David Lee

on . Posted in TCSD Conversation

I had the pleasure of talking triathlon recently with an old TCSD and church friend, David Lee.  On August 28th David became the first paraplegic athlete to complete Ironman Canada.  David crossed the finish line in an amazing time of 12:48:43.



Craig: What was your athletic background before your accident?


David: Which one? (chuckle)  I've been in several (or I am several - depending on how you look at it, or how well you know me :-). Before “the Biggie" (incurred paralysis on 5/15/90), I was both a water and snow skier. Living in Boulder at Colorado University, it was hard to not enjoy outdoor activity: skiing, mountain biking, hiking, etc. Most of my best friends were ski team members or nationally ranked skiers, so I was an "OK" athlete.


Craig: How did your accidents happen?


David:  "The Biggie" happened on the day after my junior year's final exams – 1990; 2 weeks before my 21st birthday. I borrowed a friend's motorcycle to ride 2 hours away up to Winter Park during a decent day in Boulder (light rain and sleet in the mountains). In Boulder 1/2 mile from my condo, I was riding through a yellow light when a foreign exchange student in a car didn't look and made the turn across my lane.


As most people know, car + motorcycle = damage to the motorcycle and it's rider. My helmet was sheared off as I impacted the car's front bumper at 35 MPH (T6 & T7 vertebrae fracture and subluxation) and launched me into the air, landing me in the center of the intersection with the equivalent force of falling from 30 feet ... onto my head ... on the cement (fracturing the base of my skull).


"Accident #2" was on 11/05/99 as I was handcycle training for IM New Zealand a scant 2 miles from my home. An 80 year old didn't look and drove right into me - like she was aiming for me, it was weird. The result was a destroyed left kidney, concussion, and many fractured ribs.


Craig: What additional medical complications have you dealt with since the accident?


David: "Accident #2" was a setback to my Ironman goal. I had already attempted IM Canada 4 times in the mid to late 90's and this new setback hampered my goal. By now having only 1 kidney to filter the crap incurred from training posed an extra challenge. But "Life" is a challenge every day to everyone, not only people with disabilities. It's all a matter of perspective. If you see a challenge as difficult, then you will have difficulty overcoming it, and vice versa. I knew that I could overcome IM Canada and it was just a matter of training with proper recovery to do so.  I have also had the usual bike crashes with road rash and near misses that every triathlete incurs. It's just the nature of the sport.


Craig: I met you in the late 90's as we were both part of the same men's group at church.  How has your faith in God helped you reconcile your accident?


David: I didn't really know God before "The Accident". Afterwards, my experiences "unveiled" God to me. I became more aware and conscious of life and the presence of God was understood. I learned that through every setback, I made progress. It was within this progress that I became aware of God's presence in my life. It was through knowing God's presence that I knew I would overcome.


Craig: Prior to Ironman Canada, what were some of your most significant athletic accomplishments?


David: Thank you for the recognition. I have had many personal accomplishments. I have done 40+ marathons.  I've lost count, but this includes at least 6 Boston Marathons.  I have won 8 of those 40 with a PR of 1:48:20.  I also won Sadler's Alaska Challenge in a record time that still stands.  Sadler’s is the "Tour de France" of handcycling; 260 miles in 6 days with varying terrain and course.  I also brought home a Bronze medal in the 2007 handcycling World Championships in Bordeaux, France.  I raced for the USA in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, China.  And finally, my "Holy Grail" of racing, I finished Ironman Canada unassisted - an Ironman first - in 12:48:43. It's been an amazing life!


Craig: What has been your history with Ironman Canada?


David: IM Canada is the best race on the planet! It was more or less chosen for me. Back in 1994, Jon Franks and I wanted to do IM Hawaii. We had both qualified under the World Triathlon Corporation's (WTC) guidelines - placing first in your division at a qualifying race, but the WTC said basically "You can't do an Ironman. You are in a wheelchair." You can imagine my anger when someone tells you that you can't do something.


So, Jon and I teamed up and sued the WTC, nearly stopping the race via the ADA's Federal status. In the end, we agreed that Jon would be the "guinea pig" and race solo at IM Hawaii as a trial and I would be granted IM Canada. Well, we both failed to complete our races, as the cycling technology had not allowed for a suitable cycle. I kept tri-ing (pun intended) at IM Canada in order to finish what I started, DNFing 4 times, but completing the bike course in '99, but not within the time limit. A new bike design was necessary and finally came in 2006. This past August, I finally did it ... 12:48:43 and without outside assistance - an Ironman first!


Craig: What was your training like during the major ramp up period?


David: Training was intense. I had a good base in cycling after the Paralympic and Million Dollar Challenge stints and my marathon base was still there since my early days.  Thank God for muscle memory. So, it was the swim that needed the most work.


After gaining entry via the real route of applying the day after the 2010 race, to not have "special" status, I went about creating a new wetsuit that would keep my legs strait for hydrodynamics and give them some buoyancy.


