Categorized | Multi-sport, Sports

Ironman: Challenges of being a challenged athlete, Part I

Susan Katz (Photo courtesy of Ironman)

(Lee Gruenfeld focuses on the Challenged Athletes competing in Ironman – Part 1)

In 1992 when Cherie and I were here for her first Ironman World Championship, we stepped out onto our balcony at the King K on the first evening to watch the ocean as the sun set.

On the balcony next door was a 30-ish guy doing the same thing. Before we even noticed his face we noticed a metal contraption where his leg should have been. Back then we had no idea how to behave around an amputee, what the proper etiquette was, and struggled to keep our eyes on his face so he wouldn’t think we were looking at his leg.

As we talked, he said he was there to race the Ironman, and Cherie and I both thought the same thing: The poor guy will never make it out of T1.

The “poor guy” was Jim MacLaren and he knocked off the race in 10:42:50, which was about an hour-and-a-half better than the first time he did it in 1989.

We’ve learned a lot about challenged athletes since then. One thing was that the proper “etiquette” upon meeting Jim would have been to say, “Whoa! What the hell happened to you?” at which point he would have been perfectly happy to tell us as much as we’d care to know.

Jim’s plight led directly to the founding of the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Much has been written about these people in the years since, with emphasis on the extraordinary strength of character it takes not only to try to make the most of their situation but to prevail over it and return to full-bore competition.

Ironman represents the apotheosis of that determination: The most difficult mainstream endurance event in the world is tough for the able-bodied, so it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to realize that it borders on the miraculous for someone with unusable or missing limbs to do it.

I’ve written about these athletes myself, and hung out with them, and attended the annual CAF event in San Diego every year it’s been in existence. But it was only recently that something odd occurred to me, and that is that I didn’t know exactly why it was difficult for a challenged athlete to compete in Ironman.

Sounds like the most obvious thing in the world, but when I began thinking about it, I wasn’t sure I could explain it to someone if asked, at least not in any kind of detail.

So I decided to try to find out, and hoped it wouldn’t sound like a ridiculously dumb question. Turns out it wasn’t, because when I started asking it of the athletes themselves, I got bombarded with explanations and descriptions of things that hadn’t occurred to me in twenty years of watching them compete.

And that’s what I want to share with you in the two articles that comprise this race-week series. You won’t be reading about any of the heroics on display, which you have to see to believe anyway.

What I was interested in was the mechanics of how they pull it off on race day, the kinds of obstacles we rarely get to see, and the kinds of things that can go wrong that the other athletes don’t have to worry about.

Which brings us to why it’s in two parts.

The first thing I learned is that the world of challenged triathletes divides into two very different groups, generally referred to as Amps and Wheelies. (Kind of like Bloods and Crips, except the only people these guys beat up are themselves.)

Amps are amputees, and the way they race is to essentially try to substitute plastic, carbon fiber and titanium for missing bone, muscle and joints. The idea is to simulate their original able bodies as closely as possible and then race the same way as everyone else: swim as best they can, ride a regular bicycle with pedals and handlebars, and run upright on two legs, whatever those legs happen to be made of. The division is called “Physically Challenged” and abbreviated PC in the race results.

Wheelies race what is essentially a different sport. These are people who don’t have the use of their legs, usually because they’re paralyzed but sometimes because of amputations that don’t lend themselves well to race-worthy prosthetics.

They still swim the swim, but instead of bicycles they use handcycles and instead of running they use specialized racing wheelchairs. Equipment aside, though, they compete over every inch of the same Ironman course as everyone else. This division is known as “Handcycle,” abbreviated HC.

PART I: Wheelies (Handcycle)

I spoke with three athletes racing in handcycle and one former world champion.

David Bailey was a motocross champion before a training accident in 1987 left him a paraplegic. Eleven years later he placed third in the Ironman World Championship, the next year second, and then he won it all in 2000, besting course record holder Carlos Moleda in an epic battle. David isn’t racing this year but provided invaluable background to me in trying to understand what hand cyclists are up against in this race.

Susan Katz was born with spina bifida but was ambulatory and athletic until the age of ten, when surgery to relieve pressure on her spine left her paralyzed. She took Paralympic Games gold in Athens as a member of the U.S. basketball team, and earlier this year raced Ironman Louisville. This is her first attempt in Kona, and she is the only female hand cyclist entered.

Geoff Kennedy was shot 11 years ago in an attempted robbery in St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. (He was the vic, not the perp.) After moving to Puerto Rico and graduating college, he began racing. He qualified for Kona at the Buffalo Springs 70.3 and this will be his first full Ironman.

