As we got to know Patricia over the weekend I think all three of us just felt a special sort of magic coming together. Patricia knew by the time that the race started that she had free reign to race as fast as she liked, that she didn’t have to put on a smile for us, and that this experience was all about her, all for her.

Michelle and I completely underestimated just how hard the race would be on us. Patricia is strong like bull and we spent 11 hours and 50 minutes racing hard in order to guide and enable her to do her best.

And her best she did indeed do.

Patricia Walsh is the fastest blind Ironman athlete on the planet. Period.

Patricia broke the female blind Ironman record by 4 hours, and she broke the male blind record by 55 minutes. She absolutely killed it.

So, here is the story from my perspective, as a first time guide, helping Patricia through the marathon portion of Ironman Texas.

The night before we all decided that the King size bed in our room would be more comfortable than the pull out bed we also had in the room. Yes, all three of us slept in that king bed, and while Patricia’s night was restless, I think Michelle and I slept like logs. The complete lack of nervousness was a bit odd I must say.

Ironman is always an early morning and we were up and at ’em. I had the unique view of being able to get pretty much anywhere on the course using my “I’m her guide” phrase and I enjoyed a front row seat to the swim start that morning. I helped the girls with bags and caps and sunscreen. They headed into the water with the pros, tethered at the waist by a piece of bungee cord.

When the gun went off for the pros, the PC athletes went with them as well. I watched Michelle and Patricia until I couldn’t see them any more. They looked like they found a good rhythm, swimming side by side, their strokes matching perfectly. Patricia said it was the first race where she hasn’t panicked in the water. The sensory deprivation in the water for her can be quite alarming. I kinda think that Michelle had something to do with it, she has a calming presence in the water.

Then I booked it over to the swim finish and watched the top swimmers come in. Ironman Texas is awesome to watch the end of the swim because they swim up a little canal. I expected the girls around 1:30 and right around then I saw two orange caps coming down the canal amongst a ton of AGers. I ran down the canal and Michelle poked her head up and asked for a Mix1 in transition.

Patricia is in the orange cap

I booked it to transition using my golden phrase “Blind athletes guide”. I grabbed Patricia and Michelle’s transition bag and followed them into the tent. Blind athletes tend to get swarmed by volunteers so I kept them at bay and set out everything for Michelle and Patricia. What seemed like 30 seconds later they were running out of the tent.

I followed them as they grabbed the tandem, ran out of transition, mounted perfectly, and they were off.

I, of course was taking pictures the whole time.


I was tired! Matt gave me a ride back to the hotel where I took some down time, watched the race on Ironman live, and tweeted away.

The girls were riding really fast and when their 58 mile split came in at 2:55 I knew I had to book it back to transition. They came in with a 5:45 bike split! The tandem has it’s share of issues. Some things make them faster, some slower. Michelle can tell you better about that.

I found my way back to transition and before I knew it, the girls were running through transition and I was sprinting to keep up with them. We grabbed bags, I helped Patricia with her shoes and out we went. Patricia and I were now tethered at the waist.

Immediately Patricia told me that she needed to focus and that we need to keep all words relevant to running. This was her nice way of saying “Don’t chat, just do your job”. It took me awhile to settle into my job. How much notice does she need before a turn? Turns out a lot less than I would have though. By the end of the marathon I wasn’t even saying “left”, I just had to go left and Patricia knew.

Going through a marathon in this manner was quite interesting. Not having any control over pace was harder than I expected. You know when you get to that point in a marathon where going faster almost feels better. I hit that place a few times.

Also, being so verbal with other athletes was totally foreign. Patricia was constantly passing tons of people and we were on bike path sorts of terrain. With a three loop course it was packed out there and we had to bob and weave through many. I started out saying “On your left” and then loved the reaction people would give when we passed, seeing that they had just been Blicked (Blind Chicked).

Then it morphed to “Two runners on your left” and that was also fun to hear what people would say after we passed. Then finally, at the end I was yelling “Blind runner on your left”, and surprisingly, people were less likely to move over. It was odd, once people knew they were getting passed by a blind runner, their ego set in. A few guys really had a big issue with it, but 98% of people were super supportive and gave us lots of love.

I spent a lot of time “yelling”

Speaking of love, the crowd on the last lap was insane. They were going wild for Patricia, at that point she was running in the 8 min pace range and we were flying by people. She gave a fist pump and the crowd irrupted and suddenly she knew all those cheers were for her. I had known for miles. She picked it up big time and we were running side by side, so strong, racing for that finish.

