This is the second year in row that my friends, Marianne (president of our RACERS club), Kim (we’ll call her Marianne’s right hand man) and I have volunteered for the popular IronMan Steelhead triathlon here in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, let me explain… Thousands of athletes get together and swim 1.2 miles in moody Lake Michigan, run to their bikes and then bike it 56 miles and when they’re done with that they finish their race with a half marathon (13.1 miles). That’s a total of 70.3 miles!! 70.3 MILES! Can you imagine?!?!
I said it last year and I’ll say it again, there’s NOTHING more inspiring or humbling than watching these amazing athletes cross over that finish line. I’ve seen finishers fall over, vomit, kiss the ground, praise God, cry, dance, curse, hug fellow athletes, hug volunteers, and hug family family members. It’s an extremely emotional experience (and I’m simply a volunteer). I cried every time I saw a finisher cry…EVERY SINGLE TIME! Their emotions just send a wave of pride, adrenaline and happiness over me that I just cannot put into words.
I was lucky enough to volunteer at the finish line. I got to see the first male cross the finish, the first female and the first relay person (who gets to collect the medals for themselves and their two teammates who already swam & biked). I got to see the firefighter who did the entire race in full uniform cross over to the end. And not only did I get to see all that, I was lucky enough to put medals around hundreds upon hundreds of sweaty necks. Some of them hugged me. Some of them leaned on me, so as not to fall over. Many of them gave me a pat on the back and so many of them thanked me. I silently prayed that none of them puked directly on me (luckily no one did). I congratulated EVERY single finisher. I didn’t just say it to say it. We aren’t required to say a word. I said it because I meant it with 100% sincerity! Unless they needed medical attention I was often the first person to speak to them. The pride and emotion that I saw on so many faces is almost as good as earning the medal myself (ok, not quite)! 🙂
We got there a little before 10AM and stayed two minutes past the cut off time. In fact, we were the VERY few who stayed the entire time! It seemed that so many volunteers were simply there to cheer on their friends and/or family-once their familiar faces were all done they called it a day. I can’t tell you how much this bothered me. Why?! Because every single one of those athletes deserved the same big finish that the front and the middle of the group got. In fact, it’s the ‘back of the pack’ that deserves the standing ovation if you ask me! It’s the end of the line that needs the most support, the loudest cheers, the hugs,the congratulations, the water handed to them, and the medal put around their neck with the same kind of enthusiasm as the first one to finish! There were a few people from our RACERS group that completed 70.3 miles and it was great to see them at the end. However, we didn’t put any more emphasis of importance on them than we did perfect strangers from all over the country.
We were there to do a job and copping out half way through just isn’t our thing.
Perhaps I’m so adamant about it because I’ve ran four half marathons and I’m never at the front of the pack. In fact, my last half marathon (I did with zero training or prep. I literally winged it)- I was the second to last to finish! YES, second to last for the entire race!!! I remember a perfect stranger (a spectator) handing me a bottle of water, which I carried with me until the end. I’ll never forget that! I had three of my friends who already finished come back at about mile 10-11 and push me to finish. I finished. It was the worst time I ever had. I didn’t care. It was November and freeeezing and I did it-though I wanted to give up by mile 3! I still felt the same sense of accomplishment I did at my other three halfs. (Well, maybe my first half was something pretty special because, after all, it was my first, and I beat my target time by 25 minutes. I’d give anything to feel that high again! I vow to PR at my next half-that’s why I’ll never just wing it again. LoL!)
Anyways, we volunteer because we want to. We have lives and families and things to get done. I had plans to go to Ohio to see my best friend over the weekend but I told her I couldn’t. I wouldn’t have missed volunteering at this event for anything! It was so hot and humid and muggy and we are on our feet for almost seven hours straight. We don’t sit, we don’t eat and we don’t take a break…because we don’t want to miss a single person cross that finish line. I would feel like I was cheating those that I would miss. Every athlete deserves every ounce of our support, from beginning to the very end!!!
I encourage EVERYONE to volunteer at races, especially a triathlon. It’s an extremely surreal experience. Don’t cop out early! Watch and cheer the back of the pack as though they’re the first ones coming through! They worked their asses off to make it to that finish, to get that big shiny medal…and I am sincerely honored to put medals around those dripping, sweaty necks!
Kudos and love to the front of the pack, the middle of the pack, but especially to the those at the end of the pack! You are amazing and you’re more inspiring to me than you will EVER know!