2009 Beach to Battleship Race Report

B2B Take 2 —

Fast forward to 2009. All systems “go.” My health was better, life was in balance and my training was where I wanted it to be. I was confident, too, having recently completed a Peter Reid-esque (i.e., a solo, focused, high mileage) training camp on North Carolina’s Outer Banks where I gained self-confidence and became comfortable with the demands of long distance handcycling, running/pushing and hydration and nutrition.

A few days before the race, I tuned up my gear, loaded the van and headed to the beach.

Our arrival and race prep in Wilmington went much better this time. We drove to the coast on Wednesday (laughing when we passed the spot on the side of the road that I had barfed repeatedly one year prior) and arrived in time to enjoy dinner on WrightsvilleBeach. On Thursday, we drove the course from start to finish, picked up my number at the Expo, reviewed race logistics with the folks at Setup Events and completed the pre race checklist in time to enjoy a lazy afternoon strolling Downtown Wilmington.

If you have never been to this old coastal city, let me tell you it’s a pretty hip and cool place. In addition to funky shops, galleries and haunted pubs, Wilmington is a popular television and film production locale. I had a blast telling Sarah that such classics as Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill and the highly praised, Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Jessica Biel smash hit, Summer Catch, were all (or partly) filmed in Wilmington. (I don’t think she was as impressed as I was. Ha ha.)

Friday was a rest day and a day to meet family members who were coming to watch and serve as my “handlers.” Before Aunt Lorraine, Uncle Ed and Cousin Ed Manning (my “race day handlers” and Southern supporters) drove from North Myrtle Beach, Sarah and I checked in my racing chair at the Battleship T2. We also did a wetsuit dry run to make sure we knew how much time to allocate to the task on race day. (If you have ever tried donning a wetsuit then you know it takes all sorts of wiggling and squirming. When you are in a wheelchair and body parts don’t move like they should, let’s just say the process becomes exponentially more complicated and time consuming.) Anyway, when the Mannings arrived, we dropped my handcycle at the swim to bike transition, did a walkthrough of the swim and bike transition logistics, watched an amazing sunset from the fishing pier and had a relaxing carbo load dinner.

Aaaahhh, pre race jitters and sleepless nights. Let’s just say I didn’t sleep soundly the night before the race. I guess a race two years in the making warranted a semi-sleepless night. By the time the early morning alarm sounded, I had already been awake for hours. Isn’t it funny what you think about while lying awake in bed awake during the wee hours? After going over every race detail in my head several times, I still had time to reason a fairly accurate, multinational strategy for world peace and the end of human suffering. It’s amazing the way the mind works when you try to block out something important. I’m just glad I was able to sleep well two nights before the race.

We arrived at the swim start early enough to see the full ironman athletes moving up the channel. They started earlier than we did, and I got the first wave of chills when I saw them pass. We used the van as command central and went to work. The wetsuit slipped on easier than anticipated, I had a quick bite to eat, connected with a few friends and rolled over to join the mass of rubber clad athletes waiting to enter the 68 degree water.

The start of a triathlon is a site to behold. When the gun sounds and hundreds of arms and legs spring to action, the calm water transforms into a frenzied wash cycle. It’s fun to watch but a bit tough when you are in the mix. The PC (physically challenged) athletes were given a head start and became targets for everyone else to catch and pass. I was scared and nervous.

Because my injury is very high up my neck, I can’t swim efficiently on my stomach like most other athletes so I am forced to do the backstroke. It’s not the fastest stroke, but I have worked hard over the years to become consistent and smooth in open water over long distances. Melissa Bell, a friend from Inside-Out Sports in Charlotte, served as my swim partner/navigator and helped keep me stay on course (and safely out of the way of other swimmers). While I swear she had me swimming in circles, we did quite well and completed the 1.2 mile swim and crossed the timing mat in just over 46 minutes. Had I been just a few minutes faster, I would have been the first PC athlete to exit the water. (Isn’t it great to play “what if ______” when the race is over?)

How did I get out of the water? As I approached the dock marking the swim finish, Uncle Ed and Cousin Eddie, my “handlers” for the day, went to work. They grabbed under my arms, hoisted me from the water, helped me into my chair, pushed me over to T1, stripped the wetsuit, plopped me on the handcycle and ensured that everything else was in place for me to begin the 56 mile bike leg. Sarah and Aunt Lorraine snapped photos and screamed my name! (I’m so lucky to have a supportive family!) Before the salt water fully dried, I was on my handcycle rolling alongside dozens of eager athletes. My energy was high and I felt fantastic. (I knew from experience that an athlete’s energy is typically the highest right after the swim to bike transition – or, as I call it, the Chinese fire drill – and was careful not to push myself too hard in the first few miles.)

The bike segment was both incredibly enjoyable and painfully long. I’ll admit the thought of handcycling 56 miles at race pace was one of the fears that kept me awake the night before the race. I was afraid of bonking, scared that I’d be way behind everyone else and concerned that my two little arms would not be strong enough to get the job done.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I passed through the first 10 miles averaging nearly 15 mph, maintained the pace during the 12 mile segment on a closed interstate and reached the halfway point feeling fueled and strong. As I rolled through mile 30, my family pulled alongside honking their car horns and screaming encouragement out the windows. Chills again.

There was one demanding and testy section of the bike. It seemed to never end. Between mile 30 and 40, when the course turned onto backcountry roads (as evidenced by the number of Confederate flags displayed on single wide trailer homes) the twists, turns and rolling hills took a toll on my arms and shoulders. My stomach tightened and I worked through a few cramps. By that time, the third handcyclist had just passed me, and I knew I was the last athlete on the course. Knowing it would happen at some point, I had tried to mentally prepare but when the realization of being the last cyclist hit me, I’ll admit it took some wind out of my sails. Nevertheless, after turning south for the 16 mile straight shot to the finish, I refocused. Having the cyclists from the full ironman catch me and shout words of encouragement was a big help, too.

The bike to run transition went off without a hitch thanks to careful planning and coordination with my energetic team of handlers and supporters. Moving from the bike to chair, my body reminded me that it wasn’t happy with shifting from the reclined, elongated cycling position to a compact, tucked racing position and I cramped. But the cramps soon passed and I headed onto the run with the fastest T2 transition of all PC athletes.

As enjoyable and scenic as the run portion of the race might have seemed to the runners, it was a wheelchair nightmare. If you know anything about wheelchair racing then you are aware that if a course has a bridge, open grate, concrete surface, orange coned road construction, brutally steep and short hill, sharp turn, railroad track, brick crosswalk, cobblestone, sidewalk, lots of twists and turns or wooden nature bridge then it most likely isn’t a fast course. Well, the run segment of the Beach to Battleship had all of these and more. The organizers set up the course to be fan friendly and enjoyable for the running athletes but for the wheelers, it was 13.1 miles of teeth chattering pounding. I “zig zagged” up two hills, descended two more with my brakes nearly locked for safety and spent more time yelling “on your left” than I care to remember.

To give you an idea of how difficult it really was, I finished the half marathon in 2:02:58. It usually only takes me about 30 – 40 minutes longer to do a full marathon! I did gain some motivation when I passed both a wheeler and an amputee athlete in the first two miles. As they say in ironman, “passes on the run are usually permanent.” I knew at that point that I wouldn’t be last.

I crossed the finish line with tears of joy streaming down my face and love peace in my heart. My goal time was 8 hours 30 minutes. Sarah optimistically predicted 8 hours 10 minutes. I knocked it out in 7:47:29 to finish second!

How’s that for a day at the office?