Taking on Ironman

By From page A8 | November 28, 2011

Richard Hunter, 44, left, trains with coach Jon Klingensmith, 36. Thanks to both men's tireless efforts Hunter completed his first Ironman challenge. Village Life photo by Shelly Thorene

Editor’s note: After El Dorado Hills’ Richard Hunter was diagnosed with retinitus pigmentosa, an eye disease that leads to complete loss of sight, he became a runner. He’s been training hard since competing in the Boston Marathon in 2008 and is breaking down barriers for visually impaired athletes through the C Different Foundation. Hunter worked with the directors of the California International Marathon to include an event — the United States Association of Blind Athletes Visually Impaired Championship. Two blind athletes ran in 2007 and 15 entered in 2010. Hunter, who ran with former Oak Ridge runner Amjed Aboukhadijeh as his guide, took second last December. This year Hunter trained and competed in the 2011 Ford Ironman Florida event, his first Ironman, and is sharing his adventure with Village Life readers. For more information about the C Different Foundation e-mail [email protected].

By Richard Hunter
Special to Village Life 

I particiapted in my first full Ironman race Nov. 5 with Alan Gulledge as my guide. This is my third year of doing triathlons but only my 10th ever.

I wrote this race report so I could reread it in the future amd relive the emotions of my journey which was shared by many. Everything is so fresh right now I still tear up and swallow a lump in my throat when I talk about the volunteers who helped make it possible.

Journey’s beginning, part I

Three years ago under quite extraordinary circumstances, I met Justin Waller, an Ironman athlete who was seeking an opportunity to guide a visually impaired athlete in a triathlon.

He was inspired by coverage of C Different Foundation guides serving as eyes for the blind competing in triathlons. Waller felt participating in the sport in a different way would rekindle his Ironman fire.

I didn’t know anyone who had done an Ironman but I read reports of them and was in awe of the amazing athletes and their stories. Watching coverage of Ironman races sent shivers to my core and now a multiple finisher wanted to help me.

Justin devoted a year to guiding, mentoring and training with me. He guided me to my first half Ironman finish in Augusta, Ga. in 2009. His spirit lit a fire in me that I don’t think will ever burn out. He gave me so much and to honor that I am paying it forward.

Justin introduced me to all the resources who make triathlons possible for a guy who otherwise couldn’t participate. Justin will always be my personal hero; he was the answer to a prayer and bolstered my faith like nothing else.

Justin proved to me that I had what it took to finish a 70.3 mile triathlon in respectable fashion, but being the anal retentive worry wart that I am, there was no way I would ever consider a full Ironman until I passed certain personal tests. Most importantly, how could I run a marathon after swimming 2.4 miles and riding a bicycle for 112 miles if I couldn’t even run a marathon without cramping for up to 10 miles?

With help from Ironwman and sports nutritionist Sheila Leard, I completed endurance events cramp-free, opening up the possibility of doing an Ironman.

Overcoming adversity

Given the wealth of volunteers who helped me train I can’t say my vision loss handicapped my ability to participate. The adversity I faced was like everyone else who contemplates finishing an Ironman. Shortly after signing up a year ago, I underwent seven months of physical therapy. My pelvis was constantly becoming misaligned, exacerbating issues related to super tight hip flexors pulling on my arthritic lower spine.

A locked-up calf muscle, and a tight IT band, quadracep muscle and hamstring caused problems with my ankle. When I finally left physical therapy in July armed with core strengthening exercises and stretches, the therapist made it clear that my body was not likely to stand up to the increasing demands Ironman training would entail.

The smart thing would have been to stop, strengthen my core and start all over again. I almost quit but my coach, Jon Klingensmith, suggested I take things day by day and he tailored my training so I would be less likely to hurt myself further. I kept at it, all the while anticipating the other shoe to drop.

I started having rather severe nerve pain shooting down my leg from my SI joint, through the piriformis and across my left ankle and foot. That is still an issue, but it only hurts when I’m walking or standing and subsides during exercise. I kept going.

With four weeks to go I came down with bronchitis just as my two weeks of final peak training were about to start. Urgent Care gave me a breathing treatment and a prescription and the doctor said exercise wouldn’t make it worse. But my oxygen saturation levels were so low I had to take it easy. I don’t even know what that means!

I resumed training after one day off. My lungs didn’t seem to deflate all of the way before I’d start the next breath and the crackling of my lungs made me wonder if I was doing damage after all. Could I recover in time to race?

I had so many problems up until race week I wasn’t convinced my body would get me to the start line. On the positive side — I lived in the present and didn’t think about the race until a couple of days prior to leaving.

