Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Simply Amazing

That pretty much sums up my experience this past weekend, and I'm relatively certain that is an understatement. I journeyed to Madison, Wisconsin to volunteer at the 2009 Ironman event. My motive for doing so was twofold. First and foremost, volunteers get first dibs at signing up for the 2010 events (well, second dibs since the current race's athletes get a shot before they even race this year). Since doing my first triathlon a little over a year ago I knew that I wanted to race an Ironman so volunteering seemed like a sure fire way of getting in (Wisconsin is notorious for selling out online within minutes once open to the general public).

The secondary motive was to scope out the event ahead of time to see what I was getting myself into. What I found simply blew my mind. The energy was palpable even before the event started and it only seemed to escalate as the day progressed. That energy transferred to each and every athlete competing, infusing their souls with the strength to progress one swim stroke, pedal stroke, and footfall after the other.

My volunteering experience started out Saturday morning. As the athletes brought their biking gear into the first transition area I helped them find their spot amongst all of the other transition bags. Some people looked nervous and I did my best to help calm them and answer their questions. Others I could tell had done this before as they methodically went about their business. I ran into a few people I knew and even met for the first time a couple of my online friends from beginnertriathlete.com. All in all the 5 hours flew by and already I was starting to feel a little jealous that these people were going out to become ironmen the next day and I would have to wait a whole year. After my shift I found an outlet for my energy by going on a nice long run along the lakefront path of Lake Monona.

The next day I arrived at Monona Terrace an hour before the race start. It was already packed with athletes and spectators. 2400 bikes sat in transition while the athletes made their last minute adjustments and ensured that all of their nutrition was in place. Friends and family watched the preparation, some sporting custom shirts in support of their favorite athlete. I moved through the sea of people, amazed at the enthusiasm. At the top of the terrace I could hardly squeeze into a spot to see the swim start. When the cannon went off the race was on and the crowd went wild with enthusiasm. Now, I have watched Ironman starts on tv before but seeing it in person was something different all together. All athletes start at the same time and the water instantly turns into a frothy mass of churning limbs in what is affectionately referred to as "the washing machine." I was so awestruck that it sent chills down my spine.

After watching for awhile I retreated back down a few levels to the transition area where I reported for my first volunteering duty as a bike handler. As the athletes came out of T1 it was our duty to grab their bikes off the rack and get it into their hands. It was slow going at first as the pros came through, but we all cheered loudly and soon enough the age group athletes started pouring through. Like a fire brigade we called out the athlete numbers to those further down the line to get correct bike pulled from the rack. It was chaos as 2000+ athletes filed in. Some took their bike straight from your hands, some asked you to hold it as they pulled on their bike shoes, and almost all had kind words of thanks. The best part of all was the crowds cheering just as hard for the last man through as the first.

A few hours later I was manning the transition aid station as athletes came in off the bike and took off on a grueling marathon in the heat. We handed out ice and water or any combination thereof and were as helpful as we could be. Our cheering was loud and boisterous and amidst the grimaces of pain you could see the smiles on the faces of the athletes. In 26.2 miles they would be calling themselves ironmen, and you could see the determination in all of them.

Later in the day I was privileged enough to find myself at the finish line. I sort of felt like a VIP. The general crowds were not allowed back here, only volunteers and other race officials. I was working as a catcher, which entailed supporting the athlete after crossing the finish line, guiding them to their finisher medal, shirt, and hat, ensuring they got fluids if they needed it, getting them to the photographer for their official finisher's photo, and in extreme cases walking and/or carrying them to the medical tent.

Again it was slow as the pros trickled in first. I got to see them give interviews (the winner talked about how he had vomited several times and lost his vision for awhile during the marathon). Off the record last years winner, Chris MacDonald, who finished 5th this year, put it succinctly: "That %&$#ing sucked."

And then, slowly but surely, more ordinary people doing something extraordinary began crossing the finish line. It was a privilege to be there for them, to be the first person they talked to. There was so much raw emotion it was overwhelming. I heard so many uplifting stories over the course of the evening, whether it be fist timers or IM veterans.

I caught a couple pros and several top age groupers. One woman in particular qualified for Kona for the third time despite in her words having a horrible marathon. She was in good enough spirits to joke about it and playfully infer that the woman who had beat her had lied about her age. I spent ten minutes helping another man walk after he had jumped around so ecstatically at the finish that his left calf had completely seized up. "Why did i do that? That was stupid," he kept saying over and over, but with a smiling grimace on his face.

Some people were all smiles and tears of joy, others were dazed and out of it after pushing their bodies so hard for so long. One man, after walking and not saying much, finally turned to me and simply asked, "Do you think I could get an IV." "Absolutely," I told him and promptly took him to the medical tent. Another woman I took to the med tent because she could not stand on her own anymore. She said her rear derailleur had broken during the ride and she had to ride the last half in a fixed gear. Doing so completely torched her legs. Those hills were hard enough with a full range of gears. Speaking of hills, everyone I spoke to that had completed IMAZ or IMFL (notoriously flat courses) said those courses were cakewalks compared to the hills of Wisconsin. That may have just been the post-IM pain talking though ;)

I watched best friends cross the finish line at the same time. I helped a young woman who set a 2 hour and 15 minute PR. She had a smile that I'm pretty sure was still on her face even when she fell asleep that night. The stories were numerous, the athletes inspiring, and I wish I could remember it all. I spent over 6 hours catching that night, and it was easily one of the coolest and most rewarding things I've ever done. After a full day of volunteering, I took a break, got a bite to eat, and found a spot just before the finisher's chute to watch the remaining ironmen come through.

By the end of the night I was exhausted, even though I had not done near as much as those incredible ironmen had done over the course of the day. Despite being tired I didn't sleep all too well as I was excited to get signed up for next year's race in the morning. By the time I reached the registration site (1:15 before it officially opened) the line of volunteers was already stretched out along monona terrace. Thankfully they were letting people in early so the line was moving, but even so it took about an hour and a half to get in. The time flew quickly though as I chatted with a girl from Iowa City. Turns out we had done quite a few of the same races this year and we exchanged contact info so we could do some training and/or racing together next year. Soon enough I was through the registration line after plopping down a good chunk of change to become an Ironman. I practically skipped back to my car, as if I was holding the golden ticket or something.

This year is going to be a life changing experience and I am so ready to undertake this adventure. I love a good challenge, and what better one to take on than Ironman. Bring it on!


  1. Thanks for being out there Neal, the volunteers were our lifelines and I was amazed by the nonstop energy. I volunteered last year before signing up as well and felt the same way. You captured it beautifully. We're going to have a great race next year!

  2. Hey little brother! WOW is all I can say.... teaching kickboxing is nothing compared to the experiences you are having! So proud of you! And your writeup was incredible....I forget that you have always had that skill as well! So write your sister one of these days all the way out here in Cali! Will I be seeing you in a few weeks or not?????? Let me know and congrats to all your friends and readers who are doing these races, its impressive and motivational for the rest of us!