A lot of people don’t realize that blind athletes can do everything that athletes with good vision can. But the truth is, with the help of a guide, blind athletes can make up for the difference with aplomb. Fireman Rob sits down with Caroline Gaynor, a nine-time Ironman finisher. Caroline shares her story about being a guide for blind athletes. Don’t miss out on Caroline’s inspiring and empowering story!
Listen to the podcast here:
Guided To Victory With Caroline Gaynor
I have a great guest for you that puts others before herself and has been doing that for a long time. She is a nine-time Ironman finisher, but not just by herself, guiding blind athletes. She's a two-time Race Across America, four-person finisher. Caroline, it is great to have you on the show.
Thank you for having me, Rob. I was excited to have an excuse to talk to you, to be honest.
I got to see you in my world record year and the last race of the world record here in Austin. It was great.
That was incredible. I feel like I was in tears that day watching you. That was amazing.
It was a long adventure and speaking of long adventures, you've had long adventures, but I want to go back to the root of it. I loved finding out that you played water polo because I played water polo in college too. You played in high school. Sports always correlate to other things in your life. I love how you said, "Water polo was helpful for guiding me because guiding people in races is like a context for it." Tell me more about that.
Water polo from what I could see, it's one of the only contact sports for women. It's not openly a contact sport in that you can't be super aggressive with people or else the ref will come after you. You are swimming in a pool with a bunch of other people, you're fighting for a ball, it's aggressive, and it can be stressful. Anybody who's done a triathlon in a mass start understands how aggressive some of those swims can be. Imagine if you were tied to another person that you were guiding who can't see the people coming up behind you or to the side. It becomes even more real and you have to be able to laser focus on the task at hand and also make sure that you're keeping people out of your way and out of your athlete's way. I found that water polo was incredibly helpful with the confidence in the water, and then the ability to navigate those hectic situations.
Do you every once in a while, look up when you either dunk somebody or knock them out of the way to see if there's going to be a whistle?
No, but I made people angry. In fact, in Ironman Western Australia, where you swim around this wooden jetty that's 1 mile out, my husband watched a guy get mad at me. I was gently shoving him out of the way. I was like, "I don't know what else to do here. I'm sorry."
Going back, you claim you weren't an athlete, but I don't truly believe that you've always had that passion for helping others. You were seventeen years old when you did your first triathlon. What was that like for you?
It felt like one of the greatest things I've ever accomplished. That is a feeling that a lot of people get when they set a goal and they put a lot of work into it and then they ultimately achieve it. I remember crossing the finish line and feeling accomplished. Honestly, I'm not sure if there's a better feeling than I've put work into something I've achieved whatever this goal may be. That's probably why I gravitated towards guiding because the women that I raced with generally they're totally physically capable of doing these events. If I'm willing to be by their side during the race, they can also experience that feeling. That was powerful for me starting when I was seventeen.
What does that feel like to be able to be the eyes of somebody? They're physically capable of doing this, but they can't visualize it. They can't see the direction to go. You're the eyes of their journey to something that they never thought they could do. I know you're a humble person. I love that, but what does that feel like? A lot of people would love to be able to understand that and maybe even do it themselves.
To be clear, the reason that I will go on shows or whatever, talk about my experiences as a guide is that there are a lot of people that want to be a guide and that don't know that it's possible. The overwhelming feeling I get when I'm racing with anybody is gratitude because I don't take it for granted that the person I'm racing with is willing to put their faith and trust in me to help them get to the finish line safely. That's something I've never lost. It's just every time I'm either running, cycling, swimming, and racing with somebody, I feel grateful that I'm by their side. I've formed some of the best friendships that I've ever had through this sport. Many of the women that I've raised with have become incredibly close friends of mine. Gratitude is the main thing that comes to mind when you ask what it's like.
You began being a guide for mostly Ironman's or is it multiple different race lengths?
That's the thing is people who are blind and visually impaired if they want to compete, and if they have super low vision, they'll need a guide for any distance. Anything from 5K up to a guided Race Across America, which is cycling only, but it was a long event. I'm willing to guide any distance and have guided many different distance events.
