After competing in the IRONMAN last summer, Wellness Almanac contributor Gary Martin elected to volunteer this year. He was awarded Volunteer Captain Award, and shared his account of the highs and (plummeting temperature) lows behind the scenes on his website. With permission, that’s reproduced here.
Beep beep beep, beep beep beep, a 4am alarm call meant it was a ridiculously early start to the day but I awoke without the nervousness I faced 12 months ago as this time I was simply volunteering.
If only it had been simple.
Riding the valley trail at this time of the morning filled me with some apprehension knowing I could have run into a bear at any point. Thankfully though my headlamp and early morning singing kept them all at bay so I safely arrived at Lakeside Park just after 4:30am. I was pleased to see I wasn’t the first person at the lake and even more pleased to see a fresh pot of coffee and some Timbits, (thanks Keith.)
It was obviously cool, given the early start, but thankfully dry, for now, the forecast was for showers but little did we know what was actually in store for us.
After multiple cups of coffee and a safety briefing we all grabbed the flotation device of our choice – mine was an SUP – and headed out onto the calm and peaceful lake. We could hear the echo of announcements coming from the far side of the lake as we paddled our way out which evoked memories of last year standing on the beach waiting for the mayhem to begin.
By 6:30am all the volunteers were in place and ready for what promised to be an amazing few hours. Unfortunately Mother Nature had her own ideas as the wind picked up, the rain started falling and the temperature dropped. Within the space of 10 minutes it changed from calm to crazy and the driving rain quickly soaked through all my layers to my skin and the warm water began to produce an eerie mist in the now below 10º temperatures.
I was positioned at turn one and instructed to make sure everyone turned as some athletes can be so focused they can forget about this important detail.
The pro men and women came powering through making me think how slow my swimming must look in comparison.
At 7am the masses started and approximately 1800 athletes began heading in my direction. At first there was a surprising silence but as they gradually got closer I could hear what could only be described as the roar of a charging army coming over the horizon. By the time the first athletes made the turn, it was mayhem, arms and legs splashing everywhere, heads bobbing up and down trying to make sure they could get enough air into their already burning lungs. Trying to keep an eye on so many people was a challenge especially as by now both my hands and feet had already started to go a little numb.
As the majority of swimmers made their way past me for the first of two laps I can honestly say I was surprised to see how long some people were taking to reach the first turn. There is a time limit of 2 hours and 20 minutes to complete the swim and it was pretty obvious that some of their days would be over far too early and their journeys would be coming to a premature end. This became very apparent as the final few swimmers made the turn and the pro men passed them having already complete their first lap.
Regardless of their speed or ability though it was so rewarding to have a number of swimmers take the time to stop and thank us for being out there volunteering. I felt like telling them to save their energy and not worry about thanking us but I have to admit it did put a smile back on my face which had been quickly wiped away with the change in weather.
Just after 8:30am the final few competitors were making their way down the first straight again to my corner. By now I was so cold I had taken to sitting with both my hands and feet in the lake. The water was substantially warmer than the air. I started to shiver as the early signs of hypothermia had started to set in. One of the other volunteers said I should head in. I didn’t need to be told twice. Thankfully one of the rescue boats happened to be passing so I was able to get a ride in rather than having to make the long paddle home. This unfortunately was not the end of my journey, I still had to get back to the village so as quickly as I could I unlocked my bike and started the pedal home.
Picture if you will a soaking wet volunteer wearing neoprene boots and flip flops trying to ride a road bike with Look KEO pedals. It was challenging for sure. The more I pedalled the more I shook but I finally made it back to the hotel and after passing my bike off to the valet I headed for the shower, no time to remove my wet clothes as I walked in fully dressed to try and warm up. Half an hour later I was finally getting the feeling back in my fingers and toes. Holy crap I don’t think I’ve ever been that cold in my life!
Despite the challenges of my early morning start I still had a long day ahead of me as I had my own team of volunteers to meet up with in preparation for our late night shift at the finish line. To make sure I was ready to take on the rest of the day it was time for more coffee and some serious breakfast to replace all those calories I burnt off shivering and shaking.
5pm quickly rolled around and it was time to hit the finish line, given that I was the captain and yet I had never worked at the finish line before I was very glad to have some experienced volunteers who thankfully had. Its a very unique experience coordinating volunteers remotely via email and just hoping they all show up on the day, and show up they did! From as far away as Edmonton, each with their own story they really were an amazing group of people. For some this was the beginning of their own Ironman journey as they planned to race in 2016 while others were simply here to support their friends or loved ones who were racing. Many of them like me had raced last year and they all brought so much life and energy to an evening that again like the morning threatened to be cold and wet. They put a smile on my face for the entire 7 hours I was there and I can only hope lots of them come back next year as I’ve already decided to do it all again in 2016.
Having raced in 2014 it was amazing to see things from the other side, to be able to understand how the athletes were feeling and to be able to help as many of them as possible make the finish line was unbelievably rewarding. There were large parts of last year’s race that I don’t remember as I had to zone out in order to ignore the pain. What I do remember however is all the encouragement and support from every volunteer who kept me refuelled with water, Coke and gels.
This is what made me want to come back this year to help a new wave of first time triathletes complete their dream and become an Ironman.
I would encourage everyone to volunteer and help make this race a success again next year, I’ve seen it bring so much joy, friendship and camaraderie to so many people that it truly is a life changing experience.