Friday, November 8, 2013

I am an Ironman… Volunteer

Volunteering at an Ironman is not for the faint of heart.  Or, the weak-kneed.  Or, the germaphobic.  Or, Mr. Clean.  Not if you volunteer the way I do, anyway.
Forget race shirts, I'm going to start collecting volunteer shirts!

I just returned home from another volunteering stint at an Ironman race.  This time, it was Ironman Florida, and I did a whole lot more volunteering that just passing out drinks and snacks and holding a puke bucket for the winner of Ironman Wisconsin.  The winner was very gracious about it and I did do more than that, but those were the highlights of my time in the medical tent at IM Wisconsin. 

This weekend, I participated in my own Ironman – the not very well known and very understated “Ironman Volunteer”.  Unlike a traditional Ironman, I had a well more than seventeen hours to complete my race.  I was allowed to rest in between disciplines, there were no drafting penalties if I chose to chat with a friend and, had I been so inclined, I could have had a beer or two the night before and suffered no ill-effects on race day.  Best of all, my registration fee was minimal and I still got a nifty t-shirt and heart full of memories. 

Go, Crazy Joes, go!
My journey to “IMVOL” began last year when four of my friends and training buddies blithely decided to volunteer at IM Florida and then sign up to race this year.  I told them when they signed up that, while I would NOT race an Ironman distance, I’d be more than happy to train with them.  Bad knees and hips, not wanting to take the time away from the family, not wanting to work that hard, etc, were my excuses to not train for one myself.  Being the consummate cheerleader though, I was happy to tag along on their endeavors and bolster them up when necessary.  That truth really came into play when our friend Jerry decided it was a good idea to have “one too many beers” the night before a race rehearsal.  It was a rough ride for Jerry, but I like to think it was made a little easier by my presence, patience and encouragement, that and some downright hardcore ribbing from friends and training buddies. 

Fast forward to several months ago.  I really wanted to go and cheer our friends on, but I’m a frugal sort.  How could I justify the expense and time away from the family to go down and cheer our friends on by myself?  Joe, being Joe, insisted that I go and not worry about the expense.  Stefanie, Gina, Blake and Jerry would appreciate it, he kept insisting.  Stef and I had been friends and training buddies since I moved here.  Gina and Blake were also friends who I’d raced and trained with for years.  Jerry was a new friend and training buddy, but we’d developed a fast friendship with him and his wife, Penny, also a triathlete.  In my heart, I knew I needed to go; I’d followed them so far on this journey, I needed to see it to fruition.
Blake, Gina, me and Stef before a long training ride.

Joe booked me a hotel room close to the venue, but I didn’t say anything to my friends.  I didn’t want to disappoint them if something came up that I couldn’t get out of.   About a month before the race, I was on a group ride with another friend who asked me if I was going down to watch Stef, Gina, Blake and Jerry race.  I told him that I wanted to, but blah, blah, blah.  He then offered up the couch in the condo that he and his family would be staying at that was right down the street from the venue.  It was kismet.  Scott, a two-time Ironman, and his wife, Tami, had come to Kona to watch Joe race so they understood the whole “supporting your friends and training buddies” thing. 

Since I was going to be by myself with no responsibilities other than to support my friends, I decided that I was going to a.) Surprise them by being there and b.) Volunteer to kill time while they were racing.  So… I started a long convoluted ruse to keep them in the dark about me coming to the race.  Whenever one would say how great it would be that I show up, I’d tell them that I wasn’t going to be able to be on the course with them, but that I’d be there in spirit.  I didn’t lie; I really wasn’t going to be on the course with them, I was going to be cheering from the sidelines.  Scott and Joe kept mum.  The only other person in the know from the Crazy Joes was Corin since she’d be helping with the Girl Scout meeting that I’d be missing.  Thanks, Cori for having my back!

