REDMOND, Wash. – July 6, 2011 – Sometimes people, well-meaning of course, ask Patricia Walsh how she manages to do the basic things in life—shower, get around, work—given her blindness.
When Walsh (center) lost her guide a month before the Texas Ironman, she didn’t have much hope of finding another. But career triathletes Michelle Ford (left) and Sonja Wieck from Denver stepped in to compete with Walsh and help her break two records.
What they don’t know is that they are talking to perhaps the fastest blind Ironman triathlete in the world. At the recent Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas in Woodlands, Texas, Walsh swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, and ran 26.2 miles in 11 hours and 50 minutes.
That’s four hours faster than the previous Ironman record held by a blind woman. That time also beat the Ironman record held by the fastest blind man in history—not by seconds, but by 55 minutes.
“I enjoy bragging rights and knowing in my own head and in my own backbone what I’m capable of,” said Walsh, a software design engineer in test for OneNote. “I’ve done a lot in the morning before most people wake up.”
Walsh remembers having eyesight. She had it until kindergarten, when doctors discovered a pediatric craniopharyngioma brain tumor above her pituitary gland and below her optic nerve. When the tumor was removed at Children’s Hospital in October 1986, the surgery damaged her optic nerve. She lost vision in her right eye and eventually lost all but a “pinhole of light” in her left eye.
“The good news is I got more than I ever hoped for. I’ve watched dream after dream come true. I have more than recovered. Recovery happened a long time ago. With a full recovery came a tremendous reverence for my life and good fortune,” Walsh wrote years later as part of the Children’s Hospital Story Project. “I’ve built a beautiful life for myself.”
‘What did we do?’
Walsh’s record-shattering Ironman almost didn’t happen.
Walsh races with the help of guides. She is tethered to an athlete guide for the swim and the run, and for the cycling portion of the race, a guide joins her on her custom titanium tandem bike. About a month before the race, the guide Walsh had been training with for months—a professional triathlete—had to back out because of a sponsorship conflict.
Walsh didn’t have much hope for finding another guide so soon before the race. Ironman athletes train 25 to 30 hours a week, and Walsh couldn’t imagine there was a finely tuned athlete out there who was available and wanted to try for a 12-hour triathlon.
“Anyone capable of doing a 12-hour Ironman is training for their own; people don’t just happen to be in that good of shape,” Walsh said. “I honestly didn’t think it was going to happen. I thought all my training was in vain.”
Enter Michelle Ford and Sonja Wieck, two Denver-area career triathletes who are training for October’s Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Walsh found the women with the help of C Different, a foundation that works to create opportunities for blind athletes to compete. Ford would guide Walsh through the swim and the cycling; Wieck would be her running guide. The two women said the Texas Ironman would be a good opportunity for them to train in the heat.
“I feel like it was a win-win for everyone,” Walsh said. “I say that, but I know they gave up a lot.”
The trio met for the first time three days before the race, when they all arrived at their hotel. The race started with the swim, the toughest event for Walsh.
“I have total sensory deprivation,” Walsh said. “All you have is a tether to your guide, and you’re swimming with 2,000 other people in confined space. We lost tether one time, someone swam over me one time, I swam over top of my guide one time—it’s certainly complicated.”
Microsoft employee Patricia Walsh (left) and guide Carolyn Gayner cross the finish line, winning the paratriathlon open division of the 2010 New York City Triathlon.
Walsh and Ford “plowed through” the swim and hustled through the transition to her tandem bicycle. The only experience Ford had on a tandem bike was the two laps around the parking lot the women had taken a day earlier, but they made good time over the 112 miles even as the heat marched into the 90s.
“A good guide is someone who you have good communication with and who knows what you need and what you don’t need. What I need is to know where the potholes, cones, and people are,” Walsh said. “I don’t care what scenery I’m visually missing; I just care what I’m going to run into.”
Walsh was all nerves starting the last event, the marathon-length run—and she was all business. She was concerned about her upset stomach and her overall time, and she let Wieck know she wanted to restrict conversation to talk of mile markers and lap splits.
“Between the heat and my stomach, I wasn’t sure we were going to make it at all when I got off the bike,” Walsh said.
Her stomach was “blowing up.” The heat was merciless, and so were her blisters. She was running nine- and 10-minute miles. Then, she came across Charlie Plaskon, the blind triathlete (now 68 and still competing) whose record she was about to break. He told her to “give it her all.”
“I thought, ‘If he can do it, then I can,'” Walsh said. “That’s when I finally started pulling it together.”
Walsh thought of Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham, two competitors in the 1997 World Ironman Championship who were so spent that they could no longer run or even walk as they neared the finish line. After collapsing, they both crawled toward the finish line fighting for fourth place.
