Competing In The Paralympic Games With Aaron Scheidies

rio-tt-startI am a Paralympian. There, got the hard part out, now maybe after a month of trying to find the words, I can finally sit down and write about one of the most unique and exclusive experiences in all of sport.

You might be wondering how we made the team, Aaron* and I, especially if you read my prior post about Aaron and I running across the line at the Charlotte Paralympic Cycling Trials. Well, in August the Russian Paralympic Team was banned from competing in the Rio Paralympic Games due to widespread, state-sponsored doping among their athletes. The ethics of banning an individual athlete because of their country of birth is a discussion for another post (I support lifetime bans and financial punishment to governing bodies, but tend to shy away from punishment by association), but what this meant for me and Aaron is that we went from alternates to the US Paralympic Team to members of the team in just a few short hours.

 

We’re going to #rio2016 [email protected]

A video posted by Benjamin Collins (@bencollinstri) on

 


We were added to the team in late August, and a few days later we joined the rest of the US Paralympic Cycling Team in Oxnard, California for a training camp. It was a great week in California, though when I look back through my journal my notes on the week show that it was pretty focused, without much energy left to be excited:

Monday: Arrived late last night and struggled to keep a conversation going with Coach Creed , worried he’d fall asleep if I didn’t keep talking. Ride this morning was good, we got two flats and had to be picked up.

Tuesday: Practice TT boosted confidence. Rode under standard with hills and strong wind. Found a nice canyon to ride up on the way home.

Wednesday: Did 4×15’ on the PCH. Holy crap this bike goes fast.

….you get the idea.


Come Sunday the team packed up to fly to Houston, where we would get over 70 items of clothing from Nike and Ralph Lauren, plus a bunch of other goodies from the US Olympic and Paralympic Team Sponsors. They call it processing, but it’s more like a boutique shopping experience without a cash register.

Processing took an entire day, and we spent that night on a flight to Rio.

There were probably 50+ wheelchairs on our flight, which added lots of time to our travel days, but I couldn’t help but be impressed with the accommodation the team had from United, Homeland Security and (I can’t believe I’m saying something positive about them) TSA. Our flights were all on time, and the heaps of luggage and equipment all made it with us.

So let the games begin!!!!

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Once we got to the village the trip took a turn toward monotony. I think the best way to describe my two weeks in the village is like watching an EKG readout. There were long periods of dull and boring with small moments of extremely fun/exciting/scary/etc.

For the most part the media portrayal of the village as a dilapidated, unfinished construction project were overblown. I did see wires hanging from walls and ceilings, there were clearly finishes on the inside of buildings that were unfinished. We had outlets that didn’t work, questionable plumbing, and doors that needed repair more than once. One day there was a fire in our building that started in the fire control panel. That said, these are buildings that were built to be luxury condos, that had to house a bunch of athletes first. The finishes were meant to be temporary because when they redo the insides of the building for the future residents, they don’t need 1,000 handicap accessible bathrooms, and the residents will probably want things like kitchens.

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We were in the village for a week before we finally raced. I tried to make the most of that time. I previewed the road course, I got my daily massage, used Normatec, binge watched Netflix, and managed to see a couple of competitions at the Olympic Park. Most notably, Aaron and I went to watch Dartanyan Crockett win Bronze in Judo.

When race day finally arrived, it was the Time Trial first. Even after a month it’s still hard to write about this one, as it was really hard to accept our 12th place finish. I always preach not to have expectations, but 12th place was not even on the spectrum of outcomes I had prepared for.

We were the last race of the day, and the Brazilian sun was right over head when we arrived to the venue. The night before I had sweated through my sheets, tossing and turning in a nervous delirium. When I woke up I had a clear vision of our chain needing fixing. The previous day we had somehow knocked the chain off the front chain ring during an interval, and I had gotten into an argument with the mechanics over the solution. So that morning I arrived to the venue with a front derailleur to act as a chain guide. We put it on and took the bike out for a quick test, and when we put energy into the pedals we broke the chain. 10 minutes later with a new chain we tested it again and the bike seemed to feel better than it ever has. Perhaps a new SRAM chain is all the bike really needed.warmup-zone

The good thing about my nervous freak-out is that we broke the chain before the race rather than during. The bad thing is that all the last minute changes meant that our warm-up was delayed. This was not a big deal for me, as I had my own bike to warm up on, but due to limited space to bring equipment to the race venue from the village, Aaron was forced to warm up on the race bike. Further, the pits at the venue were too small for the entire team to warm up near the start, and the later starting bikes (like us) were forced into a satellite pit that was not at all convenient to the race start. We had to send the bike over for final check 35 minutes before race start, so Aaron’s warm-up ended really early.

We got onto the course and settled into a pace. After about a minute, however, Aaron asked for a higher cadence. This was a shock to me. In nine years of riding with Aaron, I have never preferred a lower cadence than him. I obliged and shifted, but the bike felt like it settled a bit, and my perception was that we slowed just a hair.

Still, I was riding pretty well. My power was in range, and though I could tell Aaron was uncomfortable I felt him getting stronger through the first lap as his legs warmed up.

Toward the end of the first lap we were passed by the British team that started 60 seconds behind us. It took all the mindful training I’ve ever done to ignore this, as I had thought this course favored Aaron and me over them. To be down 60 seconds, in a race that is normally decided by seconds, was a very bad sign, but I didn’t have more to give.

Starting the second lap the disconnect between Aaron and me, along with the heat, started to take a toll. My power average dropped significantly. I felt myself overheating and I had to focus hard to keep my legs in sync with my stoker – who was finally warmed up and pedaling like a man on a mission.

We were passed by the Dutch team shortly after starting the second lap, but kept them in our sites for a long time. The other teams on the course didn’t seem to be getting closer or farther away, and I was hoping that there might still be a chance for the third position. We crossed the line and collapsed onto the side of the road, barely able to hold the bike up from the effort we had put in. We were 12th place. About 30 seconds from 5th, but almost two minutes behind the British Team, who won Gold ahead of the Dutch Team (silver).

That night Aaron went to spend time with his family. We were both bummed and needed some time apart. I ran for an hour around the village, driven by frustrated energy. I had cried after the race, feeling like I let Aaron down, and eventually those tears turned to anger and sadness, and all the stages of grief, expedited by some pavement pounding tempo around the athlete village. Then I grabbed an Uber and met a friend for Brazilian food and to get away from the monotony of the village and the athlete dining hall. I needed a break from the constant reminders that I didn’t win a medal. (Seriously, even the condom machines in the village are plastered with “celebrate the win” and images of medals.)

