Third Time's A Charm - Guest Blog

Occasionally, I like to share inspirational stories from friends who are doing great things. Here is a terrific race report by Trish Downing — I love her spirit! A lifelong athlete, Trish was paralyzed from the waist down in September 2000 when a car turned in front of her bike. Rather than let adversity overwhelm her, she took on the new challenges and is now competing again as a wheelchair athlete.

Third Time's A Charm

Tricia Downing
Redefining Able, Inc.

I seem to remember that I swore I would never be back. The Buffalo has beat me up twice before and you’d think I’d learn. Or maybe just decide that enough was enough. Hang it up. But you’re familiar with Michael Jordan, Brett Farve, Lance Armstrong, right? An athlete is an athlete is an athlete. It’s hard to say when it’s really the end, because there’s always the desire to push yourself that ONE MORE TIME. Whenever I think of giving up, I think of the great philosopher Rocky Balboa who stated, “going that one last round when you don’t think you can, makes all the difference.” With that said, I ended up at the Buffalo Springs Lake Triathlon (a half Ironman in Lubbock, Texas) for one last run for my money.

But it didn’t start out this way. At the beginning of 2010, I decided I wanted to keep my race schedule simple. Maybe some Olympic distance races and my big goal race of the year, the Duathlon World Championships. I competed at Duathlon Worlds last year and won (OK…I wasn’t really competing against anyone), but the organizers of this year’s race in Scotland, promised a good wheelie field, so I wanted to go and see how I would truly stack up. Therefore, at the end of May, I traveled to the Apple Duathlon in Sartell, Minnesota and qualified for the race. Plus, my year didn’t start off well anyway, with tendonitis in my elbow, which kept me from doing any exercise the whole month of February and a busy spring on the horizon. But there was one little thing that made me start thinking differently.

The last week of March a new handcycle arrived at my door, with the help of a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation. The first day I took it out, I realized something…I was noticeably faster. I also re-did my seating position in my racing chair due to some blood clots that put me in the hospital in November and caused me not to be able to sit in a kneeling position any longer. That made a big difference in my pushing and I was getting faster in that too. So I decided to start entering road races just for fun and was having a great time hanging out with the other wheelers—traveling to the Salt Lake City Marathon, Bloomsday, Grand Rapids. I was doing well as I was racing myself into shape and the more I thought about it, the more I started considering that with increased speed maybe I could consider more.

I found out that the Buffalo Springs Lake Triathlon (BSLT) was going to be the site of the new 70.3 championships for the wheelies and it sounded intriguing. But, I was still hesitant to commit to doing the race that has given me the most grief of my wheelchair triathlon career, so I sat on that thought for a long time. I had a lot going on as I had eight out-of-town trips in eight weeks, not a lot of time to train and still that concern over this course that has plagued me. Finally, two weeks before the race, I officially entered, the next week I spent an afternoon on the phone looking for a hotel room and on Friday, June 25th my friend and swim guide, Diana, and I got in her car and drove from Denver to the big race.

Here’s the thing though—this year was different. There is a new kid on the block and she’s FAST! Her name is Susan Katz and she did BSLT last year with a bike time that beat my 2006 time by an hour! "Holy smokes," is all I could think of her when I saw her 2009 times. But, I figured, maybe I could get a lot closer to her on my new bike now that I was so much faster. Still…I was worried. I learned back when I started cycling, to NEVER underestimate a competitor. I can remember vividly the City Park criterium that I did with my regular cat IV competitors one weekend and as we were at the start line, a certain Sarah Conrad pulled up on a ragged brown Bianchi and we all looked at her like, “She’s no threat. Look at that bike.” But the entire field was schooled that day and it was a lesson we would never forget. Sarah kicked our collective ass! The other thing I have learned in my years of competition, is that over-confidence kills. I didn’t want to go into the race over-thinking my abilities. And plus, since I didn’t do the training that this race requires, I decided to work on some of the other things I could control, like my attitude, confidence and mental preparation.

Saturday we did the usual pre-race stuff, then we headed to the lake to meet with our handlers (we had to have our helpers assigned to us this year, so Diana and my husband Steve couldn’t help me at all once the race started). I had two wonderful gentlemen, who are also local body builders (read: super buff) as my help. We had the opportunity to give them a quick training session of getting us into and out of the water and then to strip our wetsuits and help with the transitions. At one point after I did my short swim I told them, “why don’t you guys carry me to my chair and then we can practice getting my pants off.” As soon I as I said that, I realized how it sounded. Diana and I got a big laugh off of that one. But these guys had great senses of humor and were completely at ease from the very beginning. Chris and Sid were great!

After the practice at the lake, Diana picked Steve up at the airport, there was a race briefing, dinner and off to bed for a 3 a.m. wake-up call.

Three a.m. came early as it always does. Steve, Diana and I got up and headed out the door of our hotel and I was feeling much less than confident. I knew this was going to be a difficult race against Susan and I just wasn’t sure how it was going to go. But we blasted a bunch of motivational tunes in the car and I was starting to get ready for the challenge ahead.

Our wave took off at 6:35 and I started right next to Susan. Fortunately, even though we are competitors, I enjoy being around her…she’s super friendly, outgoing and a really great person. We wished each other good luck and we were off.

