Even though the sport of triathlon has exploded exponentially and there are now Ironman events all over the world, the race in Hawaii is the one everyone knows. In 1978, 15 men and 1 woman waded into the water at Waikiki for the first Ironman triathlon race. Three years later, the race moved to the small town of Kona on the Big Island. Tell someone you are doing a triathlon and it’s the ocean swim, the lava fields, the big finish line that flashes through their mind.
That first year there was little volunteer help apart from the people keeping track of the finishers. The race was a self-supported task. Thirty years later, there were almost 5,000 volunteers keeping track of almost 2,000 athletes. Two of the volunteers were my wife and I.
She and I recently talked about vacations to celebrate our 20th anniversary, and since I am a triathlete with Ironman aspirations, I thought combining a trip to Hawaii and volunteering at the Ironman would be an ideal proposition. I didn’t have to sell too hard, as my wife, bless her, has volunteered at a few of my races and jumped at the chance. I hoped that by showing her the magic of Ironman, the overwhelming emotions and sacrifice involved, she would understand and support my need to chase the dream.
Plus, we would get lots of cool schwag.
Schwag, for those not in the know, is free stuff given to athletes and volunteers as a way to say thanks or to get you to try a product. It can be anything from a t-shirt to a hat to shoes or anything else you can imagine.
So we found ourselves at the airport on October 8th, packed and ready to fly. A lot of people in the waiting area had that triathlete look: fit, restless, always moving, flipping pages in a book without really reading.
(Side note: We upgraded to first class on the flight from Seattle. Trust me on this: upgrade. I had a Mai Tai in my hand before I had my butt in my seat. Pure heaven and clearly the way to hook me into upgrading again; yes, ply me with free booze and I will spend more money. No wonder casinos picked up on this trick a long time ago.)
We soon arrived at Kona, the youngest island in the chain and consequently, the island with the least vegetation than the others. Even though temperatures were in the mid-80s, it always felt much hotter because there was little shade available. Some parts of the island had nothing on the ground but black lava rock from recent flows. Hydration is a major problem, especially for the athletes, and if you go, be sure to drink water early and often.
With that in mind, we drank plenty of water, killing the time by getting our gear and wandering around the expo to collect schwag. Because Ironman Hawaii is the big kahuna of the Ironman races, the vendors and booths there are top notch meaning the schwag is amazing.
Race day was October 11th, a Saturday that dawned beautifully as I am sure all Hawaiian days do. We put on our volunteer shirts and were able to make our way to the end of the pier to watch the swim start. All around us, volunteers from other areas were working hard to get their areas ready. We were in the finish line crew.
After the cannon boomed to start the race, my wife and I watched the professionals athletes head out for the 2.4 mile swim. We then headed to our area to get started working. At first we hung up bags that the athletes had filled with their gear, then set up all the flags and plants at the actual finish line. At some point, the swim was finished and the athletes headed out for the 112 mile bike ride. We finished up our work and headed over to the burger bar for some lunch.
Since our part was done, we headed back to the hotel for a nap but we were back down at the finish line a few hours later for our next job, handing out the finisher’s medals. We were early for our shift by, oh, about four hours, but the excitement of the atmosphere had us wanting to contribute more.
Fortunately, they needed more help at the actual finish line, so instead of handing out medals, we became “catchers.” A “catcher” works in a team of two. One puts a towel around the athlete’s neck after they cross the finish line and grabs their arm. The other catcher grabs the athlete’s other arm thereby preventing them from collapsing after completing the 26.2 mile run leg of the triathlon. The catchers then lead the athlete to the medals area to collect their bling.
This turned out to be the best thing that happened to us in our volunteer experience. Catching someone that had just spent all day and half the night covering 140.6 miles was both energizing and inspiring. We were exhausted and every time we got back in line to catch another athlete, we would say, assuredly, “Okay, it’s time to take a break,” as soon as we catch the next one. But the next athlete would come and we’d be so pumped up from the experience that we’d jump right back in line.
The cutoff time to finish an Ironman race and have it be official is midnight, 17 hours after the race began. When the clock strikes 12, it’s over. Anyone that finishes after that doesn’t get a medal, doesn’t get the bling, and doesn’t get the results recorded, even if they finish in 17 hours and one second.
Consequently there is a big push at the end to get the last finishers over the line. The drama is palpable, the tension electric. The pros, who generally finish in the 8-9 hour region, are back at the finish line to cheer on the normal people struggling to get over the line in time. The music is blasting, the crowd is cheering, and moment is overwhelming.
The tears are for real. The passion, the pain, it’s all there for the world to see. When the highlights of this race are shown in December, you can see that this race really is life-altering.
Epilogue: One of the truly cool things about triathlon is that the pros, the super fast people, are out there at the same time as the turtles like me. There is no way I would be allowed to play wide receiver for the Seahawks during the Super Bowl, throw pitches to Barry Bonds, or play goalkeeper against David Beckham. But in triathlon, I met and talked to Chrissie Wellington, the women’s winner for 2007 and 2008, Craig Alexander, 2008 men’s winner, and sat down to breakfast next to Chris “Macca” McCormack, the 2007 men’s winner. I talked to them all, face to face, person to person. It was an amazing thrill for me, especially when Macca recognized me at the airport and waved. The pros understand that in the end, triathlon is not a race against the other person. It’s a race against yourself.
Details: If you would like to volunteer for an Ironman race but can’t get to Kona, there are a ton of them out there now. Go to www.ironman.com to find the one close to you. There will be a volunteer link on the race page. Or you can volunteer at a local race; www.racecenter.com and www.active.com have listings of races all over the world. Volunteers are the lifeblood of triathlon and athletes know that without the volunteers there would be no race so they are very quick to thank every volunteer they see. You will get the satisfaction of helping, the recognition that you are important, the thanks of everyone there and at the very least, a cool t-shirt to wear with pride. Hope to see you on the course!