Sunday, December 4, 2011

Ironman Arizona from a Volunteer Perspective

I am an Arizona Ironman junkie. Ever since the race came to Tempe, Arizona in 2005, I have either raced or volunteered for every event except one. I can’t stay away. It’s a giant party and I just have to be there. I could merely spectate, but that wouldn’t be enough involvement for me. I have to be part of it somehow. This year it’s November 20th and the weather is perfect for a change.

The first thing I see as I am walking past the finish line on Rio Salado is the male winner coming in under eight hours. What a stud! This is the North American record for this distance. Ironically as it turns out, I will get the see the last official finisher as well.

I have a two mile walk to get to my first shift at run aid station #8, which is managed by the Phoenix Triathlon Club. Our aid station has mock jails, a courthouse and an effigy of one of our members being hung. Since it is a “cops and prisoner’s” theme, people dress in uniforms, which are sometimes scanty. It is warm enough that I can wear my “C.S.I.” mini-dress, something that I would normally never be caught dead in. Some guys are man enough to dress as women and some women dress kind of sluttily, with short skirts and knee high boots. The point is to make the runners smile and take their minds off of the pain of running a marathon after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112 miles.

I have to cross Mill Avenue Bridge over Tempe Town Lake to get to the aid station. I see the stream of runners close to completing a lap. One of our local racers is dressed head to toe in a blue costume that looks like Blue Man. He looks hot and uncomfortable in his suit. He is known for racing in costumes, but this seems kind of crazy to do an entire ironman this way. He isn’t the only one dressed up. I later see an Elvis and a guy with a double mohawk and a leopard skin skirt.

At the aid station, I decide to hand out water. It’s less mess when they grab it and spill in on you. I am next to the sponge station, but I let someone else pick them up. It’s bad enough touching all these hands that have god knows what on them. A sponge that has been re-used, squeezed over someone’s face and body and put down inside a tri top is not something I want to touch.

Like last year, the racers in mid to late afternoon are in a hurry and actually look like they are running. They are focused and if I see someone I know and shout at them, they don’t hear me and don’t stop. Later on, the slower ones look exhausted and dazed and move more at a hobble. The course is three loops, so I see some people twice. All sorts of body types go by. Some are really buff and trim, some are overweight, some are young and some old. It is good to see them smile. All are probably suffering.

The music is blaring, and a D.J. harasses the racers. I see a friend and give her hug. She is worried about the time cut off. I encourage her just to keep moving.

I have to start my next shift at the finish line, so I leave to take the long walk back. I am tired from standing for four hours and my feet ache. It’s gotten dark by now and this stretch of the sidewalk along the lake seems bleak, with dimly lighted, dirty concrete walls and freeway culverts. People pass by me going the other way. I notice a man taking three steps and stopping, three steps and stopping. I found out later he finished the whole marathon this way.

In contrast to the north side of the lake, the finish line is brightly lit and music is blasting. As a finish line catcher, you grab the arm of the sweaty racer, put a thermal sheet on them, let them get a medal, make sure that they get their timing chip off, get them their hat and shirt and guide them to the photographer. Then you get back in line to do it again. It’s constant movement and it’s tiring. The show is really entertaining, though. Even the pros that were racing earlier in the day came back to watch. The second place women’s winner, Linsay Corbin, is handing out medals.

I help one man who said it was emotional for him because he had come back from a brain aneurism. One older man shrugs me off because he said he had done twenty nine ironmans. I am impressed. Another young guy says “oh man" and I say “it’s pretty awesome, huh?’ and he says “words can’t describe it.” Such joy is inspiring and I couldn’t help feeling it myself. Finishers cry and hug family members. Some drop to the ground and pray. Three people propose marriage to their racers. They would get on their knees and whip out a diamond ring.

I help a friend through the chute. This is her third Ironman Arizona and she had a personal best. She had overcome a lot of health issues over the year, including cancer, to race. My other friend, however, that was struggling on the run, I don’t see. I had left to get some water, so maybe I had missed her. I found out later she didn’t make the midnight cut off.

At eleven o’clock or sixteen hours into the race, the announcer, Mike Reilly, gets down from his perch and starts revving up the crowd in the stands, waving a shirt around and encouraging the last racers. This is when being at the finish line really gets fun. Everyone bangs the stands and dances to the music. As each person comes in, I wonder what their story is and what they had to do to get to this point. A group of three men come in and one of them hugs another man and cries for a long time. I have to go around them to catch another person. I later found out that two of these racers had spent one and a half hours helping an injured racer walk two miles to the finish line.

As midnight approaches, the last official finishers come in, one at the stroke of midnight with a little shove from the announcer. They all look exhausted, beaten and sad that they didn’t make it before the seventeen hour deadline.

To me, they are still ironmen. I love the spirit of this race. Some people breeze through, while a lot of others struggle at some point at the dark places of exhaustion. Everyone wants to go beyond themselves to achieve something that is difficult. Some racers have to overcome, injury, sickness, mechanical bike problems or even a lack of a limb. I saw one blind runner. They persist onward when it seems hopeless that they have any chance to finish. Not everyone does make it and they feel the crushing weight of failure. I know what they feel like.

Each year I volunteer, my perception are colored by what happened that year. In 2008, the event was held in April and November. I raced in April and did not finish due to heat and howling winds that caused me to miss the bike cut off time. I was crushed. My mother had died in March and my husband had left me in August. I worked as a finish line catcher, but I was envious of the racers for accomplishing what I hadn’t been able to do. I also felt sad that they had people waiting for them at the end, when I felt alone.

In 2010, I was in a better frame of mind because I had finished the race the year before. I didn’t do an ironman that year, but I could identify with what people had gone through to get to the finish line, since I had experienced myself. I still envied the racers who had loved ones waiting for them and maybe always will.

This year I had raced Ironman Canada, which still seems like a huge accomplishment to me due to its difficulty. Seeing athletes finish here was like re-living that experience myself. The end result of that achievement is compelling and joyous to me. I am tired and my legs and feet hurt, but I feel elated. I am infused with the atmosphere of happiness.