Spectating isn’t my thing. At least not for some sports. If my sibling asked me to watch her run a marathon, I’m highly likely to say no—not that I don’t want to cheer her on and support her, it’s just that I’d rather be out there running than cheering in the sidelines.
While that is true when it comes to running, it isn’t when it comes to triathlons; to be more specific, to the Ironman triathlon.
Le sib had taken part in one a couple of years back and sadly, I could not be there for that milestone. Early this year, she and the bro-in-law got a chance to sign up for another. I knew I would not be missing this one.
If you’ve ever heard about the Ironman triathlon at all, you’ll probably be familiar with tales of the hours of grueling physical and mental performance it requires. What with 140 miles and change of swimming (2.4 miles or 3.86 km) + riding (112 miles or 180.25 km) + a full marathon (26.2 miles or 42.195 km) tacked at the end, it really is no small undertaking. Add to that the several months of training and preparation just to get to D-day in racing condition.
And if you have heard of this race, you have likely heard of the athletes’ trials and tribulations, the unexpected twists and turns, the accidents, the near-misses, and the full-on hits.
I will not be talking about any of those.
I will, however, talk about the people lined along the course. The parents, husbands, wives, kids, siblings, and friends, my fellow supporters cheering for their athletes. That’s pretty much all I have any experience in regarding the Ironman; and in Arizona, I had my own trial of endurance of sorts. Think of this as something like Ironman Spectating/Supporting 101.
The thing is, it doesn’t really start on race day. At least, I think it shouldn’t. I did not make a very good domestique (even if I rode a bike, which I don’t) or one-woman support crew. I feel like the job should start before the race: feeding my mental patients, assisting them with their gear, et cetera. The most I did was fix a couple of sandwiches for le sib’s bento box the night before the race and that was it.
When race day came, we all woke at 3:00 a.m. The bro-in-law checked the day’s forecast and as everyone feared, Tempe, Arizona decided to give the racers the finger: from enjoying a string of sunshiny, warm-ish (I’m from the tropics so 77°F is cool) days to a drop to low-60s temperatures accompanied by rain predicted for the late afternoon on race day. We all knew and accepted that they—all the participants from the Philippines—would be somewhat screwed swimming in the cold, murky waters of the Tempe Town Lake but the knowledge of lower temps and rain added another level of strain both physically and mentally.
5:00 a.m. had me and my racers at the venue. Their bikes had been checked-in the day before and all we carried were items for their special needs bags and extra tools for last minute adjustments. I saw them off by the bike corral as they headed closer to the swim corral to get into their wet suits.
I next saw my sister and my bro-in-law as they passed by, lining up by their expected swim-finish time groups. With my super powers—weird sibling power that allows me to capture my sister’s attention—combined with my height and loud voice, she managed a wave.
A quick wave from the swim corral.
Sunrise slowly broke and then my athletes were off. The bro-in-law with an earlier group and le sib soon after. I trekked back to our parking spot to deposit the big bag of tools and extras then went back to my perch, a prime spectating location, to wait out the swim. I didn’t bother going someplace overlooking the lake to watch this part, all I’d see were bobbing caps of pink and green on the water anyway.
So this is where my “support crew” experience truly began. Aside from keeping busy snapping pictures and uploading mini-reports for friends and family, I had a lot of time to kill. I spent it in part with other support people, mostly friends and family of participants from the Philippines and Team PoloTri.
There were many support families waiting for their athletes to get out of the water. I was lucky enough to witness some of the most heart-warming—this term feels so insufficient—scenes of the race right by the swim corral. Having just lost my pop early this year, I suppose you can understand why the sight of an old man in a rolling walker, patiently waiting for his son to run by after the swim leg, had me doing the rapid blink method of crying prevention. It worked for a bit until the said son later stopped by the barrier and gave his parents hugs and kisses, not minding his race time. I then had to employ the bridge-of-nose-pinch-and-surreptitious-tear-wiping method to keep me from scrunching my face and crying for real.
I saw my athletes finish their swim and I was done for part one. The first, and one of the scarier parts of the race was over for me and mine. I did get worried for other participants as I kept seeing racers being fished out of the water and delivered to the medical tent across from where I stood. Many were blue with cold. Although I know how these athletes prepared for this race, I also know that shit happens. People like me who are standing on the sidelines can only do three things: cheer, worry, and pray.
Okay, here comes some of the support crew/spectator insider info. I honestly don’t know how people with young kids do it. I saw so many families with children in tow or with elderly members, making a full day of it. Many turned it into a picnic, which would have been fine and easy had the weather cooperated. Others, especially those with seniors in their group, came prepared with folding lawn chairs, coolers, and the occasional Radio Flyer wagon piled high with their supplies (smart move for bigger groups).
Spectator sport. A family picnic before the rain with one of my favourite placards.
Meanwhile, I thought being the sole member of this crew gave me more flexibility. That was true to some extent. After my athletes went to the bike transition, I was supposed to see them off. Instead, I chose to stay by the swim corral to wait for other Filipino racers who have yet to make it out of the water—this is the illogical bit that many like me suffer from, as if I or we could will them to go faster, to be safe, or to to finish by staying behind and keeping watch but that’s just how it is.
Once my mental patients started their bike leg, and the rest we were waiting for made it out of the water safely, I went off to enjoy the pallid sunshine. I parked my butt in a bench and enjoyed some of the offerings of the food stalls in Ironman Village. My break didn’t last. The drizzle started soon after.
