Sunday, December 30, 2012

CAF San Diego Triathlon Challenge

Celebration of Abilities Dinner on Friday night!
Where do I begin? Well, the easy place to start would be with the swim, but there was so much more to this journey than just a 1 mile swim, a 44 mile bike, and a 10 mile run. So, I suppose I should look back to April, 1 2011, the day I received notification from the Challenged Athletes Foundation that I would be receiving a running leg through their grant process. To say I've been blessed would be an understatement. However, receiving the leg was only half the battle. It took me quite some time to not only get comfortable with how the leg felt, but more critical, I needed to get accustomed to running again. I had never been a runner, so overcoming the mental hurdles were just as difficult as the physical hurdles.

Fast forward to January 1, 2012, the day I registered for the 19th Annual CAF San Diego Triathlon Challenge. I knew this would be the most challenging athletic experience I had ever encountered, but at the same time, I knew how triumphant I would feel crossing that finish line on October 21, 2012. So began a nearly 10 month training journey to test my limits.  I wasn't sure what my training plan would entail, as this event was much longer than my previous sprint triathlon.  I soon found out (thanks to Coach McCoy), I was in for an intense spring, summer, and early fall of training.  I must admit there were points in my training in which I thought I would never get to where I needed to be.  However, thanks to the encouragement of my family and friends, I knew I couldn't stop short of my goal.

As the summer moved on, and my training plans seemed to get longer and longer, I found one of my biggest challenges was nutrition.  On longer rides, I found that my legs would cramp uncontrollably towards the end of the ride.  At first, I chalked this up to the heat and moved on to my next workout, but I soon realized, if I was going to be training for up 5-6 hours at a time, I needed to fuel my body.  I don't like to eat while I'm training, so I knew I would have to utilize liquid nutrition for my longer training rides, and ultimately on race day.  Luckily, I got everything dialed in perfectly and stuck my plan on race day.

The start of school this year seemed to coincide perfectly to when my workouts became the most grueling.  Often times, I was in the pool before work, only to come home for a run or a ride.  Saturdays in the fall entailed many "epic brick" workouts in which I would leave the house sometime around 7:00 a.m. and return sometime around 12:00 - 1:00 p.m.  Not only was this a huge time commitment on my end, it also required my wife Kristin to shuttle the girls around, entertain them, and attempt to explain to them why their dad was working out for so long.  Needless to say, I couldn't have taken on this challenge without the support of my wife and my girls, Maddie  and Maya.  Their cheers and good luck pictures meant the world to me!

Enough already, let's get to the big day...

The Swim

On the home stretch of the swim!
Going in to the event, I had some reservations about swimming in the Pacific Ocean.  I knew it would be much different then my training swims in Alum Creek.  First of all, you can see, its not the muddy, murky water that I was accustomed to which meant I would be able to see all the fish, seals, and seaweed that I would have navigate through.  Also, I wasn't super excited about swimming in salt water.  Although its supposed to make you more buoyant, it doesn't taste that good when you accidentally swallow a few mouthfuls.  To help calm my nerves, I decided to head out for a practice swim in La Jolla Cove the day before the event.  As I entered the water, I was amazed at how clear it really was, and how quickly it got deep.  Within a few moments, not only could i no longer touch, but I couldn't even see the bottom.  The water temperature proved to be much warmer (68 degrees) than some of my final training swims at Alum Creek (50 degrees).  As I swam out a bit further, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye that brought me in to full panic mode.  At first, I thought it was just another athlete going for a practice swim, however, when I looked up to see what it was, I was amazed that my swimming neighbor was a seal...yes, a seal.  I took a few deep breaths to collect myself and swam a bit further.  Looking back, this was the best thing that I could have done.  On race day, I wasn't worried at all about the swim.

