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Racing Blind: Triathlete Regains Control of Her Life

Microsoft software engineer Patricia Walsh, who lost her vision at 14, holds the record for blind athletes in the Ironman Triathlon.

IMAGINE competing in the open water swim section of an Ironman Triathlon. Cold, dark lake water. Thrashing limbs. Bodies charging forward in all directions. Kicking legs churning up water and spray.

Sound tough?

Now imagine doing it blind.

That’s what Patricia Walsh tackles every time she steps up to the starting line of a triathlon. The 30-year-old Seattleite must swim without sight, relying on a guide tethered to her with a 3-foot rope. Since she and her guide can’t hear or talk to one another while in the water, Walsh sometimes swims right over her companion, catches her arm in the tether, or runs into other swimmers.

“It’s terrifying,” Walsh said.

Yet despite the challenges of swimming in open water without sight, Walsh finished the Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas in May. Not only did she cross the finish line, but she broke the previous blind female Ironman record by three-and-a-half hours, and the male record by 55 minutes. With her time of 11 hours and 50 minutes, she was 13thoverall for women competitors. And, perhaps most importantly to Walsh, she managed to not freak out during the open water swim.

“I didn’t have a panic attack in the water,” Walsh said. “It was such a victory for me.”

Walsh, a software design and test engineer at Microsoft, began competing in Ironman triathlons just last year. An Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run (a marathon). Though she’s still new to the sport, her recent success in Texas has led her to enter the Accenture U.S. Paratriathlon National Championships at the New York City Triathlon this weekend. Walsh hopes her time in the Olympic-distance race will take her to the World Championships in Beijing on Sept. 9. 

Walsh’s foray into endurance athletics began when she started running at age 22. At that time, Walsh smoked regularly and hadn’t pushed herself athletically since she was 14, when she became completely blind.

Walsh began to lose her vision when she developed a brain tumor at age 5. She underwent major surgery to remove the tumor. While the surgery was successful in eliminating the tumor, recovery took two full excruciating years, and she never gained back full sight.

Then at 14, the scar tissue from the surgery completely destroyed Walsh’s vision. Once a high achiever in the classroom and on the athletic field, Walsh found herself struggling to re-learn how to read and perform basic functions. She felt like she’d become a completely different person, and she longed for her former, confident self.

By 22, fitness had become a low priority for Walsh. Then she watched her father begin having health problems due to his own smoking habit. Walsh decided she needed to shelve the cigarettes. As motivation to quit, she signed up for a marathon.

That first marathon, Walsh planned to recruit a friend who would help her navigate the course. But her companion bailed out after just 4 miles because she hadn’t trained, at all. Not wanting to give up herself, Walsh ran the rest of the marathon alone. She fell four times, veered off course more than once, and ran into a traffic cone.

“I looked like someone had beaten me up when I crossed the finish line,” Walsh said.

Despite the bruises, Walsh completed her first marathon. The event was more than a simple road race; completing it proved that she could still achieve things, even without her vision.

“In hindsight, finishing the marathon was the pinnacle of feeling like I had control of my life again,” Walsh said.

Once Walsh ran one marathon, she was hooked. She learned that she could recruit professional guides to help her navigate courses. When she didn’t have to worry about falling down or finding her way, she immediately slashed 20 minutes from her previous time. She’d finished eight marathons and qualified for Boston twice by age 28.

THAT YEAR, a friend suggested she try out a tandem bike. Walsh hadn’t sat on a bicycle since junior high school, when she could still see. To her delight, she discovered tandem cycling was a total blast. The two pedaled all over Seattle that day. Walsh had discovered a new sport.

Not long after, a friend suggested she take her marathon endurance and try doing an Ironman Triathlon. Though Walsh had never competed in any distance of triathlon at all, she loved the idea of a new challenge. She signed up for Lake Placid Ironman the same day.

Last year, Walsh completed Lake Placid. She faced a tough, hilly course with serious headwinds. To make matters more complicated, the guide she’d trained with dropped out at the last minute. Walsh scrambled and found a new partner, but they had little time to practice racing together. On race day, the two women swam the lake tethered to each other, rode a tandem bike, and ran with a rope between them.

Walsh crossed the Lake Place Ironman finish line in 14 and a half hours—slower than she’d anticipated, but a finish nonetheless. Drained from the experience, Walsh vowed to never do an Ironman again. She’d spent hours training by herself on an indoor bike and treadmill—both more efficient and easier than trying to navigate outdoor streets—and had long ago grown weary of the long, tedious workouts.   

But as it turns out, it didn’t take long for Walsh to be sucked into the Ironman circuit again. Just as she planned to move on from distance triathlons, a professional guide contacted her and asked her if she’d want to do Ironman Texas. Flattered by the invite, Walsh agreed, and began logging hours of swimming, biking, and running all over again.

“I made training my sole focus,” Walsh said.

Then, just four weeks before Ironman Texas, Walsh’s guide told her that because of her existing brand sponsorship, she couldn’t ride Walsh’s tandem bike (which was a different brand). Once again, Walsh was left scrambling to find a guide. This time, she recruited two: Sonja Wieck and Michelle Ford.

The night before the race, the three met in the hotel parking lot. Ford and Walsh rode two loops around the lot on the tandem bike, and then they tried out a five-minute swim together. Wieck would step in for the run.

The next day, Walsh and her guides raced Ironman Texas. The race wasn’t completely flawless. Ford felt so uncomfortable on the tandem bicycle, she didn’t want to take her hands off the handlebars to grab food at the transition areas. Instead, Walsh and Ford rationed the three Clif bars they were already carrying for the five-and-a-half hour ride.

Even with a few hiccups, the three women persevered. Wieck and Walsh ran the marathon portion of the race together, and then Ford joined them for the last bit of road. Walsh, Ford, and Wieck crossed the finish line together. Walsh had set a new blind athlete Ironman record.

“I’m still shocked it all worked out,” Walsh said.

Walsh is now focusing on New York City and Beijing—and perhaps even the Paralympic Games in Brazil in 2016—but is also still enjoying the thrill of her accomplishment in Texas.

“I’m so, so proud of Ironman Texas,” Walsh said. “I worked so hard for it.”

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