The Road to Redemption

I took a year out of Para-Cycling to train for the Ironman World Championships. I spent many hours doing solitary swimming, biking and running and then failed to deliver the result I was more than capable of in Kona. To say it preyed on my mind is an understatement. I went over and over the race in my head, asking myself how I could miss the combined Swim/T1/Bike Cut-off by the smallest of margins, by less than two minutes. I couldn’t face the prospect of failing again, or waiting another year to prove that I could do it. So I booked Ironman Cozumel six days after Kona, and retreated from Social Media, not telling anyone except my Coach and children.

Unfortunately, I was sick for three weeks after racing in Kona with an infection. It’s fairly typical for an athlete pushing their limits to become ill once the pressure of competing is off, but it wasn’t the best timing. I fitted in training as best I could, and wondered if I’d actually just wasted a lot of money.

I had to travel to Mexico on my own, with a layover in Miami. I’d contacted British Airways to ask about an excess luggage waiver and the staff at Heathrow were fantastic at arranging for all my bags to go straight though to Cozumel, avoiding me having to cart them around Miami. I arrived at the Airport the next day, after an hour delay in getting a wheelchair accessible taxi from my Hotel and queued up for ‘Special Assistance’ where the lady in charge ignored me. I decided to get through Security on my own, towing a suitcase and a small laptop bag with my electric Tri-Ride through the Airport. I wasn’t allowed through the fast channel and of course, I had to wait for a female security staff member to give me the extra special pat-down, wheelchair swab, search, shoe swab that I have to endure every single time I travel. I got to my Gate and had missed my flight…

There was a Public Holiday the next day in Cozumel of course, so all flights were fully booked for the next few days. My only option was a flight to Cancun which proved a struggle to eventually get, and a Ferry across to Cozumel. I was relieved to not have all my adaptive equipment with me! The Ferry Terminal was 45 minutes from the Airport by Taxi and I was carried up a steep ramp in my wheelchair, whilst Wendy and her lovely family helped me with my luggage.

I’d booked my Hotel online and emailed to ask about an ADA room, having seen that they had facilities for Disabled Guests. I should have known better. I arrived to be told that access to my room was via a narrow path, a steep grassy bank, a step and through the patio doors. I couldn’t manage it unassisted and literally wept with frustration. I was really down about having to manage yet another trip as a Para-Triathlete solo, compounded by not knowing where my adaptive equipment was. I was in Cozumel, but where was my kit?

I’d arranged an Airport Transfer through the Ironman website and the Employees of Olympus Tours were marvelous, despite me having missed my pick-up. A more accessible hotel was arranged for me the next day, and they phoned the Airport in Cozumel and I took a Taxi to meet them to collect my luggage. Once I was back with it all, it was a race against the clock to get at least my bike put back together in order to test it out before dark.

It was dusk, not a very sensible time to be out on unknown roads on the wrong side of the road, but it was already Tuesday and my race was only four days away. I put four sets of lights on my bike and helmet, a six foot flag pole up with fluorescent flags, and set off, having been told about a bike path to find. I hadn’t gone far before I saw flashing blue lights in my mirror and the Police pulled alongside me. Apparently I had missed the bike lane, so they escorted me onto it and asked how long I would be. I decided not to push my luck and turned round shortly after, only to get stuck on a speed bump getting back. Luckily, a very nice Moped rider stopped to lift me over.

No matter where in the world I have travelled to race, I have always found incredibly kind people who have helped me out. I call them my Guardian Angels, as they appear at just the right moments. Barry and Cindy Faust, a lovely American couple, were staying at my new Hotel and we got chatting about all things Ironman. Barry had hoped to compete, but bone cancer treatment called a halt to that, so they travelled to Cozumel for a holiday in between Chemo treatments. We had a laugh taking part in the Underwear Run for charity and winning some raffle prizes, then they volunteered to help me rack both my hand bike and racing wheelchair. The race chair was easy, it was just a short walk from out Hotel to T2, but asking Volunteers exactly where to leave it, when everyone else was hanging up plastic bags, took some time to sort.

Coaches had been laid on to get to T2 from all the official Hotels, but my hand bike was too high for the luggage compartment underneath. I doubted it would go onto the bus, but with some extra hands, it sat across the tops of several rows of seats. Then there was the additional manhandling of both myself and my wheelchair to get onboard…but all went well.

Race morning I had a rather grim 3am wake-up call, as did my fantastic volunteer helpers, who had come forward after a Facebook plea by Caroline Gaynor and the Cozumel Ironman community, aided by Dailene Erikson. All four of them met me at my Hotel at 5:15am ready for the coach down to T2. Because of the split Transitions and Swim start/finish, I had Salim and Chris stay in T2 at the water exit after helping prepare my bike, whilst Rhonda and Pascal accompanied me back on the bus to the swim start.

