Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Of Volunteering at Ironman

So my job was to to direct traffic, specifically spectators. It wasn't marketed as that - it was marketed that I'd be on the corner of State & Henry, right in front of Noodles & Co. First off, I thought that was cool - being in front of Noodles - because some of my friends sought refuge there last year while waiting for me to come back around and toasted me with my favorite - mac & cheese. Anyway, as far as I was told (I have no memory of where, geographically, anything actually was when I did the race, nor do I know the course or Madison well enough to have a clue), I was right around mile 1ish, and then again at mile 12ish and then 14ish, something like that. So how it works is, athletes are coming in one direction and going in another - my job, on paper, was to keep the athletes moving "to the right of the cones".

What I actually did was stop huge herds of people from blindly stepping into the intersections on their ways around downtown, getting the way of runners. Most people were very sweet, very lovely, totally understanding. Some where odd, and my favorites were the cats on cell phones who, completely oblivious, would just wander right into a runner's lane. Cripes. It was actually very high stress - I'd have to get some people half-way across, then wait for the runners coming the other direction to pass, them send them quickly. Sometimes I'd have to send huge masses going both ways across the intersection, and even my "quickly now, quickly now" would inspire little more than a weird little trot, and I'd always feel horrible when a runner had to break stride. I was extremely busy, and spent 4 hours turning my head constantly, putting my hands up like a traffic cop, directing people everywhere. I seriously hardly had time to get a drink. It was nuts.

But once in awhile there was the occasional break in the action, and especially as the day went on I saw the evolution of athlete traffic - at first very heavy coming one way, then very heavy coming both ways, then very heavy going the other way as most runners began their second half of the marathon. Early on I saw a runner looking very focused behind his sunglasses, wearing a hat with neck-shades on it and a Spiderman jersey. "Run, Bubba Run!" I called to him as he came by, and he looked up, kind of spaced out, then grinned. On his way back I saw him again and ran after him for a minute, telling him how great he looked. Also early on - I can't remember if it was before or after Bubba - I nearly missed Stu as he went by, then called out "Go Stu!" with his back to me - he lifted his arms in triumph.

I looked up during one short break from the madness to see Steve smiling at me - he was looking awesome, really strong. I ran with him for a few moments, screaming in his face as loud as I could, telling him how good he looked before smacking his ass and telling him what a rockstar he was. Later he came back around and I ran with him again, screaming and shouting. I told him his swim was awesome, and that this was it, this was the road to Ironman! I have no idea what else I ever said to these people, I was just overjoyed to see them, utterly happy for them, so glad I saw them and for even a moment shared in their day.

Later I looked up and saw a name I recognized on the back of some yellow shirts, and called out to Erin's team - Chief of Stuff turned around and I reintroduced myself - he didn't recognize me with the hat, he said. He turned around to show me "Chief of Stuff" printed on the back of his shirt - so cool - and introduced me to lots of Erin's friends and her parents, "This is xt4, one of Erin's blogger friends!" Her team, all clad in yellow, looked like they were having a great day, and CoS had things under control. He told me Erin would be coming around in 10 minutes or so, and he chilled with me in the intersection for awhile while I directed traffic. It was really cool - we chatted about how Erin had been doing, and I mentioned that I saw her on the bike that morning in Verona and she was looking great. We talked about who else we'd seen, how else it'd been going for everybody, what the day had been like. Finally Erin came rounding the corner and her team exploded and while I was escorting pedestrians to and fro CoS pointed me out to Erin (who, though, might have confused me for another team-member, since my volunteer shirt was yellow, like her crew's) before I bolted in her direction and ran with her a minute and screamed my face off for her, too. That girl - seriously, I know you've heard it by now, but she had a sensational grin on her face from start to finish. It was totally awesome. The kind of smile where she might start laughing any second. As I slowed and came back to CoS I said, "She's smiling, and for real, and that's all you can ask for at the Ironman." Her team waited at my corner for her to come back around the next few miles, and when she did I chased after her again like an idiot while CoS ran all the way down the street after her, and when he came back he said, "She wants to go out after this!" What?!? Awesome. CoS and I chatted a little more and then he and Erin's crew headed to the next destination. Cool guy, that CoS, one of the highlights of my day. And rumor has it he bought some Total Immersion books lately. Yeah baby.

