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Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Paratriathlete takes on grueling 135-mile ultramarathon

  • Andre Kajlich at the 2012 ITU Paratriathlon World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand.

    Janos Schmidt / USA Triathlon

    Andre Kajlich at the 2012 ITU Paratriathlon World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand.

  • Andre Kajlich of Edmonds competed in the 2012 ITU Paratriathlon World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand.

    Janos Schmidt / USA Triathlon

    Andre Kajlich of Edmonds competed in the 2012 ITU Paratriathlon World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand.

  • Andre Kajlich swims at the Harbor Athletic Club in 2004. Then, twice-weekly swimming sessions, helped Kajlich stay in shape. His legs were amputated a...

    Herald File 2004

    Andre Kajlich swims at the Harbor Athletic Club in 2004. Then, twice-weekly swimming sessions, helped Kajlich stay in shape. His legs were amputated after an accident in 2003

  • In 2004, Andre Kajlich listens as John Fergason, the director of prosthetics-orthotics at the University of Washington Medical Center, demonstrates th...

    Herald File, 2004

    In 2004, Andre Kajlich listens as John Fergason, the director of prosthetics-orthotics at the University of Washington Medical Center, demonstrates the type of movement, a shifting at the hip, that prosthetics might help Andre to achieve. Fergason said preparing the remnants of his legs to accept a prosthetic could be painful and challenging. "We'll go as far as Andre wants. He may decide he's never had enough," Fergason said. "My job is to not limit Andre."

  • Andre Kajlich bikes in Discovery Park in Seattle during a training workout in 2011.

    Sarah Weiser / Herald file, 2011

    Andre Kajlich bikes in Discovery Park in Seattle during a training workout in 2011.

Earlier this month, Andre Kajlich looked up at the steep hill in front of him in the mountains of southeast Brazil and for a moment wondered what the heck he had gotten himself into.
Kajlich already had accomplished a tremendous amount in the world of endurance sports the past couple years -- earlier this week, USA Triathlon named him the 2012 Male Paratriathlon Athlete of the Year -- but in the early stages of the Brazil 135, one of the world's most grueling ultramarathons, Kajlich wondered if he had made a mistake.
After Kajlich, 33, became the first double-amputee to cover the rugged 135-mile course, doing so in 62.5 hours on a modified race wheelchair, he heard from competitors who admitted they had their doubts as they raced past him up the first of many steep climbs on the course. And it's not like Kajlich, who is from Edmonds and lives in Seattle, could blame anyone for doubting him.
"To be honest, if I knew what the course looked like, if I had actually stood at the bottom of one of the hills and someone had said, 'All right, you're going to be on this for three days, and 30 percent of the race will be on stuff this steep,' I don't know if I would have tried it," he said. "I probably wouldn't have. It was that hard. Completely ridiculous."
But after raising the money, putting in countless hours of training, then traveling this far, Kajlich wasn't going to give up before he really got going, so he suffered through the first day, then eventually came to appreciate the insanity of the sport, even if, early in the race, he was "appalled at the sport in general. I thought it was disgusting and stupid and wondered why anyone would put themselves through this."
"Then it just sort of transformed over the course of the event into this magical and beautiful experience," Kajlich said.
Completing the race in Brazil was just the latest in a long line of staggering athletic achievements piled up by Kajlich since he got into triathlons in 2010.
In December 2003, Kajlich, who was studying abroad in Prague, Czech Republic, somehow ended up being hit by a subway train -- the details of the night remain a mystery -- and while he survived the horrific accident, both of his legs were amputated, one at the hip and the other above the knee. Years would pass before Kajlich, a multisport athlete in high school, decided to pursue athletic endeavors.
But once Kajlich participated in his first triathlon in 2010, he was hooked. By 2011, he was one of the top triathletes in the world in the handcycle classification, and he's finished second and first in his division at the past two Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Thanks to that Ironman win, as well as his second-place finishes at the U.S. Paratriathlon Nationals and the International Triathlon Union World Championships, Kajlich is ranked No. 1 in the world by the ITU in his category, and among his long-range goals is the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil, which will be the first to feature Paratriathlon as a medal event.
And apparently when Ironman triathlons don't seem like an extreme enough challenge, you head to Brazil to conquer a course that no one had ever bothered to attempt on a wheelchair.
To get race director Mario Lacerda to sign off on having him in the race, Kajlich had to promise he wouldn't "do anything foolish" to put himself in danger. That meant, among other precautions, having friend Dave Grenley -- Kajlich had a five-person support team that helped him in the race -- stand behind Kajlich's chair as he went up hills that had slopes exceeding 40 percent grade, making sure he didn't tumble backward. (For comparison, the steepest paved street in all of Seattle, according to the city's transportation department, is 26 percent). During those early moments in the race when doubt crept in, Kajlich encountered one climb up terrain too rugged for his chair, so he went more than a kilometer uphill on his hands, stopping every 100 feet to pull his chair behind him, which was tied to a rope.
"All of their concerns and worries were well-founded," he said. "It was rutted out, really deep single track, and I had to get off for a good portion of the forest section. … That very first climb as we headed out of town, it was my first wake-up call that this is going to be a little bit different than I expected.
"This will break you at some point. It does things to you physically and mentally that an Ironman doesn't."
But as he has done with pretty much every challenge he has taken on in recent years, Kajlich prevailed, not only finishing the race, but enjoying himself enough that he is leaning toward returning next year. Or perhaps, he said, he'll try the Yukon Arctic Ultra, a 100-mile race on snow.
"He did it," fellow Brazil 135 competitor Jarom Lee Thurston told the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. "Here we made history and I was a witness. Andre Kajlich just finished one of the toughest ultramarathons in the world, a sport dominated by athletes who use both legs, and he has none. … It is a feat that I think is the biggest news of the decade in endurance sports."
Kajlich isn't done; far from it. His triathlon schedule is filling up for 2013, including the U.S. Paratriathlon nationals in Austin, Texas, in May, the ITU world championships in September in London, and defending his Ironman title in Kona in October. And if all of that isn't enough to satisfy Kajlich, he can always go back to ultramarathons, the latest adventure in a life full of impressive athletic accomplishments.
"The experience of Ironman and pushing the limits was so rewarding, really fulfilling, both personally, and also the people you meet, the places you go, so I wanted to try to take it to the next level."
It doesn't seem there are many levels left, but rest assured if there are, Kajlich will find -- and conquer -- them.
Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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