Tuesday night I packed up my travel bag. On Wednesday morning, I headed out to the airport as I made my way to Houston, Texas. I arrived in H-Town around 9a.m. and was picked up from the airport by my friend and home stay, Christopher Cardenas. We made our way to an eatery where we had breakfast with David Adame, Executive Director of the C Different Foundation, and his son, Brandon. I spent the day with the Adames as we visited several locations including House Of Tandems and Bicycle World. At BW, I met with Tom who gave me a wonderful deal on a new bike helmet. He also showed me bike shoes. I debated on whether to buy one of them, but opted to not buy either of the ones I considered. In the early evening, I had the great pleasure of attending Angie's House Of Pain brick workout where Angie puts athletes through an extremely difficult spin class followed by a 1.5 mile run. At this House Of Pain, I met Emmy Award winning writer and TV producer, Justin Sternberg, the Ironman triathlete who would guide me in Sunday's C Different Triathlon. I enjoyed meeting Justin. I had wanted to meet him for a long time so to finally do so was such a joy. He sounded excited about how we would perform on Sunday. I had apparently displayed enough ability to give him a comfort level in me. Justin suggested I reconsider my decision and purchase one of the bike shoes in order to give me a better experience at the race. I debated some more and decided I would do it. I was concerned since I figured attempting to clip in would be difficult and would cost me precious minutes if I could not figure out how to do so. Still, I figured, it would probably pay off in the long run to listen to Justin.
Throughout the next few days, I enjoyed time with Christopher. It was not the same being in Houston without the fabulous Jen Paff, but we made sure to find plenty of fun. Christopher and I worked packet pickup on Friday for the C Different triathlon. After all, the C Different Foundation is the organization for whom I was racing in this event and founder, Matt Miller is a wonderful and supportive friend. The co-race directors, Patty Godfrey and Chris Laskey are tremendous individuals with whom I am friends so I was proud to be with them working the C Different booth handing out free samples from sponsors while attempting to have people buy raffle tickets for some lucky person to win a triathlon jersey signed by some legendary Ironman Triathlon World Champions. I believe there were eight names total on the jersey including Chris McCormack, Craig Alexander, and Chris Lieto.
Ready to test out my spanking brand new bike shoes, I met up with Justin for an easy twenty mile bike ride. This would give us a chance to work out some signals involving mounting, dismounting, and turning. Justin would frequently have me unclip so that I could attempt to clip back in on the fly. I struggled. Eventually, I started finding a groove with my left foot, but the right side remained a struggled. At one point, Justin mentioned that our easy comfortable pace was clocked in at twenty-three miles per hour. Of course, I was attempting to go easy knowing I had a race the next day. On Sunday, I was hoping to clock in around 20MPH yet I was pushing faster than that during an easy ride. I remained nervous about clipping in, but figured it should not hurt me that much.
On Saturday afternoon, Christopher and I met up with Justin, David Adame, Brandon, and Ron, Brandon's guide. Thanks to David and the wonderful folks at Xtera, I had a custom made wet suit waiting for me upon my arrival in Houston. I had a chance to try it out for the first time. Justin and I made our way to the water. I was anxious especially after learning that there is an almost immediate drop to about thirty feet. Justin wanted us to at least swim out to one buoy then turn around giving him a chance to see my swimming while practicing our turning. David Adame had made a tether using some rope and belt which would keep Justin and I connected during the swim. I usually just swim along side my guide. I had only been tethered to my guide in the swim once and it was not a good experience as the rope would slip down from my waist to my knees trapping them and preventing me from kicking. Eventually, my guide had to take the rope and toss it into the river. After some time, I became comfortable with the tether David had put together. I felt comfortable that if I would get in trouble during the race, Justin would be there. I also felt confident that David, Patty, and any number of volunteers who all knew about my swim fears would be watching ready to spring into action to save me if need be. I practiced my back stroke a little too figuring if I needed to, I could easily turn on my back to get me through the swim. After wrapping up this afternoon aquatics session, I was comfortable with the swim. I knew being tethered to Justin would benefit me and since the water would only be five and a half feet deep on race day, I would be perfectly fine so long as I remained calm.