Two bodies are needed when a visually impaired athlete participates in a triathlon. Aware that Alan is not superhuman, I had asked Ironman athlete Don Sullivan to be my back-up months before. He is always Ironman-ready, a phenomenal athlete who lives in Florida and had guided a totally blind friend of mine.

Much to his frustration, Alan injured his knee with about a month to go and couldn’t run for the three weeks prior to the race. I didn’t know that Alan had also talked to Sullivan about standing in for him. When he told me a couple of weeks before the race, I asked if he could swim and ride. He said yes and added he was hopeful he would be well enough to run.

Alan said he would happily step aside but I replied quite assertively that I’d run by myself if need be and follow one of the many runners in front of me. I’ve been through much with Alan and it was important to honor him even if I had to run solo in the dark. I was prepared to run slowly and tentatively with a head lamp. I just wanted to finish.

Race day approaches

Along with the prospect of finishing an Ironman, I looked forward to sharing the experience with Waller and Klingensmith and their families who would be there in support as my wife Heidi and my girls couldn’t go.

Both friends have guided me in triathlons and could bring calm to what could be an anxious time. We all flew together to Panama City Beach which helped greatly with pre-race logistics. I was also thrilled that my good friend Alan Arceneaux flew from Oregon to watch the race.

I chose Ironman Florida for several reasons. It’s in November so I could train all season in good California weather; it is a wetsuit legal course; it probably wouldn’t be hot and humid that time of year; and, though it wasn’t the determining factor, it is the flattest Ironman course in the country.

I can easily lose 10 pounds during the course of a longer workout so I wanted a venue with optimal weather for a guy my size. The challenge was that a Gulf Coast swim would mean uncertain ocean conditions.

Ocean swells can top 6 feet or be smooth as silk. As a relatively new swimmer, the prospect of being tethered to my guide in a mass start of 2,800 triathletes in giant swells made me wonder if I had the mental strength to make it more than 10 minutes. Having no experience with mass starts, I had to trust my training. People have described mass starts as “terrifying,” so Alan and I had to adopt a plan to ensure success.

The wind blew hard and surf conditions were less than ideal the two days prior to the race. Alan described the surf to me when we left our room and I was thankful I couldn’t see it. While standing in line, I heard triathletes talking about seeing a ton of jellyfish, small sharks and rays during their practice swims.

My initial rationale to stay away from large groups of triathletes was validated. We were told to just keep swimming if stung by jellyfish. Despite this, I wasn’t focused on the sea life. I visualized myself as calm and relaxed in the water and squelched the bad over and over.

I’d like to say that I have unshakable confidence but that isn’t my nature. Standing in the midst of all those Ironman athletes, I was envious of their experience and wondered if doubts ever interrupted their focus. The Ironman is as much mental as it is physical. I was nervous that the swirling thoughts would cause things to crash down on me on race day.

While I don’t fret incessantly, it’s enough to make me scold myself for being weak. On the flip side, uncertainty drives me to work harder, to lean on my faith and to remember that God opened the door to triathlons and kept it open by providing the volunteers and giving me strength to train in spite of adversity.

I repeated “Where there is doubt, give me faith.” It may sound silly that I believed finishing would honor my family and those who helped me but I wanted them all to share in my success. Failure was not an option, yet the seeds of doubt needled at me.

Alan and went to the beach for a short swim the morning before the race. The swells were noteworthy but not as bad as they could be. It still felt as though I was on a roller coaster. I relaxed through the movement and told myself it was fun — but I didn’t like the idea of facing that for my first mass start. At least I found I could swim in those conditions without much difficulty and told myself that I’d be OK.

Race day

A beautiful sunset and a southerly wind that meant calmer seas promised a good tomorrow. When Gulledge and I went to bed, our gear was all staged in transition and a broken spoke on my bike was repaired. Alan slept. I never do but I didn’t spend the night worrying about failing. I was amped to get started. I’ve learned that sleep is not necessary the night before a race, just rest. Sleep comes later.

It wasn’t long before it was 3:45 a.m. The race didn’t start until 7 but time moves quickly on race day. You get ready, eat, pump up your tires, store nutrition on the bike, drop off special needs bags and get ready to swim. We stayed at the host hotel so we had everything ready and put on our wetsuits in our room. Gulledge said a prayer and we were out the door.

The weather was cool and the ocean smooth — perfect. After a quick dip and a few strokes in the water we found a perfect starting spot on the far outside right of the 2,800 triathletes lining the narrow beach. Though it meant swimming a tad further, starting on the edge would make the chaos more manageable.

The sun was just coming up when the cannon fired at 7 a.m. Visualize almost 3,000 people running toward the ocean, all shooting for the same first-turn buoy. We were tied together wih a rope so Alan could guide me through the mass.

