This is the second of a four part series called "How to be an Ironfan", a guide to cheering on friends at endurance events. The first post is about preparations to make before race day. This second post is about what to do on race day. The third post is for the athletes re: what they can do to help their Ironfans. And the last is for the 'Inner Circle' – people who are close to the athlete – and has next-level tips for these next-level supporters.
Let's talk about why you're at the event
So you've planned it all out: what to bring, where you're gonna cheer, who's coming – and everyone's getting pumped. You'll be the best Ironfans ever! But before y'all jump into the rodeo wagon and head off to the start line, let's take a second and talk about why you're going in the first place.
Yes, today is about cheering on your athlete and having a great time yourselves. But it's so much more than that. Consider that your presence might be deeply meaningful to your athlete – sentimentally and emotionally. It is. They have been working hard for months, slogging it out, often in conditions most people would consider utterly ridiculous: riding in the cold and rain until it's borderline unsafe, hands so frozen they can barely operate the brakes. Up at 5am for those early swim sessions. 'Going for a run', where that run is longer than a half-marathon.
Your athlete has a lot invested in this: emotionally, financially, time committed. No matter how casual they may seem about it, this is important to them. And your presence – as someone who knows them – is important too.
Because on race day, you get to bear witness. You get to stand for your athlete in what will likely be a roller coaster of ups, downs and everything in between. When they start to crack mentally – and that may very well happen – you get to be there for them and give them the words, the smiles, and the cheers that just might keep them going long enough to get to the finish line. Your presence might be the difference between your athlete achieving their goals, or not. You get to be a part of a huge learning experience for your athlete.
And you get to learn and be inspired yourself. You'll witness people achieving dreams, people doing what they might not have imagined possible, people who you might never imagine would do a thing like an Ironman and yet, there they are, crossing the line. Get ready to be awed by what you're about to witness.
So think about that as you pack up and get ready to head down to the course. You being there matters more to your athlete than you know! It's so rad that you're showing up to support!
Race morning, pre-race:
Here are some ways to be uber helpful before the start gun goes off:
Help your athlete get to the starting line: drive them there, drop them off and take care of parking so they can get on with preparing for the race: they will need to get body marked, to set up their kit in transition, and will probably need at least a couple of runs to the porta-potty (gotta love race mornings!) before they get into their wetsuit.
Hold them a spot in the porta-potty line: this gets increasingly long, increasingly quickly, as the time to starting the race approaches.
Do up their wetsuit: they're far easier to take off, than they are to put on. Learn how to work with a wetsuit beforehand; be careful of fingernails as triathlon wetsuits are pretty fragile on the outside (extra thin in certain places) and very easy to puncture. Have your athlete show you how to grasp and work with the material.
Be a gear mule: It's often cold pre-race due to the early starts. Your athlete will probably want to wear a sweater, sweatpants, socks, shoes, toque / beanie... things to keep their core temperature from dropping pre-race. Let them know you'll be around to take their gear at the last moment; it'll save them having to bring gear they might otherwise have to throw away.
Be around to do anything else that might come up. One time, a friend – who is always super-prepared and organised – forgot her swim cap and goggles. We were a 25-minute drive from the hotel. The mission: get the swim cap and goggles before the gun went off. Which was in 60 minutes. Anything can happen on race day! And having a great crew around to help deal with these things is awesome.
During the race:
You've already packed your gear, planned your route and now it's time for your crew to execute the plan and have a blast doing it. Some specific pointers:
Cheer with sentences: use actual words – not "woooo!" Call their name out and say something specific: "Great work Tom – keep it up! Light and bright!" Why this matters is because 1) there are a ton of athletes and a ton of fans yelling "wooo!" How will your athlete hear you cheering for them? 2) being called out by name is sentimentally meaningful and helps get your athlete out of their head and reminds them their friends are there to support them.
Even better, ask your athlete what to say to them. Do they have a race mantra? My friend Juliet's was "With all my might" one year and every time she sped by we screamed "Go-Juliet-with-all-your-might-GOOO!!"
Communicate rankings: If your athlete cares about rankings and positioning within the field, and if they want you to, take note of their position, time the gap between them and the person in front of them, and relay that information as your athlete goes past.
One important 'don't': I've experienced it myself, and every athlete I've ever spoken to agrees: absolutely do not say they're "almost there" if they're literally not 100m from the finish line.
Be a sports photographer for the day: If you’re handy with a camera: bring your fancy D-SLR, pack your zoom lenses and be your athlete’s personal sport photographer for the day. Document them and the event. For the athletes, there’s nothing they love better than an incredible shot of them in action. And the day is usually such a blur; it’s nice to relive it in pictures, and especially to be able to see pictures within 24 hours of the event (most of the official event photography companies take several days to post anything).
Take pics and post to social media: Even if you’re not a pro shutterbug, whip out that camera phone and take as many shots and short videos as you can. Post them to Instagram / Facebook / Twitter / wherever and use the hashtag you agreed on beforehand. Friends and family who are following from afar will love you for this!
Pace them. If your athlete wants you to, run alongside them and pace them in the latter stages of the race. Be careful on this one: some races allow it – having pacers is common in most ultra-marathons – but in Ironman events, it is strictly forbidden (your athlete could get disqualified). Check the race regulations beforehand.
Enjoy yourself! Endurance events – and their finish lines – are some of the most inspiring places on the planet. You'll find yourself cheering for complete strangers and really getting into it – let yourself be absorbed into the emotion of it all and be filled with wonder: these people just worked out for 10+ hours straight? Maybe I could do that? Then go home, and sign-up for something!
As soon as they finish: ask what they need and go get it. It might be simple or it might be something odd (you never know), or even medically important. It's good to have two people here: one to stay with your athlete and the other to run the errand. If your athlete ends up in the med tent, have their health card info handy, know where the closest hospital is, and most importantly, who to call and who can stay if shit gets real.
Hopefully all they'll need is a favourite snack at the finish line. I crewed for some friends at a half-Ironman in Spokane, Washington last year and they both had specific requests: Juliet wanted slices of cold watermelon. Dierdre wanted beer, and they both love Mexican Coca-Cola (it's made with cane sugar – tastes waaay better!). So I packed up a cooler and had these finish-line treats in their hands within minutes of crossing the finish line. They were stoked!
Get lotsa photos: with the medal, with the baby, with the crew... capture it all.
Get them cleaned up / refreshed: Have a change of clothes for them; a damp, cool facecloth is heavenly at this point in the day. Carry their bag, push their bike. They'll probably be hobbling along at this point. Make life as easy as possible getting from the race to the celebration meal, or whatever's next.
Last of all... be patient and help your athlete relax. You've probably got a million questions and are so excited for them. They are mentally and physically drained. Give them space to collect themselves – the gory details of the day will come out sooner or later (probably later, when cold beers are in hand).
And don't forget to give yourself a pat on the back for being such a rad supporter. Great job!
For the athletes
The first two posts in this series are both intended for the Ironfans. But there are lots of things the athletes can do to help, and the third post in the series is for them: How to be an Ironfan: For the athletes.
Feel free to add your tips in the comments so that others can benefit from them.
Appreciation goes out to Dave Mackey, Sam Sykes, Matt Corker, Jaryd Zinkewich, Sian Slawson, Dave Gordon, Alexandra Plante, Jenna Nutting, Nancy Loo, Juliet Korver and Dierdre Douglas for contributing ideas to, and reading drafts of, this series.