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Professional triathlete Jesse Thomas shares the most important do’s and don’ts of supporting a triathlete.
In his late 50s, Tony caught the triathlon bug. Like most of us, he started exercising a ton and spent too much on equipment. He eventually joined a local team and raced four to six times a year. He loved it.
Tony’s wife of 30 years appreciated the passion behind his new activity but didn’t understand the craziness of it all. She was supportive, but not interested enough to subject herself to a long, hot and admittedly boring day of watching him race. It just wasn’t her thing.
That was until one day, when Tony finally convinced her to come watch a local half. His requests were simple: cheer him on, and of course, give him a Gu at mile 8 of the run. She agreed, dropped him off at transition and wished him luck.
Six hours into his race, suffering from serious fatigue, Tony approached mile 8. This was his shining moment. And sure enough, he saw his wife. But as he got closer, he noticed a problem. She wasn’t waiting patiently waving a Gu above her head. She was sitting in a lawn chair, reading The New Yorker.
With each laboring step, Tony’s enthusiasm turned to searing anger as his wife continued reading, oblivious of his approach. In a frantic last-ditch effort he screamed, “Gu! Gu! Gu!”
Alarmed volunteers rushed to give Tony a Gu, but in a boiling, dehydrated rage he rejected them with wild swats from his hands. As he passed, the commotion pulled his wife from her reading. But she missed him, it was too late, and Tony bonked his way to the finish.
This tragic (and true) story is a perfect illustration of the classic conundrum that all triathletes and their family and friends face. As athletes passionately pursuing a challenging sport, we want to be supported. And many of our family and friends want to support us. But the expectations and demands of that support can often be daunting, confusing and too intense for our supporters to handle.
So to save us all from a painful bonk and an awkward conversation with family and friends, I asked my social media followers the most important do’s and don’ts of supporting a triathlete at a race:
Do: Try your best to reduce worry or responsibilities outside of the race.
Preparing for race day is like being assigned the longest to-do list of all time, while simultaneously trying to rest as much as possible. It’s the worst feeling ever. Obviously, we’ve all got responsibilities outside of racing, but the biggest help a supporter can provide is to remove as much from the racer’s plate as possible. @HenleyFenix writes, “I know the schedule for the day, I let him focus on setup, etc. I herd the family and friends.”
Don’t: Over-talk/overanalyze/over-ask questions about the race.
For super-excited, nervous and sweaty athletes, having family around can be a perfect distraction. Or it can make it worse. I’m a reasonably relaxed racer, but I still get nervous. Constant questions about the race—How do you feel? What’s your plan? Oh my, won’t the water be cold?—are just constant reminders of the pain I’m about to put myself through. But I realize my family wants to know that stuff so they can better watch, help and cheer me on. So I set a time when I answer my family’s questions about the race, rapid fire. When the inquisition is over, I ask them kindly to talk about normal stuff, like “The Mindy Project” and my son’s latest poo.
Do: Yell loudly and enthusiastically every time any athlete goes by.
Triathlon supporters endure long days with very little of it watching their specific racer. The best thing they can do to pass the time is cheer for other athletes out on the course. @calquist writes, “Cheer for everyone! It’s sad to run past supporters just staring at you.” I agree. I watched Kona this year with the Specialized corporate crew, and they had a computer to look up people’s names by their number, and a megaphone to cheer them on as they came down Ali’i Drive. The racers were stoked! And it was one of the most fun spectating experiences I’ve ever had. If you don’t have a computer, just make up names, like @Rose_A_Waggin, who says, “You got this, sponge guy!”
Don’t: Yell the wrong thing.
So what do you yell? Surprisingly, the No. 1 complaint I heard was, whatever you do, don’t say, “You’re almost there.” Apparently that drives people crazy. I think most triathletes just want to hear the truth. Like @MarisJameson says, “Never say, ‘Looking good.’ I do not look good—I’m in pain, I have snot all over my face and my form has gone to ***t.”
But that doesn’t mean you can’t still be positive. I tend to lean toward stuff that doesn’t insinuate how they’re performing—like, “You can do it!” or “Keep it up!” When in doubt, I go full random like, “You’re a LION, grrrrrrrrrr!” or “Spaceman, let’s FLY!” Let the creative juices flow and see what happens.
Do: Know the course, the times, and the best places to watch.
Again, more questions for a rapid-fire sesh, but I’ll say from experience that it’s pretty awesome when my family has taken a few minutes to do some research on their own. It shows that they care and are excited about creating their own little watching adventure. The race/course/time details are almost always available online via a simple search, and you’d be surprised how little most of us athletes know about spectating the race we’re racing anyway. But “whatever you do, be there when your athlete finishes!” says @pknapp.
Don’t: Be on the course.
Seriously, it’s not just a nuisance when spectators are on the course—it’s downright dangerous. This was the No. 2 complaint I got from followers. Find that great spot, but don’t run across the course, lean out into it, flail your arms to take the perfect picture, etc. You never know when a speeding bike or dazed runner will come out of nowhere and cause some serious harm. And please pay extra attention to your children and dogs!
Do: Go crazy.
As Erin Green writes, “Positive cheers, dancing, playing music. Dressing up and making it fun is always a hit with me. High energy is a must!” I couldn’t agree more. When you’ve been out there for hours, in a ton of pain and pushing through your deepest doubts, energy is literally transferrable. Make a sign, jump up and down, scream-cry like Justin Bieber just ran by. My favorite are high-fives—I literally feel the energy transfer. Whatever you do, just make it fun and your racer will love it.
So there you have it, supporters. But athletes, before you show this article to your family and friends and say something that puts you in the doghouse, let me say that I could easily fill an article about the many ways we act like crazy, annoying, self-obsessed tri dorks before a race. Realize that every time they come watch you, they’re subjecting themselves to early mornings, hours in the sun, no Sunday brunch and a dead iPhone battery just to see you cruise by six times for a total of 33 seconds. You could say the definition of true love is watching someone’s triathlon. So take a deep breath, thank your family and treat them with the appreciation they deserve!