Monthly Archives: November 2017

Guiding for Achilles at the 2017 New York City Marathon

On Sunday, Nov. 5, Team Asim spent the day running through Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan during the iconic TCS NYC Marathon.

About to make some marathon magic

Although I’m about one week removed from the race, the experience still seems surreal. Did our Achilles group really log 26.2 miles in the Big Apple—with more than 50,000 fellow runners?

Sunday’s journey through the five boroughs marked several second times for me: guiding the marathon distance for Achilles; covering the distance ever; and tackling 26.2 miles this year. In March, I guided the same athlete for the Queens Marathon, but even with this outing, I still felt anxious. Leading a disabled athlete through a race is a huge responsibility, and my biggest fear was that something would happen to me—or to one of our three additional guides—that would impact our athlete’s race. The marathon is an equalizer in the sense that it challenges everyone who toes the start line. Although I trusted my Corona Park experience, I did not discount the inevitable tough patches our team would face. But that’s the marathon: when you’ve been out there for a while, and your legs feel like logs and every step takes all your energy, how do you respond? I had faith in our team to remain positive, hang tough, and cross the finish line.

Marathon weekend unofficially began on Thursday when I ventured to the Javits Center to pick up my guide bib and race materials, and on Friday evening, there was an Achilles International dinner at the Hotel Pennsylvania. That’s when reality of the race started to sink in: athletes from around the world (Denmark, Mexico, and even South Africa just to name a few) were running, and I felt honored for the opportunity to be part of my athlete’s race. On Saturday night, Team Asim—our namesake, four guides, plus family members and friends—went out to dinner, and then we got down to business of reviewing the game plan. Asim tabbed me as the lead guide and pacesetter, meaning I was responsible for locking in to our goal speed, communicating our formation, observations, and needs, and ensuring we functioned as a team. We decided to break up the race into six-mile segments, and though all four of us would be tackling the complete distance, we would take turns using the race belt to guide Asim. (The first guide would do miles one through six, the second six through 12, etc.) Asim asked me to guide him for the final stretch—miles 18 through the end—I was honored. Those later miles are the toughest of the day, so the fact that I got the guide “anchor leg” was a huge responsibility. Mentally, that’s when I told myself the race would start. My goal was to be a sparkplug, to create sustainable, contagious energy that would carry us to the finish line.

My alarm sounded at 4:30am on Sunday morning, and Asim and I inhaled some oatmeal before catching a cab to the Athletes With Disabilities (AWD) buses on 38th Street and Fifth Avenue. It was really neat to see a sea of runners descending on Midtown so early in the morning! The ride to Staten Island took about an hour, and upon our arrival, we hung out in the AWD Village until our 9:50 a.m. wave. During this time, we talked to fellow runners and reviewed the pace plan.  Our goal was to break five hours, but we were prepared to make adjustments as necessary. We would check in with each other every mile, of course, but I wanted us averaging 10:45-11:00 min./mi. My main checkpoints were miles 13 and 18; we needed to hit those miles feeling decent and in control of the effort. From there, the grind would begin—staying strong mentally and continuing to move forward.

Running down our marathon dreams in Brooklyn

Although it was a little chilly at the start line on the Verrazano Bridge, the temperature hovered around 45-50 degrees throughout the day, and there was a continuous light misting of rain. These were perfect conditions for me, but the weather posed an added challenge for a visually impaired athlete: the precipitation led to slick pavement, and the road itself was littered with cups, nutrition wrappers, and other debris that we had to navigate.

Another factor that tested Team Asim was the 50,000-plus other runners. We started the race at the back of the first wave, so the opening miles weren’t crowded, but as we logged miles 8-13 in Brooklyn, the on-course traffic was unrelenting. Most athletes were courteous and moved to the side when we announced there was a blind running approaching. Some racers infiltrated our formation and cut directly in from of Asim, and there were two instances specifically where I “gently guided” these folks out of the way. During our Brooklyn stint, I did a lot of diagonal running with my arms totally extended (think a basketball defensive stance) to create a human shield around Asim with the goal of ensuring no one would obstruct his space.

When you see one of your friends at mile 24 …

Brooklyn was by far the toughest area to guide, but it was also the most fun. I literally ran into one of my friends who was racing, and I saw two more buds spectating. The narrow streets made it easy to read signs—throughout the day, we read aloud signs to Asim—and it also creating a wall of sound: cheering, clapping, horns, cowbells. The weather was not conducive to watching a marathon so it meant a lot to see so many people braving the elements and urging us on. Our team was super grateful for the energy and the cheers, and lots of fellow runners gave us a thumbs up or a “Go Achilles” on the course. Those moments were magic.

The going got tough for Team Asim around mile 18 when cramps arrived, forcing us to take our first walk break. (That was also when race officials announced Shalane Flanagan won the women’s race!) Prior to the race and even during the event itself, the magnitude of running 26.2 miles didn’t phase me—mostly because I didn’t give it the headspace. But it was impossible to dismiss those feelings in the Bronx. My arms felt like bricks from playing zone defense in Brooklyn. My left hip was also noticeable, but thankfully not debilitating. Finally, I acknowledged everything: I was running a marathon; it’s not supposed to be easy, but I am fine; and I have one job, and that’s to get Team Asim to the finish line in Central Park. But it’s in these moments of discomfort where change, growth, and magic happen—a fact I relayed to Asim. We were all going through our own tough spells, and I told him we were all in this together.

Marathon finishers!

They say if the hurt comes, then so will the happiness. We powered through the final miles in the Bronx and in Central Park, running when we could and walking when necessary. The fans were absolutely phenomenal, giving us all a much needed boost. (And I saw another one of my friends!) As we exited the park, headed along Central Park West, and reentered for the final time, we began to cheer and throw up our hands to get the crowd to cheer for Asim. We picked it up during that half-mile uphill and finished in 5:28.

