Interview with Liz McTernan – Fastest women’s handcycle time over the iron distance!
photo credit to Sunrise
At Ironman Cozumel Liz McTernan became the fastest female hand cyclist* over the Ironman an incredible achievement in only her second attempt at the distance. Liz is from the UK and was paralyzed in a scuba diving accident on June 19th, 2005. She found paracycling in 2010 and became one of the world’s best hand cyclists. She then turned her attention to paratriathlon and having qualified at Ironman 70.3 Luxembourg, then went on to race in Kona in October. Unfortunately, Kona was not a great day, with Liz missing the swim/bike cut off by just a couple of minutes. However, not wanting to dwell on Kona, she took the learnings and bounced back to race Ironman Cozumel, smoking the race in a rapid 13:01:16hours!
Liz wore Laura Siddall’s Custom Scody cycling kit to race in, and we caught up with Liz to find out about the race and the past few months experience and learning. It is quite an eye-opener to the different challenges a hand cyclists face on race day and before and worth a read.
(*Liz achieved the fastest women’s hand cycling time, since the change of rules to the mandatory recumbent bike.)
Scody: How does it feel to have the fastest women's hand cycling time in the Iron distance?
Liz: It feels amazing to have achieved the fastest women’s hand cycling time, since the change of rules to the mandatory recumbent bike, in the Ironman! Especially after my first failed attempt at the full distance. I now feel I have finally proved to myself, my Coach and my supporters and sponsors that I can complete the distance, and my confidence has had a much-needed boost.
Scody: You, unfortunately, DNF'd in Kona on your first IM attempt? What did you learn going into Cozumel?
Liz: I was unable to get any advice from other female wheelchair athletes who had completed Kona (of which there are only three), so I went into the race a little unprepared, without a suitable strategy for the most important part of the race which is the bike portion. It’s not surprising that there are so few female hand cyclists attempting Kona, as it’s a tough course for a hand cyclist.
The hardest part was accepting that I had failed, but by the slimmest of margins, only missing the Swim/Bike Cut-Off by under two minutes. I made so many small, but important mistakes on the bike like stopping at the Aid stations to get the volunteers to douse me with water instead of just grabbing a bottle on the fly, carrying all my fluid and nutrition on the bike, which made it heavier, spending too much time waving to volunteers, not looking at an accurate clock and not being mindful of the clock and actual cut-off time.
For Cozumel, I was able to speak to Carlos Moleda, four-time Kona Hand cycling Champion, who gave me loads of advice about what to do in Cozumel, from what to wear, to fluid and nutrition advice etc. I’d also talked to other HC athletes from Kona about how to manage to pee on the bike, as I have to use an indwelling catheter, as it's impossible to stop and access a Porta-potty when you are a wheelchair athlete! My bike was new for Kona, so I also had a little more time to adjust the fit and train my muscles to the different fit, which helped my performance in Cozumel.
Scody: How did your experience in Cozumel differ from Kona?
Liz: Ironman Cozumel was an interesting challenge for a wheelchair athlete, having not only a split transition but a different swim entry and exit. It meant I had to drop off two separate pieces of adaptive equipment in two different places but was not able to access my race chair for the run on race morning. However, in contrast to Kona, there was plenty of space for my adaptive equipment in T1 & T2, whereas in Kona all PC athletes were cramped in a single tent. Although Ironman Cozumel had contacted me offering helpers in transition, I opted for four volunteers who came from a Facebook search via an appeal by friends, one of which I’d made doing the Underpants Run before the race.
It meant I could meet up before race morning to explain what help I needed on race day, which is vital to a good performance. In Kona, I had both my daughter Bex and my Coach Ralf as transition helpers, plus one volunteer organized by Ironman.
The race organizers put on the transport to T1 on race morning, but it was an un-adapted coach, which meant being carried up the steps by two of my strongest helpers. Then we had to get on a coach again to the swim start. Ironman had arranged for the AWD (Athletes With Disabilities) athletes to start after the Pro women, but this meant Officials having to clear through 1200 athletes gathering on the pontoon. I barely made it in time, doing up my wetsuit and shoving my cap on my head seconds before the hooter went off. The only downside to having a separate wave was nobody to draft, as there were only four participants in my category, so only the fastest AG swimmers overtook me. On the plus side, I had decided to wear a full 3mm wetsuit, as there are cold upwelling currents and the water was about four degrees Fahrenheit colder than Kona. There didn’t seem to be anyone helping anyone at the swim exit, and one of my volunteers was helping another AWD athlete who had arrived a minute before me, so I had to wait on the bottom step for him.
