Catching IronMen

Before you ask, no, I'm not referring to the movie.

On Sunday, June 9, I spent about five hours volunteering at the IronMan 70.3 EagleMan Triathlon. In March, I was introduced to the idea of volunteering at races as a way of giving back to the running community. Because I'd always been so moved by the TV recaps of IronMan competitions, I decided to see if there was one in my area. Turns out, the EagleMan has been run in Cambridge, MD, for many years. I signed up and spent the next three months anticipating the event.

The job I volunteered for was "runcatcher." I Googled it and discovered that it would be my job to make sure finishers didn't fall over at the end of the race. Sounded good to me. I made my fair share of jokes about catching hot, sweaty men (and women, too, of course).

Cambridge is about an hour and a half from my home. I arrived around 10 a.m. and was in plenty of time to help unwrap medals in anticipation of the elite finishers coming across the line.

There were a bunch of us in a thirty foot long area, shaded by a canopy, wearing our yellow and green Eagleman Crew Shirts, getting ready with icy cold wet towels, medals, and scissors to cut off timing devices.

The finish line was more subdued than I expected it to be. Now that I think about it, though, I'm not particularly boisterous at the end of a long run and the folks crossing the finish for this race has just propelled themselves through a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike ride, and a 13.1 mile run, plus transitions. So, I guess it's not surprising that they weren't hootin' 'n' hollerin' as they came through.

There were plenty of people up front waiting to walk the athletes through the finish area, so I assigned myself a task that wasn't glamorous but needed to be done. I made it my responsibility to make sure there were icy towels for every finisher. Over the course of 3 hours, I hauled a dozen or more bags of ice, even more buckets of water, and stacks of towels, ensuring that the three big tubs of towels remained full.

Jon Blais' parents (white and green tees) w/83 yo finisher
I saw so many beautiful things at the finish line. Some of the highlights for me were:
  • Seeing at least three octogenarians finish strongly, with their heads held high and barely a wobble in their gait. I told one older lady (in her seventies, I think), "I say this without any irony: I want to be you when I grow up."
  • Watching several people laying down to roll across the finish line. When I asked the volunteer coordinator why they were calling it a "Blazeman roll," he told me about John Blais who competed in an IronMan after learning that he had ALS. When he got to the end of the course, John could no longer walk, so he log-rolled across the finish line. The coordinator then pointed to a couple presenting medals and said, "Those are his parents."
  • Hearing competitors jovially ask about each others' races and congratulating one another.
  • Seeing a man carried across the finish line by six other folks when he could no longer move his own body. This sight was a little scary, too.
Andy Potts medal-ing
Probably my favorite thing happened around the seven hour mark when Andy Potts, who won in 3:47:46, came back to the finish area and started putting medals around the necks of folks who took twice as long (or more) to finish. There wasn't a hint of condescension in his tone as he congratulated them on their accomplishment. When I left an hour and a half later, he was still there, welcoming racers across the finish line.

There was more than one moment at that race that made me tear up. It was an emotional experience, watching people finish a journey they may have begun months or years before I ever laid eyes on them. I went home sunburned and tired but also content and hopeful.

In a slight paraphrase of the great Kathrine Switzer: "If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch an [IronMan]."

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