As we entered the ocean, I thought of two people who were my inspiration for the swim: Tom Leard, a retired Marine who swam with me weekly in open water, and Noah Bentley who took swim lessons in spite of his fear of water and was doing triathlons within six months.

How my day would go was determined in the first 10 minutes. I focused on a calm, smooth, relaxed start and it quickly became apparent that my training with Tom paid dividends. I wasn’t breathless and the contact with others didn’t’ phase me. I can’t tell you how many times people swam across my tether and stopped me in my tracks. I had to call out to Alan to find out which head was his.

Yet I was calm. I was going to nail this — no problem! But just as my confidence soared, I would be hit from both sides or people would swim on top of me. I had to stay focused, aware that a freak accident could end my day. My mind drifted past the bike leg to the marathon and then I would pull it back.

The 2.4 mile swim was a double loop course; we had to exit the water, run along the beach and re-enter the ocean for a second loop. The most tiring aspect was running through the sand and pushing through the water to start swimming again. The second loop was less crowded but the contact continued — just less frequently.

Alan stopped me at one point so I wouldn’t collide with a big jellyfish.He had just punctured the top of one with his hand, missing the tentacles. Fortunately, neither of us was stung. As we neared the beach on the last loop, Gutledge felt nauseous from accidentally swallowing saltwater a couple of times and he vomited into the ocean. I wondered what would happen when we jumped on the tandem.

As we ran up the beach, I was bursting with pride hearing the screams of encouragement and thanked God for making my first Ironman swim an enjoyable experience. My confidence soared. The race director wrapped his arm around my shoulder, ran with me and shouted encouragement as we made our way up to the wetsuit strippers. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was just as thankful as I that the blind guy was safely out of the water. Later I learned that he is one of those positive and encouraging guys who can fuel your spirit.

Now I was in Ironman distance mode. As a first timer, I knew I’d have to be conservative and patient and not worry about time. At this point success hinged on having enough energy for the marathon at the end of the day. After a painfully slow and long transition we mounted the tandem to start the 112-mile trek.

I felt relief that the saltwater didn’t have a lasting effect on Alan. We negotiated the starting chute with many other riders without incident. We quickly started passing one after another and were clipping along when we flatted at mile 20. Crud!

Changing a tube on a tandem is more time consuming than a single road bike but we took our time to ensure that something wasn’t embedded in the front tire. We couldn’t afford to blow through any more tubes. Unfortunately, the CO2 cartridge doesn’t fill up my tires, so I had to use a frame pump. With our combined weight we needed close to 120 pounds of pressure in the tire or we’d run the risk of a pinch flat.

After 15 minutes of watching bikes fly by, we were off again, and I did a quiet prayer that our tire would get through the race with no more problems. Finishing 112 miles is not difficult but bike issues can end your day.

Our first strategy was to simply pedal along and I never felt like I was working hard. I had to be patient. Klingensmith had told me the warm-up for Ironman is the swim, the bike ride and the first 20 miles of the run. I periodically checked my heart rate and successfully kept it in the 130s.

We didn’t play catch-up after the flat. I kept saying that I didn’t care about our time. I just wanted to finish. This gave us permission to stop at porta potties without worrying about lost time. My strategy also included being militant about fueling.

Long before the race I had practiced eating what I would consume on race day so I knew exactly how many calories and milligrams of sodium I needed. Susan and I spoke several times about my strategy and I reminded myself of something she told me — many DNFs (did not finish) are the result of gut issues. That is something you definitely want to avoid during the marathon at the end of an Ironman! The body can become very dehydrated and internal organs, including the digestive system, can shut down.

The ride was fairly uneventful other than a terrible headwind during the first half. The forecast was for 20 mph wind. There were times pedaling the tandem took more effort than it should to even go 16 mph. On a good day we thought we could average 20 to 21 mph. That was not in the cards!

Luckily, the headwind on the way out meant a tailwind coming home which was much better than the reverse. When we re-entered Panama City Beach, we were blasted with the worst headwinds of the day. The last 6 miles were a cruel joke to bodies that couldn’t wait to get off the tandem!

I honestly didn’t think about the marathon leading up to the race, yet the Ironman comes down to the last 26.2 miles. I am an experienced runner and have finished marathons under some pretty significant revolts from my body, so my mental resolve was much stronger for this part of the Ironman.

I had a fueling plan, I had the experience, but I wasn’t sure if those lingering injuries would rear up as they had in several training runs. I was hoping I would not have any severe pain until late in the race. It’s common knowledge that at some time in an Ironman marathon your resolve is tested and it’s difficult to continue.

