I’ve watched dozens of Ironman races and I’ve volunteered at full and half IMs here in Madison five times now. Each time has been an incredible experience.
Sunday was Wisconsin IM 70.3 and instead of handing out water as I have in the past, I was convinced to work the finish line with some friends. We were trained in “catching” participants: You and another volunteer come from each side of the runner to physically help/escort him or her through the next 50 feet of the finish area, stopping for timing-chip removal, getting medal-ed, handing off water, and then checking with them one last time before releasing them back to the world. We learned how to make a two- and three-person “net” to catch and carry wilted athletes in, if necessary. We learned how to stop them if they were running too fast and how to shadow them if they didn’t want to be physically helped.
I love this sport so, so much. I find the mass swim nauseating to watch, but everything else about triathlon just awes me and makes me feel alive. Having done a handful of sprint triathlons and knowing friends who train for 70.3 and 140.6 mile races, I have a basic idea of how much planning and training and perseverance it takes to get to race day (i.e. lots and lots and lots.) The weather, as always, was a factor in the day and while rain delayed the start and made for slick bike conditions, I was happy for the cooler temperatures and cloudy skies. Cooler means safer, and cloudy also meant lots fewer sunglasses, and lots more eye contact with the athletes. It makes a difference to be able to see their eyes. You can see the triumph, the pain, the disbelief. Some are dazed. Some look like this is just a day in the park. It’s an incredible array of emotions at the finish line.
The first wave of finishers looked and felt great crossing the line, with only one person throwing up. To be honest, puke doesn’t phase me. I threw up from conception through delivery for all pregnancies, I have two kids and four cats. Vomit is a part of our lives. Two years ago at an aid station about ten miles into the run, a woman came up, grabbed some gels then gracefully turned and threw up, hard, in a garbage can. And then she apologized. Oh, honey. You have no idea how proud I am of you. Ironman, sure. Throwing up IN THE CAN?!? Way to go!
You get invested in these strangers, and it is thrilling to be so near, watching them work their hearts out. My favorite aid station at the full Ironman is on an out-and-back portion, and since they run the course twice, you can see someone four times. You mentally keep track of people as they come and go, silently praying for them, especially those who are struggling, while continuing to cheer the people in front of you, hawking your Gatorade or water, apologizing for being out of ice or chicken broth. Every year, we end up closing down the aid station, cheering the last person on the course through, then driving up to the finish to make sure “our” last people make it. Sometimes they don’t get there in time. Believe me, if I’ve seen you finish that race at 12:01, you’re still an Ironman to me.
This Sunday, I got to catch a friend after he finished his best HIM yet. His knees buckled a little, but he found his legs quickly and after passing him off to his brother, I rushed back to the twin lines of volunteers waiting for the next athletes.
Like all the races I’ve volunteered at, most of it is a blur that left me wired and tired, but there were a handful of finishers who had an impact. Some lean on you more than others. My last “catch” of the day before my shift was over was a young guy who started to hyperventilate. The station director gave him a good, long look, asked him if he was okay, and told us to keep walking and breathing. We did. At the finish area exit, the other volunteer raised his eyebrows at me, and I said I had it. Then, with arm still around my athlete, I asked him quietly if he was okay, and he cracked and started to cry. Oh buddy. Have you come to the right place. I happen to know someone who sobs at finish lines. She only does sprints, but she’s a real gem.
I walked him out of the mud pit and found him a spot to sit a ways away in the grass. He’s from Chicago. He doesn’t have anyone here except a friend who’s still out on the course. He’s had too much sugar and caffeine. He didn’t expect to cry. He doesn’t have to drive back tonight and plans to have a Spotted Cow or two. I listen and sit next to him and agree that RedBull is the worst, and when I notice he’s stopped shaking I get him up and ask if he wants a hug and tell him how truly proud I am of him. I leave him in the food line, in better shape than I found him.
I tell my leader I’m leaving, then head home on my bike.
Here’s the secret: Volunteering is good for me. My well had run dry. I had almost nothing left for my family. And yet giving and being present at that finish line was easy. You need someone to lean on and get you a soda? You got it. You’re still shaking and you need an escort to the med tent? I’m here. I’ll walk with an arm around you the whole way and won’t leave until I know you’re being taken care of. It’s simple, easy, necessary help that I can give. And then I wipe my hands off and I go help someone else.
Perhaps I haven’t felt useful in quite some time. Perhaps it’s nice to be needed? I’m needed all the time. All. The. Time. The seven-year old has pneumonia for the third time in three months. She felt good for a week? A few days? There is no respite. There is no cavalry. I left the kids home watching videos to pick up her antibiotic, and despite the urgency, I found myself stalled out in front of a magazine rack, in the middle of an interview of …Anna Faris?I don’t know how long I had been standing there.
But… I left that finish area restored. I helped. I did my best. I reminded people to stop their watches and congratulated them on their hard work and achievement. I gave hugs and high-fives and sodas and foil blankets and, it was enough. I can’t explain why helping strangers makes it easier to continue to help my own child, but I don’t need to. I’ll just see you at the finish line at WI IM, this September.