The week of the race, I started posting selfies of me wearing my assorted Ironman shirts to “motivate” Stef, Gina, Blake and Jerry.  The morning I left for Florida, I had Joe take a pic of me in that day’s shirt and post it to my Facebook page later in the morning to keep the ruse going.  Blake was the only one who got suspicious due to my own slip up when I asked him where everyone was staying one too many times.  Everyone else had no clue. 
Day #1

Day #2, right after I'd seen both Gina and Jerry

Day #3

Day #4

Day #5, right before I left for FL

Selfie on the way to FL
I left my house at five in the morning on Friday.  A couple of weeks earlier, I had signed up to help with bike check-in from 10am-3pm, so I needed to leave in plenty of time to get there.  The weather forecast was calling for heavy rain on Friday so I packed a thin rain jacket along with all the other stuff a triathlete/runner brings for a weekend getaway – running clothes, swim suit, Garmin, water bottles, toiletries and some other random clothes. 

Bike check-in…before
Now I'm "official"
I had thought for days how I was going to let my friends in on my little secret.  I finally decided that I’d have someone take a picture of me wearing my volunteer shirt in the bike area and text it to each one of them with a caption that read, “Please see your friendly volunteer for assistance with bike check-in.”  In theory it was a great idea.  Little did I know that my cell phone did not like to send pix within texts while in Panama City Beach?  One of them got my cute little text… at nine o’clock that night and I think a couple never got it.  Best laid plans…

Jerry, Blake and me
Blake and Jerry were the first to arrive at bike check-in.  By that point, I’d been checking in bikes for a while and was right in the thick of things.  My job was to direct the athletes and their bikes to go into three different chutes so official photographers could take a pic of each bike for security purposes.  I should have remembered from my five times as an Ironspouse that Ironmen or future Ironmen can be a bit “prickly”.  Blake, who often times acts like a big brother to me, said, “I knew you were coming!” in that bossy big-brotherly kind of way when he saw me.  I was totally deflated.  Jerry’s response was better, but that of their wives was even better.  Jane and Penny were behind me and one said to the other that I must have a twin because the girl checking bikes in looked so much like me from behind.  They were going to ask “her” if they could take her picture to send to their friend Gen when I turned around and greeted them warmly. Boy, did we all had a good laugh over that!

Double red flag - no swimming!
Stef and Gina came to bike check-in together and were absolutely delighted to see me!  Their reaction was the highlight of my day, which was good because shortly after that, it started to rain – A LOT!  It rained and rained and the wind gusted and gusted.  I felt a bit like Piglet in the story of the Blustery Day getting blown around.  Bikes racks were getting thrown around the transition area and bikes were getting knocked to the ground by the wind.  You want to stress out a few thousand temperamental triathletes throw that weather at them on top of a double red flag at the beach where there were rip currents and five foot swells!

Stef and Gina were super sweet to all of the volunteers!
Many of above-mentioned triathletes waited until the worst part of the storm blew over and then they brought their bikes down for check in, complete with seats and handlebars covered in plastic and taped down so tight you’d need TNT just to get some of that stuff off.  Enter yours truly, the perky IM Volunteer whose job it was to cheerfully and politely explain to them that, yes, they really did need to take all that stuff off of their handlebars so that the nice photographers could take a picture of their bikes for security reasons… just like the nice volunteers at the front of the chute had already told them.  And, no, they couldn’t stop right in the middle of the line to do so.  Thank goodness I have my own Ironman and kids (one of which is a teenager)!  I didn’t take any of the snotty or downright nasty comments to heart.

When my shift and the rain were finally over, I high-tailed it back to the condo to meet up with Scott, Tami and their girls.  We talked about dinner plans and then Scott and I headed to the volunteer meeting.  It’s like an athlete meeting, but a lot less informative.  Our team captains showed up and told us to be at our designated spot fifteen minutes before our shift was to start.   That was it.  Uh, couldn’t they have said that in an email? 

The only good thing that came out of going to the volunteer meeting, besides a short walk, was that I finally got to meet Jess and John, two EN teammates of Joe.  Joe and John had raced IM Louisville together and they told me that I had met them there, but I have no recollection of that – I’m claiming chemo-brain!  Anyway, a while back, Jess and I had struck up an email friendship over turnips of all things.  We became pen pals of the new millennium.  She’s a mom with young kids and a triathlete like me and just as wacky and funny as my other friends – would I have any other kind?  Scott was chuckling as we walked away from our meeting telling me he wasn’t at all surprised we were friends the way we fell in and were talking a mile a minute from the get-go. 