Alan’s ability to run the marathon was also a big question mark. We implemented our marathon strategy immediately, stopping at each aid station for at least a few seconds to ensure we hydrated properly and leaving the stations running.

The double out-and-back course made the run cool. We were thrilled to see Klingensmith, Waller and another friend, Dan Streetman, pass us several times going the opposite way. They were on fire and having great marathons.

Alan felt the stabbing knee pain within a few miles but he kept going. He said it felt like someone was “hammering a nail into his knee.” We made sure we periodically included stretching during our brief stops.

After the first 13-mile loop, I realized how bold I was to say I could run by myself if needed. The course went over speed bumps, a few curbs, across plywood, along cones and had more turns than I realized. Choosing someone to follow wasn’t a good fall back plan — there was no one running at our pace in front of us.

Many were walking and it was common tor people to stop in the middle of the road, or run close to us along the orange cones in the opposite direction. I’d have to be extremely cautious if Alan had to stop; the conditions were beyond my ability to run solo.

Alan sensed my predicament and I felt his pain as he pushed on hoping not to slow me too much. With every one of his apologies I reminded him that I too needed to manage my pace and that this was about finishing and nothing else.

My ankle started hurting about mile 15. I knew it wasn’t an ankle injury but tense muscles in my calf and foot so I stretched my calf while Alan stretched in aid stations. It provided temporary relief so I knew I was on the right track.

I  hoped it wouldn’t get severe enough to cause severe pain like it did on one of my training runs but I was far enough into the marathon that walking the rest of the way wouldn’t necessarily stop me from finishing.

There were several times before mile 20 that I thought, “I’m going to be an Ironman today,” but I intentionally pushed the thought out of my mind; the hardest part was still ahead. There are no guarantees until you’ve actually crossed the finish line.

With 4 miles to go, I said, “With the exception of the aid stations, we’ve run the entire marathon so far.” Within seconds his hamstring locked up. I should have kept my mouth shut!

We stopped so he could stretch and hydrate. Once we started jogging again, we decided not to stop again to avoid the risk of the speed changes causing more cramps. It was already dark so Alan kept me on a hand-held tether so I would stay on track and avoid obstacles.

I thanked God Alan was still with me. I could barely make out a shape directly in front of me and I couldn’t see any of the obstacles. I was further blinded by lights along the streets. Alan was clearly straining but kept on running. He grunted in pai with every step in the last 2 miles.

I kept encouraging him, telling him how proud I was and how strong he was … I needed him and he knew it! I think Alan needed me too. Maybe it was the distraction of Alan’s obvious pain but I felt great. My ankle didn’t get worse and I never ran out of energy. I felt like I could run forever.

As we approached the last quarter mile Klingensmith’s wife, Emily, ran with us shouting words of encouragement. She peeled away as we entered the finish chute.

The lights were blinding, Alan was still guiding me with the tether and the crowd noise was deafening but I still heard the announcer call out, “Richard Hunter, you are an Ironman!”

We had done it; I crossed the finish line with my dear friend Alan, who suffered greatly for my benefit. What a heroic effort!

What’s next?

Even though I completed Ironman Florida in 11 hours, 55 minutes and 22 seconds — in the top third of those who lined up at the start — and though I’m the second visually impaired triathlete to break the 12-hour Ironman benchmark, success hasn’t changed how my mind works.

I’ll still be a “head case.” I learned a lot about myself during this journey. I became keenly aware of my weaknesses which I will strive to confront with new challenges as I step outside my comfort zone.

For now, I’m going to enjoy a little down time and let some time pass before I even worry about my next goal. I look forward to having fun with my family without fitting in the long workouts.

Hunter’s times: 1.2 mile swim: 1:26:07 minutes
Transition 1: 14:09 minutes
112 mile bike: 5:51:42
Transition 2: 11:48 minutes
26.2 mile run: 4:11:37
Overall: 11:55:22

Special thanks

Thanks to my wife Heidi for your support of my efforts, by allowing me to pursue this craziness and for picking up the slack I left in my wake. Participating in the sport of triathlon would be impossible for visually impaired athletes without caring volunteers. Those who made it possible are listed below. I’m overwhelmed by their generosity.

A special thanks to my 2012 training partners:

Triathlon guides: Alan Gulledge; coach Jon Klingensmith; Stuart Evans.

Tandem pilots: Lance Maguire, Bill Kelly, Bill Dutter, Noah Bentley, Louis Du Brey, Justin Waller, Jon Klingensmith

Open water swim guide: Tom Leard

Running guides: Emily Klingensmith, Austin Weaver

Special to Village Life


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