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The Role Of “IronSherpa”

You think training for and racing an Ironman is tough? Try being an "IronSherpa."

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You think training for and racing an Ironman is tough? Try being an “IronSherpa.” “Out There” columnist Susan Lacke, who is currently training with the goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, writes about her experience as an “Ironsherpa.” Have you played the role of sherpa for a loved one? Tell us in the comments section below one “do” and one “don’t” for being an “IronSherpa.”

The first time I saw Neil, my heart went pitter-patter. He was a gorgeous, tall, muscular triathlete who frequently placed in the top 10 of his races. He was training for Ironman Arizona, his second Ironman race. I was a sunburned, stumpy-legged, awkward triathlon noob whose goal was to “just finish” my first Ironman in Wisconsin. I’m sure I said many stupid things in our first conversation. To be honest, I don’t recall—I was too busy looking around to make sure he was actually smiling at me, and not at someone in the background.

Two years and five Ironmans later, we’re still going strong. He’s become an even better athlete. I’m still awkward. But for some reason, we work.

Endurance sports have a prominent place in our relationship. We celebrate birthdays with half-marathons and stuff Christmas stockings with GU. Our romantic weekend getaways are accompanied by wetsuits, bikes and giant tubs of sports nutrition. Though our speeds are vastly different, when we see each other on the trails or during a ride, it can take a training session from tough to bearable, even if only for a moment.

We typically don’t do the same races; right now, Neil is training for Ironman New York City, while I’m working on a Boston Marathon qualifying time. But because we’re both endurance athletes, it’s easy for us to understand of what the other is going through during training cycles. This is especially evident as we get closer to race day, when we settle into our roles: One is the athlete, the other IronSherpa.

You’ve seen plenty of people playing IronSherpa at races before: The glowing partner, usually wearing a custom T-shirt with a message of encouragement. I have one of those shirts, too, with our inside joke:

“A love poem for my Ironman:

Roses are red.

Violets are blue.

Man the <bleep> up.”

What? I said it was encouraging. I never said it was sappy.

The IronSherpa isn’t an easy role. In the weeks leading up to Neil’s races, I’m a launderer of bike shorts, preparer of nutrition, washer of water bottles and analyzer of data. I can predict when he’ll be home from a century ride, and I know the answer to the question, “Where’d I leave my iPod?”

When Neil announces, flustered, that the weather forecast for race day is cold and rainy instead of the expected hot and sunny, I’m the one who reminds him that his best training days have been in cold and rainy conditions. I’m also the only one who can get away with telling him to quit being weak.

I may be the only girl in Neil’s life who’s ever found the smell of chlorine sexy. When his piriformis acts up, I stick my elbow in his buttcheek for 20 minutes until he falls asleep. Trust me – it’s not as kinky (or as fun) as it sounds. We’ve had more than one conversation beginning with, “Have you peed since you got off your bike?” I do, however, draw the line at anything having to do with chamois cream. I love the guy, but even I have my limits.

Being an IronSherpa can be kind of lonely sometimes. On days when he has to train before and after work, he leaves the house before I wake up in the morning and doesn’t return until after I’ve already gone to bed. There’s been stretches of days where our combined work and training schedules mean we only get a chance to catch up through a quick flurry of text messages, ending with “I can’t wait to see you this weekend.” Mind you, we share a home and a bed. We just aren’t awake at the same time in it.

I can celebrate good news with my friends or talk to my mom when I’m having a bad day, but it doesn’t compare. I want Neil, my partner in crime who laughs at my stupid jokes or gives me a pat on the butt when I’ve had a good track workout. But he’s spending time with the other woman in his life: A Trek Speed Concept.

It’s all worth it. On race day, I’m the proudest girlfriend out there. In the 11 hours he’s swimming, cycling and running, I’m dashing about, yelling a lot of things. I probably embarrass him at times. I don’t really care. That’s my man out there!

When he turns in a blazing-fast bike split, I’m Snoopy-dancing in transition. When he cramps up and sees his dreams of a PR dashed, I cry. When he crosses the finish line, we both look at each other and smile. He’s the one who raced, but it’s my day, too. We’re a team, and a damn good one at that.

Being an IronSherpa is more than just attending a race and cheering when your athlete goes by. It’s an expression of love. It’s months of sacrifice and patience and support. It’s smiling so hard your cheeks hurt when you talk about just how proud you are of your partner. It’s the post-race glow, after the ice baths have been taken and the pizzas eaten, snuggling with your Ironman on a hotel room bed as you wind down from a day of excitement:

“Babe, thanks for being my IronSherpa.”

“Of course.”

“You’re the best.”

“I know.”

“I owe you one.”

“Hell yes, you do.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“Can you stick your elbow in my buttcheek?”

“Yes, dear.”

Now it’s your turn to tell us about your experience. Tell us in the comments section below one “do” and one “don’t” for being an “Ironsherpa.”

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