John and Jess were also there supporting a friend and had decided to volunteer.  They were going to be passing out bags in T2.  Scott was a bike handler in T1 and our friend Kelly was going to be manning an aid station on the run.  Little did Kelly know that he was also going to have to set up said aid station?  I was slotted for body marking at o’dark-thirty and then catching athletes at the finish line from 6pm-9pm, right when Gina was hoping to finish. 

Can't stay out of the water!
After a yummy dinner of a fish sandwich, some fries and onion rings and a short stroll on the beach I headed to bed.  I slept poorly being afraid that my alarm would wake Scott and Tami’s daughters and that I’d oversleep.  I was out the door at 0420 – wide-awake and excited for my friends. 

I have always admired the folks who do body marking.  They always seem so cheerful and perky despite the ridiculously early hour.  Since I’m a pretty perky, cheery sort of person, I figured that would be a pretty good job for me.  Plus, I’m not averse to dispensing hugs and kind words to those that look like they need them.  And lastly, I have pretty neat handwriting when I want to. 

Gen and Stef selfie before the race
My first athlete was visibly shaking when I wrote his numbers on his body.  I gave him some reassuring words, a quick pat on the shoulder and sent him on his way.  He gave me a wane smile, thanked me and wandered off into the crowd.  After that, I got into a groove and the time went quickly by.  I accidentally offered to body mark one of the pros and then cheekily offered and then quickly declined with a saucy grin when I saw him again.  Rinny (reigning world champ) walked right by me with her bike, no entourage or anything, and was then swallowed up by the crowd like she was just Julie Bag’O Donuts age-group triathlete.   Stef came by to have me write her number and her age on her legs, and I’m sure for some last minute encouragement and hugs from me.  Soon, it was all done and time to head to the beach for the swim start.
Jane (my BC buddy) and I waiting for the swim start.

The swells from the day before were gone, but there were still some pretty fierce looking waves.  The sun was coming up, bringing with it a gorgeous day.  Once the cannon went off, the crowd edged into the water to get a closer look at the athletes as they sprinted a short distance on the beach before galloping back into the wavesto start another lap.  I got soaked from the waist down, but was delighted that I got to see my friends looking strong as they started their second laps of the swim leg.
Stef was somewhere in this mess

Jerry was all business

Blake wears pink in support of Jane!

Gina being true to herself!

Scott texted me towards the end of the swim.  They needed a lot more help in T1 to pass out bikes and could I come?  I looked a Penny and sent him a text that we would be there soon.  Leg #2 of IMVOL was about to begin. 
Penny had NO idea the wild ride I was about to take her on!

Our job in T1 was to yell bib numbers down a line as the athletes came down the aisles to get their bikes.  I was also responsible for wrangling said bikes and getting them to the athletes whose bib numbers were in my section.  Penny purposely put herself by the rack where Jerry’s bike was and told the other volunteers around her that when #1970 came through that she’d get his bike.  Jerry got the surprise of his life when she handed him his bike in T1. 
Jerry - ready to tackle 112 miles

At the end of our shift we asked the team captain if she needed help during T2.  Definitely!  So, after a short break to eat some breakfast and take a short walk to try to find one of Joe’s coaches (Coach Patrick, where in the heck were you????), we were back at it. 

We had NO idea what we had gotten ourselves into when we agreed to take a five-hour shift in T2.  The bike catchers took the bikes from the athletes as they came into the transition area.  Our job was to take the bikes from the bike catchers and run them back to the racks according to their bib numbers.  Did I mention that there were over three thousand bikes to be caught, handed off and racked?  Had we known, we would have put on our running clothes and shoes as well as our Garmins. 