The road race was two days later. This one I felt prepared for, as by the time we got to the race I had already ridden the extremely technical course seven times. It started with four laps of the 15km time trial course, then led us to the same 30km Grumari Loop that was used during the Olympics. The entire race was 120km, but the Grumari loop is where all the action was going to happen. There were several climbs, but the two main features of the loop were the nasty switchback incline which was followed immediately by a deadly, tandem-hating descent involving 15% grade straight always into off-camber switchbacks. That course led to crashes in the Olympics, but imagine trying to stop a tandem on those same roads without any better brakes!

The race went well for us through the first portion. Nobody was dropped from the group during the first 60 kilometer flat section, but when we hit the first few hills we found ourselves staying with the stronger teams and the group started shrinking. Up that first gnarly climb we crested respectably in the lead pack, which turned into the breakaway group of five bikes. Descending that first hill I felt prepared. I had done it five times on my own and twice on the tandem. I knew the turns well and was confident in the risks I would put Aaron myself into.

We dropped down the first straight away and I braked hard to shed speed for the first turn. Same thing for the second, but going into the third hairpin the bike wouldn’t slow down. I was squeezing the brakes but the rear brake felt squishy and the bike wasn’t slowing.

“Aaron! The bike isn’t slowing, I don’t think we can turn it” I was frozen, I tried my best to get the bike to turn, but we veered too wide and rolled into a rain ditch on the side. We came to a halt, I fixed the chain, which had dropped during the impact, and we got back on. I took it a bit slower, but now the rear wheel was thumping and the bike was lurching up and down. The rear brake did nothing when I pulled on it and there was a squeal coming from the back.

“We must have a flat” I told Aaron, though it felt like no flat I had experienced.

We managed to get down the hill and rode soft until the follow cars were in site. We pulled over and waited for the US sag vehicle to catch up with a spare wheel, but when I pulled our rear wheel I found the tire was fine, perhaps a little rubbed, but still inflated. The rim of the wheel however was warped and splayed open, with no discernible braking surface left intact.

We had melted the carbon rim with the heat of our brake pads.

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After changing the wheel we went into head-down time trial mode. This is something that has become a consistent part of road racing with Aaron. In South Africa we had a flat and had to catch the group. In Belgium we were dropped and rode solo between groups for 90 kilometers, and now this. I hate that we have never had a clean road race in the pack.

It took us a solid 20km, but right as we started the second Grumari loop we finally caught up to the chase pack of seven riders. From there we did our best to revive ourselves from the effort of catching on. We sat in, but rode hard up the hills hoping to drop the weaker teams. The group widdled down a bit, but by the end of the second lap we found ourselves with five other teams racing for sixth through 11th. This is where our triathlon skills really came out. Or rather where our triathlon adapted muscles shined in their inability to sprint. We emptied the tank, but every other team rode away from us as we sprinted for the line.

11th really isn’t much better than 12th. And when it comes to the Paralympics or Olympics, only the top three matter. But I’m still really proud of our 11th place finish. Probably more so than any of my individual performances in triathlon this year. It was an insanely hard race, where we overcame the most random and unpredictable mechanical. We proved to ourselves that we deserve to be at the big kid table – even if our bike doesn’t – and against teams that have been training specifically for this all summer, we proved that a couple of triathletes can give put up a pretty good fight.post-road-race-drinking-rio

And yeah, I went for a run later that night.

 

The one big part of the experience that I’ve left out are the opening and closing ceremonies. The ceremonies were probably one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in sport. Walking into the stadium to the roar of the crowd, walking with the US Paralympic Team… it was unbeatable.

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As the time in Rio dragged on, it was the ceremonies when I was reminded just how special the Paralympics are. Every person there has a story, but that wasn’t the focus of the games. Instead it was a group of people who have said, “who cares” and has chosen to pursue their athletic potential anyway. Sitting around, hearing all the self-deprecating humor, getting to know the team on a personal level, it’s easy to forget that outside of the Paralympics this group is not normal. They’ve overcome obstacles that few of us will ever be forced to understand. I often felt unworthy of such company, and – as I alluded to in my opening statement – it’s hard for me to grasp that I have a place with the team. I’m not missing a limb, I haven’t been blown up in a war, or suffered anything like what my teammates have been through, but I am a Paralympian. I’m a Paralympian because Aaron trusted me to share his dream of finding his potential. It’s an honor.

Victory at Dublin Ironman 70.3

This weekend I won a half Ironman in Ireland.

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Yes, you heard correctly. I traveled all the way to Dublin for an Ironman 70.3. It was a long way to go, but after Aaron and I failed to qualify for Rio I took a peak at what races I could do the rest of the season and Dublin jumped out as a perfect race for me. The weather is very similar to Seattle (wet and grey). It’s hilly and windy and Ireland is a place I’ve never been that I wanted to visit.

I’m glad I did. I stayed with a friend’s cousin, who lives near the swim course, and arrived on Thursday. Friday I downloaded a course to my Garmin Edge bike computer and did a 40km loop around the outskirts of the city that was littered with sheep farms and castles and leprechauns. I had some of the best Indian food I’ve ever found, and met all kinds of friendly people in my walks around the area. I don’t think I’ve settled in to an area so quickly as I did here in Dublin – I just felt at home.

Sunday came quickly though, and at 6:50am the gun went off in Scotsman’s Bay. My brain felt like it was freezing in the cold water, but that quickly went away as the effort of swimming warmed my body. I felt good, considering that I took quite a bit of time away from the pool while training with Aaron this summer. Five of us formed a lead group and the swim was pretty mild mannered, without too much contact. Then toward the end I found myself slingshot next to Harry Wiltshire, one of the great swimmers in our sport. I got a little close and he kicked me off, but I was happy to exit the water at his side.

I started the bike in third place, but quickly took the lead. I’m not really sure what happened to the original leader, but at some point I saw two bike shoes on the road and he was running backwards without a bike. I still can’t make sense of it. I just put my head down and rode hard.

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The bike course was stunning. Rolling hills, narrow country roads, passing small villages where people came out to the street to cheer us on. The fifty-or-so speedbumps were about the only drawback to the course, and even those weren’t a big deal. The pavement was a slow chip seal that increased rolling resistance, but it slowed everyone down the same. I pushed pretty hard for the first half, then backed off a bit when I realized I had built a substantial lead. I wish I’d backed off more to enjoy some of the countryside, but even at 98% I was working too hard to really appreciate the natural beauty around me.

We finished the ride in Phoenix Park, which is the largest urban park in Europe. We entered the park at 52 miles, but it took four more miles to get to the transition area.

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I hopped off and realized how much of a toll that chip seal vibration took on my leg muscles. I ran about 6 minute pace for the first lap, after which I heard I had a 10 minute 30 seconds lead. I was feeling a bit light headed – I didn’t eat enough for the cold weather – and I slowed it down quite a bit after that figuring there was no way I would give up that kind of gap, even at a jog. I cruised it in and soaked up the atmosphere. It was a beautiful run, lined with incredible spectators. I finished a few minutes ahead of Harry Wiltshire (who had an incredible run), and was able to celebrate in the finish chute to a thundering crowd.

