Week seven brought on the typical routine: Swim, bike, run, swim, bike, run...but this Sunday left me feeling more like a “real” triathlete than I have ever felt before. I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Syracuse Iron Man 70.3 competition. Having experienced the “other side” of the race, I can honestly say I learned more Sunday than I have learned in the last six months of training.
Let me first say this: I am not a morning person. I had to wake up at 3:15 AM in order to be out the door by 3:45. I could not fall asleep the night before (which always seems to happen when you have to wake up obnoxiously early the next day) and woke up disoriented and confused. I admittedly threw some grumbles out into my empty bedroom as I dragged my groggy self throughout my apartment. Once I had my travel mug filled with coffee in hand, my spirits lifted significantly. I was ready for whatever the day would bring.
I met our head coach, Brendan, at the parking lot and we made the journey to the information tent (which was naturally at the opposite end of the universe). The first sight I saw upon entering the main grounds was the bike transition area. My jaw dropped in awe of the 1,100 bikes waiting to be ridden only hours later. With the dome lights gleaming overhead against the breaking dawn, it was a sight to behold. I also couldn’t help but think that I could pay off my graduate school loans ten times with the combined cost of the equipment on this piece of property. I found myself getting instant bike envy, but my envy was immediately clouded by guilt from “cheating” on Lola. She’s a good bike and I plan on completing my season with her. But…some of those bikes…wow. Just wow.
I helped at the information booth for a few hours and helped check in volunteers, hand out their Pepto-Bismol-pink t-shirts, and answer questions. Well…I should say I redirected questions since I had absolutely no clue what was going on.
Working the information booth allowed me to see seasoned athletes, many of which were professionals, prepare for their race. I noticed triathletes do not have any shame. They will apply any lubricant, lotion, powder, etc. to any…ANY…part of their body without any hesitation. I never knew there was a need for mass amounts Vaseline in discreet locations on the body, but apparently there is. I did not inquire this reason; I simply know one exists.
While watching the athletes, I picked up some fun tips and tricks. TIP #1: if you slide a plastic bag (one you would get from a grocery store) over your foot, you can use the bag to guide your foot down the legs of your suit to avoid that pull of resistance we all love so much. And speaking of wetsuits…
TIP #2: Do not put yours on until you are certain you no longer have to use the bathroom. While entertaining, I felt bad for the hundreds of athletes I witnessed finally give in to mother nature and strip their wetsuits off their bodies to visit the little triathlete’s room.
I was later sent to the water to do one of two jobs: “optics bagging” or “signing”, both of which came before what I had been looking forward to all day: “stripping”. My mother would be so proud…
Optics bagging involved putting any glasses or sunglasses into Ziploc bags and numbering them with the athletes’ bib numbers to be picked up after they got out of the water. I did not trust myself with such an important task, so I went towards the “signing” station. “Signing” involved holding a giant sign over my head indicating which heat was to line up behind me (Look out, Vanna White!). I was hoping to hold a sign somewhere in the ballpark of the men’s 29 and under heat…can you blame me?...but no dice. Another volunteer got to that heat before I did. Lucky gal!
I ended up not being able to hold any sign as there were more volunteers than heat, so I allowed myself to stand right on the water’s edge to witness the mass swim starts of each heat. Now, we all know how I feel about mass swim starts, so naturally I was concerned about what would take place.
This brings me to TIP #3: When it comes to mass swim starts, just go for it. You will know when it’s your time. Whether you are first off the starting horn or last, just get in there. There is no point to running forward until you have to swim. You are just wasting precious energy. By letting yourself “flop” forward, your body instantly gets on form and in a forward motion.
Then the fun began. When the swimmers were too small to see, I ran to the stripping station. The “trainers” at this station instructed us to let the athletes run to us. If they are still in their suits from head to toe, we were to peel from the shoulders and down the arms, being especially careful over the watches worn by the athletes in order to avoid tearing the suits. Then we were to pull the suits over their butts, have them lay down, and with one hand on each side, pull straight down their legs. Once the first athlete who let us “strip them” came through, we realized just how wild this would be. It was clockwork: she ran over, ripped it down, flopped on the grass, we stripped her suit right off in one second, and off she went. Even she couldn’t help but laugh and scream out, “Woo! YEAH baby! That was AWESOME!” And the awesomeness continued for the next hour or so as over a thousand athletes came to partake in our stripping services. Never in my life did I think standing on a corner screaming, “Stripper! Stripper!” or “Drop your suit below your waist and lay down!” would ever be a) socially acceptable or b) legal. At one point I began to feel ridiculous calling myself a stripper, so I began yelling “Peeler! Peeler!” A rather handsome gentleman came my way and stated, “Excuse me, but I came here for strippers, not peelers. Give a guy a break!” That got a roar of laughter from all within hearing distance.
TIP #4: If you can be stripped, get stripped. While I completely understand athletes wanting to protect their suits, I also saw how much energy was wasted by athletes trying to pry the suits off of their own bodies. I know I will not be allowed to be stripped at the Iron Girl, but perhaps my stripping experiences at the 70.3 will come in handy!
