My Assisted Athlete Triathlon Learning Curve

I will quote the great prophet Clint Eastwood, "A man's got to know his limitations." My first triathlon with my special needs buddy Liam is rapidly approaching on May 6th in San Diego at the Spring Sprint Triathlon and I'm feeling more than a tad unqualified. Put another way, have you ever signed up for something, and said to yourself, "what was I thinking?"
Getting a few "brisk miles" in training for my first triathlon with Liam

Don't get me wrong, I am totally up for the challenge and no one is more worthy of this than my (IRun4) run buddy Liam who suffers from hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy, and scoliosis. For a kid who's never walked and is blind, I know one thing. He LOVES racing.

While I've been successful pushing Liam in a Team Hoyt running chair now four times in races, the triathlon is a different beast. There's that whole swimming and cycling thing on top of the run that makes up the "tri" part of triathlon. As I wrote in "My Ugly Valentine," there are a couple things I didn't think all the way through including;
  • Liam lives in San Diego and I live in Denver which presents a bit of a dress rehearsal problem.
  • March is typically the snowiest month in genius, "how are you going to get your open water swimming practice in before the race given the frozen waters?"
After signing up for the race, I do what I always do, and focus mentally and physically on the task at hand. This is a good time to (literally and legally) point out, "don't try this at home," and "I'm not an expert." This is where Clint's advise kicks in. I've increased my training (more on that later,) but sought out people with experience I don't have. No different than the sponge-like attitude I took to distance running and wanting to qualify for the Boston Marathon. This time however, I have precious cargo to be accountable for.
My new mentor, Beth and her daughter Liza

After sending out multiple "feelers," I met Beth Hodges James through Team Hoyt San Diego. Beth's daughter Liza is 21 and suffered brain injuries from a car accident. Liza can walk with assistance and like Liam has a spinal rod. Beth and her daughter Liza have competed in multiple races together including a Half Ironman. They also enjoy nordic skiing near their home in Crested Butte, Colorado.

I chatted with Beth as she'd just finished some evening skiing in Crested Butte and had an amazing chat over the phone as she decompressed in her hot tub. I learned A LOT and also put some of my "sleepless night" concerns to rest. I will speak for Beth and reiterate my statement above that this is not legal or expert advice. Regardless, a number of things I learned from our conversation;

Metolius straps Beth recommends
  • This I already knew, but safety is the number one rule. This race won't be about the time, but finishing the event in a safe approach.
  • The water is not as bad as you might think. Beth did share her rather harrowing open water experience at the Redman Half Ironman. Before starting the race, the "chop" was so severe, she considered dropping out but prevailed. Minus that race, she shared that pulling the athlete in the water is not as challenging as the bike. Sort of makes sense as the raft is skimming along the top of the water.
  • On the water topic, Beth uses an Alpacka raft and Metolius mountain climbing straps; she uses two of the later criss-cross around the upper body using a caribiner to attach to the raft. This will take some practice.
  • She works with hand paddles and a parachute in her swim training to build strength for the swim leg.
  • Assistance is legal and encouraged. This was probably the best news I'd learned. USAT (US Triathlon Association) allows assisted athletes to have a team assist the athlete and the assisted athlete in the race. This is contrary to all the experience I've had as a triathlete as (an example) parents are NOT allowed in the transition area and something as simple as helping put on a
    Alpacka Raft Beth and Liza use
    bike helmet is a violation. As Liam is not exactly light (120 pounds,) has a spinal rod that makes it challenging to lift him (he doesn't really bend) and general fragility had me nervous. Knowing that Liam's Dad, Fabian and fellow teammate Tania can help with Liam in transitions was a giant relief particularly on the exit from the water as we will have to move from raft to wheelchair then up a concrete boat ramp to get to transition.
  • The bike leg. We talked about a variety of things including mounting the bike (and obviously having the bike in a low gear.) Consistent with the theme of safety, Beth recommended NOT having the bike shoes clipped in with rubber bands (my normal approach;) rather slipping into the bike shoes in transition and clipping in as you start out on the bike leg.
  • The running chair. While she's completed races in a Team Hoyt style running chair, her opinion is its a bit too heavy when also hauling an athlete. Her preference is Adaptive Star style chairs which are "tubular" in design and much lighter than Hoyt. We just raised funds to get Liam his own Team Hoyt blade so we're committed there.
  • The bike leg is the most challenging  in that you have 140ish pounds you're hauling behind you. She spends a lot of time with resistance training on the bike and even hauling around sand bags in her racing chair (vs. Liza) on training runs.
  • Beth is also a fan of disc brakes and electronic shifting. While she prefers carbon, I've had others suggest a "heavier" bike to pull the weight of the assisted athlete and running chair behind. I'll get to my bike choice a bit below.
While that was a lot to digest, it was comforting in the same sense to get some guidance on transition, the water leg, and the bike legs of the race. Given all the above, the "elephant in the room" is how to get some repetitions prior to race day, and if there's one thing I've learned about triathlons (and you could say the same about marathons) is don't try anything you haven't tried before on race day.

After digesting Beth's advise, I plan to fly to San Diego the weekend of the Carlsbad 5000 (my maiden voyage race with Liam last year) to race, but to also get bike, swim, and transition training with Liam and our triathlon team. Back in Denver, I've slightly tweaked my training plan to add some strength training into my six-day-a-week training plan.

At this point, I am NOT planning on packing up and flying my Guru tri bike out for the race. Liam's mom has found a couple places that rent bikes. I'll "test drive" a Giant tour bike with the running chair (and bike attachment) that weekend. Lastly, on a very excited note, I am proud to be a part of Team Mojo from Love the Pain. I have a new tri suit on order I'm hoping to wear for the first race. Thanks to product ambassadors Love the Pain and Pro Compression for supporting Liam and me.
My tri suit for the upcoming season. Gotta work on the beard and tats!

For those that have had this experience already, I'd love your feedback, advise, and experiences in comments below or on my twitter.


  1. We're about to do our first tandem triathlon next week and I just stumbled across your blog. Would love to connect to discuss strategy, etc., if you are interested! You can email me at heather at


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