A few weeks ago my husband, Clay, and I volunteered at the Ironman in Madison.
Why would we give up an entire day to stand in the rain?
First, we were there to support three of Clay’s work buddies. Clay signed up for the Ironman this year and began training last September knowing the 2 mile swim, 112 mile bike and full marathon (yes, on the same day) would be challenging. He was stopped in his tracks by a leg injury (which has taken more than 9 months of recovery and still isn’t there yet). He was sad not to be participating, I was sad not to be the "proud wife" supporting him but we were both excited about supporting his friends.
Second, watching the athletes is incredible.
There are many who, if they went past you on the street, you would never say, "Hey I bet that guy (or gal) is an Ironman." Yet, they are, overweight, out-of-shape, old (running on legs that don’t straighten all the way and with backs that are permanently hunched) every shape and size. I felt particularly connected to the teeny-tiny women competing without enough body fat to keep them warm. (see some Ironman pictures)
Finally, it is empowering to do something for someone else. The conditions were challenging — even for volunteers. Cold and rainy are not ideal conditions (of course last year it was unbelievable hot — perhaps there might be a middle ground?) Clay and I got up early to watch the swim start and then parked ourselves at the top of the helix for the bike start. We cheered each athlete as he or she started. There was a huge crowd at the beginning, which thinned to only us and one family waiting for their athlete (one of the last 5 to make it out of the swim).
After a break to warm up, we took our post at the special needs area on the run. Each athlete can pack a plastic (numbered) bag with food, a change of clothes, pain medication — whatever they might want after they complete the first lap of the run. The rules were eased yesterday and the athletes were allowed to cross the course and pick up items from their bags at the beginning of the run. Many did as it was the only place they could get warm/dry clothing.
More than 2000 bags were laid in rows of 50 on the street and we in teams of 2 took responsibility.
Clay and I took the first rows, since those contained the professional athletes’ bags and everyone else was a bit nervous about handling them. The plan was for one guy with a megaphone to spot the runner’s number, relay it to another volunteer with a megaphone who broadcast it to us. This worked great, we could pull the bag for the athlete and hold it open (or pull out the contents for a quick hand-off to the professionals) who could quickly be on their way, until the batteries ran out in the megaphones 🙁
From that point forward the person with the biggest mouth and loudest voice (oh, yes, you are correct, it was me) yelled out the numbers.
My highlights from the day:
Helping a very cold man get his warm/dry clothes on by putting my hands up his sleeves and holding his hand in order to shove them through the sleeves. (lesson: dryfit clothing does not "glide" on wet skin and cold paralized fingers can’t find their way out of the sleeves) He said, "now I think I can run"
Chasing down the #1 woman finisher with the items we didn’t have ready for her. This involved sprinting down the area lined with spectators — my return drew cheers, which was fun. I can sprint — if I hadn’t caught her in the first 100 yards, I was done for.
Helping a nearly blue woman put on a full set of clothing — including shoes, which I tied, during which she thanked and thanked me. Such a small thing, but it made a big difference.
All of Clay’s buddies finished — even the one who had four flats on the bike and only continued because someone else (who didn’t continue) gave him her wheels.
I don’t know why the athletes keep going through rain and cold and pain — then again I don’t know why Clay and I stayed through the next shift until everyone had passed through the area — except there is something incredible about being a part of the defiance of limitations.
I do know courage isn’t the lack of fear in the face of challenge, but rather action in the face of adversity.