Patricia had her issues out there on the course, every Ironman athlete does.  I learned a lot about Ironman racing to watch her battle those issues, to watch her problem solve. It was extremely enlightening. I thought about what I would have done, but I didn’t offer suggestions. I was there to let her race her race, not my race. She figured things out, she used her intuition and I think that’s a lesson we can all learn from.

Michelle joined us for the run down the finishing stretch. We ran in the three of us, side by side with Patricia sprinting away. I hadn’t told Patricia where she was at time wise for the last 6 miles. She was running strong and I didn’t feel the need to motivate her by telling her splits. When she crossed the finish line she asked “What did we go?” I said 11:50 and she said “Including the PRO start?” and I said “yes” and she lost it. She was jumping up and down and so excited and jazzed and happy. That made the whole thing worth it.

All in all it was one of the hardest marathons I have run, even though I think it was 4:15. It was hot and humid, and I had the weight of doing Patricia right on my shoulders. I was anxious to do a good job. I made some guiding mistakes. I got Patricia tangled up at one point, I talked too much at another point. I made quite a few rookie errors, but Patricia got it done despite my newbieness.

By the end of the run I felt like we had it together, and I do feel that Patricia was able to run to her potential. We are all so proud of her! My horizons were broadened this week. Many people have said to me this last week “What a wonderful thing for you to do for Patricia”. Honestly, after living the experience I say “What a wonderful thing for Patricia to do for me”. I was given many more gifts this weekend than I gave. My heart was soaring on Saturday evening, and I felt a deep calm and pride that I haven’t ever felt.

Thank you Patricia for inspiring me, for reminding me, that while you may be blind, you see much more than I do at times. I will forever be greatful for the lessons you have taught me. AND,  I am so darn proud of you!

Thanks as well to Matt at CDifferent for asking us to do this, to everyone who gave us rides around in Texas (there were lots of you), to Mac with Quintana Roo for helping with the bike, to David (a new friend, and his blind son Brandon is now an Ironman as well), and finally to Kompetitive Edge for all they do for Michelle and I.

You all supported us with tweets, retweets, facebook messages, and oodles of electronic love. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!!

If you ever get a chance to guide a blind athlete, or work with any of the PC athletes out there, I highly recommend it. It will change your life. You will have a new appreciation for the sport that you do and you will think differently about your place in the sport as well. Patricia is an inspiration to every single person she meets, she uses athletics to push herself, and in turn she gives others a different perspective. Me included.

Ironman Texas – Team PIC Style

This weekend is going to go down in history as one of the best, I just know it. Michelle and I find ourselves in one of the most cool positions this weekend. We have been given the honor of guiding Patricia Walsh through Ironman Texas. Patricia is a blind athlete from Seattle who was just named to the 2011 USA Paratriathlon National Team. She’s fast, she’s fit, and she’s ready to storm the castle. Read here for a great article NUUN put out on all of us.

Patricia’s guide backed out just a few weeks ago and Michelle and I were asked to step in and assume the guiding roll. Michelle will swim 2.4 miles and bike 112 miles, and I will run 26.2 miles with her. It’s going to rock.

There are a few things I just want to highlight about guiding, and about Patricia. Okay, one…there is a current rule rolling around (not 100% sure where it’s gaining steam) but the rule that’s being thrown around is that all blind athletes have to wear black out glasses during the run of a triathlon. It’s one of the first instances that I’ve seen the triathlon “powers that be” attempt to further the disability of certain athletes in order to “level the playing field” as they say. Not all blind athletes are completely dark, and to force them to race in an even more foreign environment just busts my chops. Stepping off soapbox now.

Patricia is on the left wearing black out glasses, that are quite bothersome. She won’t be wearing them during IM Texas.

Number two…Patricia packed her tandem bike to come to this race…by herself. Next time you are dragging your bike to a bike shop to have them pack it for you, just remember that one. Watching her put it together…I’ll never forget that.

Okay, onwards! So today we had a few things that needed fixing with the tandem and we had to get Michelle fitted on it as well. I have to throw a huge shout out to the guys at the Quintana Roo booth. Oh My Goodness. First off, they let Michelle and I demo a few bikes that we had been drooling over (CD 0.1), thank you guys. BUT THEN, when we were struggling to get everything set on the tandem, these guys hunted down a trainer, set up the tandem, and worked for 45+ minutes getting everyones seats, handlebars, and pedals fitted and perfected. I was blown away by how much they helped us out. Thank you Quintana Roo, I can not say it enough.

PS: Michelle just cracked her frame on her Isaac TT bike….and Michelle and I have the same bike…which means that if she gets a new one….well, I might have to as well. I think we just might know what those new bikes will look like. Pink Camo?