I didn't see Brazo, or Pharmie, or Wil, or any of the others, but I hoped they were out there doing their thing. Around 8pm somebody came to relieve my shift, and I had about an hour to kill before heading to the Finish Line for medals. My legs were aching a bit after my race the previous day, so I hopped on Fyr - best decision of the day was bringing my bike downtown with me - and cruised around watching more of the race for a bit before heading to the Finish Line to get checked in and organized. Just as I got to the finish area I looked up at the jumbotron to see Bubba crossing the line - awesome! I was about half an hour early, so I sat down in a volunteer tent and rested, checking the internet on my phone for everybody's run splits and progress - so far so good across the board. Thomps showed up while I was chilling out and shook my hand - I was relieving him at the Finish Line, handing out medals. It was crazy to see Ironman behind the scenes like that - the catchers, they have this super smooth system where it's like an assembly line. They catch in two's, taking athletes through the chutes, then go to the back of a constantly moving line to catch more athletes. Everything is really efficient. Just before my shift started Steve crossed the line, and I was able to catch him in the finish chute and give him a hug, telling him, "Well done Ironman!" He seemed how all finishers seem - exhausted, happy, amazed, enthralled.

When my shift started, I was one of 4 medal people. One woman was just a crazy ball of energy all night long, and when we all started getting tired she'd fire us up - she was awesome. It was always very surreal and humbling to place the medal around somebody's neck - it was, honestly, a very important moment for the athlete. You don't want to screw it up. I'd always try to say something congratulatory. Some of the finishers were in great shape, some were hardly able to stand. There were several moments where a wife or girlfriend or husband or friend had somehow made their way back there and asked to place the medal around somebody's neck, and that was always pretty amazing. There were lots of moments like that for me, looking at the finish line from the end-out. We'd see athletes coming all the way down the chute, and you'd see their faces, some of them stumbling, some of them carrying children, some of them dancing and leaping.

I remember thinking, when one woman placed the medal around her boyfriend's neck with a look of, "Well there you go, see? You did it afterall." and a kiss on the lips - everybody here has a story. And I know that's obvious, but when I was an athlete that was peripheral to me. I was aware of it, but unable to be terribly attentive to it. Here, I saw stories unfold. Teach said in her post about how getting one swimmer to the finish line became her life's mission. I'm tapping into that, here - you see these stories in front of you, and you realize how huge this thing is. I don't mean huge in size and scope - those things are obvious but not my point - I mean huge on a human scale, on a personal level, and you want to help. You just want to do whatever you can to help. There are 2200 out there just like me, becoming Ironman, and this was their story unfolding. And they got up to run in the rain, and they missed their children during long rides, and they got divorces and got married and recovered from illness and they worked 60 hour weeks and they turned 65 and they lost 30 pounds and they carried their country's flag and all of it was a chapter in a story. I felt truly blessed, and sometimes even a little uncomortable, to be looking in on those stories when I'd see a husband medal his wife, or a woman cross the line in tears, or a man wobble his way across because by God he has never worked so hard for anything in his life. Some very intimate moments, these. And to get it - to truly get it - you have to realize that the thing he was working so hard for was only represented by this medal being placed around his neck. The medal is only the talisman. The thing he worked for is something else entirely. And sometimes those are just words, you know. Sometimes they're just hollow descriptions and vague metaphors. Not this night. This night the lion's heart was tangible and palpable and totally inspiring.

The whole night was like this, a kind of ongoing highlight reel. When you watch the Ironman videos at the athlete's breakfast or on television and you get a little weepy - honestly the whole night, just like that. Probably you can choose to be clinical about it and just go about the business of seeing somebody stumble across the finish line, but not me. It hit me right here, every time.

I gave everybody a heads up that I had friends crossing the finish line, and we all worked with each other to make sure that if anybody had somebody they knew cross, they'd do the honors. That was another remarkable thing, and I noticed it across all the volunteers, even the aid station people - everybody there wanted to be the one to help the next guy. To be the catcher, do the medal, hand off the hat and t-shirt, whatever it took. You always kind of hoped you got to be next. You always wanted that direct connection with the athletes.