Now I knew by looking at her last year’s times that I could probably get her in the swim, I’d have to hang on for dear life on the bike (and likely get passed) and then it was anybody’s guess who’d have something left in the tank for the run.

Diana guided me off on a perfect swim and for once, I did not have to sit up a single time to see how much further, adjust my goggles or stop for another other reason. In my mind, I had a chant that I went through the whole swim. The right arm coincided with “strong,” and the left arm, “so-strong.” So for 42 minutes, all I said to myself was “strong, so-strong, strong, so-strong” but it must have been the right message to my brain and body because I felt good the whole way.

When we got to the beach, Sid and Chris rushed in and got me and put me in my chair. This year though, there were new rules. We couldn’t be pushed from the swim exit to our equipment. We had to push ourselves. Ugh. That was hard because our stuff was at the back of the transition area. It seemed like a big push, even though it really wasn’t.

I knew I didn’t have a lot of time, but I had a quick transition (mostly because I only wore wetsuit pants, not a whole wetsuit) and I was off on the bike. I figured I had between 10-15 minutes before Susan got out of the water, but I wasn’t sure. As I left, I hit 18mph or more in several spots and my speed rarely went below 13. That’s really good for me, so I was thinking I was making time on Susan. But, in reality at about 1 hour 19 minutes as I was heading one way down the road I saw her pass on the other side. She was headed to the turnaround I had just passed and wasn’t far behind. My immediate thought was “oh S#$T! She’s caught me already.” But I also realized something else. I was going hard but staying right where I needed to be, paying very close attention to my power and speed. I know how important it is to do that when racing 56 miles, and I decided that no matter what, I would do what I needed to, to stay within my ability so that I could last the whole race.

As it turns out, over the course of the rest of the bike, I realized that Susan was slowing down and looked to be struggling on the hills (there are a lot of out-and-backs on the course, so you pass other racers a lot). I figured she blew her whole wad trying to catch me and then blew up. Lucky for me. Had the course been flat, I might not have been so lucky. The thing is that lately, I have come to the conclusion that I’m getting pretty strong on hills. If you ever asked my bike racing friends, they would say that “Trish is not, not, not, NOT a hill-climber” but it’s never too late to change, right? It’s becoming more of my strength, so I thought I would use it today. I also felt like I took advantage of some strategy and experience to out race an athlete who is technically probably faster than me.

On the last few hills, I was cooked. So was she. I kept going. So did she. But I did go a little faster. Once I realized I was probably going to beat her, I turned my thoughts to the eight-hour time cut and Kona. Did I really want to actually commit myself to another year of training for an Ironman? I’ve already trained for five and it’s taken a lot out of me. You’ve ready about this or seen if first hand if you’ve followed me through my Ironman drama over the past five years you know that that distance has chewed me up and spit me out. It has caused more stress, disappointment and trauma in my life than is probably necessary. So after I completed the Beach 2 Battleship Iron distance race in 2008 I decided that would be the end. No more. Done. Fini. But today, I started thinking. My first goal in coming to this race was to win. My second goal was to beat eight hours, because I wasn’t able to do that in 2006. But, if I reached both of those, I would be eligible to go to Kona.

On I went.

When I got on the run I had visions of the first hill which gave me such trouble in 2006 and where, incindentally, Susan crashed in her descent last year. We asked the officials if my handler could just walk behind me, should I miss a hand placement and go careening off backwards. Sid was allowed to do that and he talked me through it the whole way. But just before I had hit that hill, I went by a runner who told me he worked with the Achilles Track Club in New York and he said I’m going to tell you what I tell my other runners, “You OWN this shit!” So that’s what I said to myself during the run. But on that first hill, it was more like, “you…own…this…shit…ugh…you…own…this…shit.” It got me to the top and I hit the flats as hard as I could as Sid drove to the next hill. Again, he walked behind and cheered me up.

At the top of that hill, you think the turnaround is right around the corner, but it’s not. I started to feel sick as I hadn’t eaten enough through the bike and only had gels on the run. I thought I was going to throw up. I slowed to 3 and 4 miles per hour. I started to see the eight hours dwindle away. Plus, I didn’t know my actual time because I did not wear a watch and when I went up the big hills at 0 miles per hour, my computer didn’t advance the time. I had no idea where I stood with the time cut. When I finally hit the turnaround I had a slight downhill and just tried to settle into a groove. Then a big downhill and then the last uphill. At this point, Sid was working me pretty hard with his hard-nosed, tough-love encouragement. He was supporting me with his words to push up the hill like a bad-ass. At the top, he left me to finish the last four miles or so around the lake that seemed to last forever.

I pushed as hard as I could and was surprised when I didn’t just make the time cut, but I crushed it by 29 minutes. Seven hours, 31 minutes and 26 seconds. Almost a full hour faster than in 2006 and with far less training. It was awesome!

At the awards ceremony, I was awarded a slot to the Hawaii Ironman in October! Does the new bike mean I will definitely make the time cut this time around? No, of course there are no guarantees in the Ironman, but at least this time I feel like I have a fighting chance. The training will be tough as I feel quite burned out on the long-distance training thing, but I think if Rocky can go that one more round (I mean, isn’t he up to Rocky V or X or something), then I can too.

Stay tuned, as the saga continues…

Be sure to check out Trish's new book Cycle of Hope: A Journey from Paralysis to Possibility.