Between my mom’s races and my boyfriend’s races, I’ve spectated at 5 half Iron distance triathlons ranging in size from a couple hundred people with one transition area at the Rock N RollMan in Macon, GA to 2500 people and transitions 40 minutes apart at Raleigh 70.3. Throw in a handful of marathons, and I’m no spectating expert, but I’ve figured out how to fill my time for 6 hours alone (or with hundreds to thousands of other spectators). Spectating for 12 hours at Ironman Wisconsin, however, was a whole different beast. What follows are my 6 top tips for enjoying your athlete’s Ironman, especially if you’re the only supporter/sherpa traveling along for the ride. (Eric’s parents came up to Madison for his race, so I wasn’t really alone, but we had completely separate race-day itineraries.)
1. This is your athlete’s weekend. (I know, I know, starting with the most original here.) Your athlete has spent months if not years training, planning, and dreaming for this day if it’s his or her first Ironman. And if it’s not their first rodeo, well, then maybe you should be the one giving me advice! I guess at some point, people could have kids to entertain and need to make it a family vacation, blah blah blah. I can’t really speak to that experience, so back to what I was saying… Leave the scheduling of the weekend up to the athlete. He or she will have short shake out workouts to fit in, will have an idea of how much time they want to spend at the expo, will have a preference on where to eat dinner the night before the race, will choose what time (hint: early) on race day. This is one of those times where he gets to be right all the time. Important note: while the athlete has hopefully read the athlete’s guide, you should read it too because you’ll each remember different useful information.
Being a good supporter means eavesdropping on other triathletes’ conversations during the practice swim so you can tell your athlete their secret advice.
2. Figure out how you can see your athlete multiple times. For Wisconsin, I couldn’t see Eric once he got in the the mass of wetsuits inching towards the lake, but I did see him come through T1. Ironman provided a shuttle out to Verona to see the bike course, but I didn’t know what mile they went to – it’s mile 55 – so I didn’t worry about getting out there to see Eric at a certain time. If I’d known, I might have tried, but Eric said he felt like he’d have been moving too fast and too concentrated to see me anyway, so that would’ve been purely for my benefit. I did take the shuttle out to the bike course (remember, you’re killing time here)and talked to a few other spectators before calling a friend to catch up for a bit. On the run though, I was able to see him at least 6 or so times on State Street by walking back and forth between the two turnarounds. In between sightings, I grabbed some hot coffee and cheered for everyone else racing.
3. Volunteer! This should be my number one piece of advice. It’s a really long day, and if you’re spectating alone, you’re facing alone of time watching strangers race and cheer. I’m all for people-watching, but it’s nice to feel like you have a purpose too. I’m not sure when volunteer registration opens, but keep an eye on it for your race so you can have first (or at least early) dibs on the volunteer assignments. All races will have their own process, but for Ironman, you can see how many slots are available for every job description and time slot and then you just sign up for what you want. I chose Gear Bags 7:30am-11am, and it worked out great for us. I was able to wait with Eric until he got in the water, watch the swim start, and casually make my way up to the T1 area in plenty of time to chat with fellow volunteers and get situated before the pros came in. I loved getting to see every single athlete come through T1. The pros were so so fast, sprinting through the gear bag room and out through the changing tent to their bikes. It was awesome. I got to hand Eric his bag, which was my main goal. Unfortunately, you also witness the reactions of people who didn’t make the swim cut off time and have their day ended far too early. Still, it was a lot of fun. Plus, I was done at 11am – perfect timing for the free lunch they provided to volunteers. I ate lunch with a woman who was up from Georgia with a few friends who were racing so that she could sign up for next year’s race in person – another perk of volunteering! Plus, I got a complimentary parking pass for Monona Terrace, which meant we drove right up to where Eric needed to be for the swim and would need to collect his bike after and I had an easy place to keep stuff during the day.
Before the athletes came through.
4. Get in your workout if you can, but realize that it just may not happen. I fully intended to fit a two hour run into our trip to Madison. Considering the fact that Eric was out racing for 12 hours, you’d think I could’ve found time to go run. During two of his three previous half iron events, I’ve gone for a long run during his bike portion. Once I ran 18 miles, lost the car key, puked up all the water I’d consumed, found the car key, laid in the shade, changed clothes, and recovered enough to keep Gatorade down all in the time it took him to bike 56 miles – which is not to say that he is slow but just that it takes a while to bike 56 miles. The differences in Madison were that there were a whole lot more street closings and traffic disruptions due to the race that meant I wasn’t sure where to run AND that I wasn’t sure I could drive back to the hotel for a shower. And the time it takes to run a marathon is a lot longer to stand around feeling gross than a half marathon. Bonus: you can take advantage of #5…
5. Have a nice lunch during the bike portion. Luckily Eric and I have a friend who lives in Madison, so I met up with her and her boyfriend for a late lunch. We ate at The Old Fashioned, which is around mile 1 of the run course. It was the perfect spot because I got to try Wisconsin fried cheese curds (YUM), and we were able to sit near the window and watch the runners go by. I wish I had taken pictures of the food and the restaurant, considering I had a camera and two smartphones in my bag, but apparently I was focused only on taking race-related photos. It was great to see friends and take the time to sit down for a meal.
Sadly not my photo
Admittedly, I ate pretty hurriedly and was constantly checking the Ironman website for updates and estimating when Eric might be running by. But at least the restaurant was able to turn over our table pretty quickly! We finished eating and picked a spot on the street to cheer just in time.
6. Take photos right after the finish. My biggest regret was not taking any pictures of or with Eric right when we met up with him after he crossed the finish line. I’d never seen him so happy before, and I really wish I could’ve captured that image.
So there you have it – my first-timer’s take on how to be a good spectator during your favorite person’s Ironman!