Our run coach Eamonn as many of you are aware is also heavily involved in Paratriathlon at a national level serving as the current Paratriathlon Technical Director. Eamonn approached Wicklow Tri Club and others to see if relay teams could be formed around some of the hard working triathletes in his squad to participate in the Loughrea Triathlon Festival yesterday. I was at the committee meeting where Ciara read out the request and immediately put my hand up to volunteer as a swimmer. As part of my coach education I was lucky to work with some of these athletes first hand and quite literally had my mind blown, the chance to join them again was too tempting.
“Sounds like a good idea” was the reception from the committee as I started to think about what I had done and it dawned on me that I may just have volunteered to let somebody down on race day, what had I done! A while later word back from Ciara was that none other than Edwina had volunteered to cycle in the relay, deadly I thought, until that scary thought came back. Now I was on a team with a properly talented cyclist and a paratriathlete I had never met. This could go either way and while I am okay about having a bad day myself and moving on, now the stakes were considerably higher!
Eamonn teamed us up with a young guy from Antrim, a 14 year old Nathan. He neglected to mention that Nathan’s Mum was a paratriathlete or that she had an Olympic campaign under her belt! This meant two things; Nathan already knew what he was doing having been immersed in the sport already but a derogation from TI and Sport Ireland would be necessary to permit him to compete in a senior race. The necessary buttons were pressed and I was going to follow Nathan around the 5km run course on a bicycle as a “Handler” just in the ridiculously small chance that anything should go wrong.
Arriving in Loughrea in lashing rain and a light gale wasn’t a dream start. I met Heidi and her girls as Lily prepared for her junior race and in those brief moments was soaked to the bone! Off to register and I met up with Nathan and his Family. Just so unassuming, they’re chilling waiting for the briefing and we chatted away getting to know Nathan and his Mum. Sitting on a chair inside the Temperance hall it wasn’t until Nathan told me his Mum was doing the paratriathlon sprint race that I copped the other empty wheelchair was hers. Only after our chitter chatter did I realise that for the whole of the last fifteen minutes Nathan had been perched on the rear wheels of his wheelchair as he yapped away, never once putting a hand on either wheel, posting on Snapchat and not regarding the fact that his front wheels never touched down. He was well able to handle a wheelchair, he knew what he was signed up for and he was an ordinary nice guy. This was going to be good.
Edwina had by this stage arrived and collected her race kit and souvenir shirt. Time for briefing as she caught up with Nathan. The briefing was quite involved with so many quirks of a triathlon tailored to suit the partly sighted or totally blind triathletes, amputees or wheelchair bound racers. Lots of questions from myself as being part of a relay team we had a sort of hybrid interpretation of all these rules but all clear and we’re off to the transition. Edwina wisely knowing that she would have to bolt off at full chat after my swim managed to take the scenic route on her way down to the race at least getting a warm up in.
At transition we arranged ourselves in designated spots, Edwina’s new bike racked up, me zipped in to my wetsuit and Nathan perched on a really trick racing wheelchair that had been borrowed for the day. This was one of the ultra light tricycle chairs with the steeply raked rear wheels. As I marvelled over the build quality I could see how and why stuff was where it was and how it worked. These chairs are as high tech as any TT bike and even standing still just look fast!
It was a learning day for me and Nathan kindly explained how he wore special gloves strapped tightly to his fists with velcro. The chairs are geared to go fast and stay fast. The pilot strikes the driving rings on the rear wheels with his or her fists like a boxer’s punch. Only when a steering input is needed will he use his thumbs, somehow striking the wheel with his thumb does the steering. These things are very trick! He was buzzing and was stationed in his transition spot where he would patiently wait for myself and Edwina but not for long, I had been called to the start!
The lake was warm compared to the Irish sea but a strong wind from the South West was carrying a big swell and big choppy waves up to the North East corner where we were. Lined up on a little pier ready to go I had a total panic when I realised that I could pick any three of my competitors and their ages wouldn’t add up to my vintage, this was going to be embarrassing! I reviseed my swim plan immediately to version C, or D, or just the one where I go flat out from the start, in the red all the way *expletive deleted*. Lily Sheehy said that the swim was hard, “just not nice” was the way she put it and I concur! The plan was 30 or so swim strokes, max sprint off the start, minimal sighting and then re-assess. I could see a teenage girl beside me and on a quick glance up ahead I could see yellow, surely a swim buoy, a kayak and I thought I saw an arm but way ahead, like 50metres or more! I was being annihilated, bad thoughts had started to distract me. That chop was being blown right in my face like a fire hose was turned on me, what I imagine waterboarding is like. Full bore it was and before long I couldn’t see anybody. I was starting to think I had gone off course or was so far behind these wunderkind swim legends it was all over. On we went, a little blown off course but I could see the finish. Empty the tank was the plan and swim as far as I could up the beach before standing up.
