Racing Triathlons Blind: A Lesson in Dodging Blobs
Professional triathlete Aaron Scheidies was born with a hereditary condition has left the 28-year old with only 10 percent of his vision. In 2007, he became the only disabled athlete to break two hours in an international distance triathlon (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run), breaking a world record. In 2010, he broke that record, finishing Ohio's Sylvania Triathlon in 1:57:21. Below, Scheidies shares what it's like to race blind.
It's race morning and all of the triathletes are strolling into the transition area with their tricked out bikes. All heads turn and commotion stirs when an unusual bike rolls by them. As my guide directs the bike toward our designated area, whispers begin. Some athletes are so curious and confused that they come up and start asking questions. Over my ten years in the sport of triathlon I have heard it all:
“Can you explain this, I am a little confused.”
“There is a tandem division?”
“We should do a team like them next time.”
“So, who sits on the front of the bike?”
I have learned to just let all the comments flow in one ear and out the other. Actually, many become quite comedic and I use them for my stand up routine at my night job. Regardless, my guide and I continue on our way in transition and strategically place the extended-cab bike into the small parking space.
I do have some vision left so I describe my life as a constant obstacle course avoiding blobs. Some of these blobs are living and some aren’t. The transition area can be a little bit of a trip hazard and this is where the guide comes into play. The one good thing about doing triathlons as a blind athlete is that nothing is ever my fault. Anything that goes wrong prior to or during the race is considered “guide error.”
One thing that can be a little frustrating about preparing for a race is that everything takes longer than it does for the sighted individual. Despite having a guide, I spend half the time looking for where I put things.
As we leave the transition area, we walk the route we will take during the race so I can create a visual in my head. My guides are like hawks on 24hr lookout for rocks, roots, curbs and any other obstacle in my path. I always ask my guide to explain the swim course and point to the turn buoys, not because I am attempting to see them, but rather because I like to mentally gage where I am in the swim.
As we enter the water, we place the bungee tether around our waists. The tether can also be known as the “trust rope.” When the gun goes off, we bolt out, attempting to get in front of the thrashing bodies that pose a threat to the “trust rope.” Many times the tether has been ripped from our waists.
My guide's instincts are like those of a mother bear protecting her cub: anything posing a threat to the bear cub is moved out of the way. My guide has to work extra hard to not only keep up with me, but also to sight ahead and plan the route ahead of time. I on the other hand keep my head down and swim, trusting that the tugs from the “trust rope” will lead me in the right direction. If I were to look up, I may see splashes directly ahead or my guide next to me but that is all. I would be lost in open water without the “trust rope.”
As we approach the shore, I can hear the crowd and announcer in the distance informing me to pick it up to the finish. I continue to swim until my hand hits the bottom and then I get up and run to transition. My guide calls out verbal cues and I typically grab onto his shoulder around turns.
Both my guide and I transition individually, but my guide gives a quick look over before we run with the bike to the mount line. Mounting the tandem can be a sight to see if the guide and athlete have not practiced and developed a strategy. The bike is all about communication. Every time we shift gears or turn, my guide must communicate with me. Turning a tandem is like driving a bus: if both riders don’t coordinate the lean, it's highly likely they''ll be visiting a roadside ditch.
The guide sits in the front of the bike to clarify any confusion. He is the controller of everything. Just like before the race, it is very common to hear comments from the peanut gallery.
“Hey, that’s cheating.”
“Hey look mom it’s a double bike.
“He’s drafting you.”
As we ride and pass by other competitors, I encourage them, but sometimes don’t get any response. I never really understand if others are angry because I am riding a tandem or if they are just in shock about the situation. This doesn’t bother me though because I know that without a tandem and a guide I don’t race–it’s my only way to participate. Also, for those who haven’t ridden a tandem, uphills and turns definitely put tandem riders at a disadvantage. We continually communicate throughout the whole bike leg. Without warning of a large bump or pot hole, I could go flying forward from the back with only my clips holding me in. I also encourage my guide during the bike and keep him fired up.
As we approach T2, my guide calls “left up,” and we both take our left foot out of our shoes and pedal on top of our shoe. We do the same with the right foot and dismount thee bike in sync to the same side. As we run the bike to our transition spot, I hold onto the bike seat to let it guide me. Again, transitions are a little slower with two people. I slip on my K-Swiss K-Ruuz and grab the run tether and we're off.
As we run out of transition we put the tether over our heads and onto our waists. My motto is that we must always be moving forward. No stopping for anything. As we run out of the chute and onto the roads, I draw on the energy of the crowd and high-five everyone as I go by them. Sometimes I get a little too into the “circus show” and my guide needs to get me refocused on the race.
(Scheidies, left, at the 2010 Ironman 70.3 World Championship.)
As I run down the road, I just see different shades of pavement and an occasional orange blob. My guide cues me to stay away from the blobs and calls “step up” or “step down” at any curbs. My guide calls out the mile markers and normally is recording pace to keep my inconsistent self more consistent. My guide also lets me know of aid stations approaching and what they have to offer. I stick out my hand toward the blobs in the hopes of getting a cup. My guide always gets extra just in case my reflexes fail me. In one instance at the New York City triathlon, we arrived at the aid station before the volunteers had arrived. I stuck out my hand aimlessly and managed to wipe out the entire table of filled water cups. Not so funny to other competitors, but I have to have a laugh about it.
On the run there are yet more comments from the crowd. There are too many to list all of them but I will share some of the best:
“Look, its two convicts.”
“Hey they’re using the buddy system.”
“Way to work together!!!”
“Hey, we should do it like that too!”
The run is probably the least dangerous and difficult to me when on roads. As long as I stick near my guide and listen to him, I normally come out unscathed. It’s when I choose one of those dangerous off-road courses that I get myself in trouble. My one run-in with an Xterra triathlon was not one of the smartest choices I have made in my life, but boy do I have stories to tell about it.
As we approach the finish line, my guide informs me of the finishing stretch so I can get the crowd involved and give a few high-fives down the line. I like to think that I am an entertainer more than a racer, so at times I also incorporate the t-shirt toss and silly string into my performance. There is no question I am racing all-out, but my motto is that if you “smile through pain” then it doesn’t hurt as much! ☺
For more info on Aaron, check out his website or contact Carie Goldberg at Carie@goldstandardsports.com.