On Saturday night, I was "busted" by my coach after I posted about the easy bike ride on Twitter. Coach said she had not made that twenty mile ride part of my plan. Oh well, I am sorry. I was a bit nervous now because what if doing that early morning ride hurts me come Sunday? As it was, I could not change that on Saturday night, I could only stay relaxed and follow my coach's instructions on how to proceed with race day. I knew that however I would perform, I was prepared by the talented and amazing, Jenna Parker. She had me ready. My swim was not close to being even average, but thanks to Jenna, my bike and run were up at Paratriathlon Nationals qualifying standard. If I would qualify for Paratri Nationals, I would do so on the bike and run. I would have to finish the race in under 1:45:00 to earn a spot to CapTex in Austin on Memorial Day. Justin Sternberg is a tremendously talented athlete who would be ready to guide me to a time good enough to get me to Austin. From what I gathered, almost everyone believed that I would make it. Everyone knew that no matter how bad I did in the swim, I would crush the bike and run. Because of the work Jenna has me doing on a daily basis, I knew I could crush the bike and run. I was worried because in my past three triathlons, the swim portion took so much out of me that I could only average thirteen to fifteen miles per hour on the bike while my run saw me average over ten minutes and close to eleven minutes per mile. I told myself those races were different. I blindly prepared on my own without an understanding or direction. This time, Jenna Parker was my guiding light, motivation, and inspiration. This time my results would be different. With as strong of a swimmer as Justin is, I felt in my heart if he could help me survive the water in a reasonable time, I would shine on the final two legs of the race. Prior to my arrival in Houston, Mr. Adame had told me that he believed that even with my poor swimming, I had a great chance to win the C Different Blind/Visually Impaired division. I had some strong competition so I was not as certain. Yet again, I had Jenna. Unlike past triathlons, I was well conditioned and in shape. Matt miller had noticed how fit I was in January during the Houston Half Marathon and he was excited at how much more fit I looked for this race. He raved about it. In my prior triathlons, I probably weighed about 142 pounds. Thanks to Jenna, I had so slimmed down to 118 pounds. Jenna had done a tremendous job and now it was my time to race my heart out with the body Jenna had helped me carve out.
Race Day! The second annual C Different Triathlon. I was up at 3:15. I could not fall back asleep so instead I read messages from Facebook and Twitter. By 5a.m. Christopher and I made our way to the race site. We met up with David and Justin. I also saw Andy Stewart, owner of Finish Line Sports, who wished me luck and Patty Godfrey who was in her glory on this morning. I had my body marked with my number. 728. Whoa. I lost my eyesight on July 28. Was this a sign? As we prepared, Justin realized he had forgotten the tether for the swim. I was scared. It had only been one session, but I viewed that as my security blanket. Justin raced home to get it and returned thirty minutes later. I was in my wet suit. Matt Miller came by, snapped a picture of Justin and me, then posted it online. Fifteen minutes to race time. We made our way to the start area. An announcement was made highlighting the three C Different athletes and their guides racing in this event. David and Christopher came over and wished me luck. they told me how much faith they had in me to make it through the swim and qualify for Nationals. As I started to walk into the water, Patty grabbed me and said she believes that I was on the verge of crushing the course. I simply had to make it through the swim and I would own the bike and run. I wanted to start with the front crawl, but I felt confident in my back stroke. Justin said to relax and do what comes naturally. The countdown was on. Three minutes. Two minutes. One. Seconds.
It was time to go! Justin said, "Hey, just think, in one hour and ten minutes, this will all be over." Immediately, I laid on my back and said, I am going to back stroke this swim. If it is good enough or not, I am going to do what feels comfortable. If I get to CapTex then I will have a ten week reset on the swim which is when I will continue to work on improving it. Justin lead the way. I remained calm. A couple times, my hand would get caught in the tether in mid stroke, but instead of freaking out, I relaxed my breath and calming untangled my arms from the rope to resume. In fact, that happened a lot especially late in the swim. Yet, I never was scared. I was with a top swimmer who would not let anything happen to me. I was in shallow water. I was confident in my stroke. Then I took my ear out of the water during one of the strokes and heard screaming cheering fans. I think we are nearing the end. Justin had informed me we were more than halfway done. Now we were clearly coming to shore. Once more my ears were out of the water and the cheers were louder. Then Justin touched my shoulders and said, "Stand up. We're done."
The water portion was done. The race was now on for me. I always take my time in T1, but this time, I was in a race against the clock. Justin lead me to the strippers. I sat down. One gentleman grabbed my wet suit and with one tug, the suit went flying off my body. I was tossed to one side. I had never experienced this in a race and I thought to myself, "So this is what it is like to race." Within minutes I was changed into my bike shoes and clips. I had my helmet and we made our way out of transition. I also realized that I was in last place for the C Different Blind wave, but mere minutes behind the others. My bike and run would help me overtake them. I clipped in my right foot. I tried a couple times before clipping in my left. Now, the race was on. I was on the chase and I knew I would not be denied. Almost immediately, Justin and I began passing people. As we powered through the course, we rode by one athlete and his guide. Soon we were by the other and his guide. For the first time ever, I was now the hunted! I was leading my division at a triathlon. Again, I would not be denied. From this point forward, I would not give up the lead. As far as I was concerned the race for the blind division title was over. It was time to distance myself while beginning to chase down age group leaders. For the first time ever in a triathlon, I was racing! The miles rolled on. Justin and I were said to be pushing mid to high twenties in terms of miles per hour. We cut through the wind. It was not easy, but we did it. I kept thinking of Jenna. she told me to smile before the swim and take in the experience. I continued smiling throughout the race. Any time I would think of her, I would smile and say to myself, "that's for you, Jenna. thank you for preparing me." I let myself feel the burn in my legs. I enjoyed the feeling of pounding through the streets. I was winning my division. I was inching closer to Nationals. As Justin and I made a swooping U-turn on the course, a woman yelled out, "Not bad for an out of towner." I laughed out loud. Time to push even more. The final few miles to transition were upon us. Justin then informed me we had made our way to within a half mile of T2. It was time to leave it out here. I pressed down thankful to be sporting bike shoes which enabled me to truly crank it on the bike. I heard volunteers saying that around the turn was T2. We slowed down. We had reached it. The bike stopped. Justin and I dismounted.