So tomorrow is a special day. I am looking forward to every one of those 26.2 miles that I have the honor of running with Patricia. She is very ready to race, and I am very ready to be with her step by step. For those of you that are wondering, we will be tethered at the waist, just as she will be with Michelle during the swim. Obviously, as I mentioned, she will ride a tandem with Michelle, and yes, she will ride in the rear position, although you wouldn’t believe how many times we have been asked that. Really?

My job will be easy since Patricia is really on the ball. She senses things that those of us who can see don’t pick up. Her awareness makes me feel at times like I am the blind one. My own preconceptions have been blown away and I thank her for answering all of my naieve and uninformed questions this weekend. Patricia has earned a membership for life on Team PIC, and I can’t wait to witness her journey tomorrow (Patricia is #81 and you can track her on Ironman.com)

A special thanks again to Quintana Roo for all their help. We are all racing with QR tattoos tomorrow to thank them for their generosity. Also a big thank you to Kompetitive Edge for not even batting an eye when we asked to race in C-Different uniforms for this race. You guys support us so well, and you “get it”. Thank you for that.

Good night all.

Rev3..The Other Side of the Fence

I’m here in Knoxville, Tennessee at the Rev3 race, but, get this, I’M NOT RACING! Crazy, huh? This year I was offered a position with the Rev3 staff to work at three of the Rev3 events. For a company that is extremely family centered and family run I feel honored to have been asked to join the group. I said “yes” without a moments hesitation.

I raced two Rev3 races last year and really enjoyed my experience at both Quassy and Knoxville. They have built a reputation quickly in the triathlon community as family friendly well run, yet challenging, events. Now that I am working on the other side I totally understand why this is.

The atmosphere of the race is dictated by the people that put the event together. If a race you attend feels stuffy or anxious, it’s because the race staff is. If you attend an event and you feel like they are money hungry, it’s because they are. The event is a representation of how it is run and who is running it. Your inner feelings always shine through in event management.

The REV3 crew is family. It doesn’t matter if they are related or not, everyone is treated as family and there are lots of “Unkle So-and-so”, and “So and So Senior” and “So and So Junior” running around. I have been adopted, although my nickname has yet to be settled on, a few have been tossed out, but they involve cuss words…so I’m hoping a different one will stick. HA!

Above is Sandy, the Rev3 puppy. Recently rescued, I think everyone works better when there is a dog and a few kids running around….which there are here!

The crew runs a well oiled machine where everyone is willing to help anyone, athletes included. This race will pretty much bend over backwards for any individual athlete. Need to switch races, yup, need to be explained the course, yep, need special treatment, yep. They are all about helping the athlete and their family.

That…in a nutshell…is why I am here. I wanted to be involved with a triathlon company that wants to change the culture of what is expected at races. That change will come, because these folks are the real deal and because they are unique.

Anyways, I’ve bragged enough about the sweet crew I am working for. Oh, what am I doing? Besides helping with lots of odds and ends, I am primarily working for the timing boys, checking out chips and taking finish line jumbo-tron photos. It’s work of the social variety and I absolutely love it and eat it up. I have felt more refreshed and rejuvenated here on site than I have in awhile.

These creepy eyes are watching down on us! It’s okay, eyes, we are doing a good job and the athletes are having so much fun. I can’t wait to take a turn on the inflatable tiger!

Hope to see you at the races!

Wildflower 2011 Race Report

After being in the sport of triathlon a few years I’m starting to put together a “bucket list” of races. You know, the big hitters, the epic races around the world. Wildflower was definitely on that list and this season I really wanted to race there. I can now say that Wildflower lived up to it’s “Woodstock of Triathlon” reputation, and I have have the pictures to prove it (too bad they are full of public nudity and I can’t post them on my blog).

Megan and Michelle arrived late Wednesday night and we packed up Thursday and headed to Lake San Antonio. We were three women driving a huge van so needless to say we missed every exit we were supposed to take. Sometimes you are too busy singing, chatting, or smelling the flowers to remember where you are headed. It turned out to our advantage though because we got to preview 75% of the bike course that way. Big Nasty definitely lived up to it’s reputation. It was big, steep, and definitely nasty.

We got a super sweet camping spot that proved to be decently quiet, yet still in the thick of things. We headed out for a ride and a swim. All three of us were sporting new TYR Hurricane wetsuits and we couldn’t wait to test them in the open water. But first we had to get them on. 20 minutes later, Michelle was victorious, but Megan was still struggling.

Friday was where we really got a taste of how nice it is to camp. We woke up leisurely, made a great home made breakfast, got in a bike and a run and some expo shopping and then crawled into bed to relax and chill the rest of the evening. We were ready to go and excited to race.