I was also wearing one of my own silicone swim hats, not the official race one, as they issued a Latex cap for the race, which I am allergic to. I had to be carried along the pier (as my wheelchair was at the swim start) around the women’s changing tent so that my transition was the same as everyone else. I could not go through the changing tent, as my helpers were both males. I was allowed to strip my wetsuit at my bike, however, and Officials had provided two chairs to use there. Out on the bike, there seemed to be lots of young children manning the Aid stations and unfortunately one was so keen to hand me a bottle, that she smacked me in the face with it!
I had not practiced bottle exchanges on the fly and hit my elbow on the tarmac twice as my bike is so low. I also had a couple of bottles bounce out onto the road but had opted for carrying one bottle filled with VivoLife Sustain electrolytes for the entire ride, instead of two bottles and a camel pack like in Kona. It was lovely to swop bottles and receive an ice-cold drink in return as it was hot and windy on race day. The race had a self-seeded swim start, unlike Kona, and this meant that there were still riders out on the bike course, coming into transition the same time as me. I really enjoyed this aspect of the race, as usual, I am the last one out there, with no idea of time and no one to chase.
Scody: The time cut-offs for hand cyclists are the same as able-bodied athletes, what's your feelings on this?
Liz: Whilst the male hand cyclist performances at Kona are superb, the women’s times are not impressive, as there are so few female wheelchair athletes venturing into Ironman territory at the moment or in the past. The AB cut-offs seem to put many female athletes off even attempting the distance, especially at a tough course like Kona. I now know from personal experience how tough 112 miles on a hand cycle after a 2.4 mile swim using arms only, is and I am a, fortunately, a good swimmer. The fact that wheelchair athletes can achieve sub-three-hour marathon runs in the racing wheelchair though, seems to have not been considered, as although our bike performance may be slow and long, we don’t need 6-7 hours to walk the marathon, usually doing the Marathon portion in sub-three hours. I do, however, like the fact that hand cyclists are treated as any other athlete taking part and enjoy the inclusiveness of Ironman events. I don’t think I would want Hand cyclists to have any kind of special dispensation or adjusted cut-offs.
Scody: Your daughter came out to Kona to support and be part of your team? Who was your team in Cozumel and how important were they in achieving your result?
Liz: My daughter Rebecca missed a week of her Master's Degree to come out and support me in Kona, a place she had dreamed of visiting since she was four. She and my son George supported me at two ITU WTS races in Madrid and London years ago, so I trust them implicitly for race prep and as transition helpers. They are also my most ardent supporters, so it was lovely to have Rebecca out in Kona with me. She also keeps me calm before the race and helps me deal with race nerves as she is so grounded. I also had my Coach, Dr. Ralf Lindschulten there too, as he had never been to the race before, despite having multiple winners competing there. He had permission to take blood samples during the race, to test my Lactate levels, but was also able to help me into and out of the water and into the bike. I also had one volunteer organized by Ironman, Nathan, who I met the day before my race. I’m lucky that I don’t get frazzled in transition and just boss my transition helpers around, telling them what I need them to do.
In Cozumel, I had an American couple from my Hotel, Barry and Cindy Frost, help get my equipment
Scody: How do you manage nutrition and hydration? (may be covered in learning questions above)
Liz: I’ve hand cycled for seven years now, and
I did make the mistake of taping a tube of glucose tablets on the fork in Cozumel and then realized they wouldn’t come out without me using both hands, I then struggled to undo the gaffer tape I had used to secure it. For hydration, I can only carry a maximum of two bottles on the bike, so I decided in Cozumel to use double strength electrolytes in one bottle with a drinking tube attached to my jersey and swap out another bottle at the Aid stations. I’m
I rely on eating my carbs rather than drinking them and have to ensure I have enough to tide me over on the run. On the racing chair, I use Torq gels as the specialist gloves I wear mean I struggle to open bars, cold drinks or eat anything offered by the aid stations. I’m also bent right over in the pushing position and a full stomach just makes me feel sick. I have an old Profile bottle strapped to the underside of my race chair, with a rigid tube I can easily reach. It has a flip open top, so I could refill it if necessary. I tend to avoid the aid stations as there is the potential to have water
Scody: How do you travel to/from races with all your equipment? (It's bad enough for us with one bike!)
