Erich Manser is a talented athlete, a fact that can be obscured by the fact that he is blind, which is to say most people who see him at marathons and triathlons notice his blindness, notice that he is being guided, before they notice how quickly he’s moving.
A few weeks ago, shortly after we delivered Erich his new Axiom SL 007 race tandem, he set the world record time for a blind athlete at Ironman distance. What follows is a short excerpt of the story of the race, in his words:
Ironman Florida, 2015
For different reasons than the typical triathlete’s, I felt plenty of anxiety before this swim. I’m not usually concerned with waves or wetsuits, equally comfortable in a race where either or both are present. What makes me really nervous, as a mostly-blind athlete, is preserving what little I can see in a race.
In the Physically Challenged (PC) division, we had the benefit of a 10-minute head-start, going at 6:05am. At this moment, I can’t even say what the starting sound was, which probably gives an indication of my mental state at the time. About 20 minutes in, the rising sun brought new anxiety as we rounded a buoy, and I realized I’d be staring directly at it for the swim back to shore. Mercifully, the early sunlight was soft enough to be bearable, framing Steve beautifully like some fictional portrait called “Morning Swimmer”. I knew we had to come through this loop again, however, and our second lap would be crowded with swimmers who’d started behind us.
During the run across the beach, taking water to rinse our salty mouths, I felt particular pride hearing the boisterous Ironman announcer explain “This is highly unusual folks. Yes our PC athletes start ahead of the age-groupers, but it’s rare to see them leading coming in from the swim!”, and my smile widened as we plunged back in.
Another big Ironman difference was being handed bags (bike bag, run bag) at each transition, which contained our gear for each discipline. In a regular race, I have a “system” (read “anal retentive”) where I carefully place my bike-related items in one spot, run-related things in another, following a clockwise pattern around a bright white towel so that everything is visible against the background. These bags had me “fishing around” aimlessly, anxious about what I may have forgotten due to pre-race nerves.
Once again, Steve calmed me. We took our time, double-checking to be sure we had everything, and made our way along. We were out of transition in something like 9 minutes, refreshed and ready.
Before the race, Steve mentioned that we wanted to ease in to the bike, find our legs, and not attack it early. We planned to assess at mile 40 to see how we were feeling, and adjust if needed.
We had test-ridden Road Hog, our amazing new Seven Cycles custom, a few days earlier, and I was excited about the clear differences, and the potential gains they could represent.
The sun was up by this point, and we were starting to feel some heat, but the early bike felt breezy enough to cool us. It’s so much fun biking out of transitions, where crowds of spectators are typically more dense, and hearing them just go bananas when you pass by. An absolute, addictive rush.
And speaking of “dense spectators”, here’s an observation: Along most race courses, you have people who, upon seeing someone racing differently (on a tandem, in my case), make comments which seem to suggest we’re some sort of novelty act, there for the sole purpose of adding variety to your day’s entertainment. Things like, “That’s a fun way to do it!” or “A tandem bike, that’s hilarious!”. We’re not. We’re out there working just as hard as everybody else. If you’re reading this, you already know, but please tell others. Rant over.
I have no recollection of this event, even though it appears I was present and it lasted about 7 minutes.
The next thing I knew, we were out on the run course. Similar to the bike, we were deliberate about easing in to the run. My last bike-to-run workouts felt good & strong, and we knew I didn’t want to exceed 8:35/mile pace at any point during this marathon. Hearing 8:31 as a first mile split, there was relief in knowing we needed to back it off slightly.
These early miles included a barrage of raised speed-bumps, and knowing it was a two-loop course, we knew they’d be an ongoing part of the overall run. Almost mechanically, Steve took quickly to counting down my approach, “3…….. 2…….. 1……. BUMP!”, which worked well. Though the bumps were annoying at first, they became a predictable source of comfort, once we had a system and I was gliding over them without the jostling.
By the time I heard Steve’s wife Roxanne and my girls, Lisa, Ellie and Grace, it happened to be at the same time I was handed my special needs bag. I had again lost track of where we were miles-wise, and it definitely felt sooner than expected. We stopped completely, fully absorbing the love and energy of our loved ones, while I crammed a bunch of Swedish Fish in my mouth. Soon, the girls were urging us on, and the candy I’d imagined tasting so heavenly at that point wasn’t agreeing with me, so we broke out running again.
