RIVER NORTH — Competing the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii is no easy feat — especially if you have to rely on your upper body for the entirety of the 140.6-mile race.
But Streeterville para-athlete Susan Katz doesn't think being in a wheelchair presents more of a challenge than her competitors will face.
"It's just a different kind of challenge," says Katz, who will swim 2.4 miles, hand-bike 112 miles and then wheel a full marathon in succession at Saturday's national championship race. "It's a slight disadvantage in that you're using a smaller muscle mass — for the able-bodied athletes, their legs get a break when they swim. I swim and use my arms to swim, and then I have to get right out of the water and use my arms on the hand bike.
"I don't like to say it's more challenging or that it's tougher, because everyone out there has their own set of challenges that are different, and may be more difficult than mine."
If she finishes the full 140.6-mile course this year, in her third attempt, she'll be the first American female handcycle athlete to complete the Kona race.
Katz, who lost the use of her legs at age 10 when "something went wrong" during a spinal cord surgery to treat her mild spina bifida, has always been athletic, playing soccer and softball before she started using a wheelchair.
Losing use of her legs didn't slow her down: soon after her injury, Katz became involved in wheelchair sports, played basketball while in college at the University of Illinois and later competed in two Paralympic games.
But when she decided to push her limits and begin competing in triathlons in 2009, Katz found she had to prepare her body for hours-long competitions in other ways, beyond practicing. She became more focused on her nutrition, eating healthily and cooking herself elaborate meals when she could.
In 2011, Katz set her sights on the Ironman Championship race in Kona.
That changed everything.
"The course in Kona is a little bit tougher, and conditions out there are much more difficult with the wind and humidity, and the swim is much more difficult," she said.
Katz began driving out to the suburbs to log longer hours on her hand bike, and spending evenings on the stationary bike set up in her living room.
That didn't leave much time for her to cook the high-protein, anti-inflammatory meals her body needed to keep moving. Luckily for Katz, Chef Josh Katt launched CJK Foods in River North in October 2012, between her first and second attempts at the Kona race, neither of which she completed, missing a checkpoint on the 2012 race by just 25 minutes.
CJK Foods' 15-person kitchen staff assemble dinners and snacks daily for subscribers' specific dietary needs, including anti-inflammatory ingredients and a full menu of options for followers of the Paleo diet. Meals cost $15 for large servings and $12 for smaller portions, and snacks are in the $5 to $10 range. Weekly packages can be delivered, or picked up at select gyms in the city.
Katz signed up for the service shortly after it launched, and has been a loyal customer. When they found out she was training to set a landmark record at Kona, Katz says the staff rallied to support her efforts.
"When training gets so heavy in the summer, I work full-time, and I'm also training about 15 to 18 hours a week on top of that," she said. "I can devote more of my energy to training, and rest and recovery, and I'm fueling with really nutritious superfoods the whole time."
Katz's nutritionist at CJK Foods, Jenny Westerkamp, said ingredients like cilantro and turmeric that reduce inflammation are a key component in preparing the athlete's body for the 104.6-mile journey.
"Her physical activity will be causing inflammation naturally," Westerkamp said. "Eating foods that cause more inflammation can be an obstacle for a lot of things, because it requires energy, so you're using that energy to put out that inflammation, rather than using it for your metabolism. It's a problem your body has to deal with, and it can work against you."
Katz's CJK Foods diet is all cooked in coconut oil and uses only grass-fed beef, Westerkamp said. These ingredients can "decrease soreness, allow your muscles to repair faster and improve your energy by making it easier for your body to handle the inflammation" that comes with extreme physical activity.
Katz will certainly get plenty of that Saturday at the championship race, which will be live-streamed on the Ironman website.
"I'm feeling good," Katz said. "I'm very excited. I feel stronger and fitter than I've ever been. I know I've done everything that I can do. There are so many factors outside of your control at a race like this, and there's nothing I can do about those ... [but] I think I have a really good shot at making it to the finish line this time."