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Generations ago my ancestors came to the US from Ireland in search of a better life. They found work in the coal mines of Kentucky and gave their lives to ensure their children would have more opportunities than they did. I like to think the Collins who left Ireland would be proud of what I did. I’m certainly thankful for the opportunity he gave me.

Top 5 Men:

1            Ben Collins                       4:00:41

2            Harry Wiltshire               4:04:05

3            Paul Reitmayr                  4:06:41

4            Fraser Cartmell               4:08:20

5            Gerhad De Bruin             4:08:53
finish line wide angle

Panasonic New York City Triathlon 2016

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My favorite triathlon is still the New York City Triathlon. This year was my sixth time racing in the Big Apple and the experience of racing entirely in the river, highway and streets of Manhattan still thrills me. It’s thrilling to have the city shut down so that we can use the streets as our playground.

bazu-8946276I came in second this year, which is a great result, yet after winning the previous two years it feels like a loss – I failed to “defend my title”.  Yet with so many past performances on the same course, I have objective data to show that my performance was not worth a victory at this race. I was off my game. It takes a special day to win in New York, and that’s exactly what Cameron Dye and Sarah Haskins had this year.

From the beginning of the race I was feeling off. I started falling behind in the swim down the Hudson, and used what may have been my only match of the day to run my way back up to Cameron through the long transition. I entered the West Side Highway with Cameron, but quickly found my legs weren’t giving me what I was asking of them. I lost three minutes to Cam on the bike, averaging about 15% lower power than last year, and almost three minutes bazu-9023455slower split than my previous worst. The run went more smoothly, and while my run time was one of the best of the day, it was three minutes slower than my PR on the
course of 31:40, that I ran in 2014 on my way to set the course record.

It sounds like I’m in bad condition, but I think that’s false. I had the flu a couple
weeks ago, which took me out of Racine 70.3 and had me on bed rest for a week. Normally I would call that a great taper, but with my history of heat stress, and coming off a fever, my body was more sensitive to the humid conditions than normal. I’m disappointed by my times, but I think my training is right and my body will come around.bazu-9061331

I’ll take this result as a positive sign that coming off illness I can still post a second place finish at a big race. Next month I’ll be racing Dublin 70.3 and hopefully there I can show that my season is only just beginning.

 

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I’ve included pictures that were provided by ProAir RespiClick. They sponsored the race photography so all of this year’s participants get free downloads of all their pictures. This is the first time I’ve seen this, but I think it’s a really cool benefit to participants. I use their inhalers on race day to treat exercise induced asthma, but had no idea they were helping support our sport. Thanks!

Paralympic Cycling Trials with Aaron Scheidies

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As Aaron and I headed out for the fourth and final lap of the Paralympic Trials TT course, the announcer was out of his seat practically yelling with enthusiasm into the mic, “Right now Aaron Scheidies and Ben Collins are continuing to post the fastest splits of the day for this course, but this lap will have to be even faster for them to qualify for this Paralympic Team! Let’s see what they can do!”

 

 

 

By the time the announcer finished speaking we were gone, leaving behind a group of fans jumping and screaming and biting nails. Our coaches, Mark Sortino and Rick Babbington compared splits, confirming that we needed our final lap to be our fastest, about 15 seconds faster than the third lap split of 9 minutes 11 seconds. Seeing these two coaches deep in discussion the announcer joked, “Mark Sortino and Rick Babbington are over there arguing over who’s athlete is doing more work…”

Aaron and I were the last start of the day, racing right up to solar noon and the heat of the day. The shadows shrank with every lap of the course.

The clock ticked by. Knuckles were turning white among the crowd of fans that had dressed in blue C Different with Aaron #Road2Rio t-shirts to come support us. At 8 minutes 30 seconds Rick started leaning over the barrier, craning his neck to see us coming around the bend. Mark glanced at his watch, a bead of sweat dripping from his running visor as the Carolina heat beat down over course.

There was no tandem.

The clock passed 9 minutes, and still Aaron and I were nowhere to be found.

“Something happened,” Rick said softly, his jaw clenching in worry. Mark nodded, the look of worry apparent through his sunglasses.

The clock ticked by, and suddenly cheers could be heard from around the bend. Then, coasting down the hill, there we were. We came nearly to a stop at the bottom of the hill and dismounted as if were were doing a triathlon. We ran the final 100 meters with the bike and crossed the line.

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For Aaron and I, we knew we had a tough mark to hit on our final lap. The announcers words sounded distant as we started that final lap. I heard, “…fastest split of the day, but…” and knew we needed to exceed expectations on the final lap. It was hot, and our third lap had us in no-man’s land, enveloped in pain, too far from the finish to push any harder. I had glanced at the clock as we crossed the lap split line for the final time, and knew the final lap would need to be our best.

Climbing the first hill of that final lap, I felt a surge of power from Aaron and knew he had heard the same thing. This lap was Rio or bust.

We nailed every turn. We came around the final U turn and used the entire road, sweeping our front wheel within inches of the curb as we stood and accelerated back onto the final hill climb. It was a soft left, then a right, a further climb, then descent. I had the course mapped in my head, I had gone over every pedal stroke a hundred times before the race started, and Aaron and I were perfectly in sink. We stood together, we pushed together, we suffered together.

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In the last two kilometers of the race were three turns, that took perfect coordination to get through without losing momentum. There was a hard left that we took at a blazing pace, then a long sloping downhill into a right turn, a short kicker up and then the last turn of the race, a left into a steady descent before a small ramped finish. On every previous lap and in training we had nailed this section. The wheels would squeal through the left turn and again on the hard right. We would drop a shoulder, carving the rubber close to the curb and aiming the bike to set us up for the final turn of the course. After the right we would stand for 5 pedal strokes, then sit and pedal through the left, accelerating into the downhill and through the finish.

But this time when we made that right turn there was a crunch and when I looked down the chain had been dropped. “What have I done!?” was my immediate thought. I had put a 1x chainring setup on the bike a few weeks ahead of time in an effort to get a better chain line and simplify our drivetrain to avoid any of the mechanical problems we have faced in previous races.

We coasted, I hoped we could get past the small riser and into the downhill section, figuring that stopping to fix the chain at this point would be slower than coasting to the finish… it was 800 meters away!

We made it about half way up the hill, and I asked Aaron if he could reach the chain without stopping. He couldn’t. We stopped, Aaron hopped off and tried to get the chain on, but it wouldn’t pull easily. I hopped off and tried to get the chain back on the ring, but the chain wouldn’t budge. I looked back. It had torn through the cage of the rear derailleur. The chain was no longer on the pulleys.

