June 10th 2020, marked the start of a journey. The journey that will see Loren and I achieve what we’ve talked about since we first got together and Loren started to get into triathlon 3 years ago.
Why now? It took the world going into lock down for me to have time to reflect on many things. Reflecting on where I was at versus where I wanted to be revealed some truths that I had succesfully hidden away from. There was always next year to make my dreams happen. There was always one more thing I wanted to do before I made my dreams happen. That one thing kept turning into another. I hid behind coaching others to chase their dreams to cover for myself not chasing mine. I was hiding in plain sight and when I reflected on things I realised that tomorrow is never promised and if I don’t at least try to get there, then I never will.
Something has gone off inside me. A need to make the most of every day. A desire to race again. A thirst for achieving my life goal. A need to be more selfish in achieving what I want. I want to be respected as an athlete in my own right. I want to inspire and motivate people by setting an example. I’ve not shown my true potential yet.
What kicked all this off? Selling my pride and joy!
Part 1 – One door closes…
Loren got tired of coming to watch me do races so decided to have a crack herself! Obviously, she was very good. In fact, annoyingly good! As lovely as it is to see her doing well, there was still a part of me thinking ‘she’s not beaten all my race times yet, it’s OK’. Turns out a few years later that she has smashed me on everything! I’ll always have the age and disability cards to play – which I regularly do.
The last time we raced an event at the same time was at Ironman Weymouth 70.3. Absolutely cracking event and a brutal day out but sadly for me it was my last race by myself. I have a visual impairment called Retinitis Pigmentosa or RP for short. It is genetic, progressive and there is no cure. The outcome of the sight loss is blindness. I have had almost 39 amazing years of sight, so this is not a pity party – just giving you some useful background information!!
I am losing my eyesight from my periphery which means I have been able to rely on my central vision to keep doing sport. As I have got older though my central vision has become weaker and distinguishing gradient, judging distance and recognising things at speed has become a big challenge. I am night blind because of the RP which affects going from light to dark – not great on for spotting potholes in the shade! My retina doesn’t adjust well to changes of light, sunshine or darkness so you can see why about on a road bike can be a little scary.
I knew the day was coming where I could no longer do triathlon without help. There is a point where being brave, pushing your limits and not giving in to your circumstances give way to fear for your safety and those around you and it becomes less about enjoying the challenge and achievement and only on survival. Weymouth was the day where fear in my ability to be safe, stay out of trouble and survive was stronger than my motivation to race. Side note: I was always conscious of other people and if I felt that I was putting others at risk I would have stopped racing. I was never reckless and always stayed out the way – strangely the only time I’ve caused an accident was at a fantastic event for people with disabilities and it wasn’t my fault, but I’ll save that story for another time!
Anyone that raced Ironman Weymouth that year knows I’m not exaggerating this story. Day before the race it was raining on and off all day but the sea was pancake flat. This was our first sea swim event so we were nervous but we’d done lots of open water swimming and been to Sea Palling a few times so we were confident we’d make it out alive.
Race day and it was pitch black. We were walking to event HQ and transition at around 5am for a 6am race start (something like that). Because I can’t see in the dark I pretty much just do what Loren tells me to. She tells me what to do and where to do it and I do it. I remember the waddle in my wetsuit back out to the road and onto the prom for the sea start. There was the usual frantic atmosphere you get at big events but also something extra. I couldn’t figure it out until I saw the sea – terror!
I’m not scared of open water but I remember thinking ‘if I survive this swim I’ll be happy’. It was a rolling start which means you self seed yourself based on your predicted swim times. Amazing how many swimmers decided they were slower than me when looking at the sea that day. It was one of those moments where you just had to laugh before getting smashed in the face by waves. It was a mental swim but I managed to follow swimmers in front and get round, I’d never experienced anything like it or drunk so much sea water!
Onto the bike, and I was still moving sideways after 50 odd minutes being churned up in the sea. To make it worse the sun was coming up – I was working hard just to focus on the road lines. The thing about being faster than most in the swim but cautious on the bike means that at some point those faster cyclists who are slower swimmers are going to come ripping past you. If you’ve never had a serious cyclist with a serious road or time trial bike overtake you in a race this might not resonate with you but the noise of these machines as they come past can be a bit unnerving, especially when you’re trying not to clip a curb or get in their way!
Normally I get the odd incident on the bike leg – a story to tell everyone when I’ve finished. I had lots of stories after my 56 mile bike leg! I was undertaken – not great when you expect everyone to overtake on your right and people squeeze up the inside of you and force you wide! I was overtaken by big groups of riders, I had someone ride up the back of me, I had someone cut in front and knock my front wheel on an uphill stretch and I was forced into the gravel on a corner because someone overtook me on a right hand corner and forced me wide. It was exhausting because not only was this a hilly course but I was concentrating so hard just to stay on my bike.
Made it back to transition, racked my bike and got ready for the run – less than 1km in I missed a drop curb, extended my leg fully and landed on it. I pulled up, walked it off, started running again and 50 steps on it was too painful. Walked a bit, ran a bit, walked a bit, ran a bit. I didn’t want to quit because I wanted to see Loren on the lapped run course to make sure she was OK. There were also triathletes from my old triathlon club Epsom Tri Club that I wanted to see as well. I had 1 DNF in a race and I wasn’t going to quit this one.
