Arizona #10

October 6, 1996

Tinfoilman Triathlon



Phoenix was not on our list of seven cities to live in back in 1994 but over Labor Day weekend in 1996 the capitol of Arizona became our new home. During a house hunting trip in July we thought we were trading the eternal spring of the northwest for the eternal hellfire in the self-proclaimed “Valley of the Sun”. A co-worker helped put the climate change in perspective, “you know how you thought of your winters in Chicago? Well, that’s how we think of our summers in Phoenix. The other nine months are beautiful”. Obviously she never walked across the Loop in Chicago in mid-August with its repressive humidity and high temperatures. And my reality set in on a hike to the top of Camelback Mountain in mid-November wearing shorts and a t-shirt with Caroline riding piggyback for a full 360 degree view of the desert beauty.


Over the seven years we lived in Arizona the kids grew older and taller. They migrated away from being training partners. Fortunately as a dad, the migration was slow. First Hayes and in time Caroline. Many triathletes are fiercely independent in how we train and race but in reality we’re not. We need races put on by exceptional race directors (RD). The RD’s are dependent on the sponsors. We’re both dependent on volunteers to carry out activities required to support a race. We’re dependent on suppliers of refreshments, safety barriers, timing equipment, race numbers, and the services to create grand events. Races are more complex than weddings and receptions. We are dependent on the spectators for encouragement and feeling we are doing something of importance. And on a mini scale, the fans on the course are like those in the stadium screaming for their favorite athletes in football, basketball, baseball, and soccer around the world. Racing in silence, being fully self-sufficient, and in the middle of no-where by yourself is called backpacking.


The move to Phoenix was another life’s decision, our choice. Having two intellectually disabled kids was not on life’s list either but we enjoyed being parents. All four of us helped each other grow up. We moved because people at work and opportunities my employer offered for a career were great. At the time of the move uncertainties existed as to if the girls would be accepted in the neighborhood, schools, and other activities. Kids don’t come with a user manual but they provided primary guidance of what they wanted from us to deliver on. Tips came from our parents, other parents, and what existed in books. But with AHC, there was nothing in books outside of medical terms for symptoms, other parents or experts to turn to for actionable practical advice. Chris and I grew up in knowledge quickly in trial and error for parenting, possible medical enhancements, and as coaches to encourage their growth into the common society. They made us grow up quicker and emotionally aged us quicker but realizing they will be in-house kids longer than normal they will keep us younger longer as we all age up. Kind of like Peter Pan kids with Fountain of Youth Parents.


Work was similar as new employees come in an organization, they taught new things to the more mature workforce which in turn makes them feel younger, contribute more, and increase fulfillment.


During the first few weeks of relocation we felt in our own house like we lived in a hotel: unfamiliar rooms, new streets to learn, different restaurants, and an on-site swimming pool. The new neighbors were delightful with plenty of kids, pets, and pools. The Sonoran desert of grey, brown and other earth tone colors with green towering saguaros cacti grew on us.


The backyard pool became the newest piece of training equipment. It measured 12 meters by eight meters with a depth of one plus meter. Not an Olympic size swimming pool but convenient. Three strokes, flip turn, glide, and repeat; over and over. For Hayes, Caroline, and Chris the pool was for fun and cooling off. Hayes would come outside at 6:30am and join me for a pre-school swim. Both kids helped me simulate the start of crowded triathlon swim legs by doing cannonballs as I crossed the pool. Stroke, stroke, stroke, BOOM!  Scared the shit out of me when the kids did an unexpected pool bombing the first couple of times. But better for them to be in the action than just watching. Hell, life is hard enough without trying to add fun as an ingredient. They understood the correlation of fun and training before they taught to make life and training fun.


