Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Denver Triathlon: My Mile High Adventure

Flying high from all the birthday wishes last Thursday, I prepared for my early morning trip to Denver. I took time throughout Thursday to respond to every single phone call, email, and posting to my Facebook wall to express my gratitude to every single individual who took the time to send me their thoughts on my birthday. Finally, at 1:00a.m. I went to bed. My wake up call was set for 5a.m. I woke up, made sure I was set and rolled out to the Chicago streets on route to the airport. There, I cut through the line, eased through security, and sat quietly waiting for my plane to board. Just as the plane was ready to take off, we were informed there would be a delay due to in coming storms. After a one hour delay, the plane sped down the runway and took flight into the Chicago morning sky towards Denver. I reached Denver in the early afternoon where I was met by David Adame and his son, Brandon, who picked me up at the airport. They also were in charge of picking up, 2011 ESPY nominee, the great, Aaron Scheidies. The four of us headed to the headquarters of Acumen Contracting, one of the sponsors of the Denver Triathlon. After a few minutes of hanging out in one of the conference rooms, CEO, Matt Miller, greeted us. Shortly there after, we were joined by the Sugar Land goddesses, Patty and her daughter, Catherine. Also joining the festivities was matt's wife, Christin. Together, we headed to the Denver Triathlon VIP Kickoff Party were I ran into Cole Pauley, an Ironman triathlete I first met almost two years ago and one of my favorite people. Clark Bishop, the man who would guide me in the race on Sunday introduced himself and we began the process of bonding which would hopefully come in handy come race day. Stephanie, the daughter of another of my favorite athletes, Randall, introduced herself and before long, Clark was guiding me over to meet co-creator and co-race director, Chris Laskey who I first met in 2008 when he was the race director of the AIA Marathon in Fort Lauderdale. I thanked him for the opportunity to have spent the last few months promoting the event as a Brand Ambassador. I met some other folks too before heading off to the home where I would stay for the weekend.

On Saturday morning, Clark and I met up with other athletes who were part of Team C Different Foundation. CDF was the official charity partner of the Denver Triathlon and nineteen athletes were set to represent the non profit come Sunday. At this early morning gathering held at Wash Park, all were able to test out the tandem bikes we would ride during the race. Clark and I had the pleasure of being given a Matrix bike belonging to the great, Aaron Scheidies. It was so light weight and ran so smoothly that Clark and I were confident we would have a fantastic ride on race day. Of course we would. After all, the bike oozed of the Aaron mystique. In the afternoon, we picked up our race packet at the expo held at Invesco Field At Mile High Stadium. We heard from co-race directors, Matt and Chris. We also had a chance to walk around and try some samples from various sponsors which had booths set up all around the complex. Afterwards, it was time for the pre race dinner for Team CDF. The highlight for me at the party was when I was trying on a t-shirt and Clark mentioned that I had guns. I did not quite believe him, but was happy to hear him praise my arms.