You talk about Race Across America and I want to get into that more because watching your journey in Race Across America was amazing. The trials and tribulations, especially, being a guide because not only you're trying to get yourself through it, but you're also trying to get it for somebody else. That feeling when you can't move anymore. I want you to tell the story of when you're going down that highway and you got nervous because of all the cars. Tell us more about why you chose to do Race Across America while helping to assist somebody who was blind?
First, I'll say I got lucky to be asked to be on the Race Across America team that I was on. It was put together by several incredible individuals. Dan Berlin spearheaded the effort as did Jack Chen, who I ended up piloting, but the purpose of that group was to become the first blind tandem team. A team of four tandem bikes with four blind stokers, the person that sits on the back, and then four sighted guides. The whole goal of our team was to highlight how capable, blind, and visually impaired people are. I always want to be careful that I'm not speaking for that community, but I do think if you're talking to me about this, I will highlight how impressive the people that I know in this community are. Everybody on our team was not only an athlete but also was incredibly successful professionally. That's important because a lot of people in society don't realize that blind people can do everything that we can do. That was the goal. I got lucky that the people I knew were going to be asked to be stokers on the team. I had already completed Race Across America. I knew what I was in for, and I'm a big cyclist. I got asked to pilot and I don't even know what to say about Race Across America, except that it will test you in every way possible.
The physical fatigue is a big one, but at the same time, the mental strain. It's interesting as we talk about this more, I think about how people are scared of the unknown things that they can't see. Think of somebody who can't see at all and the unknown is always there for them and you're taking them across America. You can hear cars and all these things. Tell me one of the great stories of that journey Race Across America. We'll get into the scary one, but what is one of the greater moments that you had on that journey?
There were many great moments. One of the coolest moments was at the end of the race. We were probably the last state before we were going to cross the finish line in Annapolis. One of our teammates was struggling. Tina Ament, who's an incredible woman that I've raced with many times. She was feeling good physically and thankfully her pilot, Pamela and I are relatively similar heights. We could hop on and off the bike and not have to make too many adjustments. Tina was able to do double duty and switch off pilots as we were climbing through these incredible hills and we were suffering after a week straight of riding. Seeing her step up and hang in there to get us through that home stretch was cool. It was a testament to her ability to suffer through a whole lot of pain. The work that she'd put in and her willingness to tolerate switching pilots every fifteen minutes or so, it was incredible.
How many miles is that Race Across America?
It's about 3,000 miles. It was a long one.
When you do this, you have to give people a perspective of you have crew for you, you have different people that pilot. How much did you get to rest?
The resting is interesting. First of all, you can't do it without the crew. Our crew was unbelievable. We had twenty crew members that were supporting us. When you're the rider, you have an easy job, all you have to do is ride and then when you're not riding you eat and sleep. The crew was cooking our meals, making sure equipment was prepared, dealing with our emotional meltdowns. I certainly had a few. The crew was the true heroes. When it comes to riding, the way it works is you'll have two teams of two bikes, essentially. Those two bikes will do shifts where they'll ride 20 to 30 minutes on, 20, 30 minutes off, and there'll be rotating and they'll do that for 4 to 6 hours or a set number of miles. While that group of two bikes is rotating, the other group of two bikes will be sleeping and eating. You're going to be on for 4 to 6 hours and off for 4 to 6 hours. Usually, it was closer to four though so you're not getting a lot of sleep. Sleep deprivation is a big element. We were a four-bike team so we got more sleep than the two people or the solo riders, but that's a whole other story.
That adds to the turmoil that is the race. I want to tell the story because it lends into the question, but when you talk about the finish line of being that person that helps to guide that individual across the finish line and find their true potential, you are humble. I love the story about you crossing the finish line in Kona and you turned your bib around. Why'd you do that?
First of all, in Kona, my name's not on the bib. I don't even have my own race number. The bib didn't even matter but it's important for people to be cheering for the right person. I also want to be clear that many of the athletes I've raced with, they want me to take as much credit as they're getting. It is a partnership, but when I was racing with Helen Webb in Kona, she was selected to go to the race. This was her second Ironman. She was the second visually impaired woman to complete Kona. For me, it was important to make sure people were cheering for the right person.
That's a huge thing that lands a lot to what you do for the sport as well as for other people. Looking at that, how did that come about in your life that you wanted to be that person that was making that difference, that was making that impact, but from the side of somebody not in front of somebody?
