The same thing happened in Ironman Florida: I got a case of the “what ifs” two days before the race. Back then, I worked through my fears and arrived at the beach calm and focused on what I love – to swim, bike and run. The South Beach Triathlon, where I pulled my quadriplegic friend Kerry Gruson as part of Team ThumbsUp, followed the same pattern. Days prior I was full of worry and fear. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. This time, I wasn’t just thinking of my race strategy, I was responsible for someone else. Someone who had never been out there, and who trusted me completely. We also received a lot of press and were even in the front page of the Miami Herald so I knew there would be people cheering and cameras filming. That was part of the goal; we wanted to get Kerry’s message of empowerment and motivation out there. But the attention added to my fears, and complicated the “what ifs.”
I arrived to transition early with Andreas (my bike coach who would ride the race with us) and Lilly (my swim coach who would swim the race with us). Because I cannot communicate with Kerry especially during the swim and bike, their job of checking in with her and then communicating with me was crucial. I trust those two as much as Kerry trusts me and remembered Greg Shimony’s (from Care2Tri) advice: “worry about the race, and let the volunteers worry about Kerry.” At that point, what was done was done; anything else would have to be improvised.
The three of us headed to the beach where we would meet up with the Wolfpack volunteers who would have gotten Kerry and JT, the kayak, and all necessary supplies to the start line. The kayak would be inflated and ready to go, except that none of them knew how it was supposed to look so when I arrived and saw it almost deflated I thought it might have had a hole. They didn’t know there was a third valve. As soon as I said something, they sprang to action and in a few minutes we had the sturdiest kayak I have ever seen! And good thing because the East wind brought with it choppy waves we’d have to get through.
I looked at Lilly; it was her call. Where I just had to swim, Lilly had to keep Kerry safe or be in charge if she flipped over. I didn’t want her job, nor take responsibility for it. She agreed we should go for it, and we transferred Kerry to the kayak – not an easy feat as it is a narrow space and we need to make lots of adjustments. Once settled people began clapping. We all took a step back and joined in honoring Kerry. She is one gutsy lady to head out into that ocean and onto a triathlon.
The three of us took to the water and got hit face first by a wave. Kerry insisted she was fine as we struggled to get past the break point, yet soon enough we found our rhythm. People tried to swim between me and the kayak, in essence pulling the rope that was attached to my hip down. I would freak out, stop and push those guys away. Each time I felt a big wave I turned to double check and Lilly would tell me “it’s okay go.” Though I loved the turquoise water, I must have been nervous because I had a great swim. 18 minutes.
The way out of the water was also tricky as the waves crashed and pushed us, but our Wolfpack crew was there to help us get to shore and transfer Kerry to a special sand wheelchair. Our eager volunteers pushed Kerry while I ran next to them smiling as the crowd cheered us on.
We got to our special transition area where the team moved Kerry to the carrier and organized her helmet, race number, pillows, drink (open with straw inside), whistle, etc. I went to the side and got my stuff together. My biggest fear, honestly, was mounting on the bike. I tend to struggle with all the athletes trying to get out fast and slipping or crashing into each other. I thought with all the extra attention, I would be more nervous and then fall.
Andreas was right next to me and fortunately I managed to pull it together. That part was crazy, and loud and cheerful. I was on the left side of the road, trying to get to the right as people where flying by. I mean seriously, is it worth running someone over to get three seconds ahead? Apparently … yes. But once I made it over, things fell into place and I began to ride better. Andreas had to ride behind us so that we did not create a big block people had to pass. He would ride up to Kerry and check-in every couple of minutes letting me know if we were ThumbsUpping or not.
We started with a tailwind, and even so, the first of eight inclines felt harder than it should’ve. Andreas promised that it was because my legs were not warmed up yet. I hoped he was right because I was going 15mph to 16mph on the flat where in training I only got to 12mph. This meant the wind was a force and once we turned it would hit me head on.
Which it did.
It felt as if the wind got stuck inside the carrier, like a parachute. That would make the carrier pull me back as I tried to move forward. If I made the gear heavier so I could go faster, I would have a dead spot in my pedal stroke causing the carrier to go “boing”. It’s as if the carrier was a spring which would at first pull me back, but then let itself go and thrust me forward. It’s hard to explain the sensation, but my lesson was this: lighter gear and steady cadence pushing harder than the wind was pulling me.
As I saw the bridge on the Julia Tuttle Causeway, I told Andreas that there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it. That bridge had never scared me but that day, with that wind, I had my doubts. I got on the lightest gear as directed by Andreas who would repeat “keep your cadence constant, if you don’t stop moving you won’t fall, doing great Cristina, keep pedaling.”
