was in charge of securing the leg straps. Gloves in hand, Ashley took off on the 5k run, tired arms and all.

Sandra and I took the day chair and most of the stuff, leaving the hand cycle, and moved to the finish area. A lot of racers had already finished, including the pro winners and a lot of really fast PC athletes. It was pretty awesome being at the finish line while they all were coming in. The most memorable was a woman with foot drop, wearing a leg brace, and obviously in a great deal of pain, coming across the finish line. Ashley came across with a total time of 1:49:27 for fifth place in her division. Last year's champion, Erica Davis, was fourth. Ashley said she kept seeing Erica but couldn't catch her. One of Erica's handlers was Austin elite athlete Desiree Ficker, with whom I had started a fake twitter feud.
After finishing, Ashley was exhausted and basically had no idea what to do. I brought her day chair over and helped her out of her race chair. James and some family that live in the area came over. We said goodbye, and they went off to have lunch together. The race was still very much in progress, and a bunch of friends were racing. I would have loved to stick around and watch them, but I was so exhausted. I was coming off of the "high" of the adrenaline and nerves and was heading for a crash. I did make it home safely without nodding off, but just barely. I went right into bed for a nap.

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