Karen and I bantered back and forth nervously as we made the long walk from the bike/ run transition area down a steep ramp leading to the vast sandy beach along the Rio Negro. “Should I wear my wetsuit? The other girls are wearing wetsuits. But then again, they’re FROM this place, and acclimated to this heat. Perhaps I should skip it? I don’t want to overheat, but I don’t want to sacrifice speed. Let’s check out the water temp and decide from there.”
Karen held my hand as we made our way down the complicated slats of carpet-covered plywood covering the beach, allowing us to make a ‘safer’ run out of the water during the race and up the steep, long climb to where our bike would await us. The water was like a soothing bath, the minerals coating our skin and enveloping us in a silky film. No wetsuit indeed. Overheating in the swim would be the death of the rest of my race. The other blind athlete was getting her four minute and 16 second head start. I shielded my eyes on the sandy shore as she swam away towards the first turn buoy in the center of the river. As the gun went off, I knew I would do everything in my power to catch her. Swimming is my sport.
My strokes were smooth and rhythmical, and I got the tune, “I’ve been workin’ on the railroad, all the live-long day,” stuck in my head for god-knows what reason. Well, whatever song was stuck there, it was working. An official on a paddle-board pulled up next to Karen yelling something in Portuguese. We just kept swimming as we couldn’t understand what she was trying to tell us. I kept thinking, “Well, if she’s trying to warn me of a crocodile nearby, she’s doing a terrible job, and thank goodness I can’t see well, so I won’t know what’s happening until after I’ve been eaten.” The weird things you think while racing….
We scrambled to our feet at the shore, and began the most difficult part of our race. The half mile uphill climb running barefoot on sand, plywood and cobblestones to get to our bike. Each step was more painful than the previous one, and I cursed the pedicure I treated myself to a few days prior, where the woman unfortunately had removed all my protective callouses. I saw the ladies’ bike still in transition, so I knew we had won the swim battle. Now to tackle the bike and hot run.
Karen did an excellent job getting us out to the long straightaway that would be our home for the next 34 minutes of sprinting. The sun baked overhead, and I was grateful for the fast breeze as we quickly reached 22 mph. I patted her on the back and settled in to keep up a solid pace. It was a 4 lap course, with a 180 degree tight turn at each end; extremely technical for even the most experienced of tandem bike pilots. We came in a little ‘hot’ and Karen overshot the turnaround by about 18 inches, landing the front tire in the drainage ditch, where the sidewalls made a horrific scraping noise as we desperately tried to keep the bike upright. With a quick burst of speed, Karen managed to get control again, and got us back on the pavement. We both let out a huge, ragged breathe at the same time.
“Ok, nice work Karen. Next time, just ‘thread the needle’. Super slow. Take your time. At the next turn, it was even tighter. We had about 3 less feet to work with. About two-thirds of the way through the turn, Karen had had enough. “I can’t make it.” And with that, we tipped off to the right, landing like turtles on our backs mid-turn across the road. I looked around to be sure I wasn’t about to get run over, unclipped from my pedals, and righted the bike. “You ok”? I asked. “Yup!” We jogged a few painful steps and remounted the bike on the fly. The crowd went wild. “Go DIXON!” we heard as we got back up to speed.
“Ok, let’s get a plan for the next turn,” Karen said. “I think we should unclip and walk the bike around the turn.” With that, we saw the Brazilian team JUST getting out onto the bike course. They must have had a disastrous swim. With the 3 mile gap on them, we had the luxury of taking our time and being sure to stay safe on the dangerous turns. “Let’s do it” I said as I patted her on the back. “We’ve got this!”
Karen executed the plan and I could feel her confidence grow with each lap. We were now averaging 21 mph on my watch, and building speed with each blistering lap. We even caught the men’s tandem team. I started to allow a smile to creep across my face. Our transition to the run was smooth and fast, and we trotted out the zig-zag route to the street, ready to bake for three miles.
The other women’s teams were only beginning their final bike lap, which meant I could nearly walk the 5K and still win. When I got out on the run, I saw already two athletes being attended to for heat exhaustion on the roadside, and decided that setting a record today was just going to be unwise. The goal now was to finish and feel strong all the way. That meant managing the heat, sun and humidity as best I could. Karen strategically gathered several cups of ice water at the first aid station, and started the arduous task of cooling me down. My skin was already beet red. With each refreshing cup, I gained valuable energy and hydration.
Karen coached me through every step, encouraging me to pick small targets in front of me to reach. “Run to the tree. Ok, now run to the bench. Ok, now to the cones up ahead.” Breaking it down into yards rather than miles made it less overwhelming in the heat. I was determined not to walk. My shoes began soggy, heavy galoshes, blistering my heel and sole with each step. We came up behind a young Brazilian girl who was hobbling and crying as she made her way back towards the finish chute. I stopped, walked beside her, and patted her arm, attempting to console her. I did my best cheerleading routine, but she hung her head even lower. So I flashed my biggest smile and got back to my race, feeling heartbroken that she couldn’t find the strength to run the last mile.
On the final lap, I walked to avoid tripping on the pile of discarded water bottles that littered the path, then picked my head up and began picking up speed for my first win representing Team USA. I have never smiled so big or appreciated a finish more than this day. Without Karen’s calm demeanor to get us TO the starting line and through a mentally and physically challenging day, it would have been over before it started.
Little did I know that the race would be the easiest part of my trip to the Amazon……...(Stay tuned for Part 3 of Anacondas and Crocodiles, swimming the Mighty Amazon!)