"Where's Melissa? I hope to meet Melissa.", said my six year old niece as we walked around the Chicago Hilton Hotel on Saturday at the Chicago Triathlon Expo and packet pickup. My niece adores the talented, amazing, and beautiful Melissa Stockwell. I told my niece about Melissa once and it is a story which stayed with her to the point she often asks me to tell it again as her bedtime story. A young woman wrote my wave number on my leg. My niece expressed how she desired to have her body marked too. The young woman marked my niece's leg. My niece was so happy. After getting all my goodies, I headed home to connect with Daniel Tun, Ironman Triathlete, co-founder of Dare2Tri Chicago, and coach, who would guide me in Sunday's triathlon.
Upon arriving home I learned that Dan had unfortunately been injured that morning and would not be able to be my eyes. He was searching for a replacement. I did not have anyone to whom I could turn on such short notice so I had to wait for word. Dan told me a friend reached out to a talented accomplished Ironman triathlete named Don Reichlet who jumped at the chance to step in as my guide. I was so moved. After all, Don had never guided and he did not know me yet he was willing to say yes without hesitation. Don and I spoke on the phone and we planned to meet in the morning.
2:15a.m. came very fast and it was time to get up and prepare for the day. By 3:00a.m. I was ready waiting for Dan to pick me up and head to the Chicago Triathlon. At exactly 4:15a.m. a young woman named Amy walked me into transition. shortly afterwards, Don introduced himself. With help from Lauren Wong and others, Don and I prepared for the race. Shortly after five o'clock we made our way toward the swim start. The race would begin at six o'clock and our wave, the Paratriathlon Mideast Regional Championship Wave, would go off four minutes later. Minutes before the race, I put on my wet suit. I was nervous. The main goal heading into the race was to race along side Dan in preparation for when he and I would race along side each other in London at the Paratriathlon World Championships. I was a bit nervous that it was Don's first attempt at guiding. What if he has a bad experience? What if he finds me too difficult of an athlete with whom to deal and it causes him to never wish to guide or help out Dare2Tri? What if my aquatics anxiety is too much for him to handle? After the first wave went off, our wave slid into the water. Don told me to relax. He said he was there for me and would ensure I would be fine. He said not to worry about it as this was my race. The gun sounded. It was time to swim.
I did my best to take deep calming breaths. I moved my arms. I kicked my feet. I thought off all the races I had ever done. New York's Hudson River entered my mind. Denver. Austin. Sugar land. I remembered the nervous feeling prior to and during those races. I remembered how it felt to be done with the swim. I kept moving my arms and legs. I listened for Don's voice. He shouted encouragement. He told me how well I was doing. I thought of his words just before we started when he told me how proud he was of me and how much of an inspiration I was to him for being right there in that moment. I pushed hard through the water wanting to make him proud. I wondered if I was even moving. I asked Don. He said we were moving. I could hear fans cheering. I could hear the public address announcer. As we made our way, Don yelled out, "Hey Israel, we're coming up on some fans of yours." Just then I heard some female voices screaming my name. I had not a clue who they were. I paused for a moment curious who it could be. I knew I had to keep stroking along. In front of these women would not be the best place to struggle. Don kept shouting encouragement. He kept saying how proud he was. I was nervous. My legs were tired. I started bicycle kicking. I told Don how worried I was and he asked, "Do you want me to pull you out?" I assumed that meant out of the race so I quickly said, "No, but please keep an eye on it." He assured me he would. Truthfully, I did not know what exactly I wanted him to do. I just wanted to voice the fear I was feeling in the moment. I took some deep breaths. I straightened out my legs. They floated to the top. I was relaxed. I would be fine. A bit later, I was tired again. My legs were dragging. I relaxed and my legs floated to the top of the water. Don once again told me how proud he was and told me that we were about 125 meters from the finish. That was not long at all. I had already gone 625 meters. I gained confidence. I found myself even more relaxed. I stroked my arms with a purpose. I was on a mission to finish. For the first time all swim long, I felt successful. I felt that I belonged. Less than 100 meters to go. Don was happy. I heard him laugh as he told me I could finish strong. seventy-five meters to go. I kicked with a purpose. About fifty meters left. Swimmers kept gliding by now and Don said we were entering a very crowded area so as to not be alarmed if I were to get buzzed. twenty-five meters left in the swim portion. Then, volunteers grabbed me. It was over. They lifted me out of the water. One discipline was complete.
Don and I headed towards transition. We switched into our bike gear and moved our tandem towards the bike course. I clipped in on my right side after a couple attempts, but struggled for a while with my left. Finally, I was in. Don was ready and off we went for twenty-two kilometers. This was the fun part. I smiled and pushed hard. Don laughed at how quickly we moved. That was just the beginning. Throughout the bike portion Don laughed at how hard we pushed and how fast we moved. In very short time, Don told me we were making a U-turn. Was that the turn-around? Apparently, yes. We were halfway done. Within minutes, he told me we were at mile eight. We were certainly flying. Suddenly, we were at mile ten. Just under four miles to go. I made it a point to push even harder. I wanted to leave it out on the course. I was certainly doing that. Don was doing a great job warning me of bumps or cracks in the road so as the bike crossed over them I would not be surprised. We made one final turn and we coasted into transition.
As I took off my bike shoes and switched into my running shoes, I felt a sharp pain in my right leg. It was cramping. Almost immediately, I felt the same pain in my left. I laid on the ground in pain. "Oh God. Oh God. Please make it stop." I took in fluids. The pain was miserable. I wondered whether it was a case of not taking in enough fluids up to that point or whether I could chalk it up to having pushed so hard on the bike that I had not a thing left in my legs to begin the run portion.
I put on my Newton Running hat and we made the long job out of transition and on to the run course. It usually takes me a mile to get my legs under me, but after those cramps, I wondered how long it would take me. Surprisingly, I had my running legs under me very quickly. Don did a tremendous job navigating the bad footing, narrow course, and mass of humanity to help zig zag me through the 3.1 miles. I wanted to open it up and show Don how fast I could sprint, but we could never find the proper place. Just when we had open space, the footing would change or an obstacle would cause me to have to slow down. An opportunity to truly let it all hang out never materialized. We made our way through the crowds as Don joyously expressed how we kept passing people left and right. We neared the end of the race. I found a chance to push a bit so I did. It was not the kind of mad dash I wanted to test out in preparation for London, but it was enough to speed up and cross the finish line with a nice gallop.
Thank you Don Reichlet for guiding me on such short notice. I will forever have the great privilege of saying that Don was my guide when I won the Tri6A Paratriathlon Mideast Regional Championship at Chicago Triathlon 2013. Thank you to the wonderful individuals at Dare2Tri Chicago. Thank you to the good folks at Pinnacle Performance Company for their continued support and sponsorship of my athletic ventures. Thank you Jenna Parker for always supporting and encouraging me. Thank you to the kind folks at the Chicago Triathlon for a splendid event and for the splendid way in which they treated all of us fortunate enough to race in the Paratriathlon Championship Wave.