As luck would have it, one of our fellow T2 volunteers was wearing all the correct gear, including the all-important Garmin.  Brian, Penny, and I kept ending up in line with each other and the team captain was soon sighing with relief whenever she saw one of her “runners” as she referred to us standing next to her in the queue.  The other volunteers started calling me the Energizer Bunny.  I ran initially because I thought we were supposed to and then because we started getting behind when the athletes started coming in fast and furious.  At one point after one volunteer group of teens left, there were only two of us in line to take multiple bikes that were coming at us.  Ack! 

Penny was a super-trooper!

I'm still cracking up at how BIG this bike was!

In a rare moment of slightly less bikes coming in, one of the other volunteers challenged me to a sprint up the aisle.  Away we went.  Well, I thought we went, but I went a lot faster than he did.  I thought he was holding back so I slowed down for him to catch up.  He made up some ground, but I still ended up “chicking” him.  He saw me the next morning and asked how my legs were feeling.  We both laughed when I told him they were sore.  Hmmm I wonder why?

The bruise is now a rainbow of colors!
When things got really busy, we had an overflow bike rack, which led to a minor injury for me.  I was running a bike back to rack when someone else was trying to wrestle a bike onto the overflow rack.  He ended up losing control of the bike and knocked me down.  The good news was that I didn’t drop the bike I had.  The bad news was that I ended up with a small gash on my ankle and an immediate goose egg on my shin the size of my hand.  Only later did I also notice a bruise on my thigh and that my ribs were really sore.  Ah well, just a few more reasons to be sore.

Brian's Garmin at 3:30pm
Brian had to leave at three thirty and we’d been running intervals almost non-stop for the past three hours.  According to his Garmin, we’d already run over eleven miles at that point.  Yes, over eleven miles.  Needless to say, at that point I decided that I did not need to do my long run the next day.  When all was said and done, I calculated that we had run over nineteen miles in T2 alone.  Whew!!!  I was filthy from handling all of those bikes, bloodied, bruised, sweaty, hot, tired and happy.  We’d seen our athletes go out onto the run and knew that even if they all had to walk the marathon portion of the race that they would indeed finish in the allotted seventeen hours. 

Bless Penny!  She hung in there with me and decided to help during my next volunteer gig as well.  We took a thirty-minute break to eat a quick bite and then headed over to the finishers’ chute.  Our job as “catchers” or, “handlers” as the athletes referred to us, was to lead the athletes through the finishers’ chute, helping them to get their hats, shirts, medals, water, space blankies and photos and eventually out the gate towards their loved ones and the all-important F-O-O-D!
Second to last, but BEST job - "Catchers"

What a rush that job was!  We were hugged, high-fived, and had our picture taken innumerable times.  We were cried on, snotted on, sweated on, slobbered on, collapsed on, and leaned on.  Thankfully, no one puked on either of us, but I’d be willing to bet it happened to at least one catcher.  We witnessed utter elation and delight, frustration, pain, faith and love.  We were blessed and thanked hundreds of times.  

Penny and I are nurturers by nature, so this job was right up our alley.  Being the experienced Ironmate and a mom, I made sure my athletes were cognitively with it, physically okay and had turned off their Garmins/GPSs right after they got the requisite high five and hug at the finish line.  I made sure that their hats/sunglasses/medals were looking good before I let them get their pictures and I made sure the athletes had some idea where their loved ones were before I let them leave the finishers’ chute.  I know how shell-shocked Joe has been in the finishers’ chute and how kind the catchers have been to him, so I was just paying it back a little to the athletes I handled.

When the first Endurance Nation athlete came through during my shift, I politely asked the team captain and the volunteer who was supposed to catch him if I could do the honors, that he was one of my husband’s teammates.  I had no idea who he was, but thought he might appreciate someone who was part of the extended EN “family” catching him.  After that, whenever an ENer came in, I was put to the front of the queue and the team captain referred to me as the “official EN catcher”.  It was so nice to meet several of Joe’s teammates, most of whom knew Joe through racing with him or through the forums.  One even knew who I was.   Joe had a steady stream of texts from me whenever one of the ENers would finish and how each looked so he could share with the rest of the team. 
Happy to be finished EN athlete!

