Why? Thoughts on Paratriathlon…

A lot of people have asked me questions about paratriathlon, how I got involved in it, and my upcoming race at the end of May at the USA Paratriathlon National Championships.  So I thought I’d take the opportunity, about one week from the day I depart for Texas, to share some of my responses and thoughts with everyone.

Question 1:  What is your goal race this season?

Well, I am targetting two goal races – the first of these the USA Paratriathlon National Championships on May 28th, and The London Triathlon toward the end of September.  The races are different distances, different locations, and different climates – and my reason for having two target races also differs. 

The paratriathlon national championships are a dream race for me – one that I imagined participating in from the time I learned about paratriathlon in 2008, a race where I could compete against athletes with similar physical challenges.  It is a goal race simply due to the fact that I *can* participate, and I am so proud of that.  I was ecstatic to meet the qualifying time with my London Triathlon 2011 performance.

The London Triathlon is a target race for a different reason – I like to see hard evidence of improvements and I want to better my times compared with 2011, and the course as a good benchmark for comparing year-on-year progress that I am making in the sport.  I won’t get this evidence from the national championships – I have never raced the CapTex triathlon before, no two triathlon courses offer a true comparable result, the distances are different, and the climate is much warmer than I am used to.  For me London is where I started my triathlon journey, a race I have done every year since 2007 – it is my home race and my true personal test.

Question 2: What is paratriathlon?

Paratriathlon is triathlon for para-athletes – athletes with measurable challenges and physical impairments.  To participate as a para-athlete requires an assessment of impairment – not only do you need a medically diagnosed condition, but each athlete is “classified” or tested against sport specific criteria to check their level of impairment and to put athletes in a category with other similarly impaired athletes.

A paratriathlon is basically just a specific wave – or start time – for impaired athletes.  We compete on the same course as other triathletes but start together. 

The USA National Championships are my first experience in a paratriathlon.  I wanted the chance to do a paratriathlon specific race, and I met the qualifying standards to participate in national championships (either UK or US as I have dual citizenship). So I entered.

I have done all of my other triathlons in either age group or mixed wave starts, and there is little that distinguishes me from other triathletes – unless you notice my ankle braces, measure my strength or range of motion, or see me running (I am a very slow runner with quite an interesting running style that I have been working to make biomechanically more efficient). 

I’m really excited to be participating in a race with such a large number of physically challenged athletes!  I’ve marshalled the ITU race in Hyde Park and the paratriathlon elite race there, and the athletes are incredible.  I feel honoured to be able to be a part of it.  I’m also kind of excited to meet (beyond just a passing “go go go” on the race course) some incredible athletes like Patricia Walsh and Sarah Reinertsen – and some others who have commented on this blog before too!

Question 3: What impairment do you have?

I have two medically diagnosed conditions which could qualify me as a paratriathlete – Charcot Marie Tooth disease (the most common neuromuscular disorder – my nerves don’t work right leading to slow nerve signals and muscle atrophy) as well as hypermobility syndrome Ehlers Danlos Type 3 (a connective tissue disorder so I have a variety of joint instability issues).

When I was assessed for impairment in 2009 it was determined that I had more than a 15% impairment in my arms, thus categorising me as TRI4 or with arm impaired athletes.  This classification needs review and in particular viewing in competition. 

It has always struck me as odd that I classified as arm impaired when frankly I think my biggest issues in triathlon are to do with my legs and running.  But I don’t set the criteria or the testing, this is done by the triathlon governing body (the International Triathlon Union).  I am completely uncompetitive in my classified category.  TRI4 athletes have no leg issues.  They can run super fast – like 20 minutes to do a 5k.  Whereas I definitely have leg issues – I wear ankle braces when I run and struggle to break 40 minutes on my 5k run.  That is why it is important to be viewed in competition.

When Paratriathlon was added to the Paralympics (effective from the Rio games in 2016) one of the conditions was that the classification methodology and criteria would be reviewed.  I am hoping that the ITU pays good attention to the tougher to classify impairments such as those for people with neurological conditions.  The neurophysiotherapy team I see at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London has told me that neurology patients may demonstrate bench based strength but this does not translate into functional performance or adequately demonstrate true levels of neurological impairment.  I hope this is something the committee will look at.  The US Nationals provide me an opportunity to talk with the US representatives to this committee – I’m looking forward to meeting them and sharing some of my thoughts and concerns.