I changed my shoes and took off my helmet. I have been running in Brooks the last few years, but for this race, I switched to Asics. It was time to see what they could do in a race setting. Justin had warned me about the course. I had read about it on the race site too. I love fast flat courses, but this would snake around while being filled with gravel. It would be more of a trail run, I guess. Those are the elements. I had to deal with that. Justin said, we crushed the bike in such a way that even if we walked the entire run course, there would still be plenty of time before the paratri Nationals cutoff. That made me feel relaxed. I started the run. I had a couple side stitches. I tried stomping my feet to make them go away. I took deep breaths. I had to keep going. I knew I would eventually find my comfort level. What if I did not? So be it. If I wanted this, I would have to work through any and all obstacles. As we ran, I felt like were zig zagging through the course. I wanted to go faster. I wanted Justin to see me throw down on the run. I did not feel it. Little-by-little the side stitches went away. I felt my laces had come untied. Justin confirmed that. I reached down, tied my shoe, and resumed. Upon returning to running, I started feeling stronger. I picked up the pace. Justin said it was clear I found my rhythm. We moved quickly. I wanted this. I knew I had long since won the division and had long left no doubts I was going to Nationals, but I needed to finish strong. We moved along. As we neared the end of the second mile, Justin informed me that the race leaders were just then crossing the finish. We were not too far behind. On the bike, Justin told me, we were never passed. Now on the run, we were continuing to pass people. Many passed us, but we would either pass right back or find others down the road to fly by as we entered the final mile. We continued to make our way. Justin expressed his joy at how well I was moving. He wanted me to turn it on a little bit though just so we could storm home to the finish. We reached turn and he said to push. I did. Within a few meters, a friendly voice joined us on the course. C Different Foundation founder, Matt Miller. "We're on the course with Justin and Israel to do an in-race interview." We were being filmed. I had to pick it up now. I could not be on film running slow. As Matt asked me questions and I answered, I tried picking up the pace. He asked Justin how we were doing and Justin said how well we had biked and were now running. Matt mentioned how far I had come from the chubby guy he first met when I did my first ever half marathon with CDF to where I stood meters from winning the division and qualifying for Nationals. He mentioned how proud he was to see me running so fast with little effort. I thought I heard him choke up as he spoke. I know I did. for years Matt has insisted I had the potential, talent, and personality to be special yet he was disappointed I never lived up to it. He was disappointed I never put in the right work to achieve what he knew I could. Yet there he was recording my finest moment as a C Different athlete. there he was capturing me in the best shape of my life on my way to my best triathlon performance ever. I fought back the tears knowing how proud I had made him knowing how proud I was in myself for turning to Jenna Parker and saying turn me into this athlete I and others know I can be. As Matt drifted off I kept moving closer to the finish. Justin and I made a couple more turns and I realized we had a little longer to go than I had thought. I felt myself getting even more tired. I knew I could not ease up. The finish was so close. Justin lead me around one final turn and he said, "It's a straight-away now. Sprint to the finish line." I gave it everything I had. Personally, this was my crowning moment in triathlons. I did my best to live in and embrace the moment while still remaining focussed on the business at hand. Justin and I crossed the finish and were met by Christopher. I had done it. Justin had helped me achieve the finest triathlon moment in my life. I had won the division and qualified for Nationals with a finish time of 1:17!
I walked around talking to Justin and Christopher. David was so proud. Andy Stewart congratulated me. Tom of Bicycle World came up to inquire about the race as well as my helmet and shoes. I took it all in. I was filled with so much pride. I could not wait to tell Jenna. I wanted to shout, "Yo Jenna, I did it!" I spoke to countless people. I waited for the award ceremony. It was time for the C Different wave results. As Patty introduced me she told the crowd how far I had come from the days of when she first met me. She told the crowd how much I hate the swim and that I knew if I was going to have a chance in this race, I knew that the best way to do so would be improve my bike and run to extraordinary levels. At least, extraordinary for me. She told of how I had run a 30K in Sugar Land years ago and how I did okay for the first fourteen miles only to completely fall apart down the stretch to finish in 4:07, but that I had run the Chicago Marathon in 2012 and finished in 3:58 so eight more miles and nine minutes faster. The medal was place around my neck. I could not believe it. I loved that feeling. I knew that I wanted to experience it more. I need only fix my swim and ensure my bike and run continue to improve. If I do that, there is a great chance I can finish in the top three and go to Paratriathlon Worlds.
Thank you David Adame for this opportunity. Thank you Justin Sternberg for guiding me. Thank you Matt Miller for always holding me to a higher standard. Thank you Pinnacle Performance Company for sponsoring me. Thank you Christopher Cardenas for opening your home to me. Thank you Jenna Parker for turning me into the athlete I thought I could be, but did not know if I would ever become. There are miles to go levels which remain to achieve, but on this day, I reached new heights all thanks to my personal dedication and a community of people who believe and worked to get the best out of me.