Andre Kajlich is an amputee but, owing to the nature of his injury – following a 2003 Metro accident in Prague his right leg was amputated above the knee and a “hip disarticulation” left him without a femur on the left – he is able to walk with prostheses and a cane but can’t run a step. So he’s an amputee who races in the handcycle division.

LG: David, it was news to me when you pointed out that differences in the nature and degree of the injury result in significant advantages and disadvantages on the race course. It’s easy to see among amputees how one good leg vs. none confers an advantage, but what can’t we see with paraplegics?

DAVID: Thing is, you can’t really “see” it unless you know what to look for. Spinal injuries are categorized by where along the spine the problem is: The higher up you go, the more stuff you lose. In my case, I’m paralyzed from the chest down.

LG: You’re only using your arms, so what difference does that make?

DAVID: The difference is basically in the abdominal muscles. If you have them, there’s a lot more you can do in terms of leverage, seat position and so forth. If you don’t, you can barely change a tire because you can’t sit upright.

SUSAN: I’m kind of in between, an incomplete paraplegic: I’ve got some abs but not all, and I’ve got a little bit of movement in my right leg but not enough to walk.

LG: How’d you do in Louisville?

SUSAN: Went real well. I felt good and managed energy and nutrition well. But there’s plenty of room for improvement.

LG: Just getting to the race must be difficult.

SUSAN: It is, and not just because it’s tough for us to get around. Anybody would find it tough hauling around all the stuff we travel with.

LG: Like the wheelchair?

SUSAN: That’s the easy part, what we call the everyday chair. Then there’s the racing chair, which is a completely separate piece of gear, and the handcycle, a big, awkward piece of equipment. Getting to the event site is like the first leg of the race, and it’s expensive shipping all that stuff.

LG: You can bring help for that, but once the race starts you’re more limited in terms of assistance. So how does the swim work?

GEOFF: The rules tend to change as the sport gets smarter about dealing with wheelies. A new one says we have to bind our legs together—

LG: Why?
SUSAN: To even the playing field. Some folks who have lower level injuries might be able to kick, which would be a huge advantage over those with higher level injuries who can’t.

GEOFF: How you do that – Velcro straps, some kind of brace – depends on the extent of your injury and your own style.

DAVID: This is one of the times that having abs makes a difference. I don’t have any core at all, and if I have any flotation on my legs, they pop up and it makes my head go down, without a lot of good ways to bring it back up again. So I like to have my legs dangle down a little.

GEOFF: This may surprise you: Some of us have leg spasms—

DAVID: Yep. I sure do.

GEOFF: —and that can make your legs jump around when you don’t want them to. I take medication to calm them down.

DAVID: Mine can get pretty bad so I borrowed an idea from Carlos Moleda: I made a brace out of PVC piping cut lengthwise and attach it along my legs with Velcro straps.

ANDRE: The biggest issue for me in the swim is body position. Since I’ve only got about half of one leg, my body wants to go vertical all the time, like walking, which doesn’t make for very efficient swimming. I found that as long as I’m moving along at a good clip with good technique, I can stay horizontal. But then my wetsuit is more buoyant on one side, which tends to roll me sideways. For a long time I couldn’t breathe on my left side so I had to learn to be able to breathe on both.

LG: That reminds me of something I’ve always wondered about: Wetsuits in Kona?

ANDRE: Challenged athletes are allowed to wear wetsuits in all races.

SUSAN: Which is good news and bad news both, because it can be awful to get it off after the swim. I ask for help from volunteers.

LG: Let’s back up. How do you get out of the water?

DAVID: I had a buddy carry me up the stairs.

SUSAN: I use two.

DAVID: I’ve found that two people can get out of sync really fast so one strong guy works best.

ANDRE: Took me a while to get used to the idea of being carried. We could hop, skip or crawl but if we’re all carried that means we all do it the same way and that’s what counts..

LG: What about getting into the handcycle?

GEOFF: I like to do as much as possible myself. Aside from wanting that independence, well-meaning people can mess things up because they might not know what you need.

DAVID: Very true. All I really need is for a friend to strap my legs in.

LG: You can’t do that yourself?

GEOFF: Abs again. You can’t lean around the gears to get at the straps.

LG: Lean around the gears…?

DAVID: A handcycle is like an upside down bicycle. The bottom bracket is sitting way up in the air right in front of the cyclist, who “pedals” with his hands.

