When I competed in Ironman Coeur d’Alene last year, I was expecting an amazing day. What I wasn’t expecting was an army of volunteers that went so above and beyond to make sure my day was as perfect as it could be.
After the swim, volunteers stripped my whole wetsuit off (not an easy task), then fastened my bike helmet and slathered me with sunscreen; volunteers dug through my drop bags to find the one packet of vanilla GU—nestled between six chocolate ones—I was badly craving; volunteers helped me change from my cycling to running clothes, even offering to pick up my bike shorts, as wet and gross as you’d expect them to be after 112 miles, and put them in my bag. (I did that duty.) The only thing they didn’t do? Run the 26.2 miles for me … trust me, I asked a few if they were up for the task.
So when Ironman Boulder came to town, I knew I had to pay it forward. A group of endurance athletes and mother runners were assigned to transition 2, where we’d have the chance to touch a lot of disgusting bike shorts—and more, importantly, give the racers a smile and a laugh before they set off on the marathon. When a racer came in, we did everything we could: rub Vaseline in chafed armpits; change socks and tie shoes; fasten number belts; stuff their pockets with nutrition; and pump them up for the run.
While pulling up a fresh pair of python-esque compression socks on a pair of sweaty calves is not the easiest thing ever, the time in the tent was totally enjoyable. I loved hearing about the swim and the bike; I loved noticing the different nutrition strategies (one woman came in and sucked down two packets of mustard); seeing how different packing and transition styles were. (One athlete, doing her fourth Ironman, took about 25 minutes. She changed everything from her headband to her socks. When I tried to hurry her up, she told me her friends were going to get her a tee that read, “Lost in transition.”)
When the numbers of athletes dwindled in the tent, a few pals and I went out to move transition bags. (Ironman athletes have so.much.gear.) It was a hot day, and ordering the bags on a track felt a little like our own athletic competition, complete with sweat-soaked tees, but it hit me then that volunteering, while not always glamorous, is necessary, in my opinion, for all athletes to do. You don’t truly realize what goes on behind the scenes of a race—hundreds of oranges that need to be sliced and water cups filled; drop bags organized and distributed; courses that need to be mapped and marked—until you experience it yourself.
And once you’ve spent time handing out race bibs or handfuls of pretzels, you bring a new, important appreciation to your next race—and the people out there who make it possible.
For more on the Saucony 26 Strong program, which pairs up 13 coaches with 13 marathon rookies, visit 26Strong.com.