I meant to write this blog post a couple of weeks ago but with all the commotion around Ironman Canada and Lance Armstrong I never really got around to it.  

Lululemon Cheer Squad on Lakeshore Drive

This year at the 30th and final Ironman Canada held in Penticton, BC, I had the opportunity to volunteer as a finish line catcher.  I raced IMC last year and decided pretty shortly thereafter that because of other life commitments I would not be racing the Ironman distance again in 2012.  But still wanting to be a part of the experience, and wanting to give back to the sport and race that gave me so much, I decided I’d volunteer with Shirley as a catcher.

The role of the catcher at Ironman is to wait at the finish line to guide, aid, and sometimes literally catch finishers as they cross the line.  Having done the race I’m grateful to every single volunteer on the course, from the first volunteer who packs my race goodie bag days before the cannon blows, to the last volunteer taking down the finish line hours after the finish, and every volunteer in between, I’m grateful.  But the catcher waiting at the finish line to say “congratulations, we’re going to make sure you’re looked after now”, was the one who stood apart for me last year.

So taking up that role this year was a special experience for me and I made a lot of cool observations.

We started our shift shortly before the 10hr triathletes came in, generally the fastest of the age groupers.  The energy in the last few minutes as the clock ticks towards the double digits is amazing.  The crowd begged and willed the last couple guys to come in at 9:59:XX and you could see the athletes were laying it all out on the line for those few seconds.  Its hard not to feel a little jealous of the athletes out on the course breaking that barrier when you yourself are a triathlete.

Volunteering at the finish line you see people come in shaping up all across the board.  A lot of the guys we caught were in great shape save for a little exhaustion and dehydration.  The athletes were a little tired obviously, but we didn’t have anyone faint or throw up.  I know some of the other catchers weren’t so lucky as the worst cases are generally fainters or people letting up all the fluid they’d taken in for the past couple hours.  As you catch your athlete and ask how they’re doing you’re always on your toes as things can go from good to bad in just a few seconds, sometimes as soon as they cross the line, and sometimes a full 15 minutes after they finish.

You see a lot of people come across the line after sprinting the last hundred meters, and suddenly the switch shuts off and they need your help to simply stay upright.  At one point the head nurse was yelling into the face of an athlete to stay conscious while 3 or 4 volunteers held him up.  Another athlete barely crossed the line and then needed to cling to the finish arch to keep from falling.  The worst we saw was a lady who crossed the line and went straight down, and had to be carried straight to medical.  It really makes one wonder, why do we do this?

But then you see the other side of it.  I don’t know what it was but my eyes welled up with tears when I saw one athlete just break ten hours and cut straight through a line of waiting catchers to his pregnant wife.  He gave her a big hug over the fence and all she said “I’m so proud of you baby”, and all of the sudden I could feel a strange salty discharge filling my eyes.  Another athlete, my friend Shayne, grabbed the finish tape in triumph as he crossed the IM line for the first time, the expression on his face for a half second can only be described as 50% yelling, 50% sobbing.  That’s when it all started to come back, that’s when I remembered why we do this, to simply commit yourself to an accomplishment, for whatever reason, and to achieve it.

I can also see why people come back time and time again to volunteer.  So many of the athletes we caught were so appreciative that we were there to help them, I was simply floored by the overwhelming gratitude expressed for the volunteers.  When someone has been racing for 13 hours and all they can do is eat, drink water, and say thank you a thousand times over, you feel pretty special.

It ain’t easy.

Oddly enough, and I have to note this, Shirley and I caught a disproportionate number of Texans.  And I’ve got to take my hat off to them, the Texans we caught were incredibly gracious, and on average probably the furthest from fainting or throwing up of all the athletes we caught in the 5 hours.  So props to you guys, you did your state proud, and your grace, resolve, and acclimatization to hot weather did not go unnoticed.

Having finally been on the other side of things, volunteering, I’d like to express my gratitude once more to all the wonderful, giving, and caring people who volunteer their time to support amateur sport.  Without you races like IMC, and so many other sports, simply wouldn’t happen.  Whether its a local charity 5km, Ironman, or the Olympics, volunteers make the world of sport go round, and for that, I take my hat off to you and say thank you.