The run consisted of laps on a sea front promenade which is great for spectators but it meant running past the finish line each lap and meant that as more people finish the laps got quieter. Nothing like knowing you’re right near the back! I was tired, I was in pain, I knew this was my last race on my own and all I could smell were chips, popcorn, burgers and hot dogs! On my last lap I ran past a young boy who said to me “you should be running faster than that!”. He was right. I should be. I had nothing left though.
I finished just under 8 hours (1 hour 4 mins behind Loren). My best was almost 1 hour 30 mins better and I knew it. It was exhausting, emotional and I couldn’t wait to get away from Weymouth! I was beaten. It was the lowest I had been on a day, course and an event that was amazing.
Part 2 – Time Out
Heading into Ironman Weymouth I had enjoyed my first taste of paratriathlon at an event called the Superhero Triathlon Series. It was my first experience of an event just for people with disabilities and it was humbling to say the least. This was the first time I’d experienced anything like this.
I raced the solo sprint event and came in 4th – 1 hour 26 mins. Because it is all about being inclusive and encouraging there is no podium and no trophies, no one cares who comes first and who comes last. The event is about celebrating achievement. It is by far the most humbling, inspiring and motivating event to be a part of. It gives me a day every year to make me realise how lucky I am, how fortunate I am and allows me to keep that perspective fresh in my mind. It’s hard not to get frustrated by a disability, especially when it affects your life and the things you love. However, I also have to get over myself because I have seen a guy fully paralysed complete a triathlon in an exo-skeleton suit. Perhaps this is why I have less sympathy for excuses from anyone these days – whatever you’re feeling, however hard it is for you, no matter how much it hurts: there is always someone in a worse situation than you achieving your dream.
So, yes it was about taking part but a part of me was proud that I was actually alright when racing against people like me. It also made me realise that I was starting to get tired of comparing myself to people who weren’t like me. Swimming when you can’t see the buoys very well, cycling with the fear of hurting yourself and others and holding back on the run in case you miss a curb, trip over or run into something would turn good triathletes into average ones like me. When the field was even – I wasn’t average anymore.
That being said, as the race has got bigger, my finish position has become lower in subsequent years. In 2017, I was still racing as an individual so did the race alone. In 2018 & 2019 Loren acted as a guide for me but as an individual – she was like having a pair of eyes on course. She made sure I stayed out of trouble but the work was all done by me. The race now attracts some serious racers from paratriathlon and it was always something I wanted to do, it was just a question of timing.
I had made the event my A race for 2020 but Covid-19 had other ideas. This year would have been my last crack beating the time I did back in 2017. I wanted to prove I could beat it on my own so that a faster finish time wasn’t down to being on a tandem and having a guide pulling me round the swim and the run!
As great as the event is, loving triathlon, loving racing, coaching triathletes, having our own team and surrounding myself with other triathletes, not racing was incredibly hard for me. I did 2 events in 2 years post Weymouth. I just didn’t feel able to race and I was scared. I also didn’t feel ready to commit to paratriathlon either – part of me still didn’t want to give up racing alone. I went to events with Loren and other triathletes I was coaching and being the best coach I could be became my new focus – I love coaching and I thought I was happy to leave the competitive side of me in the past.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE watching Loren and my triathletes race. I love being at events and encouraging everyone. But would I rather have been there doing it myself? Absolutely!!
Part 3 – The Spark
I’d been helping a friend of Loren find a second hand bike to buy. He’s the same height as me, 6 foot 4 inches so the options are smaller than an average sized man! After weeks of searching, only finding cheap or super expensive options, I said I’d look again in a few weeks for him.
While on the Wattbike I suddenly realised that I probably wouldn’t be using my bike until Superhero Triathlon next August. What’s the point of having my pride and joy sitting in a garage doing nothing when it should be getting used? It’s something I never considered but also for some reason I realised that while I kept hold of it I would never be fully committed to racing paratriathlon either. Scarlet (my bike) had to go! So I offered it to Josh and he was happy to buy it.
I was a bit sad once she was gone – it’s just a bike for goodness sake but we’d been through a lot together. Selling her was a sign of intention. It was a statement that told me and Loren I was now fully invested in paratriathlon.
So no more hiding. No more excuses. No more being scared. It’s only taken a world wide pandemic to get the wheels in motion! Time to put my money where my mouth is. Time to be honest. Time to stop hiding.
One chapter has closed and I’m excited to start the new one! I am almost 40. Some would consider that middle aged. My mid life crisis is not about a sports car or a 20 year old wife – it’ll be taking on the triathlon world with Loren on a tandem road bike and writing a blog all about it!
My goal? The Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. There are slots for people to qualify with physical disabilities – not many but some. To get one of those you need to have raced an Ironman event. There is criteria to meet to be able to apply for these slots which I will do once lock down has ended and there’s the task of buying equipment and learning how to use it.
I make no bones about it – if I’m lucky enough to get a slot I’ll be there because of my disability not because I’ve qualified by being the fastest athlete. However, my aim is to be racing at a standard where I can be proud to feel I’ve earned the right to go. I still have to complete the races to be able to qualify and to get there we are going to be racing locally, nationally and beyond to see just how we compare to the fastest paratriathletes around.
This blog is going to document our journey, every stroke, revolution and step of the way. The ups, downs, highs and lows, the training and the racing. How good can we be? How far can we go? We will find out! All I know is I’m excited, motivated and hungry. It’s time to lead by example, embrace my disability and get back to racing.
It’d be great to have you along for the journey. If reading this inspires or motivates you or someone you know, let us know. Also, if you want to find out more info about anything I’ve talked about, get in touch.
Rob aka Wikiwiki Warrior (now uploading to Strava as I’m not hiding anymore!)