As a part of my registration to the SDTC, I requested a handler for the swim.  I simply thought this meant there would be someone there to help me in and out of the water when I had my leg off.  However, as I headed toward the steps to the swim start, I was surprised to see someone in a wetsuit holding a sign with my name on it.  I approached him and introduced myself, and Andy told me that he would be joining me on the swim to provide any support that I may need.  This was reassuring to say the least.  Just prior to the swim start, I told Andy that I thought I would finish the mile swim in about 50 minutes.  He told me to take my time and just let him know if I needed anything.  As the gun went off, I started the time on my watch and took off.  Normally, it takes me quite a bit to get comfortable in open water, but not on this day, I felt great.  As I swam to that first buoy, I was beginning to think we were going to swim all the way across La Jolla Cove.  I made the left hand turn around the buoy, and headed to my next landmark.  The turn allowed me to gauge where I was amongst the other swimmers in the first wave (all fellow challenged athletes).  I was surprised to see that I was towards the front of the pack.  I made it to the next buoy much quicker that the first portion of the swim, made the left hand turn around the buoy and headed back to shore.  I remember looking at Andy, and him saying we're in the home stretch.  The most challenging part of this part of the swim was navigating through all the seaweed that seemed to be extending beyond the surface of the water.  As I got to shore, I began to crawl towards my prosthetic and paused the time on my watch.  Andy asked me if I was timing that swim, and if so, how fast was it.  I looked down in amazement and responded just over 34 minutes.  He said "I thought so, I was having trouble keeping up with you."  I crawled to my leg, put it on, and headed back up the steps to the transition area.  As I got to the top of the steps, I was surprised to see an old college friend, Brian Putnam, who now lives in the San Diego area.  I heard him say "you killed that swim, keep it up!"  I entered the transition area and began my prep for the bike.  My wife made her way near me and as always cheered me on as got ready for the bike.  My official time for the swim was 38 minutes: 2 seconds, which included getting to my leg, putting it on, and heading up the stairs to the transition area.  My official time for transition 1 was 17 minutes: 13 seconds, which was due to the amount of sand that had made its way in to my prosthetic did not want to cooperate.

The Bike

Riding along the coast with one of those hills I climbed in the background
Unlike the swim, checking out the bike course the day prior to the race did not ease my mind.  When I registered for the SDTC I knew there were some changes in elevation, according to the website there was approximately 400 feet in elevation change throughout the 44 mile bike course.  I'm not sure who measured the change in elevation, but I think they left a 0 off the end.  It definitely looked and felt more like 4000 feet in elevation change.  As Kristin and I drove the bike course, some serious doubt began to settle in.  The bike is normally my strength, but I tend to struggle with steep climbs as its hard for me to get out of the saddle.  This course had four steep climbs, one of which was longer than a mile in duration.  I remember looking at my wife and saying "there's no way I can complete this bike course with these climbs."  She quickly brought me back to reality saying "you've spent all this time training to prepare for this day, you got this." She enlisted many of our friends back home to send me texts of encouragement as well.  As much as I appreciated all this support, I was still extremely nervous about the bike.  I had a goal time (2:45) for the bike portion in my mind coming in to race day, however, after seeing the course, I changed my goal considerably.  I didn't put a time on my new goal, rather, I was determined to own the hills, no getting off my bike and working my ass off to the top of every one of them.

As I left transition 1 and started to mount my bike, one of my biggest fears came true.  To get my bike out to San Diego I had to break it down and pack it in a bike box, which meant I had to put it back together once we were out in San Diego.  I thought I had done this perfectly, in fact I had even taken it for a practice spin once I had it together.  Unfortunately, as I mounted my bike, something felt wrong right away.  I looked down and realized my handlebars were turned at a 30 degree angle.  I have no idea how this happened, all I knew was I had to get it fixed pronto.  I quickly got off my bike and looked for my allen wrench set.  This is were my temper got the best of me, I couldn't find it at first.  As each person mounted there bike and sped past me, the more frustrated I got.  My wife ran over to help me find the tool and more importantly calm me down.  Lets just say my vernacular was not the most pleasant at the time.  Fortunately, I found what I was looking for and within a few minutes was able to get my bike ready to go.  It was now time to tackle those hills...

The hardest part about the start of the bike course is that you are immediately welcomed with the first climb.  There is nothing worse than getting on your bike at the bottom of a hill to start your ride.  Thankfully, it was a short hill, but don't worry, we were only on a flat roll for about a half of a mile until we hit our next climb.  This climb was never ending, just when you thought you reached the top, the road winded around to reveal more climbing.  Needless to say, within the first few miles of the bike course, my heart rate was up.  At this point we made our way to North Torrey Pines Road which took us right along the coast for some of the most beautiful scenery ever.  Although it looked like we were facing a ride through the mountains, I was relieved to see we would first be going downhill.  The downhill didn't last as long as I had hoped as I was going in excess of 40mph.  As much as I enjoyed going down this hill, I knew I would have to head back up it towards the end of the bike course.  The next challenge was to make my way back up North Torrey Pines Road.  I knew once I ascended to the top, I would have earned a much needed break from the climbs.  However, climbing up each side of North Torrey Pines Road was easier said than done.  Its truly humbling to be peddling as hard and as fast as you can only to look down at your speedometer to see you're moving at the rapid pace of 4 mph.  It almost feels as if you're riding in place, but I conquered both of these monumental climbs without getting off and even passing a few people along the way.