Saturday morning my parents showed up at our campsite with Annie in tow and I found out that she woke up with a raging fever. I told Megan and Michelle to go on to transition without me since my little darling just wanted to lay in my arms. I was pretty worried about her because we didn’t have any medicine, all the roads where closed, and it was going to be a major pain for my mom to find her way to a store to get medicine. I asked dad to ask some of our fellow campers who had kids and he came back with some medicine. She laid in my arms and we talked. Annie’s biggest concern was that she would be too sick to give me high 5s on the run and daddy had asked her to give me high 5s for him. She kept saying “I’m cheering for daddy” meaning since dad couldn’t be there she was cheering in his place.

I finally tucked her into our bed in the van, covered her with every blanket I could find, watched her eyes nod shut and then booked it down to transition with about 15 minutes to spare, leaving my mom to watch her. She slept for the next 3 hours in the van and my mom and her made it out to cheer for me coming in on the bike and then she passed out for another 3 hours. Sick little girl.

As I booked down to transition I was so thankful that Wildflower is the kind of event that is “totally chill” but “totally well run”. I had plenty of time to set up and use the port-a-pottie and collect my nerves before my wave took off. In fact, they never really close transition, you are just expected to stay out of other peoples way if you are going to be in there. I liked that!

I lined up for the swim ready to go. I tried to put aside the mornings events and just clear my mind. The water looked inviting and my old high school boyfriend was doing the announcing so it was nice to have a friendly and familiar voice over the loudspeaker. He even said “Previous Morro Bay Pirate and Leland Charger Sonja Willis…I mean Wieck”. Those are the two high schools I went to, and that cracked me up a bit. Great job with the announcing Nick, you are well suited for it!

Before I knew it he was counting us off and the horn sounded and we were dashing into the water. I got out really well in this race, probably the best I’ve ever swam the beginning of a race. It was straight, and I don’t think anyone even touched me. I felt fast and rhythmic and I really really liked my new wetsuit. I can’t believe how free my arms feel in my TYR Hurricane compared to my old De Soto and how buoyant I felt in the water. I ran into 3 kayacks and 1 surfboard in a row which definitely wasn’t a highlight of the swim, those things hurt when you bump into them.

As we rounded the buoys to head back the chop became a major issue. Quite choppy but I just tried to swim as strong as I knew how. I had some navigational struggles in the chop and found myself bouncing from buoy to buoy more in a pinball fashion. Not exactly ideal, but my mantra for the day was “Do your best” and I was trying my hardest to just swim as well as I could.

I exited the water and I hadn’t worn a watch so I didn’t check my swim time. Later on Michelle would get downright parent like on my butt for standing up when I was still waist deep in the water after she saw the above photo. I had a quick transition and the Hurricane came off so quickly. Literally zero struggling there. I grabbed the bike and got out of there. There is a huge hill about 2 miles in and we had preridden it the day before (see picture below). I really tried to simmer up that hill. It’s a long long day and I wanted to settle into the effort before I started hard charging.

The Wildflower bike course is pretty awesome and pretty insane. There are parts that are pretty tame. For those parts we had an evil headwind. There are parts that are totally hilly, for those we had a wicked cross wind, and then there is Big Nasty. It doesn’t matter what the wind is doing on Big Nasty, slow slow slow is the name of the game. To do the course justice there is a 10 mile stretch or so where you have a downhill and a tailwind and you can get back some of the time that you lost on the other sections.

All in all, I really just did what I could do. I rode a steady race, doling out my energy in an even fashion, trying to save a bit for the run, but trying to keep my heart rate high and steady with minimal dips or hops. That means hauling ass on the downhills as hard as I could go, and tempering myself on the uphills minding to not blow the heart rate through the roof.

I was passed early on by two ladies in my age group, at the same time, ouch. They were hauling and it was early so I didn’t even try to go with them. Sometimes you have to ride your own race, sometimes riding your own race puts you out of the hunt. It was a decision I made, and I’m not exactly sure it was the right one, but I made it, and I’m learning from it. I was also passed by Susan Williams, which was an absolute pleasure. She rides with such ease and skill and I wanted to tell every person around us “She has an Olympic Medal”. It was very cool and I feel very lucky to be wearing the same Kompetitive Edge uniform as Susan.

I was pleased at the end of the ride to see Kendra from Kompetitive Edge pass me back and give me some kudos and encouragement. It reminded me that we need to train together because we are similarly matched across the board. Kendra?

