I have been racing in endurance events for 11 years, and 2013 will be my 7th season in the sport of triathlon. In all of those years, my wife and kids have gotten out of bed at insane hours to do what I thought was easy- spectating. Seriously, how hard could it be to just stand around and watch the race, high five me at the end, and go have some pizza and beer? Well, it turns out it’s really hard.
Last week I had the “opportunity” to be a spectator at the Ironman Augusta 70.3. This is a race that I had competed in since it came to Augusta in 2009, but since I raced Ironman Louisville at the end of August, my coach and I decided that the Augusta race was just too soon for me to do my best. So I took it off of my race schedule. Besides, I had two of my own athletes who I coach racing Augusta, so I decided it would be best to just provide consultation and support on race day. Up until then I had only been to one other small triathlon where I didn’t race, but Augusta 70.3 being a very large race with 2600+ participates, this was really my first time. My wife, Mary Beth, who is a seasoned spectating expert, was with me, so she would be showing me the ropes.
On race morning, I was up just as early as I would be if I were racing, so no sleeping in at all. And I still had to pack a backpack to carry my camera, water, extra shirt, snacks, etc., so the day didn’t start off feeling like it would be easy. We got to the race and had the hassle of parking, and then walk to transition to try to find my athletes. Turns out that wasn’t easy either. In a sea of thousands of nervous athletes in the transition area, I had my first view of a race from “the other side”. The other side of the transition barrier, the camera lens, and the other side of hope, excitement, and maybe a little fear…. It was a different experience for me. Though there were thousands of athletes scurrying around in transition getting ready for their day, every single one of them felt like they were the most important person there. And they were. Everybody would be a rock star today!
I caught up with my younger brother and his family at transition, and we made the long walk down to the swim start. I had my camera with me, so I tried to take a lot of photos. I also wanted to take as many pictures as I could of the local Tri Augusta club athletes. I met up with my other athlete who was racing that day, and we chatted for a few minutes. Before I knew it, swim waves were in the water, and the race was quickly underway. After spending some time taking more photos, I realized that my brother’s swim wave was already down the river pretty far. So I had to sprint nearly a mile from the swim start to the swim exit to catch him come out of the water, and get onto the bike. I got some great photos at the swim exit, and it was really cool seeing all of the athletes coming out of the water. I tried hard to look at the expressions on their faces as they snatched their goggles and swim cap off. Everyone looked so serious, but occasionally there would be those who just looked so happy to be on dry land again! After seeing a few athletes I knew get off on the bike, I had a moment to breathe. I was sweaty, tired, and hungry-, and it wasn’t even 10 o’clock.
After an early lunch in downtown Augusta, we were out on the run course seeing some of the pros nearly half way through their run already. They were fast, and their pace seemed effortless. After a while the run course downtown began to fill up with age group athletes- hundreds of them. I was tracking about 10 athletes using an app on my iPhone, but it was slow to update. So I really had no idea where any of my athletes or friends were on the course. This made it very difficult, and now I know why my wife always insists that I give her best and worst case scenario splits at all of my races. It helps to find the ones you are trying to follow.
I knew that I wanted to catch a few people at mile 1 of the run course to say a few encouraging words, but mostly to say “DON’T GO OUT TO FAST!”. So by the time some of the bike splits hit my iPhone, I realized how delayed they might be. So I again sprinted 4-5 city blocks to mile marker 1 where I missed one of my athletes who having a very good day and running well, but I did catch my brother who looked strong. He yelled at me that he had a flat on the bike, and I told him that he still had an awesome bike split, and reminded him to stay on top of his nutrition.
The next hour or so was spent taking random photos and yelling “good job!”, or “good work!” at all of the athletes. Again, I really looked at their faces as they ran by me. I’m not sure why. Some were smiling, and others looked more serious. But some had a look of concern. While I know that look, I had not been on the other side of it during a race. Those were the athletes that would often make direct eye contact with me as they ran past. Like they just wanted me to say something that would help them. So I did. To as may athletes that looked like the day was getting the better of them, I said two little words- “stay strong”. Why these words? Because at mile 12 of the marathon at Ironman Florida in 2010, a good friend of mine said these two words to me- and it helped me get through a tough period of the race. I knew that just two little words had the power to put a positive thought in the head of a struggling athlete that just might make a difference.
After a rather long walk back towards the finish line, I was ready for the day to be over! I caught up with my wife and told her how hard this spectating stuff was, and she said “well now maybe you will have some sympathy!” And I most definitely will. I already learned that spectating wasn’t for sissies.
I stood at the finish line for the remainder of the race. Again, watching everyone’s facial expressions as they ran through to the clock. Some with their hands up and a smile, some with their heads down, and a few who were crying. I knew what they all were feeling because I had finished many races with my hands up, head down, and I teared up at the end of each Ironman I raced. As I have said before, the training leading up to an important race is where the suffering happens, but the race is the gift you get at the end of what can be a long training season.
So to all you athletes out there who have dragged your spouses and kids out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to see you maybe 3 or 4 times during a race- thank them. It’s hard work, and a long day for them too- no kidding. And to all of the finishers of the 2012 Ironman Augusta 70.3, it was an honor to see you see you achieve your goals, and to enjoy the “gift” you earned.
Hope to see you again on the other side…