First off, give us some background – give us a brief rundown on who you are and what you’re up to.
My name is Francesco and I’m a totally blind triathlete. I was diagnosed with retinoblastoma which is a form of eye cancer when I was a baby. This left me with partial vision in childhood and zero vision from freshmen year of high school to present. I grew up powerlifting and had absolutely no experience with any type of endurance sports mainly because I wasn’t aware of any opportunities / adaptive sports programs in my area. I didn’t even know that that was something that existed!
Ok, so for the uninformed, what’s an Ultraman!?
Ultraman is a three day endurance event, kinda a 2-3x Ironman. Day one is a 6.2 mile swim and 90 mile bike. Day two is a 172 mile bike. Day three is a 52.4 mile run. There are usually only a few dozen starters, I think they cap the race at 40, and a few less finishers than there were starters since each day there is a 12 hour cut-off time cap.
Why on God’s green earth would you want to do that!?
I love challenging myself with things that I genuinely question my ability to complete or survive. That’s the short answer. It seemed like the hardest thing I’ve ever heard of. When I signed up for it, I had still yet to complete an Ironman triathlon. I actually raced and completed Ironman Arizona in November 2022 simply because an Ironman completion was one of the prerequisites to racing Ultraman. I was skiing in January 2022 a year before racing, and I received a call from my race guide and previous Ultraman finisher Brian Hammond who was down in Florida crewing for another athlete Greg Plumb. He was fully soaking up the vibes and decided on the spot that It would be awesome for me to do this event. Talking to the race directors, we quickly realized that there hasn’t ever been another para athlete or blind athlete to race this event so we had to figure out what the president and rules were along with the race director. Such as having two people on the support kayak to support my guide and I, since it’s technically one support person per swimmer, and there would be two of us swimming tethered together.
Talk to us about your partner. How’d you meet and how does completing these huge efforts together go down? Any specific challenges?
I met Brian Hammond through a mutual training friend Rebecca in NYC. Hilariously, I don’t think we have ever actually trained together in NYC, but Brian and I have raced para cycling road nationals twice, Ironman Arizona, and most recently Ultraman Florida. Maybe one day we’ll actually train since we live only a few miles away from each other. We’ve learned a lot about each other suffering and sending it together on various racecourses. Much of this learning about
each other also comes in the days leading up to races where we often share a hotel room.
Ok, talk to us about the race. To narrow it down, let’s hit the following:
What was the hardest (or hardest few) moments?
Each day was incredibly hard. The swim was extremely difficult for me. Being totally blind and having never seen what actual swim form is supposed to look like, I’ve always struggled with swimming with the proper technique because again, I don’t actually know what it’s supposed to look like. I’ve found this similar to other athletes that I train who try to learn swimming after never seeing it. There’s no frame of reference so it can take years to even nail down the basics
of a freestyle stroke. Further, there’s no visual reference of forward progress. Since my head is in the water, it seems like I’m just floating in black nothingness with no clue as to if I’m moving a few feet forward every minute or more… or even going backwards. The first half of the swim was awesome, felt great, waves were minimal, fueled properly, etc. The second half of the swim had a lot more wind, kayaks were being blown around, the waves picked up, and the darkness started growing in my mind! I had no idea if we were swimming forward, going backwards into the jaws of an alligator. It was insane. I can’t express how happy I was to get out of the water and have my crew chief Travis yelling in my ear something about being an animal! I remember one moment near the end of the swim where it felt like we were moving backwards, I popped my head up and yelled to Brian my guide “are we making forward progress”. He was hurting as much as I was and told me later that he honestly had no idea distance left before we hit land, so his response was quite understandably but nevertheless hope crushing “not if we keep talking, shut up and swim”.
The bike after the swim on the first day was honestly pretty enjoyable. We got caught in an absolute downpour about 15 or so miles from the finish but that was mostly refreshing. The second day bike was hard for a few reasons. Being on a tandem bike, my handlebars are connected to my pilot’s seat post. This means that the lower the pilot’s saddle, the lower my bars, and the more saddle pressure. Let’s just say that there was a lot of pressure accumulated! Further, I definitely underfed the first day and that led to a quite noticeable deficit for the first half of the second day. I focused getting down enough calories and started feeling amazing around mile 90 or so. The second half of day 2 bike was so much more enjoyable than day 1. The run on the third day was fun. Definitely started to fall apart after the first marathon and miles 30-40 were really really hard mostly due to under fueling and just overall fatigue from the last two days. After mile 40, obviously things still hurt, but two Red Bulls and a bunch of calories later, I at least had a few sparkles of hope!
What was something you were stressing about going into this?
The only thing I really stressed about was the swim. Back to the whole not understanding form and all that, I knew that this would be my biggest weakness and where I would struggle the most. I vastly underestimated the effect that the saddle would have on various parts of me as well as the difficulty of forcing down so many calories over several days. This was also the first time racing three major days in a row so I never tried to shove down calories over the course of a few days. I must have drank so many thousands of calories of drink mix plus white rice, chips, goldfish, etc.
What are some highlights?
Two major highlights. The biggest one was my crew. Travis Hawkins, Greg Plumb, Wesley DeMauro, Tianna Biscone, and pilot / guide Brian Hammond. I felt so connected with them and couldn’t believe that they would take a whole week out of their lives to basically come down and yell at me and shove often unwanted food in my face. There was such a sense of gratitude and love…
Another highlight is that I still am shocked that I did it. Ultraman was honestly the one and only event that I had any doubt of finishing. To be faced with so much fear and doubt, having all of that mix with me being blind and all of the insecurities and doubt that go along with that, and to be able to look back on all of the pain, and know that I got through it. It’s truly empowering and
Tell us about your experience when you finished as the first blind athlete to ever complete an ultraman competition!
It honestly took some time to sink in. For the few days after the race, I think my mind and body was in complete shock. I actually felt quite good physically, walking around was not bad, but mentally completely drained. One moment that really sticks out to me was the weekend following the race, where I literally got tired and had to take a break from thinking about what to eat for dinner. It was insane. It only started to sink in a few weeks after finishing the race, that I had done it and how cool it was. I’m generally indifferent to the various races I’ve done, but this one I really felt good about.
With this HUGE accomplishment behind you, what is next for your season?
Next on the season is to actually focus on and properly train for short distance racing. I’m racing paratriathlon nationals in September, and hopefully a few other sprint distance points races on the world triathlon calendar. I’m actually racing the Boston Marathon this coming April 17th but I’m taking that day as a super fun chill run with about 60 other Achilles friends since I registered for this race before the decision to focus on short stuff this year.
You’re an enormous inspiration to me, and I can confidently say I’m not alone in that. Are there any specific lessons you’re hoping to share with people, examples you want to set or ways you want to inspire others?
Anything else you’d like to share about this effort or your journey in general?
The only way to know what we are truly capable of is to push up against the boundaries of our perceived limitations. I work with people on a daily basis for whom, their fear might be an Ironman, but it might also be taking a single step with a new prosthetic leg, or running a mile for the first time as a blind runner and trusting your safety to another set of eyes. Progress is measured not by your current starting point, but by how much forward movement you make from your current starting point. A mantra that I am absolutely loving and vibing with is
something that my crew chief Travis kept telling me during the Ultraman.
Relentless forward momentum!