“We have to run” I said. We made it to the top of the hill and hopped back on. I tried to clip in but my feet were shaking and I couldn’t. We coasted down the hill and as the bike came to a stop 100 meters from the finish I did a flying dismount, forgetting to warn aaron and leaving him perched on the back of the bike. He unclipped and ejected to the back, then grabbed the saddle telling me, “RUN!”.

We crossed the finish line to deafening cheers. But our road to Rio was over. We walked the bike away from the crowd, tears already streaming down both our cheeks.

I wanted to smash the bike. I wanted to throw it into a bon fire and watch it melt. I took off my helmet and tossed it in the grass, removing my temptation to smash it on a rock. More expletives crossed my mind in those first sixty seconds than an entire Quentin Tarantino movie marathon. I was mad, but mainly I felt like I must have missed something. I felt like I had let Aaron down. I surely could have done something to prevent this from happening. Something.

I stood fuming. I don’t even remember taking off my gloves. I turned around. Truth be told I intended to go back to the bike to give it a solid kick. I wanted to hurt that demon bike – but before I could take out my tantrum on the inanimate object I had spent so much time preparing, I was stopped by the scene unfolding in front of me.

Aaron was sitting on the curb, still wearing his helmet, his sunglasses resting on the grass beside him, his head resting in his open palms, his back convulsing with every sob. Rick and Mark, Aaron’s wife and parents, the national team coaches, our nutritionist and sport psychologist – everyone that had supported us on this journey within shouting distance was hustling over to where Aaron sat. I was angry at myself for missing something, for somehow letting Aaron down in this race, and yet here I am, the only person on Aaron’s team still stuck on the past and ignoring Aaron now, when he needed all of us.

I picked up my helmet and gloves and took a deep breath. I had tears on my cheeks as I hugged Aaron. I don’t know what exactly he said in the moment. He told me it was a great race. He told me we did our best and he thanked me.

That thank you stung. I was holding in a fireball of anger for the universe, blaming myself for ruining Aaron’s Paralympic journey. Thank you was the last thing I expected but it slapped me back to reality. Back to the partnership that Aaron and I had formed, and to the trust we have developed through this journey.

We embraced for a moment, wiped our faces and began walking toward the award podium. We had finished second in our category, despite running to the finish line.

I ran some numbers later on, and used my Garmin file to get my best estimate of where we were on the course compared to previous lap times. To qualify for Rio we would have needed to finish in 34:11. That would have been a 8 minute final lap, or 70 seconds faster than our third lap of 9:11. When the chain came off we were 10 seconds ahead of our time to that point on the third lap, so realistically we would have finished around 35:10. Third in the standings, and a full minute off of Rio qualification. We had the best time trial that we’ve had together. We raced our asses off, and were on track to post one of the most impressive tandem time trials in the history of US Paralympic cycling. We did our best. We did better than anyone predicted we would, and – mechanical aside – we still came up short.

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Looking back, I’m glad for three things.

  1. This was the right team. Aaron and I bicker like a married couple. We’ve both questioned our commitment to each other this year. We’ve both sacrificed to be on this team together, but when it mattered, we were ready. We were ready! I learned so much from working with Aaron this year, about motivation, for myself, for my racing partner and the people that we needed on the sidelines. When everything went wrong, we weren’t alone crying on the curb. There’s more to a team than cheering each other on, or learning to work together. As the pilot I used to think I was the leader. I’m not. I’m lucky to be part of the team, and I’m lucky that Aaron trusted me to give everything I could to make our bike faster. I did.
  2. We did everything in our control to make the Paralympic Team. Mechanicals, flat tires, crashes… There are all kinds of bad luck that happen in bike racing. Extrapolate that to life, and it’s just not fair. Life is not fair. But we can prepare and we can do our best to get lady luck on our side, and Aaron and I did. The Paralympic selection wasn’t what we expected – there were only two spots left on the Paralympic team across categories, and qualifying on a tandem is among the hardest categories. But we couldn’t control that and we didn’t let it slow us down. We trained as hard as we could and came read to race. I spent the morning inspecting our bike and because of it I can look back with confidence that I didn’t miss something, that this wasn’t a known risk that could have been mitigated with any better preparation. Sometimes life isn’t fair, but you can only regret what you didn’t do. We did everything we could have.
  3. We finished. When we rolled to a stop on that last little uphill kicker, we knew we were out of the race. Even if we’d been able to get the chain back on, we were so close to the line that every second lost was critical. And yet, there was never a question that we would get our bike to the finish. We would run, crawl… we would have swam that bike to the finish line through a pool of sharks if we’d needed to and I can’t ask for more than that from my teammate. For all the negative thoughts that went through both of our heads, quitting was never one of them.

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Ironman African Championships

I did my second full distance Ironman in Port Elizabeth South Africa on April 10th. Unlike my first Ironman, I actually trained for this one and came with the intent of being competitive in the race. Still, heat preparation proved lacking, and as the mercury rose in the second half of the race I dropped from a 3-man breakaway on the bike to an eventual 15th place finish at the Ironman African Championships.

IMSouthAfricaBikeThe swim was among the easiest of my career, yet with a choppy ocean swell it was fast enough to split the pack by several minutes. I began the bike with a substantial lead over guys like Ben Hoffman, who eventually won the race. After a long T1, where I fiddled and lost time, I managed to ride back up into the front where I stayed in a 3-man breakaway for the first 100 kilometers of the bike.

The weather in Port Elizabeth this time of year is normally quite temperate, and it is one of the reasons I picked this race. Between expected mid-70s temperatures, strong winds and hills, I thought the course would be the right kind of tough to suit my strengths. On race day, however, a heat wave blew through the area, the temperatures were unusually high and the wind, which had been howling in the days leading up to the event, was still. The pavement was hot and the air stagnant and as the day wore on the African sun was unrelenting against my Chicago-white skin.

Around 100 kilometers into the bike, and on the second lap of the course, my power dropped and I couldn’t keep up with my fluid loss. By the final turnaround I was a couple minutes behind the breakaway, and a few kilometers later I was passed by the main chase pack, which had been several minutes down at the half-way point.

I wanted to quit. I was begging for an excuse, but it didn’t come. I just kept turning the pedals and eventually reached T2. I looked around for Abby, knowing that she would be terrified, given my history of heat stroke, and would give me an excuse. She was in hiding, so one foot in front of the other and I began running. Tired. Broken. Well out of contention and unable to stay with any of the athletes who passed me.

This, I realize now, is what Ironman racing is about. How do you handle the mental doubt? What do you do when your body fails you? Do you let your mind fail you as well, or do you keep digging? Is there such thing as a perfect Ironman? Can you race for eight hours (or 10 or whatever) without thoughts of quitting? I wouldn’t have clawed my way back in contention, and forcing my body to push through heat problems wouldn’t have been good for my health, but what if it had been cool? What if I’d been in sixth place and feeling the same way? Would I have been looking for an excuse to quit, or could I have been the one instilling doubt in my competitors while letting my confidence claw me up to a podium?