Tempe Beach Park is a spectator-friendly venue, one only has to walk around to capture and experience a substantial portion of each leg of the Ironman. But, it is also, well, a park. There are very few places to duck under and find shelter. With the exception of (mostly) official tents and concessionaire booths, you’re out of luck. I was dressed for cool temps but not for rain. Due to the weather, the Ironman Merchandise Tent sure got a lot of visitors and by mid-afternoon, had sold out its raincoats. I, myself, went twice. First, to purchase a cap to at least keep the rain off my face, and later, to get a pair of socks because my feet were wet and cold, and I detested the thought of blisters.
I settled on to the second leg and longer waiting period of the race. Good thing I had a chat with le sib the night before regarding her estimated times for the swim, bike, and run. I had an easier time tracking her and the bro-in-law from various spots along the course. This was crucial and helped a great deal. Even with the available info on the Ironman website where I can track their progress, knowing their estimated times for each leg of the race helped me break down and calculate where they’d be at certain points. I wasn’t as successful capturing good photos of them but successful enough for a few loud cheers, short video clips, and some iffy pictures.
With so many participants wearing similar colours, it was hard to spot one’s athletes. I wasn’t even sure this was the bro-in-law when he zipped by but I caught him on the other side.
As their support, I had my own pre-race prep and race day plans as well. Mainly, I can’t get sick before the race; I cannot contaminate the racers. As we see each other regularly, that meant massive doses of Vitamin C and just overall extra care. Race day prep is essential. We originally discussed my plans, that I’d go back to our place at some point to rest or just pass the time. I decided to stay at the venue and stick it out, partly due to the illogical reasoning I mentioned above—I saw a few more casualties of the race so logic left and weird reasoning ruled.
Staying on from 5:00 a.m. to past 10:00 at night required some planning on my part. I needed to walk, sit, eat, drink, and go to the “comfort station” (this is a new term for me and as a nod to the Pinoy “CR” that I’m trying to make peace with, I’m using it). What I didn’t plan for was finding shelter from the rain, I thought I’d wing it.
I wore comfortable clothes and shoes, my backpack held a water bottle, my phone, camera, battery pack, a roll of Mentos, and lots of tissue and wet wipes. That was as battle-ready as I could get. I reconciled myself to using the public “comfort stations.” I made sure to limit my visits by not drinking too much and eating just enough to get by. Using the public toilets later in the day was a sore trial. Call me what you will, but a nice and clean toilet is a must for me. I have survived long periods without going because I could not abide icky portalets. That is the big chink in my armour.
As my guys were on the bike leg and I had longer breaks between waiting at my spot to cheer for them, I walked up and down Mill Avenue looking for shelter. I was cold and in need of a hot beverage. Unfortunately, most supporters had the same thing in mind. Many of the establishments close to Tempe Beach Park were crowded with large groups. Starbucks was a bust as well; it was packed worse than other places. I was planning on going to one place to get some food and a hot drink, and also use the restroom (sharing my pee schedule might be TMI but it is vital to know this stuff, especially for others like me who cannot face the ickiness of most public toilets).
I finally caught a break later on in the day. After making my nth trek on Mill Avenue, le sib’s friend, Eric, our local Arizona guy, made it to the venue. We separately caught le sib on her 2nd bike loop turn, then met up where I finally found a place to sit and take a late lunch break. He joined me in cheering and spectating for some hours.
Local support. Le sib’s Arizona-based friend, Eric.
As we headed back to Tempe Beach park, I wished I remembered to ask Eric to bring trash bags, the same ones many other spectators were now wearing. We got back to the venue in time to catch both the bro-in-law and le sib finish the bike leg and go into transition for the run. We waited by the lakeside path where they were to run the 26.2 miles to the finish.
As evening approached, I was flying solo again. I waited for my athletes to run by the same area. It was already dark and I was lucky enough to have found a spot under a tent. A blessing, since the rain kept coming. I cheered alongside strangers—awkwardly, for the most part. It was hard for me to shout “Go!” or “Keep it up!” or “Looking strong!” when they’re obviously struggling or in pain. The people beside me were inspiring in their own way, cheering on strangers by name (they had better eyesight than me for sure, they could read the names in the race bibs and in poor lighting, too).
She and her group were there for her mom, but she was also tirelessly cheering for other racers by name.
And again, there were the parents! I was huddled under the tent with three sets of them. One lady started talking to me (to my shame, I was late in offering them the folding chair I nicked from a concessionaire tent and her husband has a bad back) and telling me about their son-in-law who was still on the course.
My mental patients passed by my spot for the last time by mile 17. From there, they were to run along the path, cross the bridge twice more, then finally head to the finish line. I still had quite a bit of wait on my hands. In hindsight, I wish I knew how to fiddle with their bikes; I could have used the time claiming them and bringing them to the car. In the meantime, I made the mistake of sitting down. Shivers galore is all I can say.
I tried going to the park’s restroom one last time. Ugh! Aside from the dirt and stink, the stall had no light. I had to use my phone’s flashlight and in the end, I could not do it. I couldn’t pee in there! I earned my Iron-bladder that night.
I slowly made my way to the finish line where they had stands for the spectators. It was past 9:00 p.m. and somewhere along the way, athlete tracking failed. I had no clue where they were. I was solely relying on their finish-times estimates.
As I checked the tracker one more time, I heard the bro-in-law’s name announced. “Nick T., you are an Ironman!” He passed by without me seeing him. I quickly looked up and got ready; I knew le sib was next.
Succesful race. You are Ironpeople!