That's the thing about the volunteers, and this isn't self aggrandizing at all because I never really thought of myself as a volunteer all day, just somebody looking through the curtain a bit at Ironman backstage: These people deeply, deeply care about the athlete's experience. You could take these same strangers and put them together in Wal-Mart, and they'd probably have no words for one another. Put them here, in every kind of awkward, half dressed, body fluidish, most vulnerable circumstance, and the kindness and symbiosis is remarkable - the athletes need the volunteers, but the volunteers somehow really need the athletes, and both look for opportunties to demonstrate that, be it with a quick bottle exchange or a "thank you" from a breathless runner. I learned at the Volunteer dinner that there were something like 3200 volunteers. That's, like, 1.3 volunteers per athlete. It's like having a personal escort all day to make sure every single person makes it across the finish line. That's awesome. What a cool thing, that people care. You know, really. Just what a cool thing, on a basic, elementary, human level, that people give a damn about one another so much. Awesome.

Erin crossed the line, smiling as huge as she was the rest of the day, and it was an honor to put the medal around her neck. I can't remember what I said to her, but I'm sure it wasn't worthy of the moment. I saw Pharmie come screaming down - I'd read at Wil's blog that they'd been together after T2, so I wondered if maybe they wouldn't be crossing together, but she was solo. Her eyes were brilliant and a bit wild when she crossed the finish line, and I think until I said, "Pharmie" while placing the medal on her she wouldn't have known it was me. Then very shortly after Wil came across, and she was pretty emotional. Hard fought for, that medal. Good for her.

I was able to go back in the chute then and have a few brief words with Thomps and Steve and Pharmie, snapped some pictures, congratulated them again, heard the briefest points of what will be an epic race report from Pharmie, to be sure.

And then there was Frank. If you don't know: Frank Farrar is 78 years old. A dozen years ago he was told her had 3 months to live. He asked his doctor if he could do a Half Ironman, and his doctor said, "Sure, why not? You're going to die anyway." He was governor of South Dakota once. He's become something of an IMWI legend, and the last few years he did not finish. Last year, in fact, he was about a minute late. This year, at around 16:55, Mike Reilly got the whole crowd chanting "We Want Frank! We Want Frank!" He finally turned the corner in the finish chute and the place. went. nuts. All of us on the other side of the finish line were craning our necks, standing on chairs, whatever we could do to get a better angle. The music came to a halt before a thumping beat came blaring back out with the guitar riff to Black Sabbath's Iron Man. It was straight out of a movie, tell you what. Frank comes stumbling to the finish line - he has a wrapped up left knee, and his gait has him hunched way over into a kind of geez-he's-going-to-fall-right-over position, leaning way over to the side, and before he crosses the Finish Line the guy turns around, takes off his hat and bows to the crowed. Are you kidding me? Total class act. The place is totally insane, absolutely nuts. Hillary Biscayne and the other pro finishers are spraying spectators with champagne. Total chaos, it was beautiful. Frank crosses the line, and he is immediately mobbed by everybody. Media, catchers, officials, they swoop down on him like he's Michael Jordan just sank the winning shot. I'm standing there, saying out loud to nobody at all, "Are you kidding me?" I have a big stupid grin on my face. This is what it's all about baby. This is it. This is the Ironman.

Bits & Pieces:

Overheard, late Saturday night, lying in bed. My hand resting on Amy's stomach, feeling this baby girl flop all around in utero:

Me: Ironman tomorrow.
Amy: Yup. What an amazing day.
Me: I think the weather's going to be great for them.
Amy: I can't believe how cold it was! God it was miserable.
(Quiet then. This happens a lot among us, my family, my friends. We start talking about Ironman last year, then get quiet. Then:)
Amy: Brought your family so much closer together.
Me: It's a great thing.
Amy: A great thing.

Overheard, Sunday in Verona, watching the bikers go by:

Amy: You know, if you're just going to train as hard next year for a Half as you would...
Me (interrupting her): Don't even say it!
Amy: Well I'm just saying if you're going to be gone training a lot anyway...
Me (jumping out of my seat): Do you know what you're saying!? Don't say it! I haven't any willpower at all right now!
Amy (laughing): Well I just want...
Me: No! (settling down). It's not the right time. '09. Don't tempt me. I can't believe the things you say!
Amy: Okay. You're right, '09.

Overheard, Sunday afternoon while volunteering on the run course.