I don't share this story often, but guiding it saved me more than I've helped other people through it. I went through multiple periods of depression when I was younger. I was not doing well the summer that I first started guiding, physically, mentally I was done. You probably have been in those periods where your body's not cooperating, you don't feel good. I was unhappy. When I first started guiding, I had signed up to do the New York City tri and I was planning to do it on my own, but when I was asked to guide, it made the race meaningful again. I can't say it pulled me out of a depression, but I will say that it sent me off on the path of being a guide. There were other periods where I wasn't doing well and guiding had ultimately was the one constant thing. Even if I was struggling in a job or a relationship, I was always able to go out there and race with people that I cared about and help them get to the finish line of whatever event they wanted. It gave me a sense of purpose. I'm not sure where it would be if I hadn't started guiding.
Thank you for telling that story because that's one of those things where you find your purpose sometimes in the places that you'd never thought you would, and it's important. You're a mom now. I love it. What is it like to be a mom? Knowing all these things that you've done in your life, how did that prepare you? It's not a job. It's more of a daily habit that you have to do.
I love being a mom and I love my daughter, and this is going to sound strange to people who don't understand how much I care about this, but I was worried. Will I stop guiding? I knew I wouldn't stop guiding, but it was more like wanting to make sure I could still be there to race with the people I'm close with. One of the things that were awesome is after I got pregnant and talking to the women that I was racing with, and my friend Randy I asked her to do the Houston Marathon. We have a bunch of friends that were going out to do it. It was one of those like, “We could put this event on the calendar to do it together.” She didn't know where it would be fitness-wise, but that's where we are in our relationship at this point is that we go and do these events so we can hang out and spend time together. A lot of people have that with their race communities, but it just happens Randy and I do the race together. I had a fitness goal for myself after having the baby and that was cool. I'm grateful to Randy for putting her faith in the fact that I could get in marathon shape. I had plenty of time. I want to say it was nine months after having the baby, but it was neat that she was on board with that.
What did it feel like to get back in the race and put those shoes back on and get out there?
It's like being me again. I have a demanding job. I'm an athlete but for me, I didn't want that to be my only identity. It felt like getting back to who I am.
It's a lot about showing your kids through your actions. I know you have a young one, but you don't want to lose that ability to be able to show your kids what's possible in this world. Going to work and coming home is one thing, but also being able to help others is another thing. How important is that moving forward with your LBJ to show what it's like to be able to help others?
I never want to project on my kids. I don't want her to think she has to be an athlete or has to do all these things, but I do hope that if there's one thing she picks up for my husband James and me, is that it's important to do things for other people. Here's the thing is doing things for other people is selfish. I'm sure that you've experienced the same thing that you get more out of it than you're giving. I don't consider helping people to be this selfless thing. It's not, it's selfish, but if you can also support other people and get benefits, I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
That's completely the best way to look at it. I want to make sure that we highlight some of the organizations that you're a part of because you have a lot of organizations that you're a part of.
That's the thing is there are many great organizations and any people are often like, "Where do I start if I want to be a guide?" I would always say the first thing to do is to put your name into United In Stride, which is a website that connects guides and athletes based on location. I don't know if it's at critical mass yet. You're not guaranteed to find an athlete in your area if you put your name in, but if you're traveling and you are able and willing to guide somebody, you can find somebody in different locations. It's important that everybody registers there. That's a neat group. One of the ones that people are most familiar with is the Achilles International. They have chapters all over the place. Not every chapter is as robust as others. New York is a well built out chapter. If you don't have a chapter in your area and you have the ability to commit, you can create a local chapter, which is cool.
Two awesome organizations, one is Chicago-based Dare2tri. They have camps and clinics. They have a great online virtual presence during this pandemic, they're doing a lot of workouts and you can certainly get involved that way. CATAPULT is a Houston-based organization. They're also doing camps and they will bring people together for huge events. They were the ones that organized the Houston Marathon, but I would say connect with every organization you possibly can because they all do different things. They all have an incredible community. There are more opportunities that are immediately visible.
It's that vision of being able to help a lot of different organizations to be able to help maybe one person be able to find their reality and their next finish line. What is the next big adventure that you're going to go on?
Can anyone answer that?
