Through New Eyes


It's appropriate that volunteering at Ironman Arizona this past weekend coincides with Thanksgiving.  As soon as I got home from Tempe yesterday, I called my parents and told them how truly grateful I was for their support last year along with the rest of my family.  Sure, I wasn't as physically fatigued from volunteering, but still my feet cracked with pain, my lower back was on fire, my senses were overwhelmed and I darn near felt delirious as Mike Reilly started dancing down the finisher's chute before midnight.

I think volunteers deserve a medal along with a T-shirt, free food and early admission to the following year's race.  And I didn't even have to endure rain, wind or hail!

Rather than go into a hour-by-hour recap of the weekend, I'd like to focus instead on some larger observations about the day (and night).  Just stuff I noticed.  For those of you who raced or also spectated, I'm curious if this is something you've encountered as well.

Observation #1: LOTS of full disc wheels this year.  It felt like roughly 1/3 of the bikes I saw roll through our special needs area had full disc wheels on the back.  They make the coolest sound when riding by, but not when you're being passed.

Observation #2: 99% of Ironman participants are exceedingly polite even in the middle of a race.  My job (along with my Fortius teamates) was to retrieve racers' special needs bags and hold them out for riders either to rummage through on the spot or grab and ride.  Most cyclists stopped but the faster riders grabbed the bag on the go.  No matter what, all but one cyclist (bib #1680, you're rude!) thanked us volunteers, stopped to chat for a second if asked how they were doing, and thanked us again before taking off.  Now, a quick tip for future Ironmen: If you want your bag, make sure you give us plenty of time to get it!  Don't ride by at 15 mph expecting us to be able to throw you your bag when we have two seconds to get it -- are you listening bib #1680 -- and then tell us we suck.

Observation #3: Ironman cyclists like their sandwiches.  The most popular food I saw riders who stopped at special needs to eat came in the form of white-bread sandwiches.  I thought this was funny only in that we're obsessed with healthy food throughout the year and then we're drinking cans of Coke and eating sugar bread at every break we can.  Yes, I get it...we need the sugar intake.  But still, I guess I would have expected more Clif Bars, Gu Chomps, etc.

Observation #4: I saw less compression gear on the bike this year.  There were fewer calf socks than I recall from the past two Ironmans I've done.  Maybe people are realizing that the studies are inconclusive at best on compression as performance enhancer (read Joe Friel's blogs on this topic as he goes into depth on the research he's analyzed).  I did see plenty of full compression socks during the marathon though, so who knows if that message is getting through.

Observation #5: Cyclists are unashamed to stick their hands down their apply body glide.  Right there, right in front of you... . The female contingent of volunteers often blushed and looked the other way when male cyclists would grab a packet of chamois butter and go to town right in front of them.  I suppose this carries over into real life, as I shared a hotel room over the weekend with three other triathlets, two female.  All of us changed in the room pretty much in front of each other, knowing we've all seen each other practically naked in lycra swimsuits or in the locker room already.  What's the big deal, right?


Observation #6: The slower the bike rider, the more they seem to smile on the course.  My team saw every cyclist pass the special needs area at least twice (pros once).  As the day wore on, as the faster cyclists sped by and hurtled toward their Kona slots, slower cyclists populated the special needs area more and more.  Each of them fed off our team's screaming, chanting and cheering.  They were genuinely happy to simply become an Ironman regardless of how long it took to reach the finish.  These folks knew it was going to be a long day and didn't seem to care one bit.  They appreciated us, our time, and most important, the moment itself.  That felt like the true Ironman spirit and something I'll really take with me for future events.  People, it's OK to smile even when you're flying low to the ground.  (You just run a greater risk of getting a bug stuck in your teeth!)

Observation #7: Mike Reilly is a stud.  That man makes every single Ironman finisher feel special, and in the case of Ironman Arizona that meant close to 2,500 people.  He really gets going around 11 p.m., whipping the crowd into a frenzy with a towel and jumping up and down in the finisher's chute imploring everyone to BRING THESE LAST FEW RACERS HOME!  It's truly the best part of the Ironman experience.  If you don't get goosebumps or well up with tears I challenge whether you're actually a human being.

Observation #8: Paul Amey is a stud too.  The man raced his guts out and came up just two minutes short of winner Eneko Llanos' sub-8:00 finish.  Still, he joined his girlfriend (full disclosure, a Fortius teammate and friend of mine) in the stands to watch other finishers come down the chute.  He was cheerful despite his fatigue level, like almost every pro triathlete I've ever met.  This truly is the greatest sport because the pros are every bit as classy as the 17-hour Ironman finishers.  Can you imagine Tiger Woods winning a tournament and coming back to the 18th hole to cheer in the rest of the pros? (OK, can you imagine Tiger Woods winning a tournament anymore?!)

Observation #9: Giving an athlete a high-five during the marathon equals a .05% pickup in speed.  Alright, that's not scientifically proven.  But I observed that as the sky gets darker and the lights become brighter, runners need a little extra help and encouragement to keep them moving.  A high-five and a shout-out of encouragement can do just that.  Calling out their name on their bib helps too.  I remember it worked for me in the final lap of my Ironman Arizona journey last year.  Runners who aren't smiling at all will crack a grin and extend their hand when they feel like someone cares about their journey and their struggle in that particular moment.  I fived a lot of folks, and I'd like to think they finished .05% faster because of me.

Observation #10: I'm done reminiscing about Ironman Arizona 2010.  Volunteering at IMAZ 2011 closed the door on one of the best days, one of the best years of my life.  For 365 days I got to live the life of a pro athlete and accomplish something I never thought possible.  I was, I am and will always be in the Ironman Arizona Class of 2010.  This year, I got to usher in the Class of 2011.  Originally, I had mixed feelings about the experience.  But when the time came to experience my race on the other side of the fence, I appreciated my own accomplishments that much more. I remembered the struggles, sacrifices and pain.  And that it's my choice not to participate in Ironman Arizona 2012 even though I had early access to registration.  Despite the peer pressure among my friends, I resisted.  That meant two things. First, I'm not ready to commit to the sacrifice just yet.  Second, I don't feel a need to validate myself through another Ironman.  I graduated.  Officially.

I will not write about Ironman Arizona again, except in passing.  It's time to move on.  Now that I see everything through new eyes, there are other journeys to embark upon. New adventures.  Ironman Arizona won't be one of them for a long, long time.

Congratulations to all the finishers on Sunday.  Welcome to the club!  I hope you give back at a race near you in the future.  It will be just as valuable an experience to volunteer, if not more so.