Once I began going up it was hard, but I never felt like I wasn’t going to make it. I’ve been in that situation before in Portugal, where I was at the lightest gear, standing up, and my legs simply could not make the bike go up the 18% incline any more. This was not the case. I was breathing hard, spinning like a mad woman, and inching my way to the top. The downhills though, were fun. I knew Kerry liked speed so once I gained some confidence I began “decending.” I would tuck in, and let the bike go. We would hit 25 or maybe 30 mph. Andreas would make sure that Kerry was okay and we got ready for the next incline. Later Kerry told me that was one of her favorite parts … “weeeeeeeee” she said with a big smile.
However, I was getting tired and broke my “no negative thoughts allowed” rule letting one creep in. The race was “thinning” as there were less people out there. Everyone passed us, we did not pass anyone on the bike. Sure, no one was racing tandem with an extra 120 pounds but for some reason I let that get to me. Yet most people that passed us either said hello, or encouraged us so that was always helpful and lifted my spirits.
We rolled into transition about 1h40 later with our whole crew there ready to help. We had to transform the carrier from bike to run mode by tilting it backwards, changing the position of a metal bar, and adding a wheel. Kerry loves to be tilted, and I had warned everyone that though I know exactly what to do, I get flustered because I need to align little holes in three moving parts to pass a little metal bar through them. As I began working I was holding a spare piece and heard someone say “I’ll keep that for you.” I look up to give them the piece only to realize it was triathlon World Champion Leanda Cave.
I had met Leanda a couple of months ago as she was our celebrity cheerleader. I knew she was racing but I didn’t know what role, if any, she would be playing in our little venture. I also heard my kids “mami, mami” so I waved hi and realized so many people where working on the carrier that I should go get my shoes on. They have Phds, and all kinds of degrees. They could figure out how to align the moving parts.
Soon enough, we rolled out of transition and Leanda was still with us. I handed her Kerry and they took off since even in the best of days, I cannot keep up with Leanda Cave. I had no problems letting go, this was a team effort and I have no ownership rights over the person to push Kerry. I ran behind keeping the best pace I could. A group went with Kerry, while Lilly and my teammate and sponsor Mickey from See Me In The Dark ran with me.
We ran together, with Mickey encouraging me while I cursed at her. It’s our little tradition. Kerry, Leanda and the rest of the crew waited for us near the end of mile 3 as we were about to start the last 1.2 miles of the race on the sand.
I had run that mile with Kerry before and it wasn’t easy. On our own, I would be almost horizontal pushing the carrier whose front wheel would dig into the sand. Because of this we decided to take turns pushing through the sand and let the guys do most of the heavy lifting. I fell back a bit, even though Lilly and Mickey would hassle me to run faster. I realized Leanda Cave fell back with me. She told me the way to get through sand or rough terrain is to take little steps. “Little steps, little steps” she repeated almost singing. She was so comforting and helpful, and as we ran I could hear people say “what? That’s Leanda Cave!” I’m sure she heard it too, but she just kept me focused on the little steps.
I was taken back by her humility and generosity. She fit into our team as if she had been with us for years. She acted not as the triathlon legend she is, but as a piece of a larger puzzle. She showed me what champions are really made of.
We turned the corner and one of the guys passed Kerry to me. This was it, the final stretch. We had a plan though.
On one of our swim sessions we stood Kerry on the sand while transferring her from the carrier to the kayak. She told us to wait there one second. She hadn’t felt the sand in years. Since the South Beach Triathlon finish line is on the sand (though it is covered by a red carpet), we decided that right before the finish we would stand Kerry up and have her finish on her own two feet, and on the sand she missed so much.
That is when I first caught glimpse of the banner the Wolfpack made us. It was as if the whole race flashed before me in a nano second. I saw my teammates on the beach inflating the kayak, moving Kerry, cheering, and taking pictures. I saw them in transition, on the road, on the run, on the beach, running back and forth, cleaning up, getting ready. They were behind the scenes as well as in front of it. They worked together around me with a singleness of purpose I have never experienced before. I felt carried, supported and part of something special. I saw Joe and the boys, and other friends who were at the finish showing their support. I know I played a big role here, I am not saying I didn’t, but this tremendous show of unity is a testament to Kerry, her story and her ThumbsUp attitude which inspired my entire team to have our backs.
When you are paired with an fierce woman to race a triathlon where you swim with your swim coach, bike with your bike coach, run with a World Champion, and are supported by your team and your family … it’s hard to have a bad race. For me, the South Beach Triathlon will be unforgettable, and I hope that day will be unforgettable for many others who saw us there, on television or read about us on the paper. I hope they left thinking “Wow, if they pulled that off, I can do [INSERT YOUR CRAZY IDEA HERE].” I hope they faced their week a little more empowered, inspired and humbled by what a ThumbsUp attitude can do.
Read Kerry’s race review HERE.
How about you? What are you thinking of doing now, that you thought you couldn’t do before? What challenges are you facing with a ThumbsUp attitude?