It takes a community of people to make races happen. A committee to plan the event, countless volunteers to facilitate water and recovery stations, set-up and tear down crews, and supporters to encourage athletes as they train as well as on race day.
But for athletes who are blind and visually impaired, races wouldn’t happen without people like Caroline Gaynor. Gaynor is a super guide. She travels the country to guide athletes in races and triathlons. To date, Gaynor has guided 10 athletes in more than 30 triathlons, including 6 Ironman races. This year, Gaynor guided 2 Ironmans in a span of less than two months.
Athletes are often hesitant to serve as guides, fearing they will cause injury or poor performance for the blind athlete. However, most who have tried it will tell you, that is simply not the case. Guiding becomes natural quickly, and is often more enjoyable than competing solo.
“I’ve been doing endurance sports for over 15 years but I guide because it’s bigger than me,” said Gaynor. “I get a lot more out of [competing] as a guide.”
Generally, the guide and athlete will run and swim in unison with a foot-long tether held firmly in the fingers, or tied at the waist or thigh during the swim, of the guide and the athlete. Tethers can be as simple as a shoe string, or made of stronger materials, such as leather. The purpose of the tether is to allow freedom of movement for both the athlete and the guide, but keep them in close proximity of each other. As they run and swim, the guide will provide verbal cues to the athlete on things like upcoming hills, turns, approaching runners or swimmers, where they are in the race, times, etc.
“It’s important to be adaptable,” said Gaynor. “I always want to communicate with the athlete and find out their preferences, for instance, making sure I know which side they want to be on, how much they want to talk.”
Matching energy levels is also important when finding a guide or athlete with whom to race. Being faster than the athlete allows the guide to focus on the athlete’s needs and relax, not concerning themselves with their ability to keep up.
“Though I know that I am not responsible for how any of my athletes feel about their performance, it can be hard not to feel responsible when a race doesn’t go the way they want,” said Gaynor. “Ideally, even on my worst day, I want to be faster [than my athlete]. But it’s also about the partnership and enjoying the company of your partner. Seventeen hours is a long time to be tied to one person!”
Although guiding can be enjoyable once you and your athlete find a rhythm, the experience does not come without its frustrations. Logistically, a lot of things can throw you off. Tandem bikes that have been shipped to the race location have to arrive on time. Equipment can fail on the course.
For Gaynor, the most recent moment of tested flexibility came when she and her athlete had to start a swim at the same time as 2,000 ‘Kona-hopefuls’. Usually, athletes tethered together for the swim are allotted a 10 minute start before everyone else begins the swim. In Maryland, because of a delayed start due to weather and a miscommunication with the announcer, that didn’t happen.
“The 10 minute head start gives us an opportunity to find a rhythm,” said Gaynor. “I love those first 10 minutes, though it is a little nerve wracking to watch a wall of 2000 ironman athletes swimming towards us after the age-group gun goes off.”
“[In Maryland,] all of the sudden, we were surrounded by ridiculously strong athletes, trying desperately to get past us,” recalls Gaynor. “I cannot imagine how that experience felt to Tina.”
On her blog, Caroline commends her athlete, Tina Ament, for handling the chaos well and adapting to the situation.
Though there are moments of frustration and points of exhaustion during every race, it’s an exhilarating adrenaline rush for Gaynor.
“I love the races you’re not sure if you can finish and I think there’s something about guiding that makes every race sort of feel like that. You don’t know what elements are going to come into play.”
Donating time and talent by guiding an athlete who is blind or visually impaired through an endurance race is perhaps one of the ultimate forms of volunteerism. Beyond the time and effort Gaynor donates, she donates vacation days and often covers her own travel and entry expenses when guiding.
“A lot of people assume I don’t work, or that I get paid to guide,” Gaynor told us. “Neither of these things are true. I have a job in finance that I love and I have never made any money coaching or guiding athletes. I tend not to take actual vacations, because I spend so many vacation days racing, but that’s a decision I’m happy with. Some people want to sit on a beach and relax; I’d rather race an Ironman as a guide.”
Gaynor initially got involved with guiding through Achilles International and is now a member of Team Red, White & Blue, an organization dedicated to enriching the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. Gaynor sharpened her tandem piloting skills at two USABA Cycling Development Camps, in Chula Vista (2009) and Birmingham (2011). She also races as a guide for Dare2Tri, a Chicago-based paratriathlon organization.
“It’s my responsibility to make sure that [my athletes] enjoy the race and that they are able to run the race they want to run,” says Gaynor. In this video, Gaynor emphasizes “it’s not my race.”
“We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves and have purpose. Being a guide and working towards something bigger than myself has gotten me through hard times. Guiding has kept me going when I’ve wanted to stop competing.”
“It should be a goal that every blind athlete in the U.S. can do the race(s) they want to do because there are enough trained guides available to assist,” Gaynor said.
Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. For every blind athlete participating in a race in the U.S. with a guide, there are multiple athletes unable to participate simply because a guide is not available. If you’re interested in helping us meet this goal by serving as a guide in your community, contact the United States Association of Blind Athletes to get connected to a local sport partner with athletes looking for guides or check out United in Stride, an online tool uniting runners who are blind or visually impaired with sighted guides across the U.S.