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The Will to Tri: Legally blind and suffering from lupus, nothing stops Staten Island triathlete John Chan  

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The Will to Tri: Legally blind and suffering from lupus, nothing stops Staten Island triathlete John Chan     

Heat and humidity hound John Chan, a legally blind triathlete, and his guide, Bob LaBanca, as they commence a training run by the Fred Lebow statue just inside Engineers’ Gate at the 90th Street entrance to Central Park. It is 90 degrees at 6 p.m.; the men are tethered together by a black elastic band that wraps around each of their waists. Readying for Sunday’s New York City Triathlon, they ease into an eight-minute-mile pace. Chan, donning sunglasses and a neon-yellow shirt, strides on the outside; bicyclists whir past. He sees shapes sans details. A veteran of 14 New York City Marathons, Chan knows the route by heart, calling out left turns on a four-mile loop. Few know the contours of the paths as well as Chan does. LaBanca alerts him to runners ahead. Chan charges forward, challenging LaBanca and the band.

“I can tell you are feeling your Wheaties today,” LaBanca says.

Chan is 52. LaBanca is 57. Chan, a Staten Island native, works as a computer technician. LaBanca runs a printing company in Stamford. They chart paths forward as the triathlon course awaits them. At 7 a.m. Sunday, they will start in wet suits and goggles with the opening wave of a 4,000-participant field in the Hudson River at 99th Street. They will swim south with the current for 1.5 kilometers before exiting at 81st Street and transitioning to a tandem bicycle — a Santana Sovereign Chan bought used in 2015 for $3,250.00. They will pedal along the Henry Hudson Parkway, and buttonhook back south at Gun Hill Road in the Bronx to round out a 40-kilometer ride; the last leg is a 10-kilometer run in the park. Both men know the delicate dance between the visually impaired and their guides, recalling miscues and entanglements from prior pairings. By the end of the session, they are drenched with sweat and in need of drinks as the water fountain on the west side is not working. LaBanca leads Chan to another source. They imbibe before bantering about personal bests and possible finish times. Chan, coming off a calf injury that he suffered in a pileup at Mile 25 during the Boston Marathon in April, maintains he will be happy with three hours. It is his second NYC Triathlon — the only international distance triathlon held in the five boroughs. His first, in 2015, is in the annals with a finish of 3:05:15. LaBanca raises the bar by an hour, noting that Chan’s previous partner swam into the rocks and cramped up. They goad each other regarding expectations. Chan, who will be one of nine visually impaired participants at the triathlon, guffaws. He is overheating and breathing heavily.

“I just want you to get me out of the water,” Chan says.

Self-deprecation is part of Chan’s charm. The men communicated via Facebook for a year and a half before meeting in person at a camp — “No Sight, No Limit” — that brought together blind athletes and willing guides in Chula Vista six months ago. This will be their first triathlon together as Chan, fresh off a 1:15:22 finish at the Boilermaker 15K in Utica last week, seeks a regular guide who can run in lock step. He has shed a number of partners over the last decade while his times improved markedly. His pace allows few peers. LaBanca encourages Chan, who guards against lupus flare-ups — swelling joints, migraines and rashes — to test his limits. Chan, who stands 5-foot-6 and weighs in at 155 pounds, was diagnosed in 2002. The incurable disease leveled him once again in May, requiring him to rest in bed for a week. He has rebounded since, but knows extreme temperatures trigger lupus. He takes prednisone for inflammation, as well as cortisone steroids.

“You’re tough to keep up with,” says LaBanca, who has completed 50 triathlons. “I’m somewhat happy you’re a little injured. I want to keep up on the run.”

“The run is really my thing,” Chan says. “I’m a good hills runner. If this calf doesn’t act up…”

“If that calf doesn’t act up,” LaBanca says. “I’m in trouble.”

* * *

The Will to Tri: Legally blind and suffering from lupus, nothing stops Staten Island triathlete John Chan     

“I have the eyes of an albino,” Chan says as he cools down by a bench on the park’s bridle path between Fifth Avenue and the reservoir. He tracks the decline of his vision through its current decade of deterioration. Two percent of his optic nerves never developed. He was labeled visually impaired during kindergarten because he could not see the chalkboard clearly, and spent time looking at the world through binoculars and magnifying glasses. He was afforded extra time for tests; one teacher employed a projector to make material readable. By the time he went for a drivers’ license when he was 22, the Department of Motor Vehicles flagged him as legally blind. His congenital condition is Nystagmus. His eyes move rapidly and uncontrollably. He also has albinism, which is characterized by severely impaired sharpness of visual acuity. “Bright lights, the sun’s glare, they really bother me.”

Comfort and accomplishment came in placing one foot in front of the other. He grew up in the Mariners Harbor section of Staten Island, and was bullied for being Asian. Few kids picked him for teams as he had difficulties seeing the baseball or basketball, depending on the season. He ran cross country for Port Richmond High because it did not require hand-eye coordination, and added Kung Fu to learn self defense. At 16, he jumped a fence at the New York City Marathon’s starting line and strode the whole route among the 13,000 participants. He was a bandit, but beat a quick pace to the finish line in Central Park. While winner Alberto Salazar established a world record in 2:08:13, Chan was not allowed to finish because he did not qualify properly. Still, he eyed the clock as he approached the end. It read 3:12.

“Less security then,” he says. “Didn’t count, but I did it again the next year. I saw that clock. I know what it read.”

