Volunteering at Ironman Wisconsin: Part 2

Sunday was race day and I woke up ready to go. Unfortunately it was 8am and my volunteer shift didn’t start until 5:30pm.

Around 4pm I headed to the Capitol, which is the start of the marathon…the midpoint of the marathon…and the finish line. I spent an hour cheering and got to see the top three females finish!

Cheering them on!

Cheering them on!

At 5:15pm, I made my way to the finish line for my shift. Luckily I had my wristband, which was required for access.

I'm official!

I’m official!

At first, I wasn’t quite sure where to go – it was a sea of blue volunteer shirts!  Finally, I located the rubber gloves and grabbed a pair (these ended up being very important). Then I hopped in line.

Not the most flattering picture...but the only one in my clean volunteer shirt.

Not the most flattering picture…but the only one I have in my clean volunteer shirt.

As a catcher, it was my job to literally grab the athletes as soon as they crossed the finish. There were two catcher lines, one on either side of the finish line. As each participant finished, the front person from each line would run towards them and take them by the arms. It might seem like overkill to have two people assisting every athlete, but after 140.6mi many are on the verge of collapse.

Once an athlete had been “caught,” the most important thing was to check if they needed immediate medical attention. If they were okay, they were moved through a series of stations. First they got their medal, t-shirt, and hat. Next they got a mylar blanket – these were especially important because it was breezy and cool at the finish and sweaty athletes were getting chilled quickly. Once wrapped in a blanket, athletes were offered a variety of liquids – everything from chicken broth (great because of the high sodium content) to chocolate milk (a favorite of many racers). Finally participants got in line for an official picture with their medal.

Catchers stayed with each athlete until they either a) met up with their family, or b) made it to the food or medical tent. For some participants, this meant I spent 5 minutes with them. Other participants needed 10 minutes or more before they could move on from the finish area. It was important to watch each finisher for a couple minutes, as many people who seemed okay right after crossing the finish line began to deteriorate rapidly.

Finish line before the race

Finish line before the race

I won’t lie, there were times when my shift was really hard. Supporting the weight of a 6ft, 195lbs man all the way to the medical tent is a challenge for someone who barely hits 5’3” (he ended up needing IV fluids as he had lost 5lbs over the course of the race, but was ultimately okay).  There were times when 10 athletes were coming across the finish in the span of a minute. I also learned very quickly how to gauge what an athlete needed, but it was a steep learning curve. Some finishers knew exactly what they wanted and I simply followed them around and helped them get things:
Them: “I need two chocolate milks and a water.”
Me: “Here you go, do you need me to open that for you?”

Other athletes were in a total daze and I had to take charge.
Me: “How are you feeling? Are you doing okay?”
Them: “I don’t know.”
Me: “ Do you want something to drink? Water? Chocolate milk?”
Them: “I don’t know.”
Me: “Okay, we are going to grab them all. You can try a sip of each and then decide if you want more of any of them. We are going to try walking a lap around and then we can decide if you need to sit or are okay to get in line for a picture.”

Being a catcher wasn’t always easy, but it was totally worth it. Getting to share such an amazing experience with these athletes was unforgettable.  While everyone I caught was incredibly gracious (I have never been thanked so many times in my life), there are a few finishers who stick out in my mind.

One young man named Jon had traveled from Ohio to complete his first Ironman. He crossed the finish line looking pretty good, although clearly exhausted. As we brought him through the stations, he turned to me and said, “I really want to get my picture taken and everything, but can we go find my mom first?”  Luckily his mom was waiting near by (she had made a big sign, so she was easy to find) and we headed over to the fence to see her. As he walked towards her, she started tearing up and I have never seen anyone look more proud. The hugged for a good five minutes and everyone in a 10-foot radius had tears in their eyes by the time they let go. He had worked so hard and wanted nothing more than to share it with his mom.

Another man crossed the finish…and immediately started puking. He could barely make it two feet without doubling over in pain. As we headed to the medical tent, he grabbed my arm and asked if he could stop to get his picture taken first. I was hesitant (he had apparently been puking since mile 24 of the marathon, so I was pretty worried), but as we headed towards the picture line an amazing thing happened. Everyone in line (~20 people) let him go ahead of them. These people had been moving for more than 13 hours and were willing to stand a little bit longer to let this man get his picture taken before heading to medical.

And then there was Kate. Kate is a family friend who was completing her second Ironman. She had stayed with me in August when she visited WI to take a look at the course and now was back to kick some butt! I had been keeping tabs on her all day, via text and the athlete tracker. Around 7:35pm, I knew that she was headed towards the finish line and I got ready. Catchers are allowed to keep an eye out for any finishers they know and as soon as they see the person, run to the front of the line and call off the other catcher. As soon as I saw Kate coming, I dashed to the front of the line yelling, “I got this one.” It was amazing to watch her raise her arms overhead as she crossed the line and to get to be the first one to congratulate her. Now, Kate is a total badass, so she left it all out on the course. I was worried about her for the first few minutes, but luckily it was nothing some chocolate milk couldn’t fix. As she sipped her milk and I worked on getting her shoes off, Kate noticed my car key stuck in my shoelaces. She looked at me and said “I didn’t know you had a Kia.” The look of surprise on the other catcher’s face was priceless, we had gone from worried to having a random conversation about cars in the span of about 5min. I suppose that’s just how it goes in the finish area. So a big CONGRATULATIONS to Kate on an awesome race!

In conclusion, did I get sweaty? Yes. Did I get puked on? Yes. Did I end up smelling like an odd combination of salt and chocolate milk? Oh yes. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

Have you ever volunteered at a race?