My race day wake up call was set for 4a.m. I fell asleep around 10p.m., but woke up shortly before 3a.m. and was unable to fall back asleep. Unlike previous triathlons though, I was not nervous about the swim. My confidence stemmed from my performance at the NYC Tri in 2010. I had struggled in the Hudson River swim in 2008, but in 2010, I managed to work my way through the one mile swim with ease. If I followed the same game plan then I would be fine for the swim portion of the Denver triathlon. After all, it was only an 800 meters swim. After having our race day breakfast of waffles and orange juice, a different breakfast than my usual, we made our way to the race just after 5a.m. Clark put the tandem in transition one and we headed to Invesco Field for the second transition. He arranged our items which we would use on the run portion and we made our way back to the lake for the start of the event. Clark and I had our body marked with my number 1451 by the lovely, Michelle, who upon lifting my sleeves to mark my arms said, "Wow, you're muscular." I said that is why they call me Sexy Isra and I mentioned this blog to her to which she responded she would have to log on and check it out. I put on a wet suit, swim cap, and goggles. I took in the smell of the lake and prepared to jump in when our wave was sent out. Clark suggested we get in a practice swim. I tried a couple front crawl strokes and knew I would use the back stroke. At least, I would use my modified back stroke which I had called upon to get me through the Hudson River a year ago. After that practice session, anxiety and doubt began to creep in for the first time. Would I handle this? I started to shiver in fear. Our wave was next. Then it was time to go. I laid on my back and prepared to make my way through the 800 meters. Within a few seconds, I could not breathe. I was scared. I stood up and attempted to gather myself. I laid back in the water. Clark encouraged me. I moved a bit, but once more, I was fearful. I hyperventilated. I could not do this. there was no way I would make it half a mile. I stood up and told Clark I wanted out. He calmly reassured me that I should remain relaxed and he would get me through it. He insisted he was a strong swimmer and would do everything possible to get me through, but I needed to trust him and above all else, I needed to relax. He had me lay on the water and simply float. He told me to not swim. Just float. Slowly, he instructed me to add my arms and legs. My breathing returned to normal. I was relaxed. We started to move down the lake. As we progressed, I found confidence. We moved ever slowly, but we were moving. He kept encouraging me and praising me. I kept moving. Before long, we were at the halfway point. Soon I heard Clark saying, "We're turning for home, buddy. You're doing great!" I started to cramp. My legs were tired. I was losing control of my kick. I was sinking. We were only about halfway done. I started to be filled with more anxiety. Clark may have noticed because he assured me that we were making progress and we would complete the first part of this race soon. It was a long drawn out experience, but I knew we were going to make it. Then I heard music, cheers, and the public address announcer say, "You're forty meters away from the end. Maybe thirty." I wondered if he was talking to me. sure enough, his next words were, "Israel Antonio, you can do it! We're all waiting for you." We were within range of the finish. Then I heard a race volunteer inform me that I could stand up and walk it in. I stood up. Clark was laughing as he said, "You did it! We finished." A thunderous roar came from the crowd on the shore. Screams filled my ears. the announcer praised me for finishing and said that I was the final one to finish the swim portion thus ensuring 100% finishers of those who started. A man yelled out, "Israel, you're an inspiration! Way to go buddy." As some of my friends know, normally, this sort of thing makes me uncomfortable and a bit upset. Am I an inspiration because I finished the swim or because I am a blind person who finished the swim? Were I sighted, would I still be considered an inspiration or is it only because I can not see? For me, the ultimate sign of respect and display of equality is if I am treated like any other sighted or able bodied person. Yet on this day, none of that mattered. I did not care if I was being cheered and praised for being a blind athlete who finished the swim because on this day, I was not a blind person who made it through the swim. I was Israel Antonio, a man who had faced his fear and anxiety to gut out a swim. I wanted to stand there and embrace the compliments. I wanted to take the time to be proud of myself, but Clark and I still had work to do. We made our way to the transition area where we grabbed our bike equipment. The highlight of those few minutes was running into volunteer, Michelle, who shouted, "Hey sexy Isra, you made it. Way to go. I'm going to be checking out your blog." That more than anything made me smile. Michelle, if you are reading this, thanks for making my day and welcome to the Sexy Isra Experience.

Clark and I jumped on the tandem and began the thirteen mile ride towards Invesco Field At Mile High stadium where we would trade in the bike for our running gear. Within the first few minutes, Clark informed me that we had passed twenty to thirty people. We were flying. At one point, Matt Miller drove up and shouted words of encouragement. He drove off or so I thought. I searched inside for some extra juice as we kicked it into high gear. Then I heard Matt yell out that he had been driving along side to figure out how fast we were riding and he had noticed we were moving at 32 miles per hour. Talk about inspiring news. That served to push me even more. We rolled on through the streets of Denver eventually making our way to the stadium. I grabbed my tether and hat and began the 3.1 mile run to the finish line. I was riding high from such a spectacular bike portion, but quickly I noticed that while my legs were strong, I was breathing hard. My steps were light, but I was struggling to take measured breaths. I mentioned it to Clark who responded, "Welcome to altitude." It had finally caught up to me. I did my best to fight through it. I pushed and pulled as Clark lead me towards our final miles. Soon we reached our final aid station and it was time to lay the hammer for the final mile. Would I have enough left in the tank to close the show as I do at almost every race? I would soon find out. We neared the finish. Volunteers yelled out that we were only a few hundred meters from the finish. Clark told me we were nearing the final turn for home. The final straight-away. It was time. I pulled out my final kick. It was not there. I was able to push it to another level, but not the typical frantic finish which always takes my sighted guides by surprise. Not the same kick that my friend Brian once called the greatest final kick he had ever seen. Still, I managed to push one final time and gallop across the finish line. I had survived my early race meltdown to cross the end. Clark had been the reason I made it through the swim and was now the reason I had completed my third triathlon. We celebrated at the party post race. Matt had decided to set up kiddie pools of water and piles of ice. I tried to jump in per Matt's suggestion, but it was too cold for me. I lasted only a few seconds. Later on, I celebrated along with the rest of the crew at Lodos. It was a fun time and a perfect way to end the weekend. I took a flight out of the mile high city on Monday afternoon knowing that it had been a wonderful weekend and I would return again very soon for another try at this amazing event.

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