The majority of the remainder of the bike course was relatively flat with some rolling hills.  It took us through some beautiful residential communities and provided me the time to reflect on the journey I had taken to get here.  Overcoming all the pain and surgeries, enduring all the grueling training sessions, and realizing how many people supported me along the way.  It was great to see Kristin at different points through the ride.  It was symbolic of how much she's been there for me over the years, and this was no exception.  It was hard not to get emotional throughout the ride thinking about all of this, but the competitor in me knew I had to finish strong as I knew I had a 10 mile run to look forward to.  My official time on the bike was 3 hours: 26 minutes: 46 seconds and my transition 2 time was 14 minutes: 2 seconds.

The Run

Enduring the run, slow and steady finishes the race!
As I left transition 2, I knew the most challenging phase of the triathlon awaited me.  As I said earlier, I've never been much of a runner and after completing the bike course my hips and lower back were already feeling the effects of those hellacious climbs.  At this point, it was more about my mental toughness than my physical toughness.  The run was a 5 mile out and back, which sounds ok until you see that the first 2 miles were a climb up some of those same hills I faced on the bike.  This proved to be the hardest part of my day.  I knew that once I got to the top of this hill, the rest of the run would be flat and down hill.  I didn't think I'd ever make it up this hill, but after what seemed like hours, I finally reached the top.  I had a plan coming in to the run, but it quickly went out the window and became about finishing the run.

Fortunately, as I reached the top of that hill, I linked up with a few people and we decided to finish the race as a group.  Jorge was a fellow amputee, and seemed to be feeling the effects of the course just as I was.  His wife was competing alongside him as well.  Sam was an Army vet, who saw many of his friends lose limbs in battle and has since become a strong supporter of CAF and the Wounded Warrior Project.  He could of easily finished the race much faster than Jorge or myself, but wanted to be there for our journey and encourage us along the way.

Me, Sam, Jorge and his wife.
Over the course of the next 8 miles, we alternated short spurts of running with some much needed walking.  It was encouraging to see people give us high 5's as they made their way to the finish, telling us how inspired they were by us; seeing cars slow down and yell words of encouragement to us.  We talked about our journey to this day, and encouraged one another to finish strong.  Once again, it was great to see Kristin at the turn around.  She cheered us all on and let us know how proud of all of us she was.  Somehow, at about the 7 mile mark, I got my second wind.  I told Jorge I was going to finish out strong, he told me to go for it, and with that Sam and I took off.  I ran the next mile without any breaks and looked forward to making my way to the finish line.  The atmosphere all weekend was amazing, but nothing compared to that feeling of crossing the finish line and having that medal placed around my neck.
Sam and I crossing the finish line!
My official run time was 3 hours: 7 minutes: 24 seconds which brought my official time for the day to 7 hours: 43 minutes: 28 seconds.


I would be remised if I didn't thank all of the supporters I had along the way.  Many of you contributed money towards my fundraising efforts, but more importantly you contributed words of encouragement, support and belief in me that I would conquer this challenge.  Without the support of my family, friends, JustTri teammates, and coworkers, this journey would never have been possible.

Final Thoughts

The weekend was filled with many events and inspiring stories of overcoming adversity.  None of which would be possible without The Challenged Athletes Foundation and their mission to provide opportunities and support to people with physical disabilities so that they can pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness and competitive athletics.  From toddlers to seasoned veterans, I was continually amazed and inspired by everyone I met and competed alongside with.  

Krisin and I at the finish line!
I finished as the 69th male overall, out of 81 men that competed and 103rd overall out of 121 total competitors.  There were 750 total competitors between the open triathlon athletes and the relay team athletes, but Jorge and I were two of the few amputees that completed all three phases.  It was never about competing for a title, rather about completing a journey.  With that said, I will be back in San Diego on Sunday, October 20, 2013 to compete in the 20th annual San Diego Triathlon Challenge.  You better believe that I will better those times and improve upon my standings.

Until we meet again, take care, remain positive, and stay strong!!!


If you'd like to join me in my efforts to support the Challenged Athletes Foundation, please go to the following link: Mike McDonough's Donation Page for 2013 SDTC

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