My first Arizona triathlon held its swim leg in a pool swim so the new swim drill was not needed. I raced in Tinfoilman in Tucson a mere four weeks after moving. We drove south on Interstate 10 the night before and stayed at hotel catty-corner from the University of Arizona campus’ sporting venues and a kilometer from the transition area. This site normally served as the parking lot to the Olympic size pool, where dozens, if not hundreds of swimmers from countries all over the world stepped out of the water and into multiple Olympic Games.


Tinfoilman was a sprint distance triathlon with an 825 yard swim in a 50 meter pool set-up crossway with 12 lanes for short course training. I shared a lane with another racer, 24 competitors per heat. The swim was followed by a 12 mile bike leg over a three lap bike course around the U of A campus and wrapped up with three miles of running over two laps on the U of A mall. Spectators could grab a seat in the swim bleachers and see portions of each leg in the triathlon going on simultaneously. The opportunity was better than a three ring circus with all portions of the race held outside and not under the big top. Spectators who wanted to be more involved chose the best seats located curb side of the eastern portion of the bike course, between the low bushes and the street. Along this stretch, cyclists pushing 30 mph would reach out and touch fingers with kids, spouses, sigo’s, and for an occasional water bottle. Though pedaling less than 30 mph, okay a lot less, my outstretched hand brushed Hayes’ and Caroline’s fingers for a father/daughter high-five ride by. This gesture served as an easy way to get our special needs kids involved to watch and be a part of sports in my life and to stir their interest in sports participation. Monkey see, monkey do is easy parenting. In business the concept is often referred to as emulation into the work culture. In coaching we call the actions a step closer to better performances.


On the other side of the swim facility two strings of flag streamers funneled competitors on the run leg to the finish line. Some racers came in running with powerful strides at all out speed. Others jogged across the line. And other finishers shuffled their feet and would reach out to grasp hands with another racer to cross the finish line, each with the enthusiasm of earning a gold medal. Various facial expressions could be observed filled with emotions of pain, smiles, or even some with tears brought on by achieving a self-imposed impossibility of finishing a triathlon. No other sport defined individual success so widely for participants. At triathlon races, not everyone receives a medal, but everyone who finishes, earns respect no matter what the distance or time.            


On my finish a smile appeared between grasps of oxygen for my air deprived lungs. Even though a low key and end of season race I wanted push myself to experience absolute maximum physical, emotional, and mental limits. No different than what we did in a few years when moving overseas or what Hayes did in swim competitions or Caroline did when learning new skills. After the race we played in the hotel pool then drove home and celebrated Hayes’ fifth birthday. A few days later a tin of homemade cookies and an apologetic note from Rane Stites of TriTucson and a co-Race Director arrived in the mail about a screw-up at the race on awards. She endeared me as a devotee to all three of their annual triathlons on the U of A campus and to their first lake located triathlon south of Tucson five years later. Twenty-one races in all.


Living in Arizona became a game changer. For most people in Arizona the game is golf. For the girls, swimming and biking changed their game of life. For me, the game was triathlon with year-round outdoor training, racing, and the novel concept of being coached again. The change didn’t happen overnight. In 1997 swim training took place in the backyard pool. I biked at a steady pace in designated bike lanes and ran on desert trails and closed roads. Race times showed no improvement under this self-coaching approach. In contrast we parented and coached the kids and watched them improve daily. Since coaching improved the girls’ swimming and bike riding skills, decided coaching would improve my triathlon skills.   


Hayes’ and Caroline’s approaches in learning how to ride a two wheel bikes differed. Each needed a different approach to coaching. Caroline showed little interest in removing her training wheels. She was content with pedaling up and down 1st Street in Phoenix’s Ahwatukee neighborhood with four wheels on her bike. Hayes wanted the training wheels removed when other neighborhood kids shed their trainers. She wanted to belong to the two wheel group. Hayes wobbled and crashed without the extra set of wheels. She remounted her bike and toppled over again and again. She staggered like a DUI driver on an abandoned road and crashed into a curb. Still, she would get back on her bike for another try at a successful ride.


