I’ve always loved short course racing because of the adrenaline rush and the quick tactical skills that are needed to have a good performance. Events like steeplechase, crit racing, and draft-legal triathlon require split-second decisions that can make the difference between a win and 10th place. Last weekend, I got to experience a different kind of sprint triathlon that was just as exciting and challenging. Serving as a guide for visually impaired athlete Brandon Adame gave me a chance to help someone else in their pursuit of excellence. It challenged me in new ways, forcing me to improve my communication skills.
Brandon and I, along with his dad, traveled to Magog, Canada for the Paratriathlon event there last weekend. Magog is a beautiful town in the Quebec province, where 80% of young males have a man bun and 100% of everyone speaks French. I have neither of those things, but this did not deter me from attempting to make conversation with the local populace when out training in the days prior.
Paratriathlon has six different categories of racers, depending on their disability. Brandon is 100% blind and is thus classified as a PTVI B1. For this race, I would serve as Brandon’s eyes, swimming next to him and sighting in open water, helping him through transition, steering and shifting on the bike, calling out corners, and running side-by-side with him for the 5k run to make sure he avoided cracks, holes, cones, and any other obstacles. As a guide, I am not allowed to pull Brandon or assist in him making forward progression on the swim or run portion. BUT there are no such rules about that on the bike. Brandon’s dad had seen me at a local Houston triathlon a few years ago, and I must have done some good exercising there because he thought me a worthy sidekick for his son.
Brandon’s main goal for this event was to earn world ranking points and hopefully nab a podium spot. My goal was to smash my legs on the bike and not make a mistake that would get Brandon hurt or disqualified.
The swim was wetsuit legal for the Paratriathletes, but I made the decision to go no wetsuit for myself. The water was 24 degrees Celsius, which I think translates to “not too cold” in Fahrenheit. I figured it would save time on race day. I wouldn’t have to worry about taking off my own wetsuit and could focus solely on Brandon.
The day before the race was a balmy “warm” in Celsius, but race day was decidedly not balmy, with some wind and a slight drizzle in the morning. I stuck to my non-wetsuit guns and thus found myself standing at the swim start shivering uncontrollably after our pre-race swim. “Shut up,” I told myself. “This isn’t about you.” The five visually impaired athletes and their guides waded out into knee deep water and randomly chose what we agreed on to be a good spot to start from. I positioned Brandon to the far left as he has a tendency to swim left and I didn’t want him to get caught up with the other athletes at the start.
The horn sounded and Brandon and I settled into a steady rhythm. His swim has come a long way since I raced with him two years ago and we maintained a consistent pace. We started to play a bit of a yo-yo game with the team from Ireland. They swam faster than Brandon and I when they were actually swimming but then they’d stop completely to catch their breath and we’d pass them. After one pass, I moved Brandon and I over to be directly in line with the turn buoy coming up, which also put us in a blocking position to the Irish team. I felt bad for about ¾’s of a second before I remembered, “hey, this is racing. We just passed them and if they want to pass us then they’ll have to go around!” We didn’t see the Irish team the rest of the swim.
In addition to a bit of race tactics, my main other focus was making sure that I stayed close to Brandon without hindering his swimming. Brandon had been DQ’d at this race last year because the officials determined that his guide had been pulling him during the swim portion. It’s an easy mistake to make, especially on a day like this where the water was choppy. I know of many athletes that struggle to get a good breath when they have waves consistently hitting them in the face. Well, imagine trying to do that when you can’t even see the wave coming at you! I was extremely impressed with how consistent Brandon stayed the whole time in spite of the chop, but there were a few instances where he’d kick on his back for a second to get a full breath and I had to make sure to slow my stroke so as not to illegally pull him.
As we neared the swim exit, Brandon started to tire a bit but was staying focused with his breathing pattern. I hadn’t seen the Irish in a while but they must have been lurking. Just as we came to the swim exit, they popped up next to us and darted towards the stairs. “Blimey,” I thought with a horrible imitation accent, “those bloody Irish were just waiting to pip us at the end.” My bit of trickery hadn’t worked quite as well as I’d hoped it would, but at least we were close to them.
I grabbed Brandon and hauled him up the stairs in pursuit of our fair skinned foe. The transition area is one of the few places where the guide is allowed to touch the visually impaired athlete as much as necessary so I took full advantage of that to hurry us along. We were in and out in less than 2 minutes, but the Irish were a bit quicker. I quick clipped-in and off we went!
The bike course was a 3-loop, 20k ride with a u-turn at either end. The way out was mostly uphill and the way back mostly downhill. There were only four men’s teams in the race, along with one women’s team. I could see as we headed out that the teams from France and Canada were pretty far ahead of us. The airlines had lost the bike for our Irish frenemies and they were riding a tandem hybrid-type bike. I knew this was our chance to get some time on them and encouraged Brandon as we charged up the first hill. We caught them on the downhill and made the pass. From then on our goal was to gain as much time as we could by the end of the bike, since we already knew they were the quickest runners in the field.
One of the challenging parts of being a guide on the bike is remembering to communicate every movement and turn you make. The pedals for each rider on the tandem are fixed together via a second chain that doesn’t shift. The first time I rode with Brandon, I often forgot to tell him when we were going to make a left or right turn, or slow to a stop. On a tandem, it’s very important for me to verbalize everything that is happening so that Brandon knows to adjust his own effort and cadence. I’ll call out “left knee up” when we’re coming into a left turn so that we both stop pedaling at the same time and make the turn together.
Coming off the bike, we had a 3:00 lead on the Irish boys. The run course was very narrow with rough uneven pavement. For an athlete with sight, it’s very simple to step up over a crack or around a whole. For someone that can’t see, it adds another challenging element in the midst of an already chaotic situation. Brandon and I ran shoulder to shoulder connected by a short leash. I’m not allowed to touch him except at the U-turns, but I can pull on the bungee. If he starts drifting to the side, I give a little tug and he moves closer to me. If he gets too close to me, we simply bump and rub shoulders and he knows to move back. At one point, I let my concentration slip a moment and he stepped off the edge of the path and tripped. I grabbed him and kept him from falling while also feeling terrible for failing to do my job while he was already pushing at his limit.
The hard-charging Irish caught us on lap 2 of the run and pulled away to take the final podium spot. Brandon and I came in 4th. I slowed up as we crossed the line to allow him to cross first, as is the ITU rule. The fourth place result and his finish time garnered Brandon enough points to move up two spots to 21st overall in the Paratriathlon World Rankings.
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