Posted by: Tina | August 29, 2012

All about the Ironman

Sunday marked my 10-year anniversary of volunteering for Ironman Canada (sadly, this was the last year of Penticton hosting the event). I body marked and wetsuit peeled as usual. I never tire of volunteering, but as the years pass and I watch the athletes endure, I personally feel less and less inclined to actually compete.

In honour of the occasion, let’s revisit my decade-old post all about my first experience volunteering at Penticton Ironman Canada.

27 August 2002

[On Sunday, I volunteered at the Penticton Ironman. These are some of my reflections and thoughts from my day at the event. This piece is fairly long and probably many of you will find it excessively boring. If you’re interested in triathlons and/or Ironman, however, read on.]

I volunteered for the Ironman triathlon because it combines two of my semi-obsessions: triathlons and extreme athleticism. I’m fascinated by the physical and mental requirements of competing in events such as these, as well as the mental rigor and discipline that goes into hard-core training for any sport. Volunteering got me in close to the athletes and allowed me to witness what goes on during such an event.

For those who don’t know, an Ironman competition consists of the following:
Swim: 3.8 km (2.4 miles)
Bike: 180.3 km/112 miles (the Penticton Ironman includes two major climbs)
Run: 42.2 km/26.2 miles (yes, that’s a full marathon)

The average length of time for completing the course is about twelve hours. The male winner this year did it in 8:30:57 and the female winner, for whom this was her fifth title, completed the race in 9:15:52. Although there are cut-off times for each event, the course opens at 7am and remains open for seventeen hours. There are always a few stragglers who hobble over the finish line just before midnight, often limping, weeping, and in intense pain.

For my first volunteer shift, I had to arrive at the transition area at 4am. The night before was so hot that I slept on the beach but was woken at about 3am by fat drops of rain. I crawled inside for about fifteen minutes before getting dressed and heading into Penticton for my first shift.

Pre-swim lust and energy
My first job was to number the athletes’ bodies as they checked in prior to the swim start. I was given a permanent marker to write their numbers from shoulder to elbow, and then down the front of the shin. The woman with whom I was partnered took the right side of each athlete, while I worked on the left. I also wrote the age of each competitor on the back of the calf. This was first-contact with the athletes, when we could see firsthand how each competitor was dealing with the prospect of the upcoming race. Some were hyper, some nervously cracking jokes and making stupid comments, while others were deadly serious and focused on the day ahead. Others seemed cool and collected but, when asked questions, were unable to focus properly on what we were asking. There was a humming energy in the air and all of us were feeding off it despite the early hour.

In the group of men to which we were assigned, the average age was 35 and the bodies of the athletes were hard rippling architecture, honed by months of adhering to a strict and rigorous training regimen. Almost all of the men were incredibly fit, toned, and athletic. One of the other volunteers remarked that an athlete had jokingly asked her if she had paid for the privilege of writing numbers on such bodies. As we were waiting to hear the positions to which we had been assigned, I heard another female volunteer muttering to her husband, “I want calves.” Personally, as a woman with a penchant for long, leanly-muscled athleticism, I reveled in ordering the athletes to remove their clothing and drop their pants to grant access to their limbs. If pressed, I might even admit to allowing my hands to sometimes linger on taut calf muscle and sculpted shoulder.

Cost of Competition
After numbering just over a hundred of the athletes, I wandered past the lot where the bikes had been stored overnight, and briefly looked over what I calculated was over 2 million dollars worth of bikes. In reality, most of these weren’t really bikes. I ride a bike. These were streamlined racing machines, on pencil-thin tires and weighing less than my right arm. One of my brother’s friends is an avid road racer and, when he later saw some of the bikes emerge from the swim/bike transition, mentioned that many of them were worth at least $5000 apiece. This is just one example of the real monetary costs of being a racer (not to mention the physical costs of training for and participating in an Ironman).

One of the other volunteers had traveled to Penticton from Oregon to watch her husband compete in the race. He competed last year as well and the same evening that he finished the race, he camped out overnight so that he could secure a place for this year’s Ironman. His wife explained to me the costs and sacrifices involved in Ironman. Although pros get sponsorship and most of the equipment for free, an amateur like him (although he completes the Ironman in just over ten hours) goes through thousands of dollars of shoes each year and maintains a three thousand dollar bike. One of the men in the so-called Clydesdale division (men over 220lbs) went through six thousand dollars in shoes last year, to support his daily 20km warm-up run. In addition, this woman’s husband pays hundreds of dollars in entry fees every time he enters a major triathlon – these athletes rarely train for just one event a year – plus travel and accommodation costs. He has a full-time job, yet his training schedule requires him to use all of his spare hours, including evenings and weekends, to train. Although I didn’t voice the thought to the woman, this seemed to me to be a somewhat selfish dedication in a man with a wife and 9-year old daughter.