Hayes listened to coaching from us, she accepted encouragement from neighbors, and she kept trying. Her motivation was a new bike she would earn once constantly pedaling upright on two wheels. Hayes incurred bruises, scrapped knees, and stubbed toes but she continued to focus on her end in mind. She achieved success within a week. She selected a beautiful new purple bike, her favorite color, plus a matching purple bike helmet.


Hayes developed her bike riding skills and influenced me to do the same. I learned to balance while standing on pedals without rolling, much like sprinters at the start of a race on a Velodrome track. We raced up the little hill on 1st Street in the Ahwatukee Foothills. I balanced upright on the stationary bike at the top waiting for her. And sometimes she earned an extra 10 second head start. We raced against each other on weekends. After each up and down the street, one of us said, “just one more time.”


A set of first time triathletes approach races in a similar fashion. Jump in the water, overestimate their capabilities, and position themselves in the middle of the wave start. After the horn sounds, faster swimmers from behind may hit the first timers’ feet for a few strokes and other competitors may swim over them at the turn buoys. These newbies may swear but continue forward. They may take a break by holding onto kayak but each newbie concentrates on his or her effort to reach the goal to finish. After finishing the swim leg they morph from swimmer to cyclist through the first transition by trading a swim cap for a helmet, goggles for sunglasses, and wetsuit for race kit. Each rookie is presented with a set of bike challenges between bookends of a specific mount and dismount location. Challenges include flats, hills, wind, potholes, sewer lids, drainage grates, intermixed with other moving cyclist going from close to supersonic speed to slightly above turtle pace. For a first timer the timing of the pacing can be intimidating but these rookies continue on with their eyes on the prize, a finisher’s medal and water cooler bragging rights at work on Monday morning. The rookies move into transition #2 with another swap-out of a bike helmet for a cap and bike shoes for running shoes. The athletes will shuffle, walk, jog, run, and hang out at an aid station or two along the way to the finish line. Upon arrival, each rookie morphs one more time, this one from athlete into a triathlete. They broadcast a wide smile across their faces while speaking in an upbeat tone saying this was the best race they ever competed in. In the end these triathletes may not have covered the distance in the most direct routes and added a few bruises and scrapes but their goals were achieved. Some may reward themselves with faster bike to ride to a higher finisher place at the next best race ever.  


Chris and I changed our coaching style to better accommodate Caroline. Two and half years later, which matched the age difference between the two sisters, Caroline was still in her comfort zone of biking with training wheels. However we encouraged her occasionally to ensure she said involved with outside activity. We also wanted her to experience firsthand the opportunity to decide about ditching the training wheels to them decide if she liked the different ride. Still a new label of a two wheel cyclist was of no interest to her. A carrot like encouragement of a new bike didn’t change her mind either. And finally, after all the encouragement was forgotten, Caroline said she wanted the training wheels taken off her bike, a hand-me-down silver, Schwinn from Hayes. On her first attempt of riding without training wheels she successfully rode uninterrupted without the slightest wobble, weave, or crash. Caroline, the stubborn conservative, encouragement be damned, let us know when she was ready, under her terms, and her own confidence. Sure, she listened to the coaching from her parents absorbing the details and implemented once ready but she chose when and how to ride. Our silence was the nudge she needed to get beyond her fears and overcome a self-imposed irrational fear of two wheel riding.


With her new success, she too earned a new bike of her choice. After a half dozen of trips to different stores to find a big girl bike, she didn’t see one she wanted. We almost bought a bike to fulfill the obligation, however we stepped away since the choice was hers to make, not her parents. While on a regular trip to a bike store to re-supply tubes and lubes for her dad, and just about when getting a new bike was forgotten, Caroline wandered away and found her dream bike, a girly, pink two wheeler, with pink streamers coming out of the handlebars. She found the bike of her choice and in her favorite color under her own terms.    