As we knocked off some more miles, along comes my most feared arch-nemesis: Darkness. I can now appreciate how beautiful the scene must’ve been, running along the beach at sunset, but had little mind for it then. Daylight was abandoning me, and I still had 10 kilometers to go.
My night-blindness strategy was to have Steve wear a head-lamp around his waist, facing backwards with the beam pointed right at me. We used the brightest setting, allowing me to focus on that singular target and follow along.
Fixated on the bouncing light, we navigated twists & turns, brushing past other runners I could only sense or hear by their footsteps and breathing. My elbows made hard contact with more than a few of them, to which I instantly called back “Sorry!”, hoping our Blind/Guide configuration explained further. I imagined locking ankles with one of these people, causing a disastrous end to someone else’s day, a thought I couldn’t bear.
Entirely outside my comfort zone, I knew I had to bear down. I became transfixed on that light bulb, to the point that it and me were the only two things left in the world. I just needed everything else to go away in order to get through this.
When he zagged, I zagged. An interesting lesson for me, as I inch toward blindness, recognizing that sometimes, things that may seem impossible can actually make life easier.
Profound timing for a profound lesson, with the finish line looming. I held my breath, straining my ears for the finish-line announcer.
We crossed, 11:10:28. It had been hours since I had any sense of our time, and I felt like my sub-12 hour hopes had left town with that swim split. Not until I heard our girls going crazy, and Steve yelling to Roxanne “He did it!”, did that 11:10 clock time really set in. No Steve, “WE” did it.
Surprised to be walking fine, an attentive race volunteer was helping me wherever I needed to go, which was to be with my family ASAP. I felt great, and let it all wash over me.
In 2011, when I was racing strong and feeling cocky, I recognized that blind triathletes were relatively rare, in a global sense. Finding myself blessed with some ability for the sport, this led me to believe I might have a reasonable shot at a fastest-time-in-the-world, Blind Ironman record.
From there, I went on to be humbled by knee-surgery and weight gain. I became more immersed in the people and community of a healthy lifestyle. I realized it wasn’t about me. It was about this bigger thing, in which I’m a single participant. I lost sight of the very notion of a world record, or that I could even be capable of such a thing.
Back to the question of whether there could be some advantage when a blind athlete races with a sighted guide.
For me, the answer is YES, when your Guide believes you’re more capable than you know.
You want to work with people who make you look good. That’s obvious. But, even more than that, you want to work with people who make what you do look good, and in this case, photographer/adventurer Daniel Sharp makes cycling look like just about the best thing a person could do with their remaining breaths. We never fail to read a post at his Benedicto blog and not want to ride our bikes after. Most recently Daniel was at Grinduro, doing what he does.
Photos and excerpts from his story below:
Before making the 8 hour drive to Quincy, Grinduro was just soundbytes, the color purple, poster art by Geoff Mcfetridge. The event site billed it as “Gravel Road Race + Mountain Bike-Style Enduro = one long loop of pavement and dirt” When you factor in the chance to ride new dirt roads and camping and live music, well now you’ve got yourself a new-fangled-old-school mountain bike festival. DiMinno is doing the food. OK Now we’re talking. Chris Diminno is the super talented chef masterminding the food at the Chris King Gourmet Centuries. That in itself is almost enough to drive to Quincy, CA.
We rolled out at 8:00, past the stacks of wet timber at Sierra Pacific Industries. Nothing prepares you for the feeling of riding in such a large group. I do so much solo riding, that a group like this feels special. For me, it’s the whole reason to do a ride like this. The group takes your mind off the cold, and it distracts you when the road deteriorates to rutted gravel – and ramps up steeper than you’d like. We rode out of town, -through the valley, past a trio of running horses.
It didn’t take long to warm up, since the first climb seemed to be an hour long. The first timed section came at about the 45 minute mark. I couldn’t be bothered with sprinting at this point. I tried slightly harder just because I felt guilty not pushing it a bit as a few people flew by, obviously redlining it, because: racing. Being a reformed racer, I felt conflicted– like I should rise to the occasion because I’m being timed, and at the end of the day we’re going to gather around the fire and compare times. But I feel good about the efforts I’ve done this summer, and I’ve been riding plenty. My new rule as I do more longer events is pacing myself to go as hard as I can for 8 hours, which is more like an 85 percent effort, and it doesn’t allow for any massive sprint efforts. You basically find your endurance zone and stick with it.