Now I was ready to see what this insane run was all about. I took off in the beginning miles and quickly realized that the parts of the course that I thought would be flat like “along the waters edge” were very rolling with steep little kickers all the time. At mile 2 I took some EFS liquid Shot with PreRace in it. The caffeine gave me a definite boost and I found myself flying past pretty much every person I encountered.

Up the hills there were lots of walkers and at the hill in mile 4 I was the only person in sight not walking up the hill. I was slow, but I ran. I like to keep my cadence up and keep my momentum going and walking never does that for me, so even if it’s steep I try to keep to a run. I was passing people, I think a few were in my age group. I had no idea where I was in the age group, I knew 2 went by me on the bike so I just kept chanting “do your best, go go go, do your best, go go go”.

A lot of the course was on a dirt trail and that made for lots of extra fun. The steeps are steeper and the downhills are evil steep too. I ran down with reckless abandon, caring not for my quads or my face should I have taken a fall. As we wound around the campground I got a second wind. So many people paid me compliments and one lady said to me “You’ve never looked better” and I actually believed her. Ahh the power of a positive attitude.

I knew there was an evil hill at mile 10 and it was at the bottom of an out and back section. I counted here and saw that I was the 8th woman (without factoring in all the wave starts or age groups, or the PROs who started first) and I made the turn, finished off another dose of EFS and PreRace and tried my hardest to run fast up that stupid hill. I also noticed there was a lady pretty close behind me (yes, that is her in the below pictures, she was FAST).

The end of Wildflower is crazy. You are treated to 1 mile of some of the steepest downhill you will ever run on a road. It’s crazy. As I rounded the turn to start the last mile the girl behind me had caught me, and she was in my age group. It was the first time I had been passed the entire run by a guy or a girl. She was running so fast and we were going into the final evil downhill. I said to myself “no Sonja, no no no”. And I passed her back. She immediately passed me right back.

I ran a few steps, thinking, thinking. I realized there is no way to be more tactical, there is no way to outsmart this. If you want to come in ahead of her, you have to run like your life depends on it.

And I did. I ran down that hill faster than I have run since high school. I wasn’t just pushing the downhill, I was running all out downhill, panting and grunting like a wild bull (why do I always end up in this situation). I pulled away from her and I was so scared to look back, to show fear, but I was freaking scared for my life. I let myself look at my watch just once and it was 5:32 pace. Holy moly, I didn’t know I could run that fast.

I ran that hard the entire way to the finish, determined to not look back until I was safely in the finish chute, where I landed feeling totally woozy and amazed I held her off. I looked back and she was right there. Whew. She was totally NAILS!

I had the craziest thing happen afterwards and I think it might have been due to the fact that I took an entire serving of First Endurance PreRace over the 13 miles. I was really hungry. Usually after racing my appetite is low. Well, this time there was three huge bowls of fresh strawberries at the finish line and I just stood there and ate and ate and ate and ate. I ate strawberries one after another all the way until Michelle came into the chute. Probably 30 of them. Then I ate more food. I estimated that I ate 2000 calories within 30 minutes of finishing. It was a really good thing though because I ate minimally the rest of the day.

After Michelle and Megan finished we collected our stuff and collected our results. I came in 4th in the age group which I was pleased with. It was a good test of my early season fitness and I think Chuckie and I know where I need to go from here. I had an absolute blast at Wildflower and I will be back for sure! It was a total hoot.

Fantastic job to PIC Michelle who took 2nd in her Age Group behind Susan Williams. Congratulations as well to Tim Hola who took 2nd in his AG and 3rd amateur, and to Grant Bovee who won his AG and took 2nd amateur. Kompetitive Edge had 7 athletes race, 4 podium finishes, and 7 solid solid performances. Great job CREW!!

Me, Michelle, Kendra, and Grant from KE.

Trish, Michelle, Me and Kendra. It was so much fun to have all the Kompetitive Edge athletes out there. I felt like I was amongst friends all day.

The next day Megan, Michelle and I had a fun little adventure as everyone wanted to dip their toes in the ocean. Cambria and Morro Bay it was. Thanks girls for a great week.

Thank you so much to my awesome sponsors. A huge thank you goes out to Kompetitive Edge who put together our gorgeous TYR uniforms. The TYR Carbon line is by far the most comfortable tri kit I’ve ever raced in. Not one chaffed spot, not one sore area.

First Endurance came through for me yet again. This time the experimentation with PreRace during a race was a total success. I think I have the downhill at 5:30 pace to thank for that!

Also a HUMONGOUS thank you to my parents who let three silly girls borrow their very expensive Sportsmobile and who then drove to the race with a sick child to cheer and take pictures. My dad Eric took all the race shots and they rock!