Friday, November 6, 2009

Guiding Light

Jared Berg (above, right), one of the elite athletes on the Felt-sponsored Mafia Racing Team, competes as a guide for a visually challenged off-road triathlete. Last weekend Jared and Michael Stone raced at the XTERRA World Championships in Maui, and Jared checked in with this recap of the event.

Last Sunday I had the privilege of guiding Michael Stone, a brand new off-road triathlete with a visual challenge, at the XTERRA World Championships in Maui. Michael has Cone-Rod Dystrophy, which greatly disrupts his capacity to filter light and his ability to see low-contrast fields of vision. Con-Rod Dystrophy also leaves Michael with increasing blind spots. In many cases individuals suffering with Cone-Rod Dystrophy go blind but are left in a constant state of lightness rather than darkness.

Though Michael can see a large tree on the side of a trail, it’s the rocks or roots that are similar to the trail color, or hidden by grass, that are impossible for him to see. Sometimes even an entire trail can disappear in the shadows as it curves or switches back in another direction.

Imagine looking through a pair of safety glasses smeared with Vaseline while someone is shining a flashlight in your direction and you’ll have some understanding of what Michael must deal with. The objects or obstacles he is able to see on the trail are usually seen at the last minute, giving him little or no time to react.

So Michael relies on the sounds of my bike or my foot strikes or my voice commands, combined with what he sees of me navigating the trail while I ride or run ahead of him.

In the water we found that if I swim next to Michael I can naturally guide him one direction or the other. For instance, if I am on his right side he subtly moves to the left. However, if Michael starts moving too far to the left, I’ll quickly dive about 6-8 feet down and swim under him to his left side. During the race, it was pretty comical swimming under all the other competitors but it allowed me to quickly get to Michael’s other side without misguiding him. The only problem was that Michael would get water up his nose from laughing whenever I swam underneath him and a dozen other swimmers at the same time!

The swim portion of the competition is fairly enjoyable for us but the bike and the run present a real challenge. We raced the XTERRA Nationals in Ogden, Utah, and had a good experience because Ogden was mostly uphill and there was fairly good visual contrast between the darker trail and the surrounding grass, brush and trees. The trail in Maui, however, was a reddish tint and did not stand out from the dry orange, tan and sometimes red tint to the brush and trees. The ground in Maui never lets you hold a smooth line; it almost feels like you are constantly being floated around with little ability to control your own direction.

All these adverse trail conditions made for a pretty scary riding experience for Michael. It is definitely worth mentioning that the 2008 XTERRA World Champion and UCI pro-mountain biker crashed and broke a couple ribs while training on the course before the race.

As a guide, my most important mission is to get Michael through the course safely with as few mishaps as possible. The next goal is to provide a racing environment where Michael can capitalize on his fitness and minimize the hindrance of his vision impairment. I’m happy to say we made it through safely with only a couple little bobbles on the bike and run. On one occasion on the run I called out “stay left” on a corner when I actually meant to say “turn left.” Michael stayed left on the corner and caught some barbwire that I did not see. He went down to his hands on sharp lava rock. Luckily, he escaped with only little thorns in his palm but I felt horrible about making a bad call. It really drove home how much he depends on my commands.

I feel the race was a complete success because Michael says he wants to come back next year! We have progress to make in order to provide Michael a better opportunity to use his strong fitness on the bike, but we are confident and hopeful his trail-riding learning curve will stay ahead of the degeneration of his sight.

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