At this point in my life, the closest I will ever get to doing an Ironman is by volunteering at one. Having done triathlons on a smaller scale for almost 20 years and even participating on several triathlons teams, I can relate to the euphoria of crossing the finish line after months of hard training. That feeling of accomplishment is something I love and at times, tempts me into actually considering putting the Ironman on my bucket list. But, after a few minutes of dreaming about it, I come to my senses and realize that its a crazy thought. When I think about the necessary year of intense training, the potentail injuries, the family support and missed obligations, the expense and the actual task of covering 140.1 miles in the water, on the bike and on foot, it all seems like too much. On the other hand, watching my friends and others complete this goal gives me that euphoric feeling — especially when I watch athletes cross the finish line close to the 17 hour deadline.
Eager to experience the adrenaline rush of seeing thousands of determined athletes attempt to reach the extraordinary goal of finshing an Ironman, I decided to add my name to the list of volunteers. Inspired by my daughter who told me about the openings on the kayak swim patrol (a role I filled twice at the Ironman Wisconsin), I signed on too. As a member of the swim patrol, our job is to patrol the swim course as the athletes embark on the first portion of the race — a 2.4 mile swim.
In preparation for the race, those of us with boats were asked to bring them up to Boulder Reservoir two days early for inspection and drop off. On Friday afternoon, I made the 45 minute drive up with two kayaks — one for me and one for Megan — and to pick up the coveted parking pass which would give us early morning access to the Rez parking lot. Even the athletes would have to bus to the start line of the swim so I was happy to be able to drive right up to water’s edge and leave once my job was completed. With our shifts starting at 5 am, Megan and I headed up to Boulder the night before the race to stay with my friend Patty. Up by 4:15 am, our lack of sleep was rewarded with fewer miles to drive, little traffic and an early arrival to our pre-sunrise shift.
We assembled with dozens of other volunteers near the lifeguard headquarters on the beach and scrambled in the dark for our volunteer t-shirts, snacks and water bottles. Rows of kayaks, paddle boards, jet skiis, piles of paddles, life jackets and more lined the quiet beach. As the glimmer of the new day began to appear on the horizon, an official Ironman captain greeted the group for a brief orientaiton. He underscored the importance of our role in helping athletes in trouble and identifying any potential problems. We lined up for whisltes, extra flotation devices, warning flags and jerseys with the number of our locations on the swim course. Megan and I dragged our boats from the secure storage area and prepared to embark on our mission.
Having experienced the thrill of working in the “hot zone” at the Ironman Wisconsin — the beginning and the end of the race — I picked the yellow jersey for Zone 2; an area just 500 yards from race start. Once in the water, I realized that the race start was clear across the reservoir and started the mile long paddle to my position. When I could hear the inspirational tunes blaring at race start, I knew I was close. After positioning myself with a view of majestic Flatirons in the distance, I paused to take a few photos and waited for the race to start. Once the horn sounded and the splash of hundreds competitors hitting the water commenced, I knew the water would soon vibrate with the movement of thousands of athletes.
Within minutes the fastest swimmers reached my zone and the calm waters turned into a frenzy. Fortunately, the weather conditions were close to perfect with few clouds in the sky, warm water and air and almost no wind. But even with perfect conditions, there are inevitably problems with so many swimmers getting in the water at once — shoving, kicking, gasping for air, panic as tight wetsuits choke precious breaths and also, the glare of the sun rising in the East — the direction of the first leg of the swim. Within 10 minutes, the first swimmers started to pass buoy #2. As the cluster of swimmers thickened, panicked ahtletes started to signal to me for help and some even grabbed onto the boat. For the most part, I was able to communicate to the swimmers that I wanted them to grab the bow of the kayak. Several times, however, desperate swimmers tried to climb on top of my boat and nearly tipped me and my kayak into the churning waters. I was less worried about getting dunked than how I’d get myself back into the kayak. Fortunately, I was never had to face with this dilemna. In an effort to reassure stranded swimmers I said things like ” How are you? You’re doing to be fine. Relax, hold on, catch your breath. You’ve got this!” Sometimes, they stopped because of a tight wetsuit restricting their breath, other times because they’d gotten the wind knocked out them from a kick or a shove. Of the 20 or so swimmers who grabbed ahold of my kayak, all of them were men and all were able to get their wits about them to continue.
After the majority of swimmers had passed the 500 meter mark, I was directed to head to a new position on the race course. Paddling a mile across the reservoir to another leg of the swim course, I enjoyed the sweeping views of the front range and the perfectly calm waters. Once I reached my destination, I found myself lined up with a fleet of extra kayaks and paddleboarders. The frenzy of the “hot zone” was over and I was able to sit back and cheer the swimmers on. I saw several friends swim by and started to calculate how much time was left, the distance to the finish line and whether the stragglers would make it. I also spotted a strong swimmer pulling a little boat carrying a young handicapped man. I wondered if this was the father son duo made famous in the news. If it so, I was honored to witness this endearing testiment of fatherly devotion in person. With 20 minutes left in the race, a boat captain signaled that I could head to shore if I wished. But, as I made my move, I was lured by he roar of the music at the swim finish and by the joyous congratulations broadcast to swimmers as they completed this leg of the race. I couldn’t help but linger on the sidelines to vicariously experience one euphoric moment after another. And as so many of we Ironman addicts can attest, the most exciting moments happen in the last few minutes of each stage of the race. When the last few competitors are collectively cheered, conjoled and willed by a fleet of enthusiastic volunteers, often with seconds to spare, to victoriously cross the finish line and keep their spot in the race. Woohoo!! Woohoo!! Woohoo!!
By 9 am, Megan and I had pulled our boats ashore and were ready to pack up. Playing a key role in the pivotal journey of so many was as awesome as was having the opportunity to be on the water at sunrise. Can’t wait to do it again!!