Paratriathlete Leigh Bland is a Neuff Red ambassador with a story full of twists and turns. Having undergone a lower-leg amputation following a long-standing injury that just wouldn't heal, Leigh initially lost fitness then transformed himself into a top level bodybuilder. When the pandemic began it triggered a new adventure into triathlon for Leigh. We asked him to tell his story to give some practical ideas to others in a similar position, as well as inspiring all of us!
By Leigh Bland
In 2020 our lives were flipped upside down and our daily lives completely disrupted, whether that be races and events cancelled, gyms and pools closing, or having to take the role of teacher to home-school your child.
For me it was all of those things. I was a disabled bodybuilder in prep for the PCA Bodybuilding World Championships, plus other events, and it was all cancelled. This broke my heart and played havoc with my mental health disorders, on top of that I now had to home school my daughter and keep her as active as possible. This took its toll, and I was at my worst ever with my depression.
Setting Triathlon Goals
I needed a goal, something to focus on, something I knew I could still train for. I have a love for cycling, and I love swimming, so in a completely random decision I looked for an Ironman event and I entered Ironman 70.3 Stafford before I knew anything about Triathlon and how to train for it. I just thought how hard could it be... it’s a bit of swimming, cycling and a run; that’s easy!
I was so very very wrong, so I started reading up on things, bought various books, watched YouTube videos and Netflix documentaries.
Beginner Triathlon Kit for Paratriathletes
I started to learn about the 3 disciplines and the equipment and clothing used by athletes. Unfortunately I had no one to ask about the kit I needed, so I made some very expensive mistakes buying poor quality brands with poor customer service to match. I learnt never buy a brand just because an elite athlete is sponsored by them, do your research look at the reviews not who is wearing them. [Have a look at our beginner triathlon kit article: Ed]
Paratriathlon kit and equipment
Next comes my disability. I am a below knee amputee, I have a large muscular body type and I’m 6ft 6, so choosing a bike is a challenge. It's not just things like frame size, but also types of cycling shoes I’m limited to as I have size 13.5 shoes, as well as types of pedals and cleats that will work with my prosthetic.
Then the wetsuit. Unfortunately I chose a bad brand to start with that gave no customer support and the suit tore on the first swim. There’s the issue of how do I get my prosthetic on with the suit? Do I cut the leg off and affect the warranty, or do I find someone that can tailor the suit, but how, who, and where do I find someone that can do that?
Last of all trisuits. Do I go sleeveless or short sleeve? What brand? Do I pay £300 or £100: what is the difference in fits and materials? These are just some of the many questions that I didn’t know where to look and get honest non-biased opinions.
Now to the adaptions. I started to learn that placing my prosthetic foot in a different position aided in smoother power delivery, upped my wattage drastically and reduced the pain I was in from the pressure of the socket when I was cycling. I searched and searched via Google and found a picture of a prosthetic that was just a carbon fibre leg with no foot and a cleat attached to the end: it was the prosthetic that belonged to fellow Paratriathlete and Neuff Red ambassador Hannah Moore. I took that picture to my prosthetics team and they got onto making a prototype. When I tried it, I was blown away by the difference it made and the team swiftly got onto making a usable prototype and eventually the full “racing” leg. Since then we are now tweaking a few things and trying different ways of locking into the socket and using various stump liners for the best performance.
Running with a Blade
Last of all RUNNING. Ahhhhhhh I hate running! I’ve never been taught how to run, I never even had a proper running blade. So which one do I have? Again, due to my size I’m limited on some models. Also, which type is best for endurance racing? The prosthetics team went for the Ossur Flex and I was happy with that, plus it kind of looked cool! Things started ok, but as I built up my distance we came across issues. Firstly I was not a fan of the sole fitted to the blade so we tried bonding trainer soles but they soon ripped off. I started to suffer blisters on my stump and poor blood flow due to the type of liner I was using, so I spent hours researching, looking for various types of liner and types of socket and in the end we changed everything going, from a pin that locks into the carbon socket to vacuum plates and a special sports liner that protects high impact areas of the stump. Since then it has increased my comfort and reduced the amount of stump issues I was previously having to endure.
Starting out as a Paratriathlete
As you can imagine becoming a triathlete has challenges and many unknowns and becoming a paratriathlete has many more questions and challenges, especially if you have no one to ask for help and advice. This is where Neuff Red stood out from the crowd: they are not just a business selling triathlon products, they are there to help you chose high quality tested products with honest reviews and then there are the blogs and advice from athletes from elite level to amateur.
I love the world of triathlon and have met some of the nicest people ever, many that are very willing to give you honest and helpful advice. I have never looked back since starting this sport despite the huge challenges, the pain or those mornings you wake up and every body part hurts. My advice from all this is to do your research, make the most of amazing people that are there to help people progress in triathlon, whether it be choosing the right equipment or via blog/advice pages, and most importantly enjoy it and have fun no matter if you’re at elite level or amateur.
About Leigh Bland
Leigh is a former Royal Air Force engineer who suffered an injury during service resulting in a lower-leg amputation. He competed at the first Invictus Games in 2014 and was awarded the Helen Rollason Sports Personality of the Year awards. Leigh has undertaken a huge variety of sports before landing in the triathlon world, including being on the Archery GB Paralympic Academy, deadlifting a van, pulling a 10 ton truck for charity and being a top-level body-builder. Relatively new to the triathlon world, Leigh is making huge steps into the sport and is looking forward to a great first season in 2021.