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Q: My girlfriend is doing her first Ironman in a few weeks and I want to support her at the race. What can I do to be helpful?
I’m assuming that most people reading this article are likely triathletes themselves so this is one you might want to pass along to your friends and family (to be known henceforth as “the support staff” and/or “race Sherpa”).
As a first-time race Sherpa, you can play a key role in helping your athlete have the best experience possible at her race. An Ironman is a monumental goal, and when the day comes it can be a bit overwhelming attending to all the travel, equipment and logistics surrounding the event. Your job as support staff is exactly that: to support. Let her take the lead, but be available to lend a hand whenever necessary.
Athletes get tense around race day; all the nervous energy and excitement surrounding a big race can put even the most laid-back athlete on edge. So do your best to be patient and not take anything personally. Discuss beforehand what tasks you can take off your athlete’s hands and what they would prefer to do themselves. For instance, I get nervous when anyone even touches my equipment before a race, but others are perfectly happy having someone else look after building their bike for them.
This is your athlete’s big day, and it is all about them—at least for the weekend. Athletes are notoriously quirky about nutrition before race day: If they want to eat pizza at 5 p.m. or sushi at 9, go with the flow. Also, most athletes need some quiet time to prepare and focus before an Ironman, so don’t expect to be doing much else in the days leading up to the race. The extent of my pre-race sightseeing usually includes the inside of my hotel room and perhaps driving the race course.
Your most useful job will be to provide an extra set of hands. Be ready for the pre-dawn wake-up call. Yes 5 a.m. is an ungodly hour to be heading to the race site, but most athletes prefer to have some buffer time in the morning. Just smile and offer to go get more coffee. Your athlete should have his or her pre-race routine worked out, but everyone still needs a wetsuit zipper-upper and sunscreen-applier. Hang out around transition and be ready to collect extra bags and clothes as the athletes head down to the start.
Your No. 1 job during the race will be to act as the cheering section. An Ironman is a very long day that can be, at times, boring, frustrating and even lonely. Seeing your familiar, smiling face as often as possible throughout the day will make your athlete’s job easier and give him or her a much-needed boost of motivation. Try to get out onto the course; there are always lots of fans and excitement around the transition area, but the far ends of the bike and run courses can be pretty desolate. Position yourself so that your athlete can see and hear her cheering section a few times—multiple-loop courses are ideal for this. If there is a big hill on the bike this can be a fun spot to watch, and the athletes are going slowly enough that they can actually hear the spectators. During the run, if you can get to the halfway mark on an out-and-back section you can catch your athlete coming and going. Ironman courses are fairly spread out (they have a lot of distance to cover) so ideally you could rent or bring a bike along. Just be sure to stay out of the way of other athletes.
Your role is to motivate your athlete, so what you say is as important as how loud you cheer. Tired athletes need positive reinforcement; any doubt or worry will come through in your voice, so here are a few do’s and don’ts of cheering:
Do say they look great. Even if you are lying (and you will be—no one looks great toward the end of an Ironman). Tell them they are crushing it. Use words like “amazing,” “fantastic” and “awesome.”
Don’t say, “Hang in there,” “Don’t quit” or my personal least-favorite, “Are you OK?” This implies that they do not, in fact, look OK. They know they are suffering; don’t let them know you notice.
Do give some splits if you can. “Two girls are four minutes ahead” gives your athlete something tangible to chase and sets up an attainable goal.
Don’t tell your athlete that “first place is 23 minutes up.” This crosses the line from helpful to demoralizing.
Do take note of your athlete’s number and color of his or her race kit. It may seem obvious, but 3,000 runners all look surprisingly similar, and it can be hard to pick your athlete out from among the sweaty masses.
Don’t hand your athlete anything (water, snacks, a beer, etc.). Your helpfulness could get them disqualified.
Make sure to look after yourself during the race too. It’s a long day for everyone so be sure to bring lots of water, sunscreen and snacks. Wear running shoes and light clothing—you will be doing a lot of walking. After the swim you can cheer your athlete through the swim-to-bike transition then plan on getting some breakfast or even going for your own workout for a few hours. The bike is the longest section and the most difficult to watch, so don’t feel bad about taking a little “me time” in there. Since, of course, you will be out there cheering your head off for the entire run.
Finish line duties
Wait at the finish line with big hugs and extra warm gear, if necessary. (A nice touch would be to pack some of your athlete’s favorite post-race snacks—not everyone can stomach the ubiquitous cold pizza after 12 hours in the sun. Personally I’m ready to arm-wrestle my own grandmother for a cold Sprite and some Fritos after an Ironman.)
Win or lose, tell them they did great and that you are proud of them; don’t analyze the race unless they want to. And don’t plan on a big, celebratory dinner that night. Some athletes are ready to party post-Ironman, but most just want to curl up on the couch. A big, celebratory brunch the next day is usually better received.
Being a race Sherpa is a big job, and a good support staff can help make the race a more positive, low(er)-stress experience. So athletes, be sure to thank your support staff in your victory speech and remember that you owe them one. Maybe you could offer to sign them up for the race the following year so that you can repay the favor?
Olympian Samantha McGlone (@samanthamcglone) is a former 70.3 world champion and was runner-up at the 2007 Ironman World Championship. She lives, trains and attends medical school in Tucson, Ariz.