Brendan was coaching traffic and kept directing Fleet Feet athletes my way for what he called “special speed stripping services”. When I wasn’t stripping FF friends, I was pointing my finger at one athlete at a time and calling them over. It made life easier for me and for them amidst the chaos that was taking place. I joked that stripping became similar to a triathlon speed dating show. I noticed that I eventually started pointing to the more handsome and fit male athletes coming through without consciously meaning to do so. Occasionally, athletes with especially expensive wetsuits surpassed their opportunity to be stripped to make sure their suit didn’t sustain any damage, which I found to be a smart move. On one occasion, a man with long, flowing blonde locks came galloping by. I called to him for my stripping services, and he kindly declined with a wink and a smile. Brendan saw the exchanged and shook his head while laughing. “You have no shame, girl.” An older female volunteer stripper next to me claimed that she had wanted “Fabio” and was ready to chase him down and tackle him. I believe her quote was, “No one says no to MY stripping services!”
To my surprise, a dear friend of mine was in the crowd and stayed to witness the stripping show. He took a picture of my stripping action and sent the photo to my phone with the caption, “That poor suit never stood a chance!”
To say that stripping is my new favorite past time is an understatement, bruised and exhausted upper knuckles aside. My fellow stripper teammates and I have officially called shotgun on stripping at every 70.3 event from here on out.
After stripping and watching world class athletes transition off their bikes, I was sent to help a severely understaffed water station at the “hot stretch” of the race. Having to run two loops of the course to complete the 13.1 mile stretch, athletes would have to pass our road a total of four times- twice “there” and twice “back”. I ended up manning two tables with a man named Sam, the former head of the CNY Triathlon club who decided to stay and help after biking through and seeing how much help was needed. Together, we poured thousands of cups of Perform (similar to Gatorade but much more concentrated. I equated it to drinking orange sweat), opened hundreds of boxes of Gu (an energy gel), sliced hundreds of oranges and bananas, opened and poured bag after bag of pretzels and chips, poured endless liters of cola, and served thousands of cups of ice cubes, the most popular request of the day.
I have never worked a station like this at a race of this caliber, but I have a new appreciation for service stations. The athletes needed us. They needed us to be perfect, to be prepared, to be organized. It was our job to scream out exactly what we had in our hands for them to have, and their job was to call out exactly what they needed. This song and dance continued for hours. The sound of my and Sam’s voices calling out “Perform! Gu! Ice! Perform! Gu! Ice!” will haunt me for weeks.
I was not prepared for the workout I would personally receive. I ran at least two miles between chasing athletes down with the food or beverage they so desperately needed but were not able to grab as I ran by. The toughest run I had was chasing down a girl who needed orange slices as she felt her blood sugar crashing. Normally I wouldn’t think to chase someone down to simply give her an orange slice, but witnessing what these athletes had accomplished and how much pain they were going through, I simply could not deny this poor girl the one thing she wanted. I have been that athlete before, praying in my head for some miracle to occur so I could have water and then not be able to get it once it’s there. It is by far one of the most disheartening experiences you could ever encounter as an athlete during a competition. I had to get her those oranges, so I sliced some up and took off running. Of course she was at the top of a hill by the time I found her, but I found her. The look of gratitude on her face is something I will never forget.
TIP #5: Nutrition and hydration are essential and crucial aspects of triathlons. One bite of nutrition or one sip of water makes all the difference in the world. Know your body, know what works for you, and be prepared for what nutrition will come your way versus what you need to supply on your own.
During the run portion, I was able to run with good friends who were hurting during the final stretches to give them some boost of moral. While it was not far for me, the heat combined with the hills did a number on my lungs and body. I couldn’t imagine what they were going through, and it was all I could do to help them get through the pain.
As the race neared its completion and the racers became more and more spaced out, we began running up the road to our athletes and asking them what they wanted, only to run back to the table, gather their order, and run back to deliver their food and beverage so they could be in less pain sooner rather than later.
Brendan picked me up in his car so we could drive up the final stretch of road and see the number of athletes remaining. We were able to swing by the final water stop which was manned by our Team Believe group, a running group that trains through our Fleet Feet program. The water stop was a full-on luau, complete with blasting music, water, fruit, Perform, hula skirts, leis, and coconut bras. One of my childhood best friends and fellow coach had designed the water stop, and it was a beautiful sight to see. The athletes returning from our stop had commented, “The luau stop is amazing! I loved it!”
The race had to be closed at 4:20, nine hours after it began. At 4:16 there were three athletes remaining with less than four miles to go. Thankfully, the head coordinator of the race allowed them to complete the race and earn their medals. The final runner crossed at 10:03:19. It was unbelievable and a moment I will not forget for quite some time.
Fifteen hours after I first arrived at Jamesville Beach, the day seemed like a giant whirlwind.
One thing is for sure: as of right now, I have officially been convinced to never, ever, EVER compete in a 70.3. But…I also said one year ago that I would never, ever, EVER be convinced to even consider competing in a sprint triathlon, and look what happened. Hey…you never know!