You’ve got to have a dream.
I have many dreams. That's the question, this fall was supposed to be an intense fall. I was supposed to race Ironman, Maryland with my friend, Randy. I was going to guide my friend Alexandra in 70.3, North Carolina, and then guide the New York City Marathon with Helen. I don't know what events are going to take place at this point.
It's a tough environment to be able to navigate but it's keeping that positivity and trying to figure out what is next? When you look at your adventures, what is one of the big takeaways that you had from Kona? That's a challenging and brutal course.
It was way harder than I thought.
What is that takeaway that you have from when you reached those dark moments? When you're guiding somebody and you both reach a dark moment at the same time, how do you get through that?
I find that it's harder almost when you're in a dark place and the person you're with isn't. Everyone who's done an endurance event along with one has hit that point before. If you're both in a dark place it's important to find the humor in it, first of all. Second of all, to not let each other sink lower. I've shared this story before, but it's one of my favorites, it's with Helen. I was struggling on the run in Kona, especially at the beginning, and she'd gotten a second wind and was feeling awesome. There's something about the person that you're running with feeling amazing and you're feeling terrible. It almost makes you feel like you're that much worse off. I remember seeing your face in Ironman, Wisconsin, Rob, you were in a deep pain cave.
There are a lot of pain caves I've been in. Nobody else wants to go on those.
First of all, I love pain caves but imagine how stressful it is if you're like, "They feel amazing. Am I going to let them down? What's going to happen here?" Being able to ask the person that you're racing with to give you a little bit of grace and in Helen's case, she said, "Let me know if you need me to be quiet and stop talking as much." I asked her for that and it helped me refocus on myself and put some of that energy back into putting one foot in front of the other. As you know, in races, you can have a second wave and the third wave of energy, and that did happen. If I hadn't been able to say, "Helen, I'm hurting. I'm not going to slow you down here, but I need a minute to regroup." If I hadn't been able to ask her that, I don't know how it would have turned out.
There are many different factors that go into these races. I love the dynamics that you have to work through to get to that finish line. Everybody sees the finish line. They go, "That's amazing." They don't understand the little things that go into it. I don't think a lot of people understand guiding. On the swim, you're tethered together and then on the bike, you're on a tandem bike. On the run, you're tethered together, how do you communicate the pace where you're going and if you're turning? Is it all hand touching? How do you do that?
I'll try to set the stage. It depends on the course. It depends on how hard you're going. In Ironman, there are usually a lot of straightaways. If there are turns, I'll give a decent amount of heads up in 30, 45 seconds, or even longer, "We're going to have a turn." I will try to describe the degree of the turn. If it's a U-turn I'll probably ask them to grab their elbow or ask them to grab mine. If it's a little bit more gradual, I'll probably let them know what's happening and then tell them when to turn. When you've spent a lot of time with somebody running with them, you start to get a rhythm. If you're guiding somebody new, over-communicating is essential. When it comes to touch, yes, that can be helpful. Starting with the description first, and then depending on the athlete's comfort level with touch, then you can certainly say, "I'm going to grab your elbow or do you mind grabbing mine?" That can be useful for sure, but you never want to assume somebody is comfortable with you grabbing their arm based on the terrain. Thankfully the women I raised with there's a ton of trust there and they're all comfortable. If it's bumpy or if there's a tight turn, we might be holding hands that it can be helpful.
Do you teach a course on communication because that seems like an amazing amount of trust communication that a lot of people could take away from and apply to their either work life or their personal lives?
It is a relationship and the relationship that you have in one of those longer races, it is almost like this marriage for that however many hours you're together because no matter how rocky it gets, you can't separate. Even if you're struggling or maybe there's conflict because you're frustrated or the athlete's frustrated, you have to figure out how to work through those moments. I can't say I've always done an amazing job. I'm sure there have been times when I could have handled things better or differently but it's a learning process. Knowing the people that you're racing with, I'm lucky I consider this racing with friends. I know that even if I were struggling or if I had to slow them down or if we had some an issue, I know that they would still want to race with me again afterward. It takes some of that pressure off. It's not like some made or break thing where if I let them down, I'm done. That's important, especially for athletes that want guides and need guides is to make sure you, your guide is essential equipment, but also they're a human being. They have good days. They have bad days and it is a relationship and a partnership.
