A little bit about me: I am an 18-year-old high-school senior from St. Paul, Minnesota. I have Stargardt Disease and I’m significantly visually impaired. A couple of years ago I started a non-profit called Louie’s Vision that works to help kids with visual impairments find adventure.
About a year ago, I approached my parents and told them I wanted to do the Ironman, a one-day race that consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a full 26.2-mile marathon.
I was just 17 years old, had no experience as an endurance athlete, and I am significantly visually impaired. My parents responsibly told me “no.”
I told them I wanted to do something big to inspire other kids with blindness to find their own adventures and push their boundaries – and my parents couldn’t say no to that.
In early spring I created a detailed budget and plan to make my Ironman dream come true. The next big step was finding a guide. I needed to find someone who could finish the 140.6-mile race… at my pace. That person also had to be open to six months of training with me – because I don’t have enough vision to train solo. And on top of all that, my guide would have to be willing to travel to Louisville for almost a week for the competition.
After getting the word out that I was looking for a guide and interviewing several people, I found Milan Tomaska. Milan was a 10-time Ironman with an awesome family and lives pretty close by. We literally “hit it off” on our first run together.
In the final mile of that run, I got hit by a car. Nothing more that a stumble and a bruise – but Milan was worried whether this was a good idea.
Through the summer, Milan and I and a group of triathletes trained for the swim, bike and run. I was the youngest (by far), and the only person with no experience.
I’m sure everyone thought I was crazy. I heard things like, “People don’t usually proceed directly to an Ironman without having first done a marathon, and/or a half-Ironman.” And they were probably right, but I was determined.
Early on, I struggled with the long runs and long bike rides. But managing training through the summer went well and Milan and the crew were so helpful at motivating me. By the end of the summer, my distances were getting longer and I was feeling pretty good.
Then this fall, training started to get more complicated with my senior year in high school, friends, and aches and pains. The long runs ended up after long days at school and the long bike rides started very early on cool Saturday mornings.
Milan was right by my side learning what it was like to guide me. As the fall pressed on, I was noticing that our times, distances, and confidence were improving. It was hard to make it all work, but I could see that it was working, just like I had hoped.
In the first week of October with race-day fast approaching, my story seemed to catch the eye of the media.
Milan and I were getting interview requests locally, nationally and internationally! We had to remind ourselves that we were doing this to raise awareness and inspire others – and you can’t do that without getting the word out.
Most of the interviews were fun, but some got in the way of our final training sessions.
On October 11th, my mom, dad, sister Carmella and I hopped on the plane and headed to Louisville for the race. We were all nervous and excited.
We met Milan and his family as well as my friend Steve Roeske and his family in Kentucky. It was great to be there and so many people seemed to know our story. Between media interviews, we managed to get in a bike ride and practice swim in the cold, dirty and fast-flowing Ohio River.
On Saturday night before the race it hit me: I knew this was going to be hard and I knew people were watching. But I didn’t stop to put all that together until I lay down in bed the night before the race.
My mind was racing and my nerves were heightened. I had a pretty strong fever and couldn’t stop shivering. Add to that the elevator (we were on the 6th floor) and heat (it was really cold) were not working in our building. The forecast for the race looked very cold, windy and wet. It was a tough night. While I never for a minute considered dropping out, I was concerned what the day would bring.
Race morning came quickly after about three hours of sleep. My fever was still there, but a little less than it had been. At 5:30 a.m., our Uber driver never showed, so my dad and I walked down to meet Milan and Steve for the start of the race. As we walked in the rain, I started to think about the day. It was crazy, but my mind wouldn’t let me think about the specifics of the race no matter how hard I tried.
At the starting line, I could feel my nerves turn to excitement. Everyone was pulling for Milan and me.
They had assigned a camera crew to track us. After a bit of re-routing, we jumped into the Ohio River for the swim. The swim was easy, and 17 minutes later we were changing to hop on the bike.
It was so cold, wet and windy that about a third of the participants had dropped out of the race somewhere between coming to Louisville and the mid-point of the bike. And I don’t blame them – it was awful! But I was lucky because I had a bunch of secret weapons:
- I was being led by two Ironmen (Milan and Steve).
- I was packing a big bag of Cheetos on the bike.
- And some guys at one of the stops gave me their McDonalds.
Unorthodox, but it all worked together to help me get through 112 miles of freezing on a bike at speeds of 20 to 30 MPH with slippery wet roads.
The run couldn’t come fast enough. We took our time in the transition from bike to run, talking to everyone and warming up a bit. When we headed out for the 26.2-mile marathon, I felt good considering I had never run more than 21 miles in my life.
The run went great until about mile 14 – then I hit the “runners’ fog,” which for me meant that I lost all of my vision. Milan was there to keep his steady guidance and Steve followed me on the other side.
“Louie McGee: You Are an IRONMAN”
We managed to run the final 12+ miles with just four useful eyes among the three of us. We crossed the finish line at 12 hours 58 minutes and heard them pronounce, “Louie McGee, you are an Ironman.”
It was the most incredible moment of my life. There on the sideline waiting for me were my mom, dad, sister Carmella, the Tomaskas, the Roeskes, and so many people who were following me (both virtually and in-person).
I am so thankful to have had the opportunity and support to make this happen. Completing something like this is a team endeavor for those of us with blindness.
At the finish line, the first-place winner came over to me and gave me his bouquet of flowers and told me I was an inspiration to him. He followed up with a note that said, “Seeing an athlete like you complete an Ironman, not to mention one like Louisville with such brutal conditions lets me know the reason why I started this sport in the first place.”
We all won in this competition. We proved that by working together and focusing on possibility rather than disability, you can accomplish big things.
Louie McGee is founder, leader and speaker at Louie’s Vision. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Louie’s Vision, visit www.louiesvision.com or follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.