The Grinduro signage continued, this time it said “This climb sucks SORRY” Those that knew the route said to take it as easy as possible on this climb, since the final singletrack section was supposed to be the hardest bit. Honestly though, with sections at 12 and 13 percent grade, the only way to chill out was to walk your bike, and that makes it take forever and isn’t that much fun. My legs were feeling good, so I just shifted down to my 36 and found a rhythm. I tell myself I love climbing and when my legs feel good like this I actually do love climbing. But that much steepness and that long of a climb have a way of stealing any good vibes and just make you grateful to be done.
There is a lot more to this story. Check it out at Benedicto.co.
We are proud to say there were a lot of Sevens at Paris-Brest-Paris this year, and we had the chance to spend some time with one rider, Henry van den Broek, who is local to us and a Ride Studio Cafe regular, to hear about the adventure of riding 1200km.
He says, “I started Sunday evening in the 90 hour wave at 18:30. Apart from some short stops at the controls (less than 30 min), I rode through the night and the following day for 24 hrs until Carhaix which is 525km, just before the halfway point in Brest. After sleeping for 3 hours on a field bed in a gym, I left that night at 11pm for Brest and kept riding through the night and next day until Fougeres (921km) where I arrived with fellow Seven rider Dave Bayley Tuesday night.”
He continues, “Dave I met in the morning just after the Loudeac stop. This had been a tough morning where I felt pretty groggy and had a hard time making speed, but after plenty of caffeine and ice cream I got my mojo back. Dave continued that night for Fougeres, while I slept on a gym mattress for 3 hours and left at 4am Wednesday for the last 300k to Paris, where I arrived at 8:30pm, finishing the ride within 74hrs.”
When you’re speaking to someone who aspires to riding for 3 days straight, the first question is always going to be, why? Henry laughs when we ask, “Why do I do it? On the ride, I sometimes wonder myself what I am doing, but I ride for the sense of adventure, exploring, seeing new places, new landscapes. Randonneuring reduces life to its basics. You are just eating, drinking. You ask, how is my body feeling? You become your own little world. Also you can meet friends through this shared suffering. On long rides, you have a chance to meet, hang out.”
Henry only started randonneuring three years ago, encouraged by Patria and the crew at Ride Studio Cafe, and then he wondered if could even do it. 200km? 300km? 600km? Now he finds himself wondering what’s next after PBP.
“With all the preparation I had,” he says, “I was not that worried. I did 1000km in July, and PBP is not that much more. During the ride, I got more and more confident. Unlike many of the brevets I did in the season where there are typically 20-100 participants, there were more than 5000 people starting at PBP, all trying to finish. This year less then 75% percent finished.”
He continues, “When things get hard, typically I do a check up. Hard can be multiple things, overheating, tiredness, pain, sleepiness. How are my back, my arms, my legs? Most things can be solved by eating. Electrolytes and sugar can cure most problems. Grogginess is a tough one. I had three hour sleep stops on Monday and Tuesday nights, but it wasn’t enough. The jet lag didn’t help either, flying into Paris two days before the event. Coffee was the only way to get over it. Chewing gum can help. Next time I want to try caffeine gum. You think it’s a mental thing, but that really comes back to sugar levels. Your brain is just saying it needs more fuel. This is about being in tune with your body.”
It is not every day you ride 1200km. Most who finish PBP only do it once in their lifetime, so strategizing for a ride like this comes down to the experience of the “shorter” brevets and reading about how others have handled the distance.
Henry says, “What I realize now is you have to be careful how much power you’re putting out. You have to measure your effort, not go too hard. Even 1% over your pace will catch up to you over these kinds of distances.”
Henry’s Seven Evergreen SL was built with more than just PBP in mind. This is a bike that Henry uses on group rides with the RSC club. He has done the full brevet series on it. And now that it’s fall, he’s racing cyclocross on it as well.
He says, “I love the frame. I love the versatility of it. I was always completely worn out by my old bike. This season I’m on the Seven on 38mm tires with supple casings. It’s so smooth. They roll so well. The Evergreen has a lot of clearance, so you have choices in tires. The disc brakes give you reliability in all weather. It’s very stable, too. I ride with a very light touch on the bars, so no back pain ever.”
“I also really love the custom paint,” he adds. “So many people look at my bike and love the paint job. It’s orange from Holland. I always get attention with it, and it’s really MY bike. It has my name on it, my color, made for my body. It’s a statement. It’s me. I feel very together with the bike.”