The Other Side of Ironman
So most of you read this blog for training tips, race reports, and funny stories from Dirtbag. I’m Sister Dirtbag and I did a fun event recently and wanted to share my experiences with you. If you have followed along you know that as Sister Dirtbag I am the Official Athletic Trainer of Team Dirtbag. Dirtbag is a great employer, he doubles my salary annually….
Anyway, following along with Dirtbag’s training and event has made me want to be more involved. I’ll leave the triathlete-ing to him but I have a sports medicine background, and love these types of events, so I decided to find a way to be involved. I got on the Ironman website, and saw there was a 70.3 in Oceanside every year. Sounds perfect. Once volunteer registration opened up I got on that, and registered for the medical team. Then I started getting emails from the medical team leader with all sorts of good information, common injuries we would see, handbooks, directions, etc etc. I signed up to work both shifts, because if I’m going to do it, might as well do it good, right?
Oceanside is about 3 hours from my house, so this involved heading down the night before and crashing with a friend. Check in time was 5am, so I was up at 4, ready and in the car by 415. I found my people, got a shirt and a badge, felt important, and headed to the T1 tent. There were already quite the number of athletes milling about. This being my first triathlon ever, it was all new to me. All I knew was Dirtbag’s recaps. Our T1 tent was stationed at the entrance to T1, which I guess is prime parking for the Pros. Which was awesome. Getting to see all these people that I’m sure are a big deal in the Tri world doing their morning routines. We were also stationed right next to the port-a-pottys. Dirtbag has waxed poetic about the port-a-potty situation at mass events, and I never quite understood until now. The race directors thought it would be a good idea to keep these bathrooms “locked” (zip tied) until 6:30am for whatever reason. Which means the volunteer bathroom became the everyone bathroom, and the line leading out of T1 tent was something to see. The locks got “broken” and re-tied probably two or three times.
Back to the medical stuff. One of the lead physicians was performing a study on core temperature changes during the swim portion of a triathlon. She hypothesized that core temps would drop during cold water swims. This was measured by swallowing pill-sized ingestible thermometers, taking a baseline reading, marking the athletes hands for ID, and sending them on their way, to see them again when they were exiting the water during the swim. Pretty cool stuff. The water was 62.8 degrees today, much warmer than anticipated. We had a meeting, took a team photo, and got ready to go to work. By the time we got out of the meeting the pros had already started. I had volunteered to go down to the dock to help spot the thermometer subjects (also, swimming is my thing, so I wanted to see this part). The start was at the boat launch of the harbor (this is the only time of the year swimmers are allowed in the harbor). So it was a walk in, then swim to a start position out away from the harbor. It appeared to be an out and back swim. I situated myself on the very corner of the dock, so the athletes coming in literally swam around where I was standing to the boat launch finish. All access passes do not suck. Not too long after we got there the pros started coming back in. Andy Potts, the eventual winner (uhh, spoiler alert), was first out of the water. That was pretty awesome to see. I snapped a billion photos during this part of the race. I thought it was pretty awesome. The end of the swim started my change in my view of the Ironman races- I thought I was going to see the Pros. Then the end of the swim came. The race director was down on the harbor with us towards the end, keeping us posted on the cut offs for the swim. We had three or four swimmers in the water still with 15 minutes left. One of the coolest things I saw all day was the accumulation of yellow lifeguard rash guards following behind the last of the swimmers. Towards the end each of the swimmers got an escort by both the lifeguards on paddleboards and what I am assuming are Ironman race officials. One on each side, encouraging, guiding in the right, most efficient direction. Three swimmers left, two, then the last one. The last swimmer made his was out of the water to cheers from all of the volunteers, lifeguards, and race officials. This particular athlete was competing in his first Ironman race, with a neurological-motor condition that made it amazing he was competing. He, unfortunately, was very very affected by the cold water. When we made it back up to the T1 tent he was trying to get on his bike, but shaking uncontrollably and slightly blue. We moved him to the T1 tent, which had heaters going full blast. Unfortunately, he came in at the tail end of time limits, so we had about 5 minutes to work before he had to be on the bike and out of T1. Not much you can do with that, but the guy was amazing, warmed up as fast as he could, and when the race director came in the tent and told him 30 seconds, damned if he didn’t hop up and walk over to his bike, clip in and get on his way. Amazing.
Oh, and preliminary reports from the thermometers? Temp rises during the swim. When you think about it doing high-energy activity in a wetsuit it makes sense that you’d get warmer. Also, when the extremities get cold the body shunts all blood to the core to keep the vital organs going. So the core is protected, it is the extremities that are the problem, as I’m sure most open water swimmers can attest.
It was so odd walking up the dock to T1 and seeing it completely (save one bike) empty. Everyone just moving on to the next stage of the race, after that super emotional swim finish. All in an ironday’s work. Off to the main “tent”. It was a trek to the finish line, but we got to see some of the bikers racing by which was pretty awesome, and by the time we got to the main tent/finish people were already starting on the run!! Amazing. I missed one whole leg of the race! Our friend from the last tent was already in the main medical tent being treated. Poor guy. I found out this was his first Ironman, he has friends who were triathletes and they got him into it. His day was done, but he was in good spirits about it. Otherwise the Medical tent was pretty slow at this point, with the race in full swing and athletes out on the course, away from the finish. I took this time to wander around, watching the run, scouting out the finish area. I have to be honest, one of the coolest perks about this was an all access pass to the race. I could go anywhere and see anything I wanted to. I headed back to the tent since the race was still going on.
After a pow-wow with the new volunteers who had joined us later in the day at this tent, we set about our duties. I helped check people in and out, pulling their medical history cards as they came in. We saw a slew of blisters, some people wanting ice, mostly heat exhausting and exercise-induced collapse though. See, when you’re working hard for 3-4 hours or more and you suddenly stop, all that blood that has been racing around your body pools at your feet, and that is what makes you dizzy and lightheaded as soon as you stop a race. Get you down, feet up, and in minutes I bet you’ll start to feel a whole lot better. I met another athlete during this time, he was on his fifth Ironman race, and told me it would be his last for awhile because his wife was pregnant so priorities would be changing soon. He was so, so grateful for the support we provided at this event, it was really touching. I don’t know if that amount of insane exercise makes you weepy or what, but he was so very thankful, and it made me proud, and humbled to be working this event. All I did was wