Training Camp Blog: James Gilliard

Blog entry provided by James Gilliard, originally published on The Imperfect Journey Blog

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Dare2tri Paratriathlon Training Camp in Pleasant Prairie, WI. I was unaware of Dare2Tri or the camp until I met Keri at the Shamrock Shuffle. I am extremely glad that I had this opportunity, as I learned so much and met so many extraordinary people. While I won’t go into everything in extreme detail, there are several things I will. But before doing so, I want to thank EVERYONE that helped to make this an incredible weekend – the list is too long to thank individually. I want to especially thank the Naperville Noon Lions Club for providing the financial support to make the weekend possible, and Luke Migalla and Terri Hayes (my guides). 

One other thing before I start – the shirt in the header image is from the first Ole Miss FFC I was at. There’s a longer story behind it, but I remember the underlying message from Coach O was that in everything you do, you HAVE to finish. Always. That will come up later on in the blog, which is why I’m mentioning it at the beginning. 

On Thursday, I met up with others going up on the bus at the 31st Street Marina. While waiting, I had a chance to talk with one of my fellow campers who was blind. As we talked, I had to keep resisting the urge to pet her guide dog since he was in work mode. When they are, you have to treat them like pieces of fine art in a gallery – look, but don’t touch. Once everyone who was riding up arrived, we made our way to Kenosha. Another one of the blind athletes that was on the bus was my roommate for the weekend.

On Friday, my first session after the introductions was in the pool. There were a lot of struggles as I tried to put everything together. Luke patiently took the time to help me through all of it, and while it still wasn’t great at the end of the session, there were a few improvements. There were a couple of times in the pool that I wanted to just half-ass it to the wall. But I kept remembering that finish message that I mentioned at the start and kept pushing.

After strength training, equipment fitting, lunch and a run session, we made it out onto the bike. Even though there were a couple hiccups with mounts and dismounts, things went well as tandemonium (10 tandems) ensued. We all did several drills including mount/dismount, turning and general riding before heading back.

Saturday ended up being a really crappy weather day. But unless there’s lightning, a race doesn’t get cancelled. By that same logic, the training sessions weren’t either. While the rain wasn’t too bad during the bike or run sessions, it did create issues during the swim. While a challenge, I was glad to be pushed during the run – and we even got extra distance out of it. 

During a break before the swim, Jake (one of the dogs) came over with his ball and wanted to play. Jake had jaws of steel though, and did not want to give it up. While I didn’t get it out of him on the first two tries, I refused to give up, and finally got it from him on the third try. A nice diversion, and another lesson in never giving up. Although, someone needs to check him for lockjaw… 😉

During lunch, Terri showed up and both she and Luke were with me for the afternoon open water swim. I was glad that we had wetsuits (huge thanks to Xterra Wetsuits), and we all started the swim in the choppy water once suited up. About 200 yards out, I started having problems breathing, and it was a frightening 15-20 seconds until Luke and Terri helped to get the top of the wet suit off. The one I had put on was one size too small and was constraining me too much. Even though we’d already done about 400 yards, we went back out after getting the proper size wet suit. Before doing so, Luke and Chuck made an invaluable and incredible swimming tether for Terri and me. We did about 100 yards closer to the shore before ending the swim for the day.

Sunday morning, the conditions still weren’t optimal. It was about 50 and windy, so I waited until the last possible second to take off the extra layers. The swim along the shore was still a challenge with the waves, and it was so cold that I kept the wet suit on for the 12 mile bike ride. We finished the course with a run of about 1.3 miles and received our medals. It was great to have all the cheering and support of volunteers, coaches and other athletes as we completed each bike loop and finished the run.

While I got a tremendous amount of skill knowledge and learning from the weekend, I got much more out of the camp. These included -- 

1) Having an opportunity to be with other paratriathletes and learn from them. Specifically those who were completely blind, whether they had a guide dog or not. I’ve had a contingency plan for a while for when my vision got to the point that I couldn’t see well enough to do the things I love to do. But after seeing how well these blind athletes function, both on and off the course, I’m more comfortable about the inevitable. When it happens, I now know I’ve got more options that will work. 

2) Being pushed, and finding the strength to kick doubt’s ass. I’ll admit that there were a couple of times during the weekend that I had a ‘what in the f am I doing?’ moment. And not just in the present tense, but also in the future. When those thoughts came, all I had to do was look around and see my fellow athletes and guides with me. Yes, there’s always going to be a challenge, but you can’t let doubt beat you. Can’t, won’t, and no should only come out when your body is physically drained – not when it’s a challenge. And being out in the lake in that choppy water helped to drive that point home.

3) In conjunction with #2, that when challenged you can either step up or step aside. During the weekend, I was presented with a future challenge that’s out of my comfort zone. While I won’t say what it is at this point, I will say that I stepped up and said ‘absolutely, let’s do it’. When it is appropriate, I’ll share more about that in another blog.

4) That even though you have challenges, you can still always help others that have greater ones. Even with my vision challenges, I was still able to help my roommate that was completely blind. Someone joked during the weekend about it being ‘the blind leading the blind (but doing it well)’, but the fact was there were situations where I could help him, so I did.

It was an incredible weekend, and I hope to be there again in 2016!