With that done, I leapt in the pool at least 3X/week and worked on my stroke for the first 2 months and then did distance efforts - i.e. 200 meter warm-up, then at least 500 meter sets 3X. The cycling portion, I would go long (100 miles+) at least once/week and the other 3 times would work on speed, intervals or hill work but in shorter distances of 12 - 40 miles. I didn't do too much marathon work, honestly, as if I made it to the run portion, I would just focus on completion of the race and not go for the fastest time. Although my last marathon had been the 2002 Boston, it didn't worry me too much. My focus was on the bike. When I do the race next year (!), I will focus more on tracking in the swim and the marathon.

Craig: How did this year's race go for you?


David: Traveling is a difficult issue.  There is a lot of stuff I need to bring. Aside from the swim suit (called the "Parasuit" TM), I have to bring my handcycle and racing 'chair and everything else that supports these items - cycling/swimming clothes, spare tubes/parts, lubricant, gels, drink mix, etc. It was all stuffed in my Volvo for the drives from San Diego to Boulder then Penticton.


I was/am VERY fortunate, as I was able to take 2 months away from my clients and focus on the race itself. I moved to Boulder for the month of July and then up to Penticton for the month of August to ready myself for the race.


The swim was tough. 3,000 people in a mass start adds difficulty when everyone wants the same thing ... to finish as quickly as possible. I lost my tracking several times (the buoys are spread too far out and aren't easily sighted) and had to retrace my course. The water was perfect, not too cold and like glass. When I was exiting, I was dismayed by my time as it was the slowest I had ever gone at IMC in 5 attempts. But the toughest part of the race was next ... the bike over two mountain passes in the rising heat.


The bike portion was what I had known to train for, and my training paid off. The crest of Ricter Pass came in 3 hours. It was then I knew that I was on track to finally finish this race! The temps started to rise.  It got to upwards of 95 degrees on the course and hydration was essential. Thankfully, I had a spare CamelBak in my special needs bag at mile 75 and I needed to use all of my fluids. With Ricter behind me there was a series of rolling hills, then an out and back loop, then the long climb up Yellow Lake. This was the toughest part of the race. Yellow Lake's climb starts at mile 85 or so and by this time you are COOKED! At the crest, there was no water - an oversight by the officials - and so I had to rely on my CameBak. It was just enough and I cruised in, finishing the 112 mile bike course in 7:30. This race was MINE! I took A LOT of time at T2 (22 minutes), because I gave it my all on the bike and still had the marathon ahead of me.


The marathon went OK. I did have several mechanical issues.  My steering dampener wasn't tracking correctly which kept me from a better time. I had to stop on several occasions to fix the dampener, and that took A LOT of time, but it went well enough. The run course is kind and fairly flat for the first 11 miles ... until the hills which are like the climb up Torrey Pines on the outside road, thankfully. The last 2 miles before the turn around are fairly difficult for any marathon anywhere and then you just turn around and do them the opposite way. After the turn around my endorphins were churning, as I knew this was the home stretch!  I passed a couple of friends on this part - one named Dave Lee, a 25 year friend from CU Boulder.  And I had to stop at one point to fix the dampener, ironically right at the same spot as friend, Vern Smith (for professional triathlete Wendy Ingraham's husband). We chatted and after fixing the trouble, I was off amidst cheers from Vern and others. It was exhilarating! The way into town was tough because of all of the people and athletes on the course. So I had to take it easy for the safety of everyone. But crossing the finish was TRIUMPH!


Craig: What organizations and/or individuals have been provided you with the most assistance in your journey?


David: My Mom has been my best supporter along all of my Ironman endeavors. She's always been there, through all of the ups and downs like the DNF's.  She has helped purchase equipment.  Handcycles aren't cheap. My present one runs $7K.  My Mom has urged me on when I thought I was finished. My wife, Julie, has stayed with me, remarkably, through all of my bitchy emotions.  You know those when you have a bad training session.  And Julie has been with me to celebrate after each good accomplishment. These two women are my foundation of support.


Craig: You got married recently.  Tell us about your new wife.


David: My wife, Julie Clark, is an amazing woman! She is a mom of 3 grown kids, and grandmother of 4. Julie races in sprint triathlons and half marathons.  She is aspiring to get to the Olympic distance next season. But, her most amazing accomplishment is staying with me through all of my bitchiness.


Craig: What do you do for a living?


David: I have been a Personal Trainer for the past 14 years.  After becoming certified, I built a room on my home as a private training studio. My clients have ranged from a 22 year old training for her first 1/2 marathon to a 55 year old post stroke victim to a "middle-aged" smoker who has quit after 40 years! to a 85 year old post-polio man. I have trained all kinds of people from all walks of life. It's a very rewarding job!


Craig: What are your future goals in triathlon?


David: Ironman Hawaii ... what else? If/when the WTC decides to enter the 21st century and see athletes in wheelchairs as ATHLETES and not "disabilities" by having a Hawaii slot receiving division at each Ironman qualifying race, I would very much like at least one chance in Kona. It is "The Race" that started it all. I started this "paratriathlon" movement 17 years ago and would like to finish what I started, much like IM Canada. I would also like the WTC to change their policies and will work to open their eyes until they do so.


Craig: David, thank you so much for sharing your story.  Your perspective and perseverance are admirable.  I’m proud to call you my friend.


Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach.  Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .