Race for Aaron

Aaron Leetch

ISU’s Aaron Leetch

On the morning of April 7, a plane carrying several of the Illinois State University Redbirds’ greatest supporters crashed outside of Bloomington-Normal, claiming the lives of all on board. Among those lost was Aaron Leetch, deputy director of Athletics for the Redbirds. Before Aaron passed away he was training with Erik Rankin and the rest of the Grim Reaper Fitness (GRF) crew for his first triathlon. Like any soon-to-be triathlete, he was looking forward to the challenge and talking about it with anyone and everyone who would listen. Unfortunately, Aaron never got the chance to race.

But it was a challenge that wouldn’t go unanswered.

Matt Lyons, a Redbird Athletics staff member and longtime friend of Aaron’s decided to finish what Aaron had started.

Steve Barcus and Matt Lyons

Me with Matt Lyons before the start of the race. Matt’s shirt has “ARL” highlighted in honor of Aaron.

That’s how I met Matt. A coworker told me what Matt was trying to do and asked if he could connect us. I was all too eager to lend a hand. With only six weeks before Tri-Shark, Matt would need to learn the basics of triathlon and condition himself to make it through a 600 yard swim, 12.4 mile bike, and 3.1 mile run. I called Matt to have an initial chat with him and see where I could help. Fortunately he was already in the habit of keeping fit–running a couple of miles and doing some lifting. He also knew how to swim but had never really worked at specific distances. I suppose the same could be said with his biking ability. He seemed to have an idea what he was actually taking on, which was a good start. So I asked how I could help. He said that if I knew anyone who could lend him a bike he would really appreciate it.

I have commented before on how the triathlon community is made up of some of the generous and supportive people you could ever meet, and it didn’t disappoint me here. I dropped a message in the Tri-Shark Facebook group asking if someone would be willing to lend a friend a tri or road bike. Within minutes I had three offers, the one I accepted coming from Kelly Ruiter and David Ford.

I set up a time for Matt to meet them and Dave did an impromptu fitting on one of Kelly’s bikes. They even lent an extra helmet. I offered up my Tyr Hurricane, but unfortunately the sizing was off. He would have to race without a wet suit.

Luckily Matt had borrowed a trainer from a friend and had been given a training plan. He quickly got down the bike and run brick workout to where he wasn’t particularly worried about finishing the run or bike. The obstacle would be the swim. For those unaccustomed to open water swimming, it can be a significant change from the pool. What’s worse is that with other swimmers kicking and clawing for the same space in the lake, panic attacks are very possible and potentially devastating.

Matt and I went to one of the GRF Wednesday Open Water Swims for some practice. There something good and bad happened. Out in the lake, Matt had experienced a panic attack. It is of course bad, since it is not a fun thing to go through (I can vouch for this having gone through it myself). On the other hand it is good since once you’ve gone through it, you know how to deal with it. He dealt with it well. We swam over to a kayak,  took a break, and then knocked out a couple more laps. During the last one I gave him a bit of a mass swim experience by having him swim while I went out of my way to bump, kick, grab, and claw at him. I’m pretty sure that was more fun for me than for him.

After six weeks of training and a few sessions talking race and transition strategy, the big day arrived. Since I had been out injured for previous weeks I offered to hang with Matt during the race so he had someone to push him along. The only part we would need to do differently was the swim since staying with a specific person during the mass swim could be tough and doing so could provide an obstacle for the other swimmers.

Tri-Shark Classic

Matt received a lot of support from Aaron’s family as well as Aaron’s friends at Grim Reaper Fitness. GRF T-shirts were emblazoned with “AL” in honor of Aaron.

And so it began.

I had a great swim and made it out of the water in 10:10 and into transition. I was a bit anxious since I knew the swim was the only potential problem area for Matt. The way I was looking at it, if he made it out of the water, he would finish the race. I was guessing the swim would take him around 15 or 16 minutes, so imagine my surprise when I saw him running up after 14:11!

Our strategy for transition was to take whatever time was necessary to perform well in the next event. The day was about finishing, not getting a certain time. Total T1 time was 5:09.

After changing out necessary gear, having some water, and eating a gel, he was off again. Matt kept a solid pace for the first seven miles. Keep moving at a steady clip, and conserve energy–that was the plan. After mile seven I told him to kick up the pace until the finish. I also set some targets for him so he had something to work toward. “That guy in the yellow jersey” or “the lady on the red bike” became temporary rivals and saw Matt giving extra effort for the last few miles of the bike. Total time for the bike…48:23.

The next transition was quite a bit quicker since removing a lot of the extras needed for the bike is a lot easier than putting them on, especially while disoriented from the swim. Another gel, more water, and we were off again. T2 time…2:42.

Matt Lyons at Tri-Shark Triathlon

Halfway turnaround and still staying strong.

Just like that we were at the run. We started off at a decent pace. I could tell that Matt was beginning to tire, but to his credit, he never slowed. Even at the aid stations, which I suggested walking through to avoid choking on water and Gatorade, he kept runing. We chatted about Aaron a little bit, chuckling about how he was likely looking down and laughing seeing what he was putting Matt through. Aaron was there in spirit after all. Matt had brought Aaron’s bib along to see it across the finish line.

At the halfway turnaround I started to push Matt to go faster. He answered the challenge, catching a few who had passed him on the bike and holding the pace. I kept checking my Garmin and counting down the remaining distance.

1.2 miles to go…You’re doing fantastic. Keep moving!

1 mile to go…That’s nothing. Not even worth lacing your shoes for.

.8 miles to go…Let’s catch the guy up ahead.

.6 miles to go…If you’re going to pass him do it now before he speeds up for the finish.

.4 miles to go…Good. Now keep pushing it so he can’t try and catch you.

.3 miles to go…This is it, you can see the crowd!

.2 miles to go…Give it everything you have. Leave it all out here.

.1 miles to go…I’m falling back. Go enjoy your moment.

It was awesome watching Matt run through the finish chute. You could tell he was tired, but he ran tall, holding Aaron’s bib over his head while Aaron’s friends and family, as well as many of Matt’s own supporters, cheered him on. It was an emotionally charged moment, and I am sure that Aaron was looking down and smiling watching Matt and his bib cross the finish.

Time for the run…30:11.

Overall time…1:40:38.

Like most who finish their first race he was tired, glad it was over, and happy. Well done! I’ll look forward to seeing Matt racing again in the future. In the meantime he can hold his head high knowing he made his friend proud and can also officially call himself a triathlete.


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