We look gooooood

Volunteering for Achilles has redefined my outlook on sport, and I encourage all runners, endurance athletes, and fitness enthusiasts to give guiding a try.

2nd Annual SwimRunVA Recap

On Saturday, Oct. 21, I completed my “A” race of the 2017 season, SwimRunVA. Held in Richmond, the endurance event spanned roughly 18 miles, totaling 3.3 miles of swimming in the James River and 14.9 miles of running along trails.

#TwoStevens!

The uniqueness of swimrun centers on its structure and logistics. Unlike typical road races and triathlons, this is a team event, meaning each athlete sticks with their partner for the duration of the competition. (Garden State SwimRun was an exception.) Most swimrun races are point-to-point, starting at A and traveling to B, and all contain multiple transitions that challenge athletes to go back and forth between swimming and running. Finally, all gear that is used for the swim must be carried on the run and vice versa; ultimately, this equates to swimming while wearing running shoes and running with paddles and pull buoys. Sounds like fun, right?

Pull buoys, paddles, wetsuits, oh my!

“Fun” was the guiding principle for my triathlon training this year. My coach and I worked to round out my endurance portfolio, gain multisport experience in a variety of events, and ultimately keep this lifestyle fresh and fun: I guided an Achilles athlete for a marathon (and we’re doing the NYC Marathon tomorrow, but that’s another post!); I participated in swim meets; and, I competed in two swimrun events.

Getting after it on the trails

SwimRunVA sounded interesting because with the abovementioned outlook, it demanded lots of swim and run training, which meant lots of time working on my not-as-strong triathlon disciplines. Since I had never attempted this type of race, my training saw some new techniques and different workouts, and it also introduced a team component. Although I love competing solo, I grew up playing team sports; the fact that I would be tackling 3.3 miles of swimming and 14.9 miles of running with a friend not only gave me peace of mind—knowing we were in it together—but it also made me train harder. It was easier to tap in to motivation knowing that my teammate was counting on me.

Scoping out the swim

As the race approached, my teammate and I met up once each week and completed swim-run bricks together: twenty minutes of swimming, 20 minutes of running, 20 minutes of swimming, etc. These workouts gave us the chance to identify sustainable paces (we projected a five-hour finishing time), work on communication, and above all, get used to transitioning from swimming to running and vice versa. Each Sunday was a key workout day for me: I’d run 3.5 miles to masters practice, swim for two hours, and run 3.5 miles back home. Overall, I swam 4-5 days per week and ran four days.

Sighting #AllForTheSwim

Anyway, onto our memorable weekend in Richmond!

We flew down from New York City late Thursday afternoon, which gave us enough time to get our bearings, explore the area, and take care of last-minute race necessities. We ordered a swim-run race kit from Europe that contained our tether, pull buoys, and compasses, but the package was held in customs, leaving us without gear. Luckily, we found a swim shop within an aquatics center, so we bought the required items. Friday morning began with a shake-out half-mile “run” to the Black Sheep for breakfast, and we also ventured down to the American Civil War Museum to check out the mighty James River—its surging rapids and monstrous boulders were clear indicators of just how gnarly the swim portions would be, and we were pumped!

So gnarly

One reason the boulders were so visible was due to the low water level, the race director Jay told us at the pre-race briefing and dinner. (Sidebar: two thumbs up for the veg-friendly spread!) Last year, the James was about five feet deep while the water measured 3.5 feet. This meant we would have to swim around and potentially over these rocks, and these natural road blocks added an extra challenge to navigating the course: there was never a true straight line we could follow. Unlike triathlon, where there are buoys stationed at various points on the course, the swims in Richmond had two buoys only—one at the entry point, and one where competitors exited. Safety measures and general swimrun etiquette was also discussed, and Jay also reviewed the course in its entirety. Although SwimRunVA was only my second ever event of that kind, I felt relaxed and at ease after the briefing. Sure, there was some uncertainty—how would my “new” pull buoy hold up on the run? What if we got lost?—but it would be an adventure!

Fiddling with my paddles

I wish I could talk about each of the seven runs and six swims in great detail, but honestly, the entire race was a blur. My teammate and I settled in to a comfortable, endurance pace with the objective of managing our energy and simply enjoying the day. The opening run and swim segments set the tone for outing as we were greeted by a gorgeous sunrise. During those moments—especially during the swim as it was the longest continuous one of the day at 1.1 miles—I took time to reflect. I felt grateful to be in nature, exploring a new-to-me area. I felt grateful to have a body that allowed me to swim and run. And I felt grateful for the experience as it was unfolding moment to moment.

Thanks for the suit, Blueseventy!

Race day conditions were perfect. The air temperature started around 50 degrees and steadily climbed to the low 70s, and the water hovered around 60 degrees. The first swim felt a little brisk, but it ended up being ideal as the race progressed; each time we finished a run segment, we were ready to get in the water and cool off. (There are a handful of companies that make swimrun suits, and Blueseventy hooked me up with a prototype they are introducing to the market next year. I absolutely loved it!) Most of the running legs traversed trails, but there were a handful of “urban” running segments with stairs, ladders, and—my favorite—a pipeline. Full disclosure, we did get lost three times, but that was our fault. (Race protocol dictated we carry a course map, which proved to be helpful in these instances, ha.) Plus, it gave us a chance to further explore Richmond.

I felt like I was in The Hunger Games!

Team Two Stevens finished in 4:47, and we narrowly missed the podium in the mixed division—by four seconds! But more importantly, we had a blast, and we already registered for next year’s race.