Woman: Did you do the race today?
Me: What?
Woman: I see you have numbers on your leg (from my race the previous day) - did you do the race today and now are volunteering?
Me (Stupified. Pausing to see if she's serious. She is. So:) No. I did not go 140.6 miles in (checking my watch) right around 9 hours and then decide to spend the rest of my day in an intersection directing traffic. But that you think I may have kicks ass, and you're my new favorite person ever.

Random Thoughts:

• Certainly was the year of the aero-helmet, no? Wow. I saw almost as many of those as I did normal helmets. I wonder if one is in my future. I tried one on at the expo, you know. Not that vanity is top of the list when one freely galavants in spandex whenever convenient, but I don't think you're supposed to look like such a dope in a bike helmet as I did those spacey hats.

• What's with flirty spectator women when I'm trying to direct traffic? That was just weird.

• Did you see the Mexican runner who did the ENTIRE RACE in a Nacho Libre mask? That's dedication to the cause, baby. Whatever that cause is, I appreciate the dedication.

• Me (To clearly important Mexican dude in the finish chute putting medals around all the Mexican finishers): Are you the coach?
Him: No, no coach. Just...organizer.
Me: So all these people know you as the organizer of this whole thing, the Mexicans doing the race?
Him: Right. (He pauses for reflection, then:) 2 years ago we were 37. Now, we are 400.
Me (trying to take that in.) Dude. That's awesome.
Him (Huge grin): I know, right! (we high-five)

• Speaking of which, wow, the passion for each other that the Mexicans had. Just awesome.

• Least favorite part of the day: All the damn sandwiches around for the volunteers to eat were slathered in mayo. Seriously. Even people that love mayo, can't we all agree that it's a lot easier to make, transport, and eat-while-very-busy a sandwich that is NOT slathered in mayo? Can't we provide convenient little mayo packets for those interested? Honestly. Twice denied the free turkey sandwiches at Ironman, two years running, because of the damn mayo.

• Favorite part of the day (besides all of the already accounted for good vibes documented above): Kid's t-shirt that said, simply, "My Dad is Ironman." I gots to find one of those somewhere.


Go Mom Go said...

That was awesome!

I did Louisville this year and am signed up for next year. Without the would not be Ironman. Thank you!


Steve S. said...

Thanks for shouting at me. One of the best parts of my day!

T-Storms said...

Dude - I am sooo with you! I was on the run aide station on State at approx. mile 6/20 & 19/20. I did the traffic control thing too! I about took one guy out on a bike with a serious whack to the chest and told him he better get off his bike and walk it across. Completely obvlivious!!
Frank? The man is amazing. I've met him at some of the MN races like Turtleman & HOLT. He's so humble & kind....
We're lucky there are so many amazing people in our sport.

T-Storms said...

give Lake Placid 2009 a thought. If you think Wisconsin is a pretty course - wait until you see LP. Freaking gorgeous!
I'm thinking of heading that way again in '09 too.

RunBubbaRun said...

It was really great to meet you out there.. You kept me going out there on the run, I didn't want to look like a slacker in front of you..Yes, I was pretty dazed as well..

I saw Frank out there on the run, he is a machine..

I'll definetly be cheering out there for IMoo in '09 for ya.. Hopefully get that great spot you had this year...

Thanks for volunteering..

qcmier said...

Nice job out there. Great read!!!
See you in 08?

Erin said...

Pretty Awesome, Chris. I was wondering about Frank. As soon as I read his name, I got a smile on my face, then chills as I read the story. Yay for Frank and 16:55.

I'm hittin' the hay. Daylight in the swamp comin' early. I'll be home on Thursday night after the gym- around 930 I'm guessing. See you Friday?

marathon2tri said...

You rock!

Check this out: made for you

J-Wim said...

well said. Mike and I will be with ya in 09!

Jumper 2.0 said...

My favorite t-shirt was some kids on state street wearing "My Dad is my hero"!
I was teary-eyed with that one.

Triteacher said...

Yowza. You hit the nail on the head. I've been trying to convey what makes IM so... so... good, but hadn't found the words. Now I'll just steal yours. ;)

Yes, intimate moments in a crowd of thousands. And it's not a tragic occasion. Where else but IM?

I disagree with you on the mayo. Let's see: sushi, mayo - that's two strikes, dude!

Finally: signing up in '08 - I was on pins and needles, but sense prevailed. 09? Maaaaybe. :)