“I really want to be one of those people,” Walsh said. “As much as I’ve trained, as much as I’ve sacrificed for this, I better be pushing a little harder than I’m pushing right now.”
With eight miles left in the race, Walsh renewed her focus and started running seven-minute miles. Ford joined the two women for the finishing stretch of the Ironman, and the three sprinted across the finish line together.
Wieck hadn’t given Walsh a time update for six miles, and when Walsh crossed the finish line she asked her running guide, “What did we do?”
Wieck told her she’d completed the Ironman in 11 hours and 50 minutes. Walsh jumped up and down—she was thrilled. She had not only shattered the men’s and women’s records for blind Ironman triathletes; she’d placed 13th in her age category overall. She also handily beat her prior best time for an Ironman of 14 hours and 39 minutes.
Walsh made the 2011 USA Paratriathlon National Team and now has the goal of making the US team for the 2012 Paralympics in London.
“I’m focusing on shorter distances now, but doing them faster,” Walsh said.
From unhealthy smoker to Ironman
Today’s record-breaking triathlete is a far cry from the Walsh of a decade ago. She took up running to make some changes in her life—she was a smoker and “not a very healthy person.” She started running to give herself something to which she could devote her energy, though she’s always had a propensity for running—and for shaking people’s perceptions of her disability.
Walsh (left) competes in triathlons with the help of athlete guides who are tethered to her during the swim and the run and who cycle with her on her custom titanium tandem bicycle. Photo courtesy of Tri Hua.
In high school, Walsh was on the track team. There was “no such thing as a separate division for blind athletes,” yet she qualified for the Ontario provincial finals in the 100- and 200-meter dash. Although she’d been running (and winning) her events for two years, when the championship officials found out that she was blind, they wouldn’t allow her to run the 200 meter because it involved turning around the track (versus the 100 meter, which takes place entirely on the straightaway). Walsh enlisted the help of her English teacher’s husband, a lawyer, and fought to compete.
“We only had about five days, so it didn’t go anywhere,” Walsh said.
Walsh decided to run the event she was allowed to run—and won it. It’s not the first time she’s shaken people’s perceptions, and it likely won’t be the last.
After she became a distance runner with eight marathons and one ultra-marathon under her feet, she eventually got “pretty bored.” She entertained the thought of triathlons, but with her vision loss she didn’t feel she could tackle cycling, and she didn’t know how to swim. Then one day, her roommate fixed up a tandem bicycle to see if she’d enjoy riding it.
“We stayed out riding for six hours. We rode late into the night we were having so much fun,” Walsh said. “I was so excited about the bike that I wanted people to ride with me every day. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was a kid. The next day I talked to a friend of mine who had done an Ironman.”
Walsh set her sights on an Ironman in Lake Placid, New York, and started training. She found a guide, employee Rebecca Fink, using the Microsoft triathlon email distribution list.
“I had emailed my plight, saying I had hoped to do this race but I needed a guide. I expected no responses, but I think I got about 10 really good female guides that would have been fantastic options,” Walsh said.
Walsh and Fink were a great team. But five weeks before the Lake Placid Ironman, the two were riding the tandem bicycle on a rainy day when they hit some train tracks and skidded into oncoming traffic. Fink broke her wrist and her elbow.
“It was terrifying,” Walsh said. “I didn’t sustain any injury because I never let go of the handle bars. My lack of vision sort of saved me on that one.”
She raced Lake Placid with a guide she met on the day of the race. Being able to race was remarkable given that she found a guide with very little notice, but Walsh finished the race two hours later than she expected.
“It was heartbreaking for us,” Walsh said. “We had been training for a year and a half. I have tremendous appreciation for Rebecca Fink. She’s integral to my success now. I have so much appreciation for what she gave up in training with me. I’d still love to race or train with her.”
Fink, along with fellow Microsoft employees and friends Glen John and Christine Bryant, traveled to Lake Placid and Texas to cheer her on.
Fink, who has recovered fully and recently finished an Ironman in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 12 hours and 23 minutes (beating her previous time on that course by an hour and 50 minutes), said she loves watching her former training partner and can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.
“I’m looking forward to watching her impress the entire triathlon community and maybe the world,” Fink said. “There’s never really been a great blind female triathlete, but I think Patricia has that potential. She’s an incredibly strong person and athlete, and she really didn’t need me, except maybe as her eyes on some of those training rides in the rain. I don’t know if Patricia understands how much we guides get out of it in exchange. It’s an incredibly moving and inspirational experience to be there literally every step of the way watching her achieve and exceed her goals.”