Beginner’s Luck: When Does Sherpa Duty Stop?

Is there a magic number of races completed where you no longer need the support of a Sherpa?

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Is there a magic number of races completed where you no longer need the support of a Sherpa?

I’m in Panama City Beach for my husband’s 11th 70.3 race—Ironman 70.3 Gulf Coast. We’ve both been in this sport for almost eight years now. We’ve done the family vacations planned around races. This one was no exception.

“We’re going somewhere really cool and everyone will have a great time! Beach vacay!”

Real translation: “I want to do this race and I will pretend this race choice is really for you!”

Real-REAL translation: “No one will have fun but ME when I finish this huge goal race!”

Not totally true, but we’ve all be there—perhaps on both sides. We want to do a race, so we convince our family that it will be fun.

My husband and I have argued over this event for a few weeks now and what race-day Sherpa-ing really looks like for him and me—on the eve of this—his 11th half-iron race.

For anyone new to the sport, the friends and family members who are “saddled” with cheering, carrying, rooting, and walking with the racer on race day are traditionally called “Sherpas”—right, wrong or indifferent, that’s the nickname. Really, a Sherpa does some cheering and some carrying, but depending on the distances of the races and how fast or slow your racer is—this duty can result in some really long days.

The kids are now nine and 10 years old, and they would love to be at the beach-beach, not at the event watching everyone run at high noon. I didn’t intuit this. They said so when he asked them. If that seems rude, we have a fairly honest and outspoken household. After all, we’ve been dragging the kiddos to races since they were babies.

So my husband has said, “Take the kids to the beach. Pick me up after the finish.”

I have said, “There is no way I am not going to be there to Sherpa you.”

We’ve gone round and round about it.

I argue that, as a racer, seeing the family or friends on course is really uplifting in a race. It’s a little piece of sunshine. In a long-distance race, I would call it a necessity—especially in the first few events.

He says, “We’ve done enough of these. I want you to actually have a good time on the trip.”

I see his point. When you are truly Sherpa-ing, you’re at race expos and check-in and the whole days leading up can be really tiring for everyone. You’re taking the load off the racer so they feel their best on race day. It can be a lot to be a true Sherpa.

But at this point (two days before the race), he has convinced me to take the kids to the beach and not worry about attending the race—to rather take the time and make this trip the real version of the sell that these destination races are meant to be.

We’re seasoned racers. So why not? As of now, the plan is: I’ll drop him at swim start, and then pick him up somewhere at the end of the race. I started thinking about it. He’s right. He’s at the stage in his racing “career” that he doesn’t necessarily need me to stand on every street corner, cheering. (Or does he?)

As he walked out the door just now to “go check out swim start” (by himself), I told him what I was writing about.

He said, laughing, “I think 10 is the number of 70.3 races where Sherpa duties are released. So what’s the number of races to be freed from Ironman Sherpa duties?”

I laughed back. I’ve completed four.

So I said, “Four.” He smiled and headed out the door.

The thing is: I want to be there. Because after thinking about all these pros and cons about attending, I realize wholeheartedly that “Sherpa” isn’t about the “need.” Sherpa is about the want—we want to support our family and friends, fellow racers. In turn, we want our family and friends there to support us.

Sure, he may not “need” me there, but I’m not quite ready to let him loose—quite yet.   And if truth be told, I think he would say the same.

[I’ll ask him when he returns from his solo swim start examination mission.]

Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom) is a recovering attorney, motivational speaker and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. You can download a free triathlon race day checklist here. She is the host of the podcast, The Same 24 Hours, a show which interviews interesting people who make the best of the 24 hours in each day. Meredith lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children and writes about all things at