LG: Got it. Now, I’ve seen different people sitting in different positions, some nearly upright, some practically lying down…

SUSAN: A matter of preference, and there are a lot of factors. Most of the guys like to lean way back because it’s more aerodynamic, but I sit more upright.

LG: Because…?

SUSAN: For one thing, you can see better. It also keeps your upper body farther from the road. You wouldn’t believe the heat coming off the road in the middle of the day when you’re down that low, and ten or twelve inches makes a big difference.

DAVID: It really does, and the aero advantage is over-rated. There aren’t that many places where you’re going fast enough for it to matter, and sitting more upright is easier. You get more power and leverage, which makes the uphills a little easier, and it’s also a better position for eating and drinking. I went faster upright in 2000 than I did in 2009 lying down.

ANDRE: Heat is a problem for me as well. Being an amputee I’ve got less surface area over which to shed heat.

SUSAN: Should also have mentioned making sure that the handcycle is correctly configured in the first place. When you have no sensation, there’s no way to know if you’re chafing and your skin is being rubbed raw. So you have to have enough cushioning and padding to make sure that doesn’t happen.

ANDRE: You have to be careful about going through puddles, too. Moisture on the road means water and mud getting thrown up into your face because you’re sitting right behind the front wheel.

LG: What happens if you flat? David already said that it can be a real pain to deal with.

GEOFF: I need someone to unstrap my legs. The next problem is that I don’t use a removable cushion so I have to sit on the ground, which can be hot as blazes and very rough. Every time I change a flat my legs and ankles get all scratched up.

DAVID: I use sew-ups to make flats less likely because if I get one, it’s a nightmare. I have to put a cushion on the road and then it’s like working while sitting on a beachball with no stomach muscles to balance me. Front flats are the worst because that’s where the gears are. Rears are easier; you don’t even have to take the wheels off to change the tire.

LG: Didn’t you flat in that historic battle with Carlos?

DAVID: Yes, right after the Hot Corner with six miles to go [on the old course], but I knew it would take longer to change than just ride it to T2. Sew-ups flare out a little when they go flat and keep rims from touching the ground, so I just rode it flat all the way to T2.

SUSAN: I don’t even carry spares, just CO2 cartridges and sealant.

LG: Can you get help from the bike support vans?

DAVID: Problem is, they carry a standard complement of the most popular wheel sizes, and ours are different.

LG: Even assuming that everything is going right mechanically, you’re using only your arms. What’s that like?

GEOFF: About what you’d expect: Your hands cramp, your shoulders hurt…

LG: How do you steer?

ANDRE: You push the hand cranks left and right while cranking. Makes it kind of difficult to eat and drink because you have to take a hand off the crank, which is awkward and slows you down.

LG: Can’t you alternate left and right hand?

ANDRE: Then you wobble all over the place. I’ve actually had some practice at it because I once had a crank break off and had to pedal home one-handed, but it’s still hard.

LG: Just thought of something: How do you handle food that comes in wrappers?

ANDRE: It ain’t easy! But I do use some energy gels just for a little diversity and extra calories.

LG: Any problems mixing it up with the other cyclists?

ANDRE: Not for me. I love interacting with the other athletes. We motivate each other and it just makes it a lot more fun out on the course.

LG: Let’s move over to the marathon. Different chair entirely, right?

GEOFF: Yes. It’s a wheelchair, not a cycle. No gearing at all.

DAVID: Getting into it is the most difficult transition of the day for me.

ANDRE: Out of the handcycle and onto the ground, then up onto the racing chair …

DAVID: And make sure you don’t get more “help” than you need.

LG: Sounds like you’d need a lot.

DAVID: Nope. Again, I like to do it all myself. Just need someone to hold the front end down while I’m getting in.

ANDRE: My chair was set up for a paraplegic and I modified it, but it’s still difficult to get secure. I’ve got the advantage of having good core muscles but my one limb takes the full brunt of countering each stroke. It gets fatigued even before my arms do.

SUSAN: And at this point in the race we need gloves, too.

LG: Is that so you don’t beat your hands up grabbing the wheel? I mean that metal pipe attached to the wheel?

GEOFF: Called a push rim or hand rim, but there’s a common bit of misunderstanding there: We don’t actually “grab” the rims.

LG: You don’t?

DAVID: If you grabbed them you’d slow the chair down. The glove is kind of like a boxing glove. Your hand is in a fist and what you do is hit the rims faster than they’re moving, to speed them up.

LG: That makes sense.

SUSAN: Doesn’t work so well going up a steep hill.

