Hector Picard had completed Ironman-distance triathlons before but never the signature one at its mecca in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Last year he tried but had to abandon the race 80 miles into the bike ride when he almost passed out in the blazing heat.
Picard is a double amputee who lost both arms in an electrical accident 29 years ago. While repairing a substation transformer in Hollywood, his arms came into contact with the equipment and absorbed 13,000 volts of electricity. He suffered second- and third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body.
“I woke up out of a coma 30 days later,” he said. “I had to learn how to do everything all over again without hands.”
Determined to “take advantage of my second chance at life,” Picard became a triathlete. He hopes to complete his 136th race on Saturday when he competes on the Big Island in one of sport’s most grueling endurance events. The Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon run.
Never miss a local story.
Picard, 53, learned valuable lessons last year about the intensity of heat radiating up from the lava rock. He is confident he will become the first double-arm amputee to finish the world championship event. His best time at the Ironman distance is 15 hours, 13 minutes.
“Most of my third-degree burns are on my torso and last year was the hottest Ironman in 15 years with a heat index of 110 degrees,” Picard said. “The sun was beating down on the exposed skin on my lower back. My shirt rose up and I couldn’t pull it down. Plus, without arms it is harder for my body to cool itself.”
This time at 56 miles he plans to pause and get soaked with cold water.
“That will make me a new man,” he said.
Through trial and error, Picard made adaptations that enabled him to become an accomplished triathlete. He developed his backstroke swimming method after attempting to do his first race wearing fins.
“The fins fell off so I turned on my back and propelled myself with a frog kick,” said Picard, who did last year’s swim in 1 hour, 53 minutes.
He’s modified his bike so he can use his right knee to apply the brakes and his chin to shift gears. He steers by slipping his left residual limb or stump into a ring attached to the handlebars. For long races he adds a bar he can rest his chest on.
“I’m steering with half an arm, but I’ve got good control,” he said. “The fastest I’ve gone downhill is 55 mph. My average speed is 17-18 mph so I’ll be on the bike about six hours.”
Running is painful. His best marathon time is 5:30.
“My right foot is an exit wound; the electricity damaged tissue as it was leaving my body,” he said. “Most people are primarily using their upper body to swim, but I’m using my legs so by the time I’m running, my legs are very tired.”
Picard needs help with gear in the transition area and from volunteers on the course when he drinks and eats.
“I’m clearly disadvantaged but the heart is relentless,” said Picard whose motto is “No arms, no regrets, no excuses.”
Picard, who was raised in Miami and lives in Fort Lauderdale, never allowed his disability to prevent him from being active. After the accident, he coached softball and taught himself to hit with a modified bat. He invented a device for playing racquetball and another for basketball called the HP Hoopster.
“It’s kind of like a flexible racquet without string that attaches to the arm socket, and with it I can dribble and shoot,” said Picard who once cycled 3,065 miles across the country to raise money for a boy who needed prosthetics.
Picard, father of two, grandfather of three, realigned his career and became a spokesman and motivational speaker for his sponsor, Novation Settlement Solutions. Among those he talks to are special-needs kids at the Broward Children’s Center. Through a campaign called Racing for True Champions, Picard wants to raise $50,000 for the center. Throughout 2016, he’s dedicated each of his races to a different child at the facility, wearing a photo of the child around his neck during the race, then presenting his medal to them. For the Ironman, he’s wearing a sleeve with all the kids’ names written on it.
“The kids are really excited I’m racing for them,” he said. “These are kids facing serious obstacles. But obstacles are meant to be overcome. I’m hoping to serve as a role model.”
You can follow the progress of Picard and other triathletes in the race at Ironman.com. He is No. 161.