Thank you for coming on. It's been such a pleasure to have you on and learned more about how to be able to be, in essence, a better human like you.
I am not going to take credit for that, but I'm grateful to talk to you. If people want to ask questions, they're welcome to follow me on Instagram or find me on Facebook and send me a note. I try to be as responsive as I can. Hopefully, I can direct you to the right organizations if need be.
What are those Instagram and Facebook tags?
I always end up my show the same way. I have three questions that I ask you. I don't give them to you before because I’d love to get those uncomfortable answers. We have a rapid round. Here's the start of the first three of the three questions. What is one thing you haven't done, but is outside of your comfort zone?
It's probably in the same vein, but I want to do an Ultra at some point, like a running race because I focused on cycling for so long, but it seems painful and that community seems incredible. Putting that number of miles in my legs, that stresses me out just thinking about it.
You could do it. It'd be good. Leadville, or do some of those Western States.
I have to build up to that.
Here's the second one. What's your favorite quote and why?
I'm not a big quote person, the context in this one there's more to it, but the part that resonates with me is, "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." It's Samuel Beckett. I'm butchering it, but failure is important. The context may be wrong there, but If you don't have a failure in your life, you can't learn effectively. Every single bad period of my life or even a race where I've completely let an athlete down or something, all of that builds on itself. You learn from it and make you a better person, able to empathize and you learn from your mistakes. Failure is the best tool for learning.
I completely and utterly agree. It's the time to learn. The last question, this one's going to be an interesting one. If you can pick to have coffee with three people, they can be deceased or alive at a firehouse table. In other words, nothing is off the table. You can ask them anything. Who would it be and why?
It's funny every one of my tables is a firehouse table. I will ask direct. Truthfully, Rob, I'd love to get coffee with you again. I'm putting you on that list. Given everything that's happening, I'm going to go with Barack Obama. We've got a lot going on in this country. It's important to be thinking about everything that's going on and I would love to hear his perspective. I'm going to say Ashley Eisenmenger a good friend of mine. That was a few years ago that we met in person for the first time. She's another athlete I've raced with and I haven't gotten to see her in many months. She's been doing a lot of great work for the disabled community in Chicago and she's quarantined and isolated. I would love to get her to Charlotte and spend some time hanging out with her.
That was a great answer. Here we go. We're going to the rapid round questions. I'm going to give you two options. All you’ve got to do is choose one of them. Paper or plastic?
Soup or salad?
Soup, for sure.
McDonald's or Taco Bell?
McDonald's Hash Browns are the best food on the planet.
Camping or a hotel?
I'm a hotel person. I hate to admit, but I travel so much that I've got to go to hotels. You get points.
Fly or drive?
Fly, again, mileage. I used to fly 6 or 7 times a month.
Sleep in late or wake up early?
What I do is sleep in late, but I have always wanted to be a morning person. I'm always looking for accountability partners, even virtually because the only way I can get up to do a workout is if somebody is going to be disappointed in me if I don't wake up. I am not a morning person.
It sounds like I'm answering these questions. Run or walk?
Run. I hate walking. I find it stressful. I'd rather be running any day. Walking? I will just ride a bike if I'm going to walk.
Partly sunny or partly cloudy?
Isn't that the same thing?
In some respects, I've gotten many good, different answers. I love it.
I would say partly sunny then better racing weather for that. That means that there are more clouds.
That's the best part is people start to figure out they have different explanations for it. That's why I love it. How about fire or water?
Water but I'm a triathlete. When it comes to personality though, I'm 100% fire.
I don't doubt it. Use a porta-potty or continue to drive or run to the next physical bathroom?
Use a porta-potty. Don't be a diva.
Coke or Pepsi?
Go big or go home?
Go big. Is there even an option?
No, there isn't.
That's not even a question, Rob.
Thank you for joining me. It has been such a pleasure. Thank you for everything that you're doing. If anybody wants to find out more, go to her Instagram or Facebook and help be a guide. I can't wait until your next adventure. Maybe another Race Across America. Who knows?
I hope our paths cross again soon, Rob. This has been the highlight of my week. Thank you.
Thank you again and thank you for everybody reading. We will talk to you again. Thanks for stopping by.