As I found my feet I had a glance back, there were hats in the water, thank God for that! I couldn’t be first out of the water and indeed the wet pontoon confirmed that I had indeed seen somebody up ahead. One set of footprints was magic news for me however. Somehow I hadn’t managed to blow the swim, we were on track, I was blue for the lack of air but happy now, just run as fast as I can to the transition! I had done the sprint swim in 14:20 but it felt longer, just one of those “not nice” swims, Lily was so right. Some fumbling with the ankle tag and Edwina was scurrying out over the timing mat beaming smiles.
I have absolutely no idea what happened during the next 20km, largely due to Edwina’s extreme modesty but some interrogation revealed that 10-15km into the bike leg she had seen her nemesis, he was on a hill. In my book this meant he had a large target painted on his back and sure enough, true to her form, Edwina dispatched him. An absolutely stunning 38:07 on the bike leg was a full 4 minutes faster than the one guy who had been ahead of her on the road, we were leading. Edwina had not only reeled in the deficit from my swim but arrived back so soon that the transition marshals were trying to divert her to the other transition area!
We were all set for Nathan’s first ever chair race, Edwina flung her new pride and joy at the bike rack and tagged him and he was away. The exit from the transition was a steep hill approximately 40 metres long. Remember that bit about striking the wheels with his fists? Yeah, these chairs are not geared to go slowly or to climb steep hills. These must be taken at speed but it seemed all his power and he could hardly get out of the transition. I was told where I could push Nathan and specifically told the hill was out of bounds. Something was wrong! Before I knew it Eamonn was there and pushing Nathan up the hill with both hands as hard as he could but it wasn’t the way it should be. These chairs are fast, roll freely but there was something wrong. He kept going, mercilessly thumping at the wheels and the chair was lunging forwards with every push but was like there was a brake stuck on. Even on the down hill the chair wouldn’t coast more than a metre or two. My bike into the ditch and we start checking stuff. One wheel off the ground, spins fine. The other wheel off the ground, it spins fine too. Put the chair down and the tyres were grinding against the frame of the chair. Knowing full well the value of the chair myself and a motorcycle marshal tried to deform the frame to make clearance but not a hope. These are strong, designed to be thumped for mile after mile soaking it up and then Nathan worked it out. The chair which was brand new was loaned to him but without it’s brand new wheels. A more ordinary set of training wheels came with the chair and he remembered hearing somebody ask “did the wheels have their spacers, the shims for the training wheels?”
The chair had been assembled and without anybody sitting above the axle seemed fine. That steep negative camber “rake” on the rear wheels, well that is there so that the athlete can punch down on the driving rings, it’s starting to make sense now. It is what makes these chairs so efficient but it also means the wheels must be pre-loaded with shims to run down the middle of the narrow metal mud-guard slots, a step sadly missed in preparation, we were out!
Poor Nathan had pushed us 600-800metres up the road with the tyres grinding up against the frame of the chair but he knew and I knew he was done. His arms were shot already, his back aching and his fists raw. He had put in all the training, had psyched himself up for the race and sadly between the two of us we had to support each other’s decision to turn back and retire. He was pretty down to have retired but had actually put 100% into the short distance he managed to race so somewhat relieved to stop. It wasn’t working and he knew it but solemnly promised to do the event again next year.
Disappointing to say the least but an amazing day none the less. Once again I had gone to meet paratriathletes with some mad misconception that I would be accommodating or sympathetic or, I don’t know, I just thought I would be on the giving side of the equation. Once again I leave quite simply in awe, wiser having been there. Sure I found the swim tough but there were folks doing the same swim in that chop, swell and spray who rock around in wheelchairs, have limbs missing or have absolutely 0% vision! These folks are athletes, just like us, train just like us and not once have I ever heard one of them make reference to their paralysis or eyesight or anything in fact. Yet again I drove home having a long meeting with myself, I guess some sort of recalibration.
What does this have to do with all of you? Well, Eamonn asked if the club would enter a team and we did. We raced yesterday as Wicklow Triathlon Club Paratriathlon Relay Team. Edwina, Nathan and myself were entered in to the race by you guys, representing you, with your club’s money, our gear officers Dan and Noelle even kindly donated a club hoodie and shirt for Nathan. For me it was both pleasure and an honour to represent the club and I know I would be out again next week if the opportunity was there, thank you one and all. I can’t speak for Edwina but I think the day was a good one for her too, aside from her recurring winning form! Nathan? He’s just a good guy, polite and well mannered he let us know how much he appreciated the support on this event so I guess on his behalf I am safe to say a big “Thank You” to all in WTC.
The following user(s) said Thank You: Darren_S, Paul Evans, audreyp, Veronica
Great race report Garry. I'm so gutted that a technical derailed the race for Nathan. He must have been devestated. Sounds like you and Edwina did an amazing job. I didn't sign up to relay as they pressure of letting someone down would be so tough so i'm really impressed you both voluntered! Well done and maybe when i'm stronger next year, i'll join you in Loughrea!
Thanks Garry, that was an incredible report, we now have some idea of the amazing achievements of the para triathletes. Well done to you and Edwina for volunteering , just sorry it didn't work out for the team on the day.