Keith and I have experienced Ironman races as spectator (me) and participant (Keith) but never as a volunteer until recently. Let me tell you, having now volunteered at an Ironman, I am even more blown away than before.
We drove to Louisville Saturday and arrived around dinner time. It was pouring rain! As we toasted our drinks, we noted how different this Ironman was already proving to be for us. Typically we would have already been in the room going over last minute check-lists and trying to calm our nerves..his and mine!
We signed up to volunteer from 2-6:30 as Transition Floaters and from 6:30 – 12:30 as Finish Line Catchers. We really had no idea what this would entail but we were so excited to play a part. Although we weren’t scheduled until 2, we wanted to be at the race start and out on the course so we got up and went straight to the swim exit to get a good spot. We saw every single person exit the water, from the first pro to the last age grouper.
Once the last swimmer exited the Ohio River we decided to run and grab a bite to eat as we had a long day ahead of us. We found a spot on the run course and waited until the first pro girls came through (missed the pro guys) and some of the age groupers and then headed onto our “jobs”.
As Transition Floaters, we had no idea what we would be doing..they would just place us anywhere there was a gap. The amazing thing that we knew but didn’t put into perspective is that there are 2-3 volunteers per athlete. You would think this is overkill but it’s not. There is so much that goes into making a race of this caliber run as smoothly as it does.
Keith was asked to head straight in to the Mens Changing Tent (more on this in a minute) and I was asked to be a Gear Bag Sorter. We were in T2 (athletes coming off the bike and heading out on the run). The heat index was upper 90’s at this point and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Athletes would enter the changing tents and the plethora of volunteers would re-bag their bike stuff into their Bike Gear Bag and then toss those bags to the Sorters (me) and it was our job to run them down the fence line and drop them back in the correct spots and run back for more. At this point, I hadn’t had any interaction with the athletes but it was still pretty fun to be out in T2. The volunteers out in the open field with me were starting to look haggard and needed water breaks fairly frequently due to the heat but the attitudes of everyone were absolutely 100% positive.
I saw Keith a few times as he handed off some Gear Bags to me and he suggested I try to get moved to the Women’s Changing Tent. Although they estimated the air temps to be about 105 in the tents, you were still out of the direct sun so this seemed like it might be a smart move. There is nothing but hustle when you are volunteering. Before I left the field, I had the opportunity to run into transition for 2 different athletes who left something on their bike. It’s super intense when you know they are potentially counting down every second and you cannot be what holds them back so you just put your head down and go. And you’re more than happy to do it. The guy who needed his salt tablets off his bike which was already racked in the next fence area…it was up to me to get him those salt tabs. It’s a crazy fun pressure but most of the athletes were super appreciative of everything we did.
I moved from the Bag Sort area to the Women’s Changing Tent. This is the most interesting and most bizarre place I could ever imagine being. Funny enough, I would absolutely volunteer for this position again. As a female athlete ran through and grabbed her Run Gear Bag, she came into the tent to get ready for the run. In an Ironman, most people choose to change clothes before heading out on the run. The volunteers met each athlete at the entrance to the tent with a cup of cold water and immediately took their hand and led them to a chair. It was up to us to dump their bag, prepare them for the run, and help them in whatever capacity. We helped them undress and dress where necessary…when you’re sweaty and exhausted, you loose a lot of your dexterity so that’s where we came in. I literally applied Vaseline, helped one woman get her panties on, struggled to put compression socks on an athlete, tied hair back, gave hugs, ran and filled fuel belts, ran back and forth to first aid for ice, and most importantly, just talked to the athletes to make sure they seemed coherent and not in need of medical care. It was our job as volunteers to hustle but never to make an athlete feel as if you were hurried. While they were trying to just regroup, we were putting their race belts around them, making sure they had everything, going through a check-list but never letting them know we were anything but a friendly face.
This was awesome! It felt like an oven in there and I looked like I had been in a swimming pool but this was the one on one interaction that I love. I talked to one girl who attempted an IM only 3 weeks ago but her rear derailleur broke at mile 96 on the bike so this would be her first IM finish. I spoke with a woman who had a baby 14 months ago. I spoke with numerous people who were competing in their first IM event. Every single one of them seemed a little thrown off at first by the bevy of volunteers and our willingness to literally dress them but every single one of them left with the biggest thank you and smile on their face. I tried so hard to pay attention to faces and numbers, hoping to see them later that night in the Finish Line area.
Once this shift was over, Keith and I ran over to the Finish Line area. We could not believe how exhausted we were already but excited to get into the finish line. We got our “duties” and headed on in. This was electric and overwhelming all at once. There were probably 50+ volunteers in the finish line area plus medics so it was very crowded. It ran so smoothly though, I would be shocked if an athlete knew any difference. We lined up and as an athlete crossed the finish line, one of the Catchers would run up and congratulate them while placing their medal around their neck. In these first few seconds, we made quick eye contact with the Medic Catchers and determined whether or not the athlete could walk on his/her own. We then physically escorted them (quickly but not hurried) straight down where a volunteer quickly grabbed their chip while we grabbed their bib, walked them down towards the Finish exit while grabbing their Finisher shirt and hat, stopping them at Photos and then walking them to the exit and hopefully into the arms of family and friends. This was really fun as well. You get to be the first person they speak to once they become an Ironman so, for the most part, they are gracious and giddy. If one of your athletes required a wheel chair, you stayed with them until Medic #2 came and took your spot. Again, it all ran like a well oiled machine.
With some time to spare (the clock strikes 17:00:00 at midnight and if you are not over the finish mat, you are not officially an Ironman), Keith and I decided to go out in the Finish Line chute and cheer for those coming in at the last moments of the night. With less than 90 seconds left in the race, we could see 3 final athletes turning the last corner and sprinting down 4th Street. I have no words for this. I have never screamed so loud in my life. I had already witnessed several people who had missed various cut-offs and we had battled tears all day long and we just could not have this last person miss it by mere seconds. I felt like all of Louisville was running behind the last athlete, screaming at the top of their lungs. I have no idea what she ended up sprinting in those final moments but it was as if she was flying. She crossed the mat just as it turned 17:00:00.
I am pretty sure we have never been so exhausted in our lives. Ten hours of volunteering and about 19 hours of race day “festivities” but I wouldn’t change a thing. I am in awe at all that it takes to put on an Ironman and blown away by how smoothly it runs. Keith and I both saw some of “our” athletes from the changing tents as they were finishing their race and it’s impossible not to feel like you had a tiny part in their race. We were as proud as if we had known these people much longer than the 10 minutes we had spent with them, 7 hours earlier. I had no idea volunteering could be so physical and exhausting but I also had no idea it could be so rewarding.
A friend sent me this blog post she came across and it just makes my heart happy: http://crushingiron.com/ironman-louisville-volunteers-imlou/
I’d like to think I had the same impact on an athlete at some point in their day. We were told as volunteers to welcome every athlete with a smile and it would have been impossible to do anything but.