A Triathlon Guide’s Perspective, By Paul McGlynn.
Have you been in a triathlon and seen two triathletes ‘tethered’ together during the swim and the run leg or have you seen triathletes on a tandem bike? If you have competed in an ITU event, one of the two triathletes would have the word Guide on their race suit. If so, you have good enough eyesight to have seen a Guide with a Vision Impaired (VI) triathlete.
To summarise this article at the outset, should you ever have the chance of being a guide to a VI triathlete – do yourself a favour and do it; it will take your triathlon experience to the next level.
Let’s start with how I ‘hooked up’ with John Domandl. John is an exceptional triathlete who has been involved in triathlons for the past 30 years. He has competed in triathlons from sprint distance all the way up to and including Ultraman (John is the only VI triathlete to have completed an Ultraman). John has a condition called Retintis Pigmentosa (RP) which has left him with less than 10% vision. A couple of years ago John had the goal of completing an Ironman in under 11 hours, a goal that hadn’t been accomplished by any VI triathlete. With the help of Peter Vaughan and the Newcastle Triathlon Club, John and I got together to see if we could give this goal a ‘good crack’.
At that time, my motivation for triathlon was starting to wane as I had finally secured a slot at the ‘Big Dance’ in Kona (after more than 25 years competing in triathlons with the last 10 years competing in and finishing 13 Ironmans) after a fourth place in the 55-59 age group at IM Cairns in 2016. Until then, Kona had been my only goal: In fact it had seemed to be my ‘forever’ goal as I was still not getting any closer to qualifying even with my advancing age. Anyway, I had an absolute ball at Kona in 2016, but following this, what next? So, the timing of John and I coming together was great for me. Hooking up with John helped bring back my triathlon ‘mojo’.
John and I have now been together since June 2016. In that time we have completed three Ironman races with a 10:53 at IMWA in 2016 (where John ticked the ‘first VI triathlete to go under 11 hours for an Ironman’ box). We have raced ITU Long Course in Penticton in Canada (2017) and Odense in Denmark (in July this year). We have also raced some other distances such as Olympic and 70.3, as well as duathlons and aquathlons. One of the unique things about our partnership is that we are both the same age, born in 1960.
So, what is it like to be a guide to a VI triathlete? At first it is ‘scary’ as a triathlete, because by its very nature triathlon is normally an individual sport; but as a guide it is a ‘team’ event, so your frame of reference changes from being very self-centred to that of considering the other person. Having said that it can be scary at first, the other side of the coin is that it is extremely rewarding (but more about that side later – let’s talk about the ‘scary’ side first).
As a guide the first thing you have to master is riding a tandem bike. The speeds you can get a tandem up to when going downhill can be terrifyingly fast. With riding a tandem, I use the analogy of driving: going from driving a family car to driving a B-double truck. Once you get comfortable with riding a tandem and the coordination of riding with another person, the benefit I believe is that you become a far better solo rider.
The key to a successful VI/Guide team is communication. During triathlons, my voice is John’s eyes. Throughout the bike and run leg, my main job is to talk John through what we are doing and what is coming up. There are also some unusual tasks as a guide. An example is that my job in T1 and T2 is to keep the (very well intentioned) volunteers away from John’s T1 and T2 bags, as John knows what is in his bags and how they are packed (and therefore unpacked for use during the race). Most of us would have experienced the help of a volunteer who tips the contents onto the ground so that we can better access our gear. However this is not great for a VI triathlete who then can’t see (and therefore find) their gear in the order required.
As well as communication, the other big concept for a successful partnership is that of trust. John has to have 100% trust in me, especially at 80km/hr on the front of a tandem, but I also have to have that same 100% trust in him that he is not going to move on the back of the tandem at that same 80km/hr!
Let’s talk about the benefits of being a guide. During training, the benefits are that you always have someone to talk to during your long rides and runs. And you know that while you are on the tandem, your training buddy is never going to drop you on the next hill. The absolute best benefit from my perspective is the finish line. You thought that coming across the finish line of a 70.3 or an Ironman was an incredible experience; times that by 100 to come anywhere near the exhilaration of finishing an event as a partnership. I still find it remarkable that someone can race an Ironman triathlon with next to no vision. When people say to me that Ironman is difficult, I say (flippantly) that “I’ve got a mate (John) who can do an Ironman with his eyes closed!”
Although the benefits far exceed the minor limitations, there are negatives to being a Guide. The biggest issue for me is that in the run leg of an Ironman I’m normally in that much pain that I don’t have any ‘bandwidth’ for thinking about anything else, but as a guide your main role in the run is concentrate on helping your mate. Also, we all know that some race days we just haven’t had a good day for some reason; in this case you need to times that by two. As a team, you have two chances of that happening each race, and if you are the guide and not having a good day, there is a lot of responsibility to perform in order to support your mate.
So I will leave by saying that being a Guide is a fantastic and rewarding way of gaining another perspective on triathlons. If given a chance, do yourself a favour and give it some consideration.