Liz: Quite frankly, it is always a bit of a logistical nightmare traveling solo to all my races with all my adaptive equipment. I don’t just have a bike, but also a racing wheelchair, plus six race wheels, and my manual wheelchair with a Tri-Ride- which is an attachable electrical assist to save my arms for competing. I have a couple of custom made boxes from DSSmith in the UK, but they are nothing like a normal bike box! I had them made from Correx as its lighter but still strong. One box fits both my hand cycle, stripped down to frame and fork, plus my race chair, which cannot be made any smaller. The box measures 1.62m long, which turns a few heads
The other box holds all my wheels, tools, nutrition and bottles. I also have a suitcase full of medical supplies, my helmet and as few clothes as possible! Luckily, I have a VW Van sponsored by Fogarty Ltd. a Lincolnshire firm, and all my equipment fits nicely into it. I use Meet and Greet services at Airports and apart from a Hotel Shuttle bus nightmare this year, I can usually get people to help me out from my Van into the Airport itself. Of course, I then have a problem at my destination finding suitable ground transport, but in the U.S. the cars are so huge, they swallow my kit, no problem.
I’m really lucky that this season I have flown mainly British Airways and after contacting their Community Branch and explaining what I was hoping to achieve in my races they have waived the excess luggage charges every time. It is always a nerve-racking experience approaching the check-in desk though, and I’m always worried that my kit will arrive damaged, as has happened on other flights.
Scody: You chose to wear Scody cycling kit for Cozumel, in fact, Laura Siddall’s custom kit! What was the reasoning behind that?
Liz: I was super stoked to wear the same Scody kit as Pro Athlete Laura Siddall for my Ironman race! I opted to wear a full 3mm wetsuit in the swim and put my Scody cycling jersey on in T1. As a hand cyclist, I prefer to wear sleeves, as the movement of my arms is very repetitive, and there is potential for lots of underarm chafing. I’m happy to say the not only did I have no chafing, but the top also kept me so cool on the bike, that I only doused my head and arms with cold water. During the run, I didn’t even do that.
Scody: What was the best moment during the race?
Liz: The best moment in the Ironman Cozumel race was definitely on the run when I seemed to be finding it incredibly easy to keep up a good pace, helped by the flat course and a bit of a tailwind on each loop. The crowd support was amazing and it’s always great to be back competing with other athletes after a relatively lonely bike leg. I was surprised to find a bike escort waiting for me at the start of the run, which was hugely reassuring, as he cleared the way for me through Aid stations and on the narrow three loop course, making both me and other athletes safer. I also had a lot of support from other athletes out on the course and I was also able to encourage some stragglers, most of whom were in the pain cave. totally oblivious at times to instructions from my outrider.
Scody: What was the worst moment during the race?
Liz: Most definitely the worst moment in the race was when I got a flat
It was really demoralizing having all those runners I had passed earlier, now pass me, as I crawled along. I have to admit to stopping and having a little rant and a cry a couple of times. The strain on my shoulders was awful, especially after all the miles using just my upper body. When I got onto the red carpet, at last, it was even worse of course plus they had a steep ramp right at the end-great for photos, but not for flat wheels. Now I know what it takes to push through adversity and have a lot more respect for all those athletes out on the course a long time after me.
After a much-needed massage, food, and shower, I went back with two of my transition helpers, Cindy and Barry, to watch the last 22 athletes come in near the cut-off. Seeing the last finisher was actually a special moment, as I had met her and her family at the Underwear Run earlier in the week. Cindy went with her children to go find her out on the course, in the dark, and bring her home as it were. Her husband had already finished his race. To see someone, take nearly 17 hours to finish an Ironman is very inspiring, so I’m glad I got to see that part of the race. Ironman isn’t all about the fastest finishers, it’s about the human spirit and what the mind can achieve!
Scody: What will you take away from your achievement in Cozumel?
Liz: I’m proud of myself for achieving a goal I set myself this year. I hope that other female athletes might look at what I have done and also aim for the same accomplishment. It would be awesome to be racing against other female hand cyclists at Ironman races in the future, so I hope I can inspire other women to take up the sport.
Scody: What's the next goal?
Liz: Of course, the aim next year is to break the world record time in Kona, Hawaii, in 2018 and set a new benchmark of performance for female hand cyclists. I hope to see someone else follow in my footsteps and improve upon it too, as I started adaptive sport rather late in life, aged 45. Although I like to think that I can keep going for many more years, age-related problems compounded with an SCI may mean I have to retire earlier than most. I can’t imagine giving up the sport entirely, but Ironman training as a wheelchair athlete takes an extraordinary toll on the body.