As a volunteer, I get to immerse myself in the spectacle and spirit of the race while foregoing most of the physical discomfort. Last year I raced and suffered hypothermia from the swim and a hurt shoulder from the bike crash. I was uncomfortable and somewhat miserable the whole race. It was a small price to pay for the sheer joy of crossing the finish line. This year any discomfort a racer would experience was multiplied by hail, wind and cold weather. I was thankful that I wasn't trying to brave such conditions as an athlete. The volunteer have to brave the same conditions, but at least we could take a break or leave when we wanted to.
My first shift was at the Phoenix Tri Club run aid station. I got there about three o'clock in the afternoon, in time to see Chrissie Wellington, the eventual women's winner dash by. I appointed myself the cookie distributor. At this hour, the faster people were out on the course and didn't seem interested in cookies. The scantily clad "police women" were at the head of the line of volunteers, and the volunteer captain, who looked like a dead ringer for one of our notorious local law enforcement hacks was shaking his night stick and admonishing hapless runners. The Club had built a "town" and had various police props. Hopefully, it was a welcome distraction for people struggling to get through the run.
I found out that I got rather cold just standing around. I was looking forward to my shift at the finish line, where I could at least move around. It was fairly decent as long as the sun was out, but as it set, I got colder. It made me feel even colder to watch the hot runners pouring water on themselves. I wished I was running just to warm up. Then it rained. It was annoying. I watched the parade of runners. As the evening wore on, there was less running and more walking. The runners took on a dazed look. I talked to people I knew in the race and gave one a hug. Some people I knew were going to walk most of the marathon. I have walked most of a half marathon in a nightmare half ironman and it isn't fun.
I was next to the people handing out gatoraid. A runner would take it and then throw it on the ground and we would sometimes get splashed by it. We would have to pick up the empty cups. In addition, occasionally someone would toss a used sponge that they had been stuffed down their top. These were disgusting to pick up. I found out later that they were being recycled by the volunteers, which is even more disgusting. Imagine squeezing water out of a used sponge on your head. It was a germ-a-phobe's nightmare. When you are racing many hours, personal hygiene isn't really a priority. Unclean hands picking up grapes or oranges in a common tray. I hope these racers had good immune systems. I wasn't going to eat this stuff, that's for sure.
Despite the discomfort, the hard work and the uncleanliness, it was fun. We had music going and it felt like a party. An ironman has an indescribable atmosphere. It's joy and pain and exhaustion and celebration all rolled into one. My feet hurt and my legs ached, but I was glad to be out there handing out cookies.
I left to walk to the finish line. Away from the aid station, the sidewalk in bathed artificial orange light and it seems bleak. I pass runners going the other way and I try to stay out of their way. I make my way across Mill Avenue bridge and it seems a lot warmer than by the marina. The buildings across the water reflect light in the water. It's quiet on the bridge, but I soon approach the chaos and noise of the finish line.
The finish line is a great place to observe the reaction of a racer. As finish line catchers, we line up and take turns holding a racer steady, so that they can get their timing chip off, get their medal and t-shirt, have their picture taken and be guided to the exit. As they cross the finish line, the announcer says "you are an ironman!". Sometimes the racers need medical help, sometimes they are perfectly lucid. Most are kind of dazed and distracted and want to see their family or friends. Some are overcome with emotion and can't move. Most can't find the exit. This year they had the bonus of Chrissie Wellington greeting them with a hug until midnight. I was impressed that a pro would come out after racing all day just to greet age groupers. I watched people's look of surprise when they realize she was there. It was priceless.
I had a twinge of envy when I saw happy people crossing the finish line, but only a small twinge. I had no desire to do an ironman this year and certainly didn't have the motivation to gut out the bad weather this year. I shuddered when I looked at the cold lake, remembering my miserable swim last year. It takes a lot of mental fortitude to endure the discomfort of an ironman and I didn't have it this year.
However, I did remember what it was like to cross the finish line. I remember what it was like to suddenly hit the brightly lit final chute and high five the spectators. I remember what it felt like to finally achieve something that I had been working for for years to achieve. This year, it was an indescribable joy and exhaustion that I was vicariously picking up from these racers. It permeates the air, from the racers, to the announcer, to the spectators to the volunteers. You don't have to have even ever raced the event to pick it up. You don't have to race fast to pick it up. The later the finish, the louder the crowd and the more enthusiastic the announcer.
I don't know if I will ever race Ironman Arizona again, but I will definitely volunteer again. Free happiness. What could be better?