I learned more at this Ironman than in the previous one. I maintain that an Ironman hurts less than a short course event, but the duration and the need to push through mental doubt and physical fatigue is a challenge unlike the pain that I’ve trained so hard to tolerate at the shorter distances. To succeed at this distance requires mental fortitude and tenacity in the race of adversity. No Ironman will go to plan, and how I learn to deal with those setbacks will be the determining factor in my future of Ironman racing.

Fifteenth place was not the result I traveled to Africa to achieve, but I’m actually quite proud of what I learned through the process. Ideal conditions and a top finish could never have taught me so much. This experience will make me a better athlete.

Life Is Good

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In the past year I haven’t posted much outside of race reports. It is a combination of reasons, mainly that I have been extremely pressed for time, and that my attitude toward racing was pretty crappy (if you don’t have anything nice to say…). Both of those factors have changed this year, and now I want to brag about how exciting my life has been and how much I love racing triathlons again.

Training this year has been really fun. I graduate from Chicago Booth in June, but having finished my graduation requirements I’m really just enjoying training like a professional triathlete again. For most of January and February I stayed with my in-laws in Pasadena, training in the mountains North of LA. I’ve been swimming outdoors at the Rose Bowl, cycling into the Angels National Forest and running trails all around the area. It’s the most fun I’ve had training in a long time, and it’s really changed my mindset with regard to triathlon.

To be perfectly honest, a year ago I would have questioned whether I would still be racing at this point. I was getting sick of doing the same races against the same people. The funding for pro triathletes has squeezed as well due mainly to the consolidation of Ironman races and the end of other pro series like Lifetime Fitness and 5150. I was also working at SRAM for my MBA internship and really enjoying it.

I decided I would give it one more go, but with a different philosophy. I would take advantage of a more flexible schedule and plan my season around potential fun, rather than potential earnings. I figured there was no reason to go to a race with $100,000 in prize money, if the course wasn’t suited to me. I wouldn’t enjoy the race, and even if I maximized my earnings, I’m still making less than a typical Booth graduate – and many of those jobs would be more fun that risking another heat stroke in 90% humidity in the middle of nowhere.

So this year’s schedule is all about having fun. I went to Pucon because it’s touted as one of the most beautiful triathlons in the world (it is), and I stayed for a few days to go mountain biking, and enjoy the area. I raced in Israel because it’s a country I really wanted to visit, and because Abby was able to travel with me. And I raced in Buenos Aires because I love Argentina and I wanted to spend a few days touring the city (after the race, of course). Next month I’ll do Ironman South Africa and then I’ll spend 10 days traveling with Abby. Finally, I’m racing with Aaron Scheidies, trying to qualify for the Paralympics for cycling because I enjoy being part of a team and because I want Aaron to be able to achieve his dreams.

It’s may not be the most lucrative plan, but then again, the past few years, as I’ve planned my season to maximize income and pay my tuition bills to University of Chicago, I lost track of why I started racing triathlons in the first place. I joined Volcano Triathlon Team in 2006 because I wanted to meet people and challenge myself in a new sport. I quit my job to focus on triathlon because I wanted to see if I had what it took to make the Olympics, and I kept racing after 2012 because I still loved how exhilarating it is to pour your energy into a singular goal and then test yourself against the world’s best.

Somewhere, perhaps in my indoor trainer hours at 5am, I lost the feeling of fun that went along with those goals. Triathlon started to feel like a job, a means to an end that failed to surprise.

I kept it up because I love the sport, and I was still racing well – better than ever even. I kept it up because Aaron asked me to help him and I felt like I had a greater purpose than “playing bikes” (which is what Abby jokingly calls my job). I kept it up to prove to myself that I could.

This year, life is a little easier. “Playing bikes” has led to two wins and a third in the first quarter of the year. It’s led to a lot of smiles and self-reflection and new friends. In California I pushed myself to the brink of overtraining, just by having fun. In Chicago I’m making the most of what I have, and the training there isn’t so bad when I have a race calendar that I’m actually looking forward to again.

So far, this year is going well.

 

Motorola Ironman 70.3 Buenos Aires

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I added Buenos Aires to my race schedule at the last minute. It fit into the “Ben Collins Race Criteria (v2016)” . The criteria are simple. This year I’m only doing races in places I want to travel to, and that sound like fun to me. I’m also putting a high weight on races I have never done before. So far that’s taken me to Chile, Israel and now Argentina.

I was third after a really exciting and close race with Sam Appleton and Ben Hoffman, but before I get into the details – since this is a new race – I want to write a little more than a straight forward race report. Hopefully it will help anyone else thinking of doing the race next year.

Overvall:

This is the first year for this race. Ironman is trying to create more races in South America, where there is a huge demand for triathlon and not too many marquis events. There will soon be a second 70.3 in Chile, and – if all goes well in the planning – one in Paraguay as well. Normally in a race’s first year I have low expectations, but Ironman (World Triathlon Corp.) is really good at producing high quality races, so it was no surprise that the race went smoothly overall.

From a pros perspective, despite some logistical quirkiness, like a late-night interview in dance club without transportation provided, the race organizers really did well. They picked us up from the airport –a HUGE plus when traveling in South America – and they brought in ESPN to broadcast the race, which is excellent for publicity and given exposure to our brand. This was all done pretty well.

When I arrived, I was disappointed to find that the race was held in a posh suburb, Tigre, pretty far from the heart of Buenos Aires, and too far to reasonably stay in the city. In hindsight, it was great. The roads were less crowded, it was easy to train leading into the race, and the stray dogs chasing you on the bike (there are always stray dogs chasing you on the bike in South America) are vaccinated and well trained.

After the race I stayed for two extra days in the center of Buenos Aires, and I believe that was the right way to plan the trip. I was able to really enjoy Buenos Aires, and I didn’t have any big-city stress prior to race day.

The Course:

The course was very straight forward. Set in a private suburban development, the swim took place in a small protected lake. The water seemed clean, but the shallow still water varied in temperature dramatically with the weather. When we arrived a few days before the race an official on site told us the water was 29 degrees (about 83 farenheit), yet race morning, after a cold night, the officials made the call for a wetsuit swim for pros (the cutoff is around 22 degrees, depending on the air/water combination of temperatures) due to borderline water temps and cold morning air temperatures.