Swim Start
As a volunteer, my t-shirt and wristband allowed me into the transition area with the athletes. They were milling about assessing the competition, waiting outside the long rows of port-o-potties to take a last-minute pee, organizing their gear bags, and zipping themselves into their wetsuits. The tanlines of months of outdoor training were on full display. Eventually, I ended up in a prime location for viewing the swim start. I stood on the opposite side of the fence from the beach where the athletes awaited the cannon signaling the start of the race.

This year, the Penticton Ironman had the largest mass start of any triathlon in the world, with 2040 athletes racing into the water at the same time. The swim start is nothing short of awesome. Green and purple swim caps bob towards the water and as the front lines hit the water, wetsuit-clad athletes line by line turn Okanagan Lake into a churning mass of flailing arms and legs. This occurred amidst a flotilla of boats, safety crew on kayaks, and scuba divers, while two helicopters hovered overhead.

Eventually all the athletes were out swimming along the row of buoys marking their route. The top athletes typically finish their swim in just under an hour so I decided not to wait. Instead, I stood at the beginning of the bike course and waited with the crowd for the first pro athletes to emerge after the swim. I then drove home, ate breakfast, and slept for an hour while the front-runners in the race climbed towards the Richter Pass.

Sunscreen in the afternoon
I returned to the transition area at noon for my second shift of the day, this one at the sunscreen station for the bike/run transition. I was given a pair of latex gloves which, once on my hands, I repeatedly doused with sunscreen that had been poured into two aluminum trays. In the run out of the transition area, the athletes ran down a long corridor of people handing out water, Pepsi, Gatorade, energy gel-paks, ice, and fruit. We stood there as well, yelling out “Sunscreen!” in case any athlete decided he or she needed such protection. When a racer stopped in front of us, two volunteers would usually work on one athlete, dividing him up into either top and bottom or right and left. Whoever finished their “section” first would do his face and ears.

Due to the typically hot and sunny conditions of the Penticton Ironman, sunscreen is usually a necessity. Some summers, such as the one of 1998, temperatures approach forty degrees and sunburn, heatstroke, and dehydration can be major considerations on the course. A large number of athletes end up with medical emergencies that force them to drop out of the race. A volunteer who competed in the Ironman last year related to me how he hadn’t noticed the sunscreen station when he made his way out of the transition area. In the baking hot sun of the Okanagan summer, he ended up with the worst sunburn of his life. He ran a three and a half hour marathon while the skin on his back started cracking and peeling.

This year, however, the conditions were cool and overcast – ideal for the athletes and less hectic for those of us stationed under the sunscreen tent. Many of the athletes actually complained of the cold and wet conditions in the upper elevations of the bike course (in 2000, some racers were forced to drop out due to hypothermia). The professionals, who pretty much never stop racing, even to the point where they will pee off their bikes, proceeded rapidly through the transition area. After that, we saw a steady stream of athletes, some of whom actually stopped for sunscreen. Some were truly wary of the sun penetrating the overcast sky, but most stopped as part of their usual triathlon routine, for the break it afforded, or for the rubdown we inadvertently provided. It probably felt good to have cool sunscreen rubbed into muscles overheated by an almost four kilometer swim and a 180 km bike ride.

If you thought that putting numbers on the triathletes’ bodies sounded interesting, then you can imagine just how much our small group of volunteers enjoyed the task of slathering sunscreen onto those same bodies. Sunscreen is actually one of the coveted volunteer positions because of how much fun it is. One racer, wearing one of the many jerseys oddly labeled Cops for Cancer, stopped at our station. As four women rubbed sunscreen onto his exposed skin, he said laughingly, “This is one of my fantasies!”

It also put me in a unique position to assess the condition of the athletes and have a brief chat to see how things were going. I was surprised by how much energy many of them had left. Some pounded by, tackling the marathon at a pace exceeding what I can run at my best 5km time, and this was after a huge swim and ride. Others hobbled out of the transition area and we just shook our heads, wondering how they planned on running 42 kilometres. There were also a few racers who were pretty spacey, either high on adrenaline or light-headed from lack of proper fuel for their bodies. The amateurs who came in during the mid-afternoon were by far the most fun, many of them relaxed and seemingly having a good time.