Some first time triathletes approach their races in a similar fashion. A newbie may swim outside of a group setting yet learn his or her limits and slowly expand them ahead of race day. People in this independent category will observe, plan, and practice for a race until ready. The indies will bike on their own for a while. They learn pacing, know how to ride and respond with confidence when other cyclists may try to intimidate them with quickly approaching speeds or plodding along slowly in front. The independent rookies may run early in the morning or late at night by themselves all the while gaining endurance, strength and confidence. Finally, when they feel all of the disciplines have come together, they enter, start, and finish their first triathlon successfully. They are often reserved at the finish line. Afterwards they may hid any need to show success. A few days or weeks later, they may finally reward themselves with a new faster bike for the next race, assuming they find the right color.


After the recreational aspects of the kids swimming and biking came an interest in competing. A logical next step for them was to experience firsthand and let them decide if they liked it. Hayes started her racing career in Arizona with her first swim race in a Special Olympics organized event two summers after we moved to Phoenix. She displays a genuine smile and generally positive outlook on life. People around her are attracted to her upbeat personality and respond in a similar manner. However, getting that first smile on a first time activity can be a challenge for her to overcome. Any new activity for Hayes requires some mental and physical set-up before an event. With more coaching she leaps over her self-imposed obstacles of irrational fears and moves on for a lifetime of enjoyment.


Triathletes are no different. The next pending race is fraught with unknowns: will I finish, will I set a personal record, and will I do my best? Will I beat my training partners? For Hayes at her first swim meet, her first athletic competition, she wasn’t certain she wanted to swim. She wasn’t certain she could swim the 25 yard length of the pool without holding on to a lane marker. She wasn’t sure she had the capability to conquer her own self-induced fears. And neither were Chris and I. While I could overcome these self–set barriers, much like all other triathletes, our memories of our own self-confidence are more short-lived than the half-life of the most recent radioactive elements discovered.


As for Hayes, she just needed some last minute coaching by a parent at the starting block where she refused to jump in the pool for the “in-water” start. My first approach was to use a carrot: “Hayes, if you swim you will earn a ribbon or a medal to display for your efforts.” She expressed no interest in either one. Next, came logic: “Hayes, you can swim. You swam this distance in practice. This pool of water is no different than your own pool in the backyard.” She was no closer in the water for the start. Time was running out before the horn for the race start would blow. Finally, I pulled from my inner thoughts of what the two greatest experts I ever knew on parenting would do, my parents. I quickly implemented tough love. I put my hands in my two front pockets and moved to the side of Hayes away from the pool. Her natural reaction was to step back, towards the pool, to a comfortable distance for personal space. I consciously took another step closer to her side. The pace of our uncoordinated two-step dance quickened as she ran out of space on the cool deck with her only option to jump into the pool for the race. Someone suggested afterwards I nudged her into the water. Rest assured, I purposely didn’t touch her so she could make her own decision as to swim or not. I focused on narrowing down her choices. The horn sounded and Hayes took off with the other swimmers. Her beaming smile, when she bowed ever so slightly at the awards ceremony to receive her carefully placed medal around her neck, expressed both her happiness and confidence of overcoming the uncertainty of pre-race fears and making the right choice.


Her competition in the Special Olympics marked a new opportunity for our family as we learned about the camaraderie amongst special needs families. We also learned that exercise built the kids’ physical strength while the camaraderie fostered a healthy emotional outlook in the world of special needs. Turns out, the world our kids introduced us to wasn’t all that different than the world we lived in before kids. We just visited different locations.


Hayes continues to carry this confidence, much better than her serious competitor dad, in her races some 12+ years since her first race in the Valley of the Sun. While Phoenix was not on our original 1994 list of seven cities for consideration to live in, the city become home for us with all the outdoor activities the community and its citizens had to offer. Our Phoenix living environment changed the games we played and how we played them.       


Results: 16th overall. 2nd in age group.

Doug Morris

Coach of Exceptional Outcomes

Palm Trees Ahead, LLC

Tel: 1.630.457.7889

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