The bike course itself was flat with great pavement and potential to be very fast. What got in the way of riding any faster was an abundance of roundabouts (forty over ninety kilometers), and a two lap course that posed some technical challenges. It wasn’t really a “technical course”, meaning there were no points in the race where being better at handling a bike was a significant advantage (except perhaps when the motorcycle carrying an ESPN cameraman nearly took me out in a roundabout if I hadn’t reacted well. Like the ESPN incident, most of my problems with the bike course were a product of my being in the lead of the race, and really weren’t issues for the majority of competitors. Still, for me the bike leg of the race was really stressful, navigating a two lap course meant passing lots of competitors in a single narrow lane, and the course was one that required constant attention that meant putting my head down was never an option.

The run was a relief. Thanks to the cool weather on the day I didn’t mind the lack of shade. It was a flat run course with closed roads and plenty of support. There were people cheering throughout the two lap course (it was estimated that there were 15,000 on-site spectators). It was two-laps out-and-back through the same private neighborhood. It wasn’t an exciting place to run, but it was a pleasant run.

The Field:

The men’s pro field was far more competitive than I would have expected, given the relatively small prize purse and long travel distance from the US (or should I say Boulder, since that’s where most of the pros live). The big names of the 25 pro men included Oscar Galindez, Ben Hoffman, Sam Appleton, Daniel Fontana, Fabio Carvalho, Mario De Eilas and myself. We were all staying at the Jeep Park Hotel, three to a room, so we got to know each other a bit before the race. I can’t say I loved the idea of this, but I was in a room with Ben Hoffman and it turns out he’s a good guy.

Swim

 In the swim I settled into second position behind Sam Appleton. The water was, in my opinion, far too warm for wetsuits. By the end of the swim I was suffering from the heat more than the effort. I exited the water behind Sam and several guys came past me on the ramp and I ripped open my wetsuit as fast as I could to let the cool air in. I was slow through transition, taking a lesson from Zell am See last year, where I overheated on the swim and never did recover.

Bike

Onto the bike course I took some time to get my feet in the shoes and slow down my heart rate. It didn’t take long for the cool air to take its effect and for my body to relax. I strapped myself in and bolted to the front of the race, where I stayed for pretty much the remainder of the bike.

As I mentioned in the course rundown, it was stressful riding. Every roundabout seemed to accordion the lead pack together. It was clear I wouldn’t be able to break away on my own, as I had hoped, but staying in the lead also seemed to be the easiest position for staying out of trouble.

Run

I felt great riding, but I was really happy to get out onto the run course. Ben Hoffman came by me in transition and started the run just ahead of me. Sam came by right at the timing mat and ran straight up to Ben, while I took a moment to get my rhythm. It was then I realized we had dropped everyone else that had been riding with us.

I decided at tat moment that I would do everything possible to run with those guys. I figured if I could hang on for 5 kilometers I would feel good about my run. I caught them at the 1k mark, and stayed there until almost 3k. But once I was with them the pace felt slow. I took the lead and pushed it a bit, but – of course – they stayed right on my shoulder. Ben Hoffman took the lead again, then me, then him. Starting the second lap the pace had slowed and I was feeling pretty good. I took the lead and pushed hard all the way to the final turnaround at 15km into the run. Sam and Ben were still right on my heels and I thought for sure I could push a little harder. I kept pushing, but with two miles to go, as my legs began to weaken.

I had known that eventually Ben or Sam would make their move, and I was in unknown territory. I’ve never run with these guys. I’ve never really run with anyone, outside of maybe in ITU race. I knew I shouldn’t be running in the front any longer, but I was afraid what might happen if I slowed down.

And then then I found out. Ben came around with Sam on his feet and I couldn’t hold the pace any longer. I had done too much work. I had raced with excitement instead of brains. The moment a gap opened my legs turned to Jell-O and my pace fell off even more. There was nobody behind me, so I cruised in for third place, feeling both exhausted and exhilarated.

I had actually run with two of the best runners in the sport. Last summer when I raced Sam at Vineman he ran in a different league from me. He had broken away on the bike and still managed to outrun Tim O’Donnell and Craig Alexander. Ben Hoffman was 2nd in Kona two years ago and has run past me in every long course encounter we’ve had. I was certainly hoping for the win, but to run with these guys for 18 kilometers is a breakthrough in my career. I can’t wait to race again.

Victory at Garmin Israman 113

Ben Collins Wins Garmin Israman Half
Crossing the finish line of the 20th Garmin Israman 113 and setting a new course record.
Ben Collins (USA) prepares for the start of the swim at the ISRAMAN triathlon at Eilat, Israel on January 29, 2016
All of these amazing photographs are courtesy of Larry Rosa

Friday I won my second race of 2016, the Garmin Israman 113 Triathlon, with a time of 4:27:12. While I won with a substantial margin over Evert Scheltinga (4:36:38) and his brother Deiderik (4:41:10) of the Netherlands, I can say that without a doubt the course was the most challenging of any triathlon I’ve done. It was a combination of the elements (windy with temperatures of 38 at the start, and below freezing on the bike), the terrain (2,000 meters of climbing with a net gain of 800 meters) and the mental solitude of riding 33 miles into the desolate (but beautiful) Negev Desert. This race is one that stands out, and that I will remember fondly, long after my professional career.
It started in the Red Sea. The water was crystal clear, and while the temperature would have been fine for a non-wetsuit swim, the organizers chose to allow wetsuits because of the extreme cold outside the water. There were both half and full iron distance races being held on the same day (both with pro fields) so the competitors doing the Garmin Israman 266 started ten minutes ahead of us. About half way through the swim I was with a group of swimmers, but as we started passing large packs of full distance age group competitors the pack broke up and I was able to exit the water alone, 45 seconds behind Evert.

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From T1 there’s about two miles of flat riding, which are the only flat miles of the race. Then the climb starts that takes you from sea level up to the second transition area, 800 meters above the town of Eilat. That climb took me about 43 minutes, which was the fastest climb of the day. T2 is 10 miles into the race, so at an hour into the race I still had over 60 miles of the 70.3 I was racing.

Ben Collins (USA) bikes back to Eilat in the lead at the ISRAMAN triathlon at Eilat, Israel on January 29, 2016

The climb itself was tough, but steady. The grade was consistent, so there were only a couple times that I had to stand and my SRAM Force 1x drivetrain was just fine (54t chainring with an 11-36 rear cassette – same gearing I’ve used for the past year). The temperature, however, was not consistent. The winds kept gusting stronger as the sun came over the Jordanian mountains to the east. As I climbed out of the valley and into the rolling terrain of the Negev Desert, the winds were howling without any vegetation to slow them down. At 800 meters it was about 15 degrees colder than it had been in town, and even as the day warmed it was just 30 degrees during the bike course. At one point I tried to grab a bottle and found that, despite gloves, my hands were too cold to grab it. I had to come to a complete stop to get the bottle and
still had trouble getting it into the bottle cage.

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At the turnaround I had built a 3-minute gap on Evert, and I doubled that on the 23 mile stretch back to T2. At T2 a volunteer took my bike from me and another volunteer handed me my gear bag. I struggled to get socks on with numb hands and toes, then shoes. Finally I stood to begin the run, took three steps and fell on my face. I couldn’t feel my feet at all.