Our “official” shift was done at 9pm.  Based on the info we were getting, Gina should have arrived just a little bit after nine.  The team captain was more than happy to let us wait at the finish to catch her.  Sometimes it pays to be polite, enthusiastic and compassionate to others.  We waited a short while and soon enough, Gina came down the chute, fulfilling a lifelong dream with her characteristic smile on her face.  What a glorious thing it was to behold!   Penny and I yelled and screamed and cheered her to the finish.  Then we shared a huge group hug, some laughter and a few tears. 
Knew when I met her that she'd be here someday!

Jerry was right behind her a few minutes later.  By that point, Penny had the wherewithal to go ask the medal people for two medals, one for Jerry and one for Stefi who we knew wouldn’t be much behind Jerry.  And again, we waited right under the live cam camera.  Roo texted me and told me that I was too loud on the live cam.  I ignored him.  Jerry came in next and Penny surprised him yet again by catching him and then putting his medal around his neck.  What a privilege it was to share that moment with them!
What a moment to treasure for them both!

While we were waiting for Jerry and Stef, the female winner of the race, came up to the finish line to put medals on people.  She ran out of medals quickly and turned towards me, politely saying that she needed more medals.  She eyed the medal that I was holding for Stef and I firmly, but politely told her that she couldn’t have that one; that it was for a friend.  She looked surprised, but took my rejection with good graces.  Leave it to me to say no to the champion of the race.

Stef came across the finish line in true Stefanie fashion – arms held aloft in victory with a HUGE smile on her face!  After we hugged her and pulled her away from the finish, I put her medal around her neck.  I’ve seen this girl go from budding triathlete to mother to now an Ironman.  What a thrill that was for me!   If I had any doubts before about going down to cheer my friends on, they were completely wiped away in that moment!  How could I have ever missed it!?
Entering the chute in true Stefi fashion!

So proud of this chica!  

Girl Power!
Not wanting to get kicked out of the catching area while I waited for Blake to come in, I tried to blend in with the other volunteers.  A sweet young girl was standing by the huge vats of chilled water, handing them out all by herself.  Ta-da!  I had a new job!  The only bad thing was that the sun had gone down and it was getting chilly.  Add that to repeated sticking my hands into ice cold water and I myself was getting a bit chilly.  Thankfully, Blake came in sooner than we expected.  The only bad thing was we weren’t up at the front of the chute.  The good thing was, we can run fast so we caught him just after he went past the live cam.  Lucky for Roo, he did not have to listen to me yell and cheer again on the live cam.  
My birthday buddy is an IRONMAN!
As for my IM VOL experience, I finally finished my day at about midnight after Gina and I went back onto the beach to get her morning clothes bag.  Thankfully, as we were leaving the finishing area, a volunteer was bringing hot cocoa in.  He was sweet enough to give me one when I asked and explained that I’d been there since 0430.  It was warm and creamy and obviously made with real milk.  YUM!  It was a delicious sweet treat to end a wonderful day.

And so, at the end of my day, I was dehydrated, tired, and sore, but fulfilled.  Body marking was a great way to start the day.  Where else do very fit people voluntarily strip off their clothes, let you feel their shapely calves and then allow you to write on them?  In T2 I got a great workout in, but way more than I expected to.  At the end of the day, all four of my friends and training buddies became Ironmen.  They all finished in well under seventeen hours and didn’t even look like they had just propelled their bodies 140.6 miles.  I couldn’t be prouder!

Our four newest Ironmen who truly are Crazy Joes!
While I was delighted that I was able to surprise my friends by being there to support and cheer them on their special day, I am more in awe of their accomplishments!  These four people have wonderfully large hearts, love and treasure their families and friends, and strive to set a good example in the world. I am proud to call them friends.

I definitely want to volunteer again at another Ironman, but I think that the next time I volunteer, I’m going to wear a race belt complete with bib # and my name emblazoned on it so that the competitors can shout my name when they thank me for doing what I do.

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