Monday, 22 June 2015

Ironman – a supporter’s perspective

Ironman – it’s the pinnacle of triathlon (well to most it’s the pinnacle – to a crazy few, UltraMan is the pinnacle).  For those who have completed one, it’s the culmination of months of long, hard hours of training, commitment and sacrifice.

Ironman training is all consuming.  Weekdays, morning and night, weekends of both days taken up with long rides and long runs.  Ironman is not a commitment to be taken lightly.  An athlete could get away with skiving off from training as hard for a half distance, but on the long, long course, there is nowhere to hide.  Ironman partners joke that they are the triathlon widow/ers.  They are only partly joking.

When your partner signs up for Ironman, they sign up for an event that will impact on the whole family.  Weekends away are planned around whether there’s a body of water to continue swimming training, roads suitable for long rides and suitable distances to run.  They may involve solo drives to camp grounds while said partner rides the 190km to the campground.  They may involve solo camping trips because training this weekend revolves around a long group ride and swim.  Weekdays will mean you may become nothing more than ships passing in the night as they get up early to go to swim training, work all day and then go for a run in the evening just as you’re getting home.  (PS I hate that alarm.  Athletes may complain that they hate the alarm.  Believe me, they don’t hate it anywhere near as much as the Ironwife who is woken up morning after morning by that damn sound).

As an Ironwife you will learn more about nutrition during endurance events than you will ever want or need to know.  You will hear about every idiot who shares the road (or does not as the case may be).   You will learn all about correct stroke technique when swimming, the best wheels for a bike, how pronation can affect foot strike and exactly how much you get back for physio appointments.

But once the hard yards are done, and it’s the morning of the big event, all of that is forgotten.  The focus is on getting your athlete through the day ahead.  Being there as they begin what may well be the hardest day of their life.

The days leading up involve the usual carb loading, bike racking, gear planning as any other triathlon.  Yeah, right.  It vaguely resembles that preparation, but is magnified by 100.  Packing and repacking, checking and rechecking.  Because let’s face it, it’s a long way to swim/ride/run if you forget your goggles, bike shoes, socks!  There’s the need to pack for every possible scenario.  Changes of clothes to cover wet weather, cold snaps, hot spells, emergency gear (for some that might mean Tim Tams, Red Bull, lollies, salt tablets) – the checklist is just that little bit longer for an Ironman event.

Event day begins pre-dawn.  That damn alarm goes off once again and your athlete begins their day with a light breakfast, a final check of race day gear, countless toilet stops and the walk to the swim start.

The atmosphere is electric.  Tension fills the air as each and every competitor begins the inward focus required to get through a gruelling day at the office.  What starts as a babbling brook of noise and emotions dulls down to the quiet, still waters of a lake at sunrise, as the wave starts commence.

The hardest part about being a spectator is the moment your athlete enters the water.  For the next 7-16 hours, dependant on your athlete, you will work through the full range of emotions as you support your athlete on the journey.

For me, the first Ironman was the worst.  My husband worked really hard on his swim.  From the moment he got into the water until the moment he got out of the water, I was counting the seconds, quietly willing him to be safe and well.  I cannot describe the moment when I received the text to tell me his swim time and that he was in transition (thanks Ironman for the heads up!)

After that, the day is a jumbled hash of memories as we drove to vantage points to watch the ride.  Brendon’s Ironman was at Port Macquarie, so it was only natural to stand on Matthew Flinder’s Drive for the better part of the bike time, cheering athletes up that hill.  It’s a tough climb, and more than a few dismounted at some point and walked up that incline.

Then off to the run leg to watch him pass 4 times on his marathon.  The emotions hit hard on this part of the course.  The first run past, he looked great.  I was euphoric for him.  He was doing this, he was fulfilling his dream.

The second lap, he looked haggard.  I started to worry.  There was no recognition as he ran past.  All of his energy was focussed on putting one foot in front of the other.  I started to plan how I would be able to support him is he had to pull out, what I would say to ease the depth of despair if he didn’t finish.

Lap 3 he was like Lazarus – fresh, smiling and looking strong.  I later found out he discovered Coke at the Aid Stations, and that had fortified his energy levels.  After that pass, I moved down to the finishing line, waiting for that long day to end.

The finish line at an Ironman event is like no other finish line.  If you think the swim start is electric, then this is nuclear.  Every athlete gets cheered home.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t know them or their story.  What you do know is that they have put in the hard work to deserve the respect and adulation of the crowd as they make their way down the red carpet.  This is such a dynamic place to be.  The emotional reunions as a husband spots a wife in the crowd and makes his way to the side for a kiss and an embrace before crossing the line.  An excited child in the crowd who spots his mum making her way to the end from the top of his dad’s shoulders.  Parents watching their young adult children completing a long day’s toil.  Strangers cheering everyone home, emotionally drunk on the hype of the finish line.