After 3:30pm, the lead competitors started to burst over the finish line a few metres out of the transition area. For the athletes who were only just arriving from the bike ride, it must have taken tremendous mental strength to face their marathon run when others had already finished the entire course. Although the bike course is shut down at 5:30, we closed the sunscreen station just after 4pm because a combination of the lateness of the day and the overcast skies meant that fewer competitors were stopping. I watched competitors cross the finish line for awhile, wandered through the transition area to take a look at the hot tubs and massage tent, and then headed for home.

Fitness (the Ironman meat market)
Apart from explicitly explaining the actual race, it’s hard to describe the tone and energy that surround the event. It is a lot of fun, with thousands of people coming out to support their family and friends, as well as ogle the superior human musculature on display. The Ironman is like a huge athletic meat market. Everywhere I turned, there were expanses of tanned and toned flesh. There are women who only volunteer – and I know this because I worked with some of them – to get up close and personal with what is arguably human athletic perfection. One woman practically ran down a muscle-bound athlete in an attempt to stop him for a sunscreen application. Not only are the athletes in wicked shape, but their entourages often consist of very fit and good-looking individuals. Although I am a fit person, I felt like a slow-moving, soft cow among these honed athletes. I don’t think I am the only person who came away with the perception that everyone there was assessing everyone else, not just as competition but for their potential. Our heads were turned more than few times by athletes heading away from us on their run.

At the same time, I was surprised by the variety of athletes who competed. As I mentioned earlier, there were the Clydesdales, men who weighed more than 220 lbs, not an easy weight to carry through an Ironman, especially on the run. There was one man in the 75-80 category, two in the 70-75 category, and I put numbers on the legs and arms of a fragile-looking 61-year old man. Although many of the women had what looked to be 0% body fat, there were also soft, chunky women who could definitely kick my ass in any test of fitness. There were people on bikes that looked like my hybrid but who could keep up with many of the athletes on their expensive triathlon bikes. It made me realize that the Ironman is not just for the professional triathletes – this is an actual registered occupation – but for almost anybody with the commitment and desire to compete.

I talked to an athlete sporting a full arm cast after being clipped on his bike in the first corner out of Penticton. He was so high-strung and disappointed that he just wanted to talk to anyone who was willing to listen. I know of a competitor who was hit by a car on the day before the race, broke his collarbone, and was unable to participate on race day. The leading male, who had a ten minute lead after the bike to run transition, dropped from dehydration twenty minutes into his run. He was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. There were eight swimmers who didn’t finish their swim in the maximum allotted time of two hours and twenty minutes. Just for a second, imagine swimming for a straight two hours and twenty minutes. I saw athletes running out of the transition area with a full limp and grimaces of pain on their faces. I saw a female finisher bending over by a fence and heaving up the contents of her stomach. I saw one of the many Japanese triathletes sitting on a bench after the race with a vacant and exhausted look on his face. I watched as one of the top finishers sat on a chair by the sunscreen tent and, without a particularly triumphant look on his face, scarfed half a pizza.

I considered heading back into town for the last two hours of regulation time to cheer on the final competitors as they struggled towards the finish line. In previous years, my aunt has watched this part of the race and tells me she always ends up in tears. At the last minute, I decided against going back. Part of my decision could be attributed to the simple selfish fatigue I felt from my 3am wake-up that morning. However, my primary reason was the question of why I felt they deserved to be cheered on. After fifteen or sixteen hours of racing, those competitors still on the course needed motivation and moral support. The question I asked myself was whether or not it was deserved.

What I admire in Ironman participants is the discipline and strength of will that brought them to that point. For the competitors who make it and can still stand at the end, I am happy. But for those who are possibly permanently physically damaging themselves, could I in good conscience cheer? I want them to finish, but should I encourage them to do so? I suppose my feelings towards the Ironman competitors represent a bit of a paradox. I admire the determination and the mental discipline necessary to adhere to a strict regimen of training and to push the body beyond its limits by sheer force of will. At the same time, the racers are often labeled “inspiring” and “heroic” for pushing the limits of human endurance in a way that is completely unhealthy in the long term. I may be fascinated but these competitors are not heroes and neither should I feel particularly inspired by them. I love the pain and ache of a hard workout but, at some point in the race, what the Ironman competitors do to themselves seems to be simply masochistic and fundamentally futile (although I wouldn’t say this applies universally to the athletes). Of course, each athlete can make his own decision about what he wants to put his own body through. In fact, they have all already spent thousands of hours and dollars putting themselves in such a position. I just don’t think I want to be there cheering them on.

I didn’t go to watch the last few hours. I don’t really need that kind of “inspiration”. I’m still fascinated with the sport and admire what the athletes can achieve. I am also even more interested in the why of the racers. And I’ll probably volunteer again next year. I want some more calves.

This original post is long gone from the internet but, thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, it lives on in perpetuity.

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