I volunteered for this event yesterday:
Let me just say it was one of the most inspiring days I have had in a long long long long time. This event had EVERYTHING, from a high profile relay race that attracted the best of the best of Professional and Olympic athletes to try and win $100,000 prize, to "ordinary" people doing what I can only describe as an extraordinary thing just by finishing this very difficult course.
Because I had such trouble with the swim in my sprint event in October, I made sure I was down at the swim start so I could see everything from start to finish. It was breezy and the water was choppy. The race director, Frank, made sure everything was flawless and the gun went off at exactly 6:30am. The swimmers were sent out on a diamond shaped, 2.4 mile course, where they rounded the Desert Princess at the furthest point before heading back. There was a cutoff time of 8:50. In other words, if a swimmer did not make it back in 2:20, that swimmer was not allowed to complete the remainder of the race.
Because there was a 100k prize at stake, there were four Elite swimmers in the pack, one of which is expected to be on the Olympic team in 2008. At the volunteer meeting last week, Frank told us these swimmers were fully able to outrun the kayaks and were expected to finish in less than one hour. The electricity in the air was palpable. Music was playing and two local radio personalities were on hand to give commentary. Heather (my client/friend who I did the sprint with) and her husband Dane were there. They have already purchased road bikes for our next triathlon. But I digress.
Waves of excitement rippled through the crowd as the first swimmer was spotted. It was so unbelievable it is hard to describe. You could actually see how fast he was swimming through the choppy waters, with the man in the #2 position right behind him. Meanwhile, Heather had told me excitedly that Tyler Hamilton was in the transition area!! I am not into cycling, and so the only cyclist I have really heard of in any detail is Lance Armstrong. Tyler Hamilton is probably to familiar to those who are into cycling -- this was his first big event in two years -- as he had been suspended for doping. That is all I really know about him, except that he went out and completed the most difficult triathlon bike course in the world in 4 hours, 33 minutes. That\'s right, 4 hours, 33 minutes, all 112 miles, all 9000+ feet of climbing. In a pretty stiff wind. Although the wind probably helped the cyclists in certain parts of the course. The first swimmer reached the shore, stood up, and SPRINTED up the runway to give his timing chip to Tyler. Wanting to see Tyler take off on his bike, I sprinted too on the outside of the runway. I had a hard time keeping up. Suffice it to say that I saw the back end of Tyler's bike as he took off out of the transition area. The #3 swimmer was about 20 seconds behind #2 and soon the Elite athletes were gone. The fastest swim time was 44:40 and that was in choppy, whitecapping waters! I talked to one of the swimmers (I think it was the #3 guy) afterward and told him he was "awesome." Pretty lame but I could NOT HELP MYSELF. He humored me by smiling and saying thanks.
After that it was simply a pleasure watching the other swimmers get in, get out of their wetsuits, and make a run for it up the runway to the transition area. The volunteers were great, helping the swimmers out of their wetsuits and getting the athletes their gear. There were 3-4 swimmers who did not make it through the course and who were brought in by jet ski. They got as much applause as those who finished. What really got me though were the swimmers who got in barely under the cut off time, and then the few who did not make the cutoff. This one lady just missed the cutoff time, and when Frank told her she could not continue she just put her head on his shoulder and cried. To me these moments were just as poignant as seeing the first guy out of the water and I made sure I was there until the last athlete left to tackle the bike course.
to tackle the bike course.
My next stop was a few hours later at the finish line, where the suspense was high -- it looked like Tyler Hamilton's team was on pace to finish in 7:45 and clinch the 100k prize. Then, the announcers said that the runner (an elite runner from Kenya) was "down" around Mile 23. He did not recover. He finished the race, but only after the second place guy passed him up and the 8 hour mark was blown. Incredible. It is still not clear (at least to me) what happened to him. The info on the website says he may have had ankle problems, hit the runners "wall" . . . . whatever the reason, he was unable to recover his pace and so the 100k will be available next year and rumor has it there will be even more money added to that prize. After that it was time for my volunteer shift. They had assigned Danielle and me to the run course from "3:30-7:00." She got dropped off in the District (the runners ran right by the Elephant Bar) and I was dropped off on Green Valley Parkway, very NORTH Green Valley Parkway next to a construction site. It was quite remote and they had to have lights put up (apparently they did not have lights there last year -- how the runners could run through that with no light I have no idea). The runners would come east through the construction site, on a dirt "path" of sorts, get to me, and then make a right and run up Green Valley Parkway to the turnaround, come back past me, and back through the construction site. The run was a \n13.1 mile loop, so they had to pass me a total of 4 times. My job was to make sure they kept on course. Naturally I wanted to tell them how awesome they all were, but I settled for saying "good job" to everyone that went through -- that felt natural to me. Some of them smiled at me, some waved, some said "thanks," some thanked me for being out there, and some ignored me. As it got later and later, I could get an inkling of which ones were starting to really tire out and lose focus, and which were holding it together.
Then there was the Guy In A Wheelchair. I should mention that the dirt road leading from the construction site to me, was in sort of a "valley." The runners went down into the "valley" and then had to "climb" back up out of it -- so I could not see the athletes when they were on the dirt path, only after they came up over the top of it -- upon seeing them I would signal to them to turn right onto Green Valley Parkway, which was also a fairly substantial incline UP. So I saw this guy come walking up from the "valley", dragging something. He was quite tall, and it was dark, so at first I only saw him, and noticed that his walk was not "normal." It was kind of sideways and one leg sort of dragged. And he moved very slowly. At first I did not think he was part of the race. When I saw the chair (which was a very high tech, aerodynamic looking chair that sat low to the ground, with two wheels in back and a third wheel out in front), which he was dragging behind him, I slowly put it together. He made his way toward me and asked if I would mind bracing the chair while he got into it so it would not roll backwards. I said not at all and stuck my foot behind one of the rear wheels. He proceeded to sit down, strap his legs into the chair, and he was off, propelling himself up the hill with his upper body.
On his second time through he asked me to brace the chair again. As I did so he thanked me for being out there on the course. I told him I admired all the athletes for doing this, and he remarked that he did not know why he was doing this. So I said, "how about because you CAN?" He seemed to like that. Then he was off again. Both times he came down the hill he was booking . . . I did not look closely at the chair but he seemed to be concentrating hard on braking. That chair was no doubt an engineering feat in itself.
Seeing that guy and seeing athletes finish later at the finish line (after 14+ hours out here) really make me want to continue doing triathlons. Oh and another thing . . . after seeing that guy and everyone out there I will certainly think twice the next time I go to feel sorry for myself. That guy, along with all the athletes, is a total example of what can be done if you put your mind to something. It is all in how you think.