Ironman Cozumel Officials had arranged for all AWD (or PC) athletes to start after the Pro women at 7:20am, giving us a 10 minute lead on the mass of Age Groupers and their rolling start. With the bus delayed, Officials cleared the way through the gathering crowds to the start Pontoon, where I barely had time to finish putting on my wetsuit, hat and goggles, before the horn went off. It was odd swimming on my own, as a female duo were ahead, and the two male athletes were behind me. I tried not to be distracted by the marine life below me and concentrated on holding my form for the straight line 2.4 mile swim. I was passed by only the fastest Age Groupers, and surprised my Handlers who were helping the female duo out the water, one minute ahead of me.

As I was carried out of the water by Chris and Salim, I could see Rhonda and Chris on the other side of the barrier out of the corner of my eye, hoisting my wheelchair aloft! I didn’t get to use it and was carried round the changing tents into T2, where I used two chairs which had appeared overnight (thank you organizers-I thought I’d be groveling around on the sand getting changed) to strip my wetsuit and put on my cycling top. Then it was onto the bike, getting my nutrition under my waist strap, and being escorted out of T2 by my helpers, to start the 112 mile cycle.

Ironman Cozumel is a three loop course round the Island, with little in the way of elevation, but plenty of wind to make up for it. Aid stations were plentiful and I switched bottles of water for ice cold ones with only a few mishaps, including one where I was smacked in the face with a bottle by an over zealous youngster, and losing two as they bounced out of my bottle cage on the rough surfaces. Halfway on the bike is the toughest point, where my arms ached and I knew I had the same distance to go, but at least I was not on my own out on the course. The rolling swim start meant there were plenty of other athletes still out, despite my long ride.

Into T2 and so overwhelmingly glad just to make it there, after my disappointment in Kona only six weeks previously that I took my time, got into my day chair, rolled into the changing tent, applied sunscreen and put on compression sleeves to help my arms in the final 26.2 mile Marathon, then got into my race chair and rolled onto the run course, wondering how I would feel, having never had the chance to do a full Marathon after 114.4 miles using just my arms!

All the training, all those brick sessions of hard hand bike rides and run intervals immediately paid off, as I picked up the pace on my first loop of three, accompanied by a cyclist with a whistle clearing the way for me. The course is relatively flat and I benefited from the tailwind on the return section of each loop. Until I got a puncture, that is. A sickening hiss and I looked down at my right wheel, flat as a pancake. Not an ideal situation with a little over 5km to go to the finish line. My cyclist radioed for a mechanic to no avail and we tried to inflate the tyre with a Vittorio Pit stop I had in a bag attached to my race chair. I was running on full disks with tubular tyres and the valve needed a 90 degree adaptor, which I had, but we failed to fix it. I decided to carry on and roll on the flat tyre, hoping the carbon disk wheel would not be damaged in the process. I simply had to finish, there was no other option.

I was so frustrated, it was so difficult to push the racing wheelchair with a flat tyre, other athletes were now passing me and time was slipping by. I’d had the aim of trying to beat the current Ironman world record for a female wheelchair athlete in a recumbent hand bike and had been aiming for a three hour Marathon.

I couldn’t believe it when I finally hit that iconic red carpet, arms burning, to hear the announcer proclaim: ‘Elizabeth McTernan, you are an Ironman’. Incredibly, I also managed to set a new world record completing my first full Ironman. I owe a great deal of gratitude to all the people that help me achieve my goals; all my sponsors, my race volunteers and helpers, my family and all the lovely people I get to meet meet doing this fantastic sport.

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Race day! IM 70.3 Florida

I was incredibly fortunate to stay at a fantastic AirBnB the day before my race in Haines City as Bernie, my host, was able to transport all my race equipment in his truck to the race venue. I met my volunteer Handler, Devin, at registration and with my friend Carolyn who’d come down from Washington D.C., we ran through what I needed them to do in T1 and T2. We then attended the race briefing, grabbed some food and I went to bed early!

Race day dawned horribly early at 3am, as I needed to attend to my sci bowel routine as usual and put in place an indwelling catheter for the race-I would not have time to stop and catheterize and cannot use a Portapotti. We also needed to be in transition before it shut at 6am to put nutrition on the bike and racing chair, get body marked and put on my wetsuit, ready for a 6:50am race start.

I was carried onto the sandy beach by Devin and felt quite nervous. Most lakes in Florida have alligators and I didn’t fancy becoming an amputee! The swim course was also a rather weird ‘M’ shape marked with small buoys and it was barely light before the gun went off. Swimming with the 50-54 year old men was an interesting experience, as was wave after wave of swimmers cramped into a tight course. I tried drafting but was constantly swum over by swimmers crossing my bows, with no idea on sighting. I felt tired at the halfway point and knew that I was off my ideal race pace.