In the meantime, I think it is important for challenged athletes to participate, no matter what the classification or the outcome.  Through participation the sport can grow.  And through participation we can encourage more people – especially kids with chronic conditions and their parents – to find hope and opportunity in sport.  I wish I knew that I could have a peer group in sport when I was a kid – it would have stopped me from feeling dejected and frustrated at being so slow compared with my classmates.  I believe that the best way to be a part of spreading parasport and ecnouraging the participation of others is by participating myself.

Question 4: But you swim so well, how can you possibly have anything wrong with you?

You know, that is one of the crazy things about sport.  If you can figure out how to work with what you have been given, and how to become more efficient, you can get faster.  It is one of the things I find so compelling about sport too – the ability to constantly improve through small adjustments and practice.  It sings to my work ethic!

Working hard is also a risk for a “non obvious” para-athlete.  What do I mean? 

Well, as I have my limbs and am not “obviously impaired” my classification relies on testing and meeting the levels of impairment as defined by these tests.  The criteria used to demonstrate the level of impairment is primarily strength based (I say this based on my experiences in 2009).  When I was classified in 2009 I have to admit I was nowhere near as strong as I feel today.  Sadly today I know I have more deterioration in my ankles than I did two and a half years ago – but I also have a lot more strength and stability in my body as a whole, thanks to the time and effort I’ve put into training and the focus I’ve put on functional strength training.

So it kind of sucks that my goal and reason for taking up triathlon in the first place – to get as full body strong as possible – may also sideline me from being a paratriathlete. 

Life, full of contradictions!

Question 5: So you are not a bona-fide paratriathlete?

Well… I am…  Today…  But when I test in Austin, I may *just* be a physically challenged athlete and no longer classify as a paratriathlete with a level of 15% or more impairment.

That’s a risk.  But I’m okay with that.  Nationals are like the icing on the cake.  Really for me it is all about having the experiences, and through my experiences sharing and letting others know that when you are active, you can get strong and feel better.  And it is about helping people with chronic conditions know about opportunities in parasport. 

I’m getting on a plane to do championships in Austin but at the end of the day Austin may be just another race as I may not be eligible to compete as a classified paratriathlete.  I know this up front – I think all “non obvious” para-athletes need to know this risk and accept it.  Anyway, the reason I started doing triathlon was not to be a paratriathlete but to get strong.  And if by getting strong I can no longer race as a paratriathlete, so be it.

As an aside – my nerve disease is progressive and there is no cure today, so if I am too strong today there is a high likelihood that tomorrow I may once again lose strength and become a bona-fide paratriathlete.  A bright side!  No matter what way I look at it, Nationals are not a futile race.  It will be a great experience for today, for the future, and no matter what happens.

Question 6: But why go to the US then?

Good question.  I’ll be honest – I thought about a withdrawal from this race and doing the UK one on Saturday the 26th in Nottingham.  British Triathlon have been hugely supportive of me, I’ve attended their open day, and their paratriathlon coordinator Jonny Riall spent time talking me through my decision (thanks Jonny!).

One thing Jonny said that got me thinking was that it is important to get experience racing against people similarly challenged.  In the UK I don’t think there will be similarly challenged athletes lining up.  But in the US I know that there are other athletes with CMT showing up.  I think it will be a good experience to race them – that is, of course, if we classify!  Always a risk in parasport!

There are more reasons.  Confession time: I DO NOT LIKE cold water.  I know from prior years that swimming in the cold makes my hands go numb, and when I lose sensation in my hands and feet this really impairs my performance on the bike and run.  So I decided to go to Austin for both the paratriathlon experience but also to have the experience in WARMER WATER than the UK.

Of course the Austin weather also offers a downside – the heat.  Like 80 degrees hot.  We are struggling to push 60 degrees in the UK at the moment, which has made for really pleasant running weather (I am a “sweater” and do much better in lower temperatures for running and cycling).  I may melt on race day!  But on balance I would rather push through the heat than swim in icy water.

So I made my choice.  Best captured by Taylor Kitsch’s character Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights – TEXAS FOREVER!

PS: I was totally TEAM RIGGINS. And Team Tyra.  If you haven’t seen this show, do.  Also see the film with Billy Bob Thornton. So. Damn. Good.

One response to “Why? Thoughts on Paratriathlon…”

  1. Hi Donna, I found your blog when I was looking into parasport as I too have Elhers Danlos. I’m really encouraged by your improvement and the way you are controlling your symptoms. I have long been convinced that I can do something about my illness, but as yet I haven’t quite got past the exercise frenzy, dislocation, recovery cycle I seem to get into. I’d love to know more about how you have managed to get strong enough to run with EDS? Swimming and cycling don’t worry me too much, but running seems impossible!

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