The excitement for being able to spend time with Keri and Melissa at Pleasant Prairie once more kept building as race day neared. Thank you to the wonderful people at Dare2Tri who ensured I would have a sighted guide to take me through the run and pilot the tandem bike for me. Not owning one myself, Dare2Tri would provide one for my use at Pleasant Prairie. Everything set, I laid down on Saturday night. Unlike previous race where I could not sleep due to anxiety, this time, I could not sleep due to excitement. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was as ready as I had ever been going into a race. I was filled with confidence that so long as everything fell into place, I would rock and roll my way through this duathlon. I tossed and turned. I could not sleep. For good measure, I tossed and turned some more. I kept sleeping then waking. Finally, it was 3:00a.m. forty-five minutes before I had intended to get up, but I figured I might as well get the party started. A gentleman by the name of Luke, had offered to give me a ride to the race sight. He arrived at half passed four o'clock and off we went to the cheese state.
After finding parking, we made our way to the Dare2Tri Chicago tent in transition. I was shivering. Luke asked if I was cold. Usually, I would be cold and anxious, but this time, I was relaxed and a bit chilly. I met Mike Wong who would be racing the duathlon and be giving me a ride home from the event. As I stood there, I was informed that there was a sweet sleek racing bike right in front of me which I should use for the race. I was excited. The racing gods were smiling on me. Then I was told that that bike was already marked for someone else. I would instead be riding a heavy duty mountain bike. My heart sank. I squeezed my quads and said to myself, "Well buddy, there's a reason you've been training as hard as you have. today, you'll display why." Volunteers came over to mark up my body with the number 4. That is the lowest number I have ever had for a race. Tom Miller arrived. He was the man who would be my sighted guide for the event. It turns out I was incorrect in writing that he is training for his first Ironman in Arizona later this year. It will be his fourth. After all preparations were made, we left transition and made our way to the start line for the sprint and olympic distance triathlons. We wanted to cheer on some of the folks we knew including Melissa and her boyfriend, Brian. I ran into a friend, Randy Egge. We wished each other luck. Randy would be putting on a show at the olympic distance. Tom had never been a sighted guide before so we did a practice jog in the parking lot as we waited for the duathlon to start. Finally, it was time to line up. I went over my final thoughts and goals. I wanted to improve from last year's performance. I would be happy if I could improve in the opening 2.5 miles by three minutes, 20K bike by at least two and a half minutes, and by four minutes in the final 5K run. In order to achieve this, I calculated that I'd simply need to stay at about an 8:30 pace for the run, about 20 MPH on the ride, then about 8:30 on the second run with an eye towards spending everything I had left in the final mile to possibly near eight minute pace. Of course, I would feel how I felt. Being with Tom for the first time, I may have to start slower, get confident with him as my eyes, then finally find my zone. I may feel strong enough to go faster than those speeds I listed. If so, do not fight it. Embrace it. Feel the pain and race through it. Gun sounded. It was time to go!
We started slow. I listened to get a feel for Tom's cues. As I have always stated, I admire those who volunteer to guide for they must be able to relay information as quickly as possible in real time. I could never do that. I did not feel comfortable. I was trying to find my level of ease. Tom informed me we were running at just over nine minutes per mile. I need to find my comfort. We reached a water station. I took some water. We worked our way back into the running. We were slipping behind my goal. I said to myself, enough is enough. Time to do this. I started building my speed. Within seconds, I was feeling great. We were moving. I felt strong. I felt happy. We were passing people. I heard footsteps nearing in front of me then quickly falling back behind me. From the moment we left that water station, we were flying. I waited for Tom's instructions. He suggested we slow down in order to conserve energy for the bike and run. I debated, but kept pressing. I was feeling good and I did not want to lose this. Finally, I realized that it did not seem like he was comfortable with running, breathing, and shouting out instructions to me so I pulled back. I asked if we had crossed one mile. "Oh yeah", Tom replied. "Way back there." As I eased up, he informed me that when he was contacted by Dare2Tri to guide me, he was told to expect me to run at a ten minute per mile pace so this was much faster than he thought we would run. How fast were we running? Tom said, 7:41 pace. Instantly, I felt bad. He was not expecting this. If we kept this up, would he have it in him to push at the end? We settled into a slower pace. We reached the end of the first run leg which is when Tom informed me that we had closed at an 8:15 pace.
I removed my tether, grabbed my helmet, and we walked the tandem out of transition. I heard screams of "Go 4!" We jumped on and we hit the road for 12.4 miles. Almost immediately, Tom struggled with finding the right gear. Unfortunately, this bike did not come equipment with too many gears so some sections especially the downhills were difficult to manage. I felt so bad for Tom. His first time piloting a tandem and he was not given the best toy to use. We struggled to adjust for the first few miles. I was churning my legs. I asked Tom how far we had gone and he said just over four miles. In that moment, instead of feeling down for doing so much work only to result in four miles, I decided to focus all my energy on positivity. Mountain or road bike, it was not going to matter. I was going to put all my trust in my training, the plan which I did my best to follow to the letter, and let that overcome any and all conditions. I pushed, pressed, and churned my legs. People cheered us on as we passed them. Others rolled by and offered an encouraging word as they passed. many praised Tom for guiding me. One cyclist rolled up and said, "Hey, that's cheating. There are two of you." I smiled and said, "Hey, you're cheating. You're using your sight." He laughed. "You guys are great. Keep it up." He rolled on as did we. Tom yelled out that we had one more hill than a sprint into transition.
We jumped off the bike, grabbed some liquids, and put on my tether. We headed to the final 5K run. This is it. Can Tom and I handle eight minute miles? Once we started rolling, it did not seem possible. I wanted to keep digging. Tom said we were just under nine minutes. I tried to push the pace. It wasn't there. We moved through the crowd. I was trying to will a eight minute pace. It was not to be. I would keep trying. We made it to the two mile mark and it was time to go. We made a slight move. A woman commented how strong we were looking as we raced by her. then I heard someone else ask her why those two men were tethered. I laughed as I heard her say, "You see, the little one is blind." I am the little one. Just then Tom said we were a few hundred meters from the end. We started to sprint. A little kid about six years old yelled out, "You're looking good. Finish strong!" Cheers of "Go 4." We were near the end. Crowd grew louder. I wanted to get faster. Tom did too. We moved then I felt a pull on the tether. It was so strong I had to stop right there. Tom had started to sprint only to have someone step on his heel and he fell. He made it to his feet and we took a few more steps to cross the finish. It was quite an experience.
We walked around talking to others. I met up with Mike, who would give me a ride home. We waited for the award ceremony. As the awards were handed out, I was surprised to hear that there was a paraduathlete division. The public address announcer gave out the third place award then he named the second place winner. Israel Antonio. Wait, what? Me? I went up to get my medal. This was the first time ever that I was at the podium as a top three finish in any division. They put my medal around my neck. Audience cheered. I gave a thumbs up to the crowd. They roared. I love this feeling. I want to experience this more. I need to continue my dedication to my training so I can experience this more frequently in the future. Of course, in my mind, I will have arrived when my times are good enough to win my age group not just a paraathlete division. Whether I can improve enough to get to that point, only time will tell. I will do my best to keep improving and keep growing.
Special thanks to Tom for guiding me. thank you Dare2Tri for helping me get to the start line. A special shout out to the fabulous talented Jenna for preparing me to race. Jenna has been driving and pushing me to improve and I have attempted to do my best to drive myself beyond my limits so that I may make her proud. The more I improve, the better it reflects on her. Thank you for now and I promise to give it my all!!