There is music pumping (Land Down Under was playing when my hubby crossed for the first time – it’s one of his favourite songs), lights flashing (it was dark when he finished), and then there’s that voice that you’ve been waiting to hear all day.  As you amble, run, stumble, sprint, skip – whatever you need to do to get to the end – as you make your way up that slight incline at the end and hear the words you have been focussing on all day “Brendon Boyd, you ARE an Ironman.”

When your athlete crosses the line, it feels like you have done so too.  After all, you’ve been on the journey too.  You not have swum a single stroke, cranked a single pedal or run a single step, but emotionally you have been there every stroke, turn and step of the way.  Emotionally you have been absolutely drained waiting for this moment.  Even as my husband completed his second Ironman I found myself breathing easier.  I thought it would be simpler second time round.  In a way it was.  I didn’t panic as much about the swim, and I wasn’t worried as much about him finishing because he had done one before.  However I found I still held my breath a little until he crossed the line.  After all, so much can still go so wrong.  Bikes break down, ankles roll, tired bodies aren’t always capable of giving that little bit more.

And I’m not just emotionally supporting him out there.  I’m cheering on multiple athletes from our club.  This year, one of our blokes had a health issue while on the bike.  When all of our athletes had passed and there was no sign of him, the entire Bayside spectator contingent went into panic stations.  Where was he?  Was he ok?  Was it as simple as a mechanical issue, or was he injured, had he crashed?  His wife had been unable to go to the event, so we stalked her FB page to see if she had heard from race officials – nothing.  We watched anxiously as the ambulance drove out along the course responding to an emergency.   Just when we had almost lost hope, along he came.  We later found out that he had had a health issue and had to sit on the side of the road for over an hour waiting for pain to subside.  He continued and finished, but not without showing amazing courage, guts and determination to overcome the pain.

There are similar stories at every Ironman.  Ask anyone who has completed one of these events and they will all have a story.  This year our camping spot was on the breakwall where the run is held.  After Brendon had finished and was resting in our tent I sat on the breakwall and cheered people home well past 10.30pm.  One man, who was looking very much the worse for wear.  As I cheered him past, he thanked me and said that the next 8km would be the longest of his life.  I started to run with him and told him to remember what that finish chute would feel like at the end.  He thanked me again and ambled off into the night.  Over his shoulder, he told me he’d see me at the end.  I didn’t go to the chute to watch him finish, but a lot of athletes go back to watch those guys finish towards the cut off time.  The triathlon community is amazing in that way.

I thought Brendon would sleep like the dead that night.  Not so much.  His body had spent over 11 hours being told by his brain to just keep going.  Even in his sleep, Brendon was still running.  His feet continued to move even as he slept fitfully beside me. Oh and that alarm clock?  We didn’t need it the next morning.  Brendon was awake at 4am, unable to sleep post-Ironman.

Finally it’s all over.  It’s a bit like a wedding – all that planning, a day’s work and then it’s done.  There is a very real phenomenon known as post event depression and Ironman is no exception.  Your athlete, who has spent the last 3, 6, 9  or 12 months training for this event finds their lives devoid of the need to get out on the road and train.  They mourn for the known.  They will say never again as they cross the line, but will sign up when the event goes live again next week.

When I told my husband I was writing this post, I warned him that it may sound a little negative and like I was complaining.  I asked him to read through to the end, to not feel guilty as he read my words.  Because as much as it is a hard slog, and I’m sure a marriage tester for many couples, I would not change a thing.  In fact, when the event entries opened the next week, I was the one encouraging him to register.  He loved training for the event, he had a tough day on course but the sense of achievement as he crossed the line was immense.

As a spectator I can tell you the day is one of the best you can have at a triathlon – endurance events give you plenty of time to see everything you could want without the rushing around of a shorter event.  Planning is essential to ensure you know road closures, alternate routes, the best vantage points, places to grab a bite to eat and go to the loo. It’s the chance to show your support to your athletes and the triathlon community at large.

I thrive off the atmosphere of the day – and having completed my first Half this year, know the value of a familiar face and voice calling out encouragement when you’re feeling low.  This year I took my bike to Port Mac and rode out to the other end of the run course so I could cheer on our athletes.  All up, this year at Port Mac, I walked over 30000 steps, clocked up over 19km (10 on the bike, 9 on my feet) – so it’s a win-win exercise wise.

And if you’re really lucky, you’ll make the highlight reel – yep that’s me in the blurry blue and my hands ringing the Ironman bells.  Best. Day. Ever.