 

ROSA0868The beginning of the run goes uphill for about 200 meters before continuing down the same road that we climbed at the beginning of the bike. It was 5 miles of long meandering switchbacks where I could finally see the view that I had missed while climbing. Down below was the shimmering water of the Red Sea, the green trees and resorts of Eilat, and just beyond it the beige buildings of Aqaba nestled against the red mountains of Jordan. To the right there was occasionally a fence, marking the border to Egypt.

After five miles of descending, with the bottoms of my feet about to combust from friction, the course takes a turn for a 2km out and back on a dirt bike path. From there, another mile, or so, of descending back to sea level, then a right turn away from the resorts that took me past the port of Eilat before turning back around for the last 5 kilometers, finishing on the boardwalk in the center of Eilat where the day had started.

This was one of the most fun races I’ve done. The location is amazing – Israel boasts some incredible natural beauty, along with tourist attractions of biblical proportions (literally). Abby came with me, and claims this is one of the best races she’s attended as a spectator, as she had an abundance of fun things to keep her occupied while I was off on the bike. She went to an underwater aquarium, ate a casual breakfast at our hotel (all the hotels are right next to the start/finish), went shopping at the mall (right on the course) and – since the bike leg took much longer than a normal half – she still probably had time for a glass bottom boat tour.

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The rest of our week in Israel was spent touring history. We went to Timna Park, where humans first discovered copper. We visited the old city in Jerusalem, and some of the famous markets in Tel Aviv. In six days I was able to swim in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. I’m still floating from the thrill of the experiences we had in Israel. If you’re looking for a destination race for the family, with a course that will truly challenge you and an unparalleled location, I would strongly consider the Garmin Israman.

I’m really proud to start the year off with two wins at the half-ironman distance, with Ironman 70.3 Pucon and now the Garmin Israman 113. Next up is my first Paracycling race of the year as Aaron Scheidies and I take the tandem to the velodrome in Carson, California for the World’s Team Selection Event.

 

Herbalife Ironman 70.3 Pucón

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I decided to start the year off early in 2016. After flatting out of Austin 70.3, I didn’t feel like waiting very long before I gave it another shot. Ironman 70.3 Pucón, I was told, is one of the “can’t miss” races for any triathlon career, so I was excited to get racing again. While the scenery lived up to the expectations, it was the crowd, the volunteers, the town of Pucón and the grueling run course that really made this race a highlight of my career. It also helps that I won.

The travel to Pucón is daunting. With two short layovers in Panama City and Santiago, it took 24 hours from my inlaw’s house in Pasadena to my hostel in Pucón. I arrived Thursday, feeling as one should feel after three flights and a bus ride, but the cloud of jetlag evaporated when I had my first glimpse of the Volcano, Villarrica. Stunning.

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Pucón is pretty far south. At -37 degrees latitude, it’s as far south of the equator as San Francisco is north. The small town sits on a pristine lake next to Villarica, surrounded by green hills, cliffs, rivers, and mountains. The town itself is a mecca for backpackers, recreation tours, hikers, vacationers, and – this week – triathletes. The people, however, are what set this place apart from other South American hiking villas I’ve visited. People in Pucon have been incredibly accommodating – and I can’t even credit that to anyone knowing me as an elite triathlete. They didn’t. A fact I learned in post race interviews as I was repeatedly called the “tabado”, which was translated for me as “a competitor we know nothing about” – a dark horse. On the finish line, waiting for the next finisher,  my interviewer, struggling to find the right question, said, “But you weren’t even a pre-race favorite.” Perhaps my name was overlooked.

As I’m here on my own – and because tadados don’t get put up in fancy hotels – I’m staying in a wonderful little Hostel – though “little” is the operative word here. Again, it’s the people that make this place great. That, and some ear plugs (Chileans stay up late and like to laugh).

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The whole schedule here was actually tough to get used to. Breakfast doesn’t start until 9:30. Lunch begins at 3pm and dinner isn’t until 8 at night, with most people eating at 10pm or later. My own schedule at home is about four hours earlier for each of those, which would have been perfect, given the time change, except the race still started at 7am, so staying up late was a poor option. Still, I love it here. At this moment I’m sitting at my hostel with the family that runs it offering me their home brew beer, while the sun begins to set (at 9:30pm). People are laughing in every direction, enjoying the temperate evening and sharing smiles that don’t need translation. In front of the hostel is a giant wooden sign that was painted this morning congratulating me on my victory. I have never felt so welcomed in my travels.

By now you understand a little about the town, the people, why this race has been so popular for so many years. Perhaps I should tell you about my race.

 


It was a wetsuit swim, starting on the black sand beach of Caburga Lake the swim goes out and back twice, with an 80m run between. It’s not actually two laps, as the second time out and back are on a different set of buoys. The swim was fast for the start, but after a short time it quieted down and I found a comfortable set of feet to follow. My plan was to lay it all on the line, but the swim is not where you win races.

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Onto the bike I found myself with a group of about six athletes. I led on and off for about 10km, at which point I made a small surge and Igor Amorelli – a talented Brazilian who I’ve raced with many times on the ITU circuit, came around and said something like, “let’s go Collins.” I didn’t fully understand the words, but the meaning was clear. I didn’t look back I just accelerated and stayed with him. He led to the turnaround, and I took over from there. We finished with a seven minute lead over the next few athletes.

Still, the bike seemed slow. The course is not particularly hilly, and the roads are in excellent shape. I believe it was the wind. Starting the race there were low hanging clouds and a mist in the air, but as we returned to town the wind had picked up and blown the fog away. I think we had a slight head wind in both directions.

Beginning the run, I was a little worried. Igor is an excellent runner, and in the past he outruns me by more than a marginal amount. I took off from T2 and immediately made the right hand turn onto “The Peninsula”. Which is, in fact, a peninsula. I was told this part of the race would be challenging, but it’s a private community, meaning I wasn’t able to preview that part of the course. That was good, as it turned out, because it was so hilly, so challenging, that knowing what I was getting into may have caused some fear in the back of my mind that could have slowed me down on the bike. As it was, I suffered. The first hill my legs were wobbly from the hard ride, but I kept telling myself to pretend like I was holding it together. At the top of that hill the road turned, then it went up again. Then again. Then down, then back up, then down, then back up, then a U-Turn, all of those hills the other way, then a short flat section through town before doing it all over again.
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At the first U-Turn I had about 30 seconds on Igor, and much more on the chase pack. I estimated about six minutes by my watch. The next turnaround Igor had fallen to 90 seconds and the chasers were about even. My second lap was slightly faster than the first, but I knew to hold back, as I have plenty of experience with how painful the last 5 kilometers can be in a hilly half ironman.