Devin was at the water exit up to his knees, scooped me up and ran up the sandy beach to deposit me in my waiting wheelchair. Pushing into T1, I felt really dizzy, having been swimming horizontal for what felt like forever. I was into my hand bike and out onto the open roads soon enough though.

For the first hour on the bike, I struggled to get warm, my right hand, which operates my Di2, completely numb and my cycling top dripping wet. Florida has a huge temperature range, dropping to single figures overnight and climbing rapidly during the day. It was 11 degrees celsius at the start of my race and climbed to 34 degrees later…

The first 45km were fairly flat and fast, with a good tailwind most of the way, and I was making good time, then we hit the first of a series of 10% climbs over the next 25km, with increasing headwind from the north. I was aware that I still had a Half-Marathon to complete and stuck to my race plan, perhaps a little too rigidly. Out on the bike for hours, I experienced my first-and hopefully last-‘golden shower’, when a woman overtook me, lifted her bottom off the saddle and proceeded to pee all over me. I’d known most triathletes don’t stop at designated Portapotti, but I didn’t expect to be the actual toilet stop!

I nearly missed my transition spot coming into T2 and had to back my hand bike up with my hands on the back wheels. A quick blast of suncream and transfer to my racing chair and I set off on the penultimate leg which I had been dreading since we drove round the day before. The run course was a pretty horrendous mix of ‘sidewalk’ running, sharp technical turns, 8% and 10% hills, flat fast sections, traffic cones, litter, and people oblivious to a fast moving racing chair. My biggest fear was another crash like in NYC Olympic Triathlon in 2012, where I split my Spiuck helmet in two places having landed upside down on it trying to avoid a runner oblivious to the Marshall shouting to him.

Fortunately, by the time I had dashed past most runners on lap 1, most people were well aware of me, giving me plenty of space. The most difficult challenge was the hill from transition with a 90 degree uphill turn to a 10% hill but on the ‘sidewalk’ or pavement. Without any momentum to carry me, I had no option but to turn the wheelchair backwards up the hill and crawl slowly up three times. I got plenty of lovely encouragement from everyone, but I was barely able to mutter ‘Thank-you’ to them.

Crossing the grassy finish line was, however, amazing! I’d done it! The highlight of the day was a fellow competitor who came up to me afterwards to thank me personally. He said seeing me struggle up the hills and not giving up inspired him to carry on despite suffering cramp. And the post race beer-the first in months-was pretty awesome!IMG_1076.JPG

Gratitude

Whilst 2105 has been a pretty successful sporting year for me as you can see from all the trophies and medals below, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the many individuals, friends and supporters, sponsors and businesses, who have supported me on my journey in para-sport.

Medals and trophies 2015.jpgThanks go to:

Fogarty, Master Quilt and Pillow Makers, http://www.fogarty.co.uk/blog/fridays-news who provided ‘Viva’ the VW, fully customized to fit my hand bike, plus two dogs and camping gear for my two month trek around Europe this summer. I’m still getting used to seeing my name on the side of her and am looking forward to more adventures!

Mammoth Mattress http://mammothmattress.co.uk/category/elite-athletes/ who kindly supplied a custom made memory foam mattress for ‘Viva’ to make sure I had adequate sleep recovery in-between my races.

Alfred Bekker http://alfredbekker.com/product-range/hand-controls-for-disabled-drivers/# who converted the van with hand controls that allowed me to cruise along the Autobahns and motorways of Europe in comfort.

KitBrix http://www.kitbrix.co.uk whose bags do a sterling job of keeping all my cycling stuff well organized in the confines of ‘Viva’.

The Arctic One Foundation http://www.arctic1.co.uk who provided me with a small cash grant which paid for my EuroTunnel fare to Europe to compete this year.

Challenged Athlete Foundation http://www.challengedathletes.org/site/c.4nJHJQPqEiKUE/b.6449023/k.BD6D/Home.htm whose training grant allowed me to pay for a cycling coach so I could train and prepare better.

The University of Lincoln http://lincoln.ac.uk/home/media/universityoflincoln/schoolofsportandexercisescience/UoL-Sport-2015.pdf for providing Sports Science support-it’s been an interesting journey so far!

My 5,000+ Twitter followers! The support, jokes, concern, sympathy, friendship and valuable contacts has been unending and I thank you.

To all the people I met in Europe who helped me with dog-sitting, tent erecting, laundry, food, meals, campsites, shopping, doctors, friendship, swimming, directions, training and more!

To my children, George and Rebecca, who helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel after my sci accident and are my most steadfast supporters, I love you more than…

And lastly, to my late best friend Micky Greenwood, who taught me so much about how to live life well and enjoy every moment you are given x
I wish you all have a peaceful, happy and prosperous 2016