Thursday 22 September 2011

Ironman Wales - race report (non-competing)

It's the race of choice for next year and, on the advice of a former newbie Ironman, we wanted to get an idea of what an Ironman race is all about without having to actually do one yet so we volunteered to help out for the event.

I've not really got the energy for a full and detailed report, so...

We arrived on Friday night in Tenby and headed to the race briefing on Saturday morning having already established that there really weren't that many volunteers (from, it turned out later, one of the Ironman compère team).  Briefing was mostly explaining what Ironman is to the crowd of, mostly local, volunteers which then divided up into teams for the different volunteer tasks; run and bike course marshals, and transition and finish line volunteers.  We'd volunteered for transition as we were both keen to find out what that would be like.

Transition volunteers at the briefing numbered a grand total of 14 people; an unbelievably low number for a team to support close on 1500 competitors.  The transition director (one Mr Chris Tyrrell) took us through a few things and then led those of us able to help on the Saturday off to the transition area to begin the task of checking in the competitors.  5 hours of that, learning the answers to competitors' questions as we went along and we'd checked in all of the competitors and helped many of them get to grips with the logistics of the fact that the swim had had to be moved from the South to North beach.  We checked out for the day and got in an early night for the horribly sharp start the next morning - getting up at 4am to get to transition before 5am when it was scheduled to open again.

Work kicked off with helping the athletes sort out last minute things with their transition bags and there just weren't enough of us at that point, which made it a bit stressy and tricky.  Once that was done with, we had time to set up transition in ernest for the swimmers returning to pick up their bike bags, change out of wetsuits and head off on their bikes.  Mr TOTKat headed out to the bike mount/dismount line to spend the majority of the day from then onwards marshalling the athletes to mount and dismount their bikes without breaking the "no cycling in transition" rule.  Then, the elites came through T1 from the swim in ones and twos, each with time to be helped sort out their kit and changing before it just got so crazy-busy that that wasn't possible any more and the priority was getting the blue bags out of the way safely until the athletes were all through T1.  I ended up spending a lot of time hurling bags into a big pile outside the transition tent, out of the way of the flow of athletes, and making sure they didn't lose anything out of them.  Once T1 was over, all of the volunteers in transition had to begin the task of sorting and re-racking the blue bags before re-arranging the transition area for the start of T2.

Given that there was a good while before the first athletes would be back off the bike leg, we got a short break to cram in a burger from the food tent and lie down for half an hour.  Then it was back to transition for Mr TOTKat to marshal the bike dismount line again and for the rest of us to help the athletes change from bike to run gear.  By this time the competitors were a lot better spaced out, so we got to help the majority of them individually; each one finding a seat in the transition area and we'd empty out their red run bag for them, spread out their stuff so they could easily find things, pack up their helmet, bike shoes and anything they didn't want with them on the run, handing things to them like sunglasses, running hats, helping fill their pockets with gels, bars etc. and sorting out their empty wrappers out of the way etc.  Early on in the T2 phase, a couple of athletes came back quite a bit earlier than they'd expected... they'd run into some local dissatisfaction with the event that resulted in someone throwing tacks out onto the road.  One guy spent half an hour fixing his bike only to have to give up and come back in the sweeper van.  Another came back successfully from the tacks incident having had 8 punctures, shredded his front tyre, borrowed 6 inner tubes, 4 gas cartridges and a tyre from other competitors.  Great that the other athletes helped, not so great that someone felt it was an appropriate action to express their unhappiness by ruining things for people they didn't even know who had spent months working hard to take part in this event.

Everyone I sat with pretty much had lots to talk about, how harsh the bike course was, a bit about their history and background, who they are and what they're about... I had the great pleasure of helping so many dedicated people who have trained hard to get to where they were, including Luis Alvarez (the guy the compères had been telling us about who was on his 77th Ironman and aiming to complete 100 by Kona next year) who had quite a patch of frostbite on his face from the week before when he'd been mountain climbing.  Including an RAF officer who carefully and painstakingly looked after his feet by putting on blister plasters and  surgical tape to be sure that by the end of the run he wouldn't just have finished, but finished in good shape to walk the next day.  Including a lovely Spanish guy who was OK and was happy not to have help with his bag (I think he was just super polite and felt taking help was placing an imposition on the volunteers) and then raced over to me in a panic because he had a saddle-bag wedged in his back pocket and couldn't get it out.  Things were so smooth during T2 that the bags were being re-racked during the whole T2 flow and there was no need to make a huge pile to sort later.  It went so so well it felt great.

With the T2 work all done, bags all re-racked nicely and the lost property laid out neatly, I ended up out with the bikes filling in surveys for the Ironman organisation.  I got through about 90 of them and ran out of steam.  It was 7pm and we'd been up a looong time.  Mr TOTKat had marshalled all the bikes out and all of those who made it through the bike leg back again.  He'd seen the three guys who missed the bike cutoff time by 5 seconds... two of whom just couldn't take it in and stood still for ages before moving on and the third just broke down and cried.  All that training and effort and their race was over before the run.  Poor Garth, the 75 year old athlete who went the wrong way on the second bike lap and ended up also missing the bike cutoff.  Utterly exhausted, we called it a day and went to get some food to perk up a bit before heading to the finish line.  Shortly after 10pm we got down to the finish line to watch the last few competitors cross the line and we found the party down at the sea front... tunes, cowbell and the celebrations peaked just before midnight with the last couple of guys crossing the line including one who took part in the first ever Ironman race.

This here post really doesn't do the weekend any justice.  It was knackering, great fun, brilliant experience.  Probably made all the better by the small community feel of the volunteer group as there were so few of us.

We've signed up to help out again at Bolton next year :o)

...and I'm still finding bruises in all sorts of places.

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