Volunteering at an Ironman changed me as an athlete

When my husband first got into triathlon last year, he was so excited about it that I told him that I was sure that one day he would want to go for the grandaddy of the sport: the Ironman.  There is now a dispute in our household as to whether I planted the idea in his head or I predicted the future.  Either way, we found ourselves in Panama City Beach at the beginning of November, where we planned to volunteer at Ironman Florida so he could earn a guaranteed chance to sign up for next year’s race.

Our day started early in the morning on the beach with thousands of other people.  At one point, the DJ started playing “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie – which is one of my personal favorite songs ever – and I looked out over the sea of people in wetsuits and swim caps, all of whom were on the verge of undertaking one of the most difficult sporting events in the world, and I started to cry.  I didn’t know anyone who was competing, and yet I was so proud and scared and excited for all of them.  (Another highlight of the day was seeing Mirinda Carfrae twice! And she even gave Brian high-five at one point.)

We opted to work two three-hour shifts at the finish line, which meant we would be there for all of the finishers who came across the finish line with times between eleven hours and seventeen hours.  My first shift was spent shouting out bib numbers of athletes as they crossed a line while another volunteer wrote them down on a clipboard, while Brian put medals around the finishers’ necks.  The second shift was spent “catching” athletes, which basically meant we helped them through the finishers’ chute – getting their medals, their shirts, bottles of water, Mylar blankets.

My volunteer shifts had me standing a few feet beyond the finish line, which meant I watched hundreds of athletes as they emerged from the twilight into the bright lights of the finisher’s chute and across the mat that marked the end of their 140.6-mile journey.  The announcer boomed in my ear with each crossing:  “So and so, you are an Ironman!’  So and so, you are an Ironman!”

Sometimes the athletes collapsed when they crossed the finish line (usually because they burned up their last bit of energy with some exuberant celebratory dance) and a couple of people puked, but most of them…most of them looked amazing.   They lifted their arms in the air in victory and beamed so brightly the sun would have seemed dim in comparison.  Pride, relief, pain, joy, suffering – it was written all over every inch of their bodies.

Later in the night, in the thirteenth hour of the race, when I was working as a catcher, I caught a woman who was maybe a couple of years older than me as she stumbled across the finish line.  I held her for a minute as she cried, and I asked if she was okay, if she needed any medical attention. She told me she was fine, and then through her tears, she told me that she had cancer and that she was crying because she was so happy.  I was so awestruck that all i could do was repeat, “Wow…wow…that’s amazing…wow.”

That was just one of a dozen moments that inspired me to think about the first time I’d been at the finish line of a marathon.  I had gone with Brian to watch him run the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati in 2007, and I still recall very clearly the way I felt standing near the finish line and seeing the stream of runners make their way through those final torturous miles of the marathon.  As I watched them, I knew that I had it in me to run a marathon, and maybe more importantly, that I wanted to run a marathon.

I felt the same way at Ironman Florida.  I tried to imagine what it was like to push through miles of ocean and road and trail, through hours of boredom and pain and numbness, and to see the  bright lights of the finish line shining out from the darkness like a beacon and to hear my name being called on that loudspeaker system and to feel all of that glorious pride and relief wash over me, and I wanted to feel what it was like.  I wanted to experience it so much, I could almost taste the blood and sweat in the back of my throat.

I have to be honest with you, I half-expected that desire to vanish when I woke up the next day.  After all, I’m just barely getting into triathlon.  Only someone who was quite brave or rather foolish – or most likely, both – would tackle an Ironman after doing three sprint-distance triathlons.  But an interesting thing happened, something I didn’t quite expect.  All of that desire coalesced into something bright and hard and shiny, then found itself a home in what I can only describe as my heart.  It’s been nearly a month now and that focus has not dimmed.  In fact, it’s only gotten more intense as I’ve moved further into my training for the Marathon Bahamas, which I will be running in January.

In the past, whenever I’ve trained for a marathon, I’ve half-assed it.  There’s no way around it.  I was inconsistent with my training, I blew off runs, I’d get injured or sick, I never completed a single twenty-miler.  The truth is, I’ve kind of half-assed most of my running.  It’s a bad habit of mine that I developed when I was a kid and I learned I was smart enough to pull Bs without having to work too hard.  I’m quite skilled at putting in just enough effort and letting my natural abilities do the rest, which is a terrible habit to have if one ever wants to excel at something instead of being merely okay.