The last lap was painful. There was an athlete a lap behind me, who I had convinced myself was actually about to catch me. I ran as hard as I could, even after I realized the 2nd place bicycle was still five minutes behind me with a group of chasers. My legs had been cramping, but I pushed through it. I hit the sand, and only then did I realize that I was actually going to win. I took some time to high-five the fans, to let a wave of emotion come over me. Then I crossed the line with the biggest smile.

This was my first win at the 70.3 distance, and I’m proud to have done it where I did. I think the challenges I’ve faced moving into long distance, and the time it has taken me to overcome these obstacles has actually made me a better, smarter, more humble athlete. I’m proud to be the 2016 Herbalife Ironman 70.3 Pucon Champion.

Finally, I want to thank the continued support of my loyal sponsors. Garmin, Blue Seventy, Rudy Project, SRAM and Cervelo have been integral to my success. They’ve stuck with me through business school, through ups and downs of my career, and through this entire learning experience moving into longer distances. It’s a difficult sport to make a career in, but these companies believe in me as much as I believe in their products. Thank you.

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Pietermaritzburg Para-Cycling World Cup

P1010686After Ironman 70.3 World Champs I stayed in Germany and spent a solid week riding my bike. I was nervous. After hearing Aaron’s stories from the summer’s world cups in Europe I wasn’t sure how I would handle road racing on a tandem. I was pretty confident in the time trial, but piloting a tandem in a group was going to be completely new. Like the time trial, I would need to communicate every move ahead of time – something that takes getting used to as years of cycling turn many of these decisions into instinct. Riding alone, I want to shift and I shift. Riding with Aaron, I want to shift gears and I say “shift” as I click so Aaron and I can both ease off the pedal for a split second (the same split second). The same is true for turns, pot-hole avoidance, pedaling effort, coasting, how hard to lean the bike, when to stand, sit, etc. And that’s just for time trialing!

Put me in a road race and suddenly I’m communicating what other teams are doing, how hard to pedal to stay an inch off another bike’s wheel, when to brake, how hard to lean, what team is next to us, when to attack, when to settle in and when I see another team making a move. The prospect of learning to do this for the first time in a world cup, when the result actually mattered, was terrifying.

The time trial came first. We had a couple chances to ride ahead of time and I was immediately struck by the metamorphosis that had happened in Aaron since our race in Chattanooga at the National Championshps. In Tennessee Aaron was tentative and kept telling me not to take too many risks. I was the aggressive one telling him we could go faster through turns and get more speed on the downhill sections. In South Africa our roles were reversed. Our entire first day of riding was spent with Aaron encouraging me to lean harder, to go faster, to “trust the bike”. Had I gotten much more risk averse? More likely Aaron and Colin had been thrown into the ocean and forced to swim. Aaron was relentless. We practiced the turns over and over and even when the tires were squeaking on rough pavement Aaron kept asking for more. “Let’s try it again, we will have to go faster than that in the race.”

Race day came, and we did really well. The time trial was closer than I could have imagined. We took second in a 30 minute time trial with first place just 10 seconds ahead and third and fourth just three seconds behind. Suddenly I wished I’d listened to Aaron and taken those turns just a little harder, accelerated from the turns just a little faster, and been more aggressive to pass other athletes on the course. Ten seconds? It feels like nothing.

Two days later was the road race. I might have had a panic attack, but Aaron calmed me, and we focused on what we could. Aaron insisted I take the lead and do more than our share of the work in the beginning so that we could get used to the turns and being in the pack. It was smart because, unlike the time trial course, we didn’t have a chance to preview the road course.

It was no problem, as it turned out. We had been marked after our time trial result and the rest of the teams let us stay in front despite the leisurely pace we set on the first two laps. As the field started to mix and rotate I realized it was not much different from a criterium. My instincts on the tandem were quickly taking form and I was no longer struggling to think out loud to communicate with Aaron. “easy… right turn… speed bump… lean… hard left… Australians coming up… let’s go… give me more… GO GO GO…” Aaron was almost silent throughout the race, giving me information only as needed. He reminded me to drink water, pulled a gel from my pocket to keep my hands on the bars longer, told me when he could hear a bike coming up beside us, and made sure I knew when to grab bottles from the feed zone. Over four days I could feel our muscles beginning to sync.

The course had a short climb and a long descent. A few 90 degree turns and one long left at the bottom of a really fast descent. A few days earlier I would have been terrified, but by the time the road race came around we were flying through that left at 40+mph with the bike laying over and skipping over the rough pavement. My adrenaline was through the rough every time we went through that turn, but I was having a blast.

After six laps we made a turn and flatted. Luckily it was right before the feed zone and our coach was able to put on a new wheel and get us moving in 35 seconds. We knew catching back on would be hard – one of the two Spanish teams had already broken away so the pack was working together and moving fast – yet after a lap were were just 15 seconds behind. Another lap and we were less than 10 seconds behind, and on the short hill we within reach when we dropped a chain due to the different chain-line on the pit wheel. The gap went back to ten and it took another lap to close it. We finally did catch back on, but it was at the base of the hill and when Great Brittain attacked up the hill we had no matches left to burn. We fell back with the Dutch team.

For most of a lap I tried to get the Dutch to work with us. They are superb time trailers, but as the gap to Great Britain, Canada and the second Spanish team grew we realized we had to ditch the Dutch and go back to time trialing. With four laps left in the race our legs were shot. As I saw my power numbers tanking I felt like I was letting Aaron down. Our pedal strokes became inefficient and out of sync and the bike started to feel heavy beneath us. We pushed to the finish and I nearly fell off the bike. We were fifth. Aaron’s best World Cup finish.

I had so much fun at these races. I’ve spent much of my travel home planning how Aaron and I can get more time together on the bike. I don’t know what would have happened without that flat tire, but I can’t wait to find out what we can do with a little more time together on the bike.

This weekend we go back to multisport. Aaron and I will race the ITU Paratriathlon World Championships back home in Chicago just a few days from now. We haven’t done much swimming or running, but we sure will be ready to ride fast on the bike!

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A quick selfie in front of the reservoir where the time trial was held.
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Souvenirs in my back pocket.
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School for the blind, Aaron was bummed he didn’t see this on a school day; we could have stopped to talk to the kids!
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The Howick Falls. This ravine was totally unexpected. There’s houses and shops then, bam! giant drop off.
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I call this a misallocation of resources.
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I love being part of this team. Even if they photo bomb our pics.
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out on the road. I didn’t expect to see so much cross-category group riding during training. Trikes and bikes, hand cycles and tandems… these bikes don’t naturally go the same speed, so when you see this it’s driven by friendship.
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John Copsey kept pointing out this honey shop on the side of the highway, so after the races we finally got to go shopping. John was excited.
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More practice shots