He has continued to pick up the tempo. There are 37 official marathon finishes — from Philadelphia to California — and four unofficial behind him now. His roadwork included completing the Boston Marathon 30 minutes prior to a pair of backpack bombs detonating in 2013. He had finished the race each of the previous two years, and took off from his guides from Team With a Vision in the last mile because he had Boylston Street memorized. When the first bomb went off, he figured it was a new celebratory cannon. The second blast caused him concern. He heard first responders shout, “Wait by the bus! Wait by the bus!” He needed to get back to the Hampton Inn at Logan Airport, but could not find his guides amidst the confusion of the international terror attack. He ran the race in 3:52:52. It took him four more hours to find the hotel.

“I was the first of my group to finish the race and the last to reach the hotel,” he says. “I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone.”

Chan trained his attention on triathlons when Amy Eshelman, his guide the first time he ran Boston, introduced him to swimming. She taught him how to tread water, helping from the stages of Chan wearing a life jacket and holding onto a pool noodle at an upstate lake to his swimming half the pool’s length before grabbing onto the side. They trained together in the YMCA on Broadway in Staten Island, and he finished his first tri — the Staten Island Sprint Triathlon — in August of 2014. He added the NYC triathlon to his résumé the following summer, and connected with Amy Dixon, a professional paratriathlete who lost 98% of her sight due to a rare type of uveitis, an inflammatory autoimmune eye disease. Dixon and Chan both participated with Achilles International, a team that enables runners with disabilities to participate in mainstream events. The two kept in touch, and Dixon invited Chan to the No Sight, No Limits USA Blind Triathlete High Performance Camp at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., in January.

“There’s nothing we can’t do,” Dixon says. “It’s all coachable. John is a rock star at adapting.”

Chan was one of 15 athletes ranging in age from 22 to 64 years old, from across the country, to attend. Though he envisioned sunny days away from New York, the temperature barely topped 40 degrees during his stay. Billed as a chance to train in open water, heavy rains relegated the athletes to pool sessions. No matter the conditions, Chan and LaBanca, a veteran volunteer for Dixon, hit it off. They honed their technique with LaBanca piloting the tandem bicycle, which Dixon likens to a “performance tractor trailer” due to its ability to carry two weight loads. Chan breathed out his right side while swimming, and pushed Dixon on track sprints. One last challenge came on a distance run. Hail fell hard from the sky.

The Will to Tri: Legally blind and suffering from lupus, nothing stops Staten Island triathlete John Chan     

“Like, really, really hard,” LaBanca says.

Chan winces at the memory and chafes about the use of wet suits. He finds them restrictive despite lathering Body Glide balm on his skin prior to putting the suit on. LaBanca insists he will grow more accepting of the suit as time goes on.

Chan knows that he holds an advantage at the start of the NYC triathlon. It comes when officials instruct participants to hold their noses before jumping into the Hudson.

“I can’t even see how dirty the water is so I don’t even care,” Chan says.

* * *

Sunset nears; clouds gather over Central Park. Chan remains on the recruiting trail. He will run his 15th NYC Marathon in November, and he mentions his plan to LaBanca, who is intrigued. The marathon organizers allow blind runners to be boxed in by four guides. Chan looks at LaBanca.

“You know that spot’s still open, right?” Chan says.

“Let’s get through this one and then we’ll work on the next one,” LaBanca says.

The Will to Tri: Legally blind and suffering from lupus, nothing stops Staten Island triathlete John Chan     

“You know you can just come in the last 10 miles, rotate in,” Chan says. “Best part of the marathon up First Avenue.”

“You’re sweetening the pie,” LaBanca says.

“Think about it,” Chan says. “You’ll get to know the course.”

There is rib poking and bartering. LaBanca notes that before he signed on, Chan was always flanked by younger women in post-race photographs that he posted on social media. Chan is typically holding a beer and wearing a medal in the aftermath.

“To be honest, there aren’t many guys our age who can do our pace,” says Chan, a lifelong bachelor. “The girls wear brighter colors and are more compassionate.”

There is no desire to slow down. Chan has already met the standard to run the Boston Marathon next year. His time of 3:27:35 at the Steamtown Marathon in Scranton, Pa., last fall qualified him for Boston among all male runners in his age group. He ran 90 minutes faster than the requirement for visually impaired athletes, but knows that hurdles can appear even when he is in the race. He recounts his most recent Boston Marathon run three months ago. A runner strode in between Chan and his guide and the guide wound up falling to the asphalt. Chan tumbled over his partner, but recovered in time to make his way across the line.

“I was like, ‘Oh, crap! Oh my god!’” Chan says. “I would have crawled if I had to.”

There are plenty of potential pitfalls to sidestep. He memorizes routes near his place in Westerleigh, noting potholes and cracks in the sidewalk, but the landscape is always changing and colors can be misleading for him, as well. He tells about charging toward the park’s entrance around Mile 22 of the NYC Marathon. Due to the sun’s position in the sky, everything looked white to Chan. To combat the confusion, he was tethered at that point in the race, holding onto a fabric with one of his guides. Chan eventually outran his guide and started to follow another runner.

The Will to Tri: Legally blind and suffering from lupus, nothing stops Staten Island triathlete John Chan     

“I’m running, I’m running and the person is picking up speed,” Chan says. “I’m like, ‘Why are they picking up?’ All of a sudden I hear my guide shout, ‘John! You’re following the wrong person!’ I can’t tell you how many times that has happened.”

Chan chortles. He maintains independence as much as he can. He laughs about a bike ride through Greenwich, Conn., with LaBanca.

“He said we were going out to do 25 miles,” Chan says. “We ended up doing 50!”

“I figured you couldn’t see,” LaBanca says.

“Then he said there were no more hills,” Chan says. “There were four more.”

Lamar Brown, a blind triathlete who completed the NYC Triathlon five years in a row with Achilles International, stands nearby and shakes his head.

“Rule No. 1, never believe your guide until it’s done,” Brown says. “Not until you burst through the ribbon. Then it’s over.”

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