LG: (to David) Thought I saw Carlos coming up from the Kona Surf backwards. Was it easier to pull then push in that situation?

DAVID: Can be, and it gives your arms a rest, but as soon as he saw me chasing him he flipped around and started pushing again!

LG: How come you don’t ever go backwards?

DAVID: As I said, I use sew-ups, and with the glue being warm in a place like Hawai’i, I’m afraid that twisting the tires like that could pull them off the rims.

GEOFF: There are other things to worry about on the run.

LG: You call it “the run?”

ANDRE: Why not? Everyone else does.

SUSAN: Run, marathon, whatever.

GEOFF: Settling in on the chair is an issue for me. I’ve been down in the luge position on the handcycle for hours. Now I’ve got my legs tucked under me and I’m hunched over like a Muslim on a prayer rug. Takes a few miles to get used to it.

ANDRE: How horizontal you want to be is another personal issue. It hurts your neck to keep looking up all the time and the more hunched over you are, the worse it is.

SUSAN:I have a constant concern about my visibility.

GEOFF: We all do.

LG: Because you’re lower to the ground?

SUSAN: Somewhat, but the real problem is relative speed. The marathon is the one leg of the race in which wheelies have a real advantage. We’re going to complete this leg in far less time than most runners.

ANDRE: For me, the marathon is redemption after the swim and bike. I’m dead tired but happy to be passing people.

LG: So why is speed a concern?

SUSAN: Because runners just aren’t used to people coming up from behind them at high speeds. Have you ever been in a race where you were passed by other runners?

LG: Every race I’ve ever been in.

SUSAN: So you know that no matter how much faster they are then you, you can hear their footsteps and even their breathing well before they reach you, and the pass just isn’t all that fast.

LG: So…

GEOFF: So, now picture some guy out on the Queen K when it’s dark and quiet and he’s half delirious and barely moving. All of a sudden he hears me yell “Wheelchair on your left!” and before it even fully registers, he’s startled and stumbles right into my path. He may have been passed by a hundred other runners already but never by a wheeled machine going ten times faster than he is.

LG: But what was he doing in front of you in the first place?

ANDRE: Had a faster bike or swim. That’s why we’re passing runners like crazy all the time.

SUSAN: I spend the whole marathon yelling, and it drains energy. It also doesn’t work all the time, like if the runner doesn’t speak English or he does but his brain is just fried. If he whips his head around to see what’s going on, half the time he’s going to step right in front of me before he figures it out.

GEOFF: It’s a little easier on uphills, where we’re going slower, but on downhills we have to go on full alert.

DAVID: The safety of other athletes is always in our minds. It has to be. It’s like an obstacle course for us out there and we can’t depend on all of those people to be aware of us because they’re just not used to it.

GEOFF: There are only six wheelchairs in the whole race this year.

SUSAN: Aid stations are the worst.

All: Absolutely. No question.

LG: Because you have to slow down?

GEOFF: Because you’re dodging runners left and right. People stopping suddenly, or darting across the street. I tried to steer a real wide path off to the side and give them all a lot of room.

ANDRE: I find it hard grabbing cups with the gloves. I have to use two hands and try to keep the gloves from getting wet. Since the marathon is relatively short for us, I try to do the whole thing on one Camelback I fill myself.

SUSAN: Aid stations are treacherous in other ways. The road can get slick from all the fluids being thrown around, there are cups and bottles all over the place…wet rims get slippery and difficult to push, and if your gloves get soaked they’re probably never going to dry out. And here’s something that might not have occurred to you: Once we’re out of the water we’ve got a helmet on for the entire rest of the race.

ANDRE: Do you get headaches?

SUSAN: I sure do.

ANDRE: Me, too. I don’t even wear one when training.

LG: Yogi Berra once said that it’s amazing how much you can see by just watching, but I’m amazed at how much is involved that we observers can’t see at all. If you could magically put one thought in people’s minds that would make your races a little easier, what would it be?

SK (without hesitation): No misters!

(All): Amen to that!

LG: Misters?
SUSAN: Those well-meaning people spraying the runners down with hoses?

LG: What’s the problem there? Sounds like some relief from the heat.

SUSAN: Not even close to being worth wet rims and gloves.

DAVID: I’d put it a little more generally: I appreciate all the gestures of support and goodwill but please don’t help unless I agree or ask for it.

LG: Makes sense. Thanks, everybody, and best of luck Saturday. I’ll be the guy out there with a hose—

SUSAN: What!

LG: —pointed the other way.

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