This time, though, I’m like a woman possessed.  I see the finish line with the digital readout of my goal time in my mind’s eye every time I run.  I drag myself out of bed when it’s still dark outside.  I ran when I was in New Jersey and it was in the 30s. I ran even though it was in the 80s and way too hot for a long run.  I stretch and use the massage stick on my legs.  I’m deliberately increasing my mileage and taking step-back weeks even though I may not want to.  I set out for every run with a specific purpose, a specific pace, a specific distance.  Every time I run, I see those numbers in my mind and I know that every mile, every step, will take me closer to that goal.

I thought I was motivated before – after all, I was pretty consistent with my training, especially when compared to the average person – but it’s nothing compared to what I feel now.  I can’t explain exactly what happened, what exactly flipped that switch inside of me.  Was it seeing so many people achieve such seemingly impossible things?  Was it knowing that the only thing separating me from them was desire and dedication?  Was it understanding that those are things that are within my power to change?  I can’t say for sure, but what I do know is that whatever it is, it all started at that finish line on that brightly-lit road in Panama City Beach.

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11 responses to “Volunteering at an Ironman changed me as an athlete

  1. I don’t remember when I started reading your blog, so I am a complete stranger, but you should come out to Washington State and do the Ocean Shores Half Iron Man with me in July. It will be flat and friendly. I need someone to do it with and none of my normal race partners will do it.

    • You should. I’ve volunteered at a few races when I haven’t been running. It’s a great way to give back to the running community.

  2. I was the same way for the first year of my “running.” I half assed it. Which as a result, I dragged myself through the last few miles of my first half marathon, and I’d finish 5K’s just shy of 30 minutes. I’d do a race, and then not run for a month or two, then I’d sign up for another race and have to start “training” again and felt like I was back at square one, barely able to make it through 2 miles.

    Eventually though, a switch flipped, and suddenly, running didn’t feel like a CHORE. It was something that was fun and that I looked forward to. I started taking training plans seriously, and as a result my times went down. I started enjoying races from start to finish. Now I feel strong and powerful, and I look at all of my PR’s and feel PROUD … I DID THAT. Me. And I can continue improving as long as I continue working hard.

    And the woman with cancer who finished the Ironman … just reading that made my eyes tear up. Amazing. I still can’t imagine doing an Ironman, so anyone who even attempts one is badass in my mind.

    • The lady with cancer was pretty amazing. She gave me a good dose of perspective, you know? Like, if she can fight cancer and train for an Ironman and finish in a respectable time, then what’s my excuse? I don’t really have one!

      Anyways, yes to your whole comment! You understand what I mean! It’s intense how you find yourself capable of tapping into this wellspring of motivation you didn’t know existed before. I’ve actually had this happen one other time, about two years after I first started running, but I didn’t think it would intensify the way it has. My husband says I put in a “decent” amount of work in my running, and when I think about it, it’s kind of remarkable that I’ve run as well as I have on that level of training. It has me excited to see how I’ll actually fare now that I’m getting more serious about it.

  3. I couldn’t tell from your blog, did you sign up for panama city IM next year? I have completed three Ironmans races, you will love it! And volunteer and cheering at a race is always rewarding too. Train with a smile! Christie

    • I haven’t signed up, but only because I’m trying to work my way up to the longer distance. It looks really incredible, though, and I am excited/scared for the time when I do decide to tackle it!

  4. I volunteered for my local marathon a couple of months ago and it was an experienced that changed me as an athlete, also. I’m not a runner, I’m a competitive weightlifter, but for me, it was impossible to not be moved by every last of the ~20,000 runners who came by. I cheered so loud for the elite male runners, then the first woman to come by, the people running to heal loss or overcome their own struggles– I wanted to hug every last one of them. I recognize that thing in them that pushes them forward, one foot after another, as the same thing in me that keeps putting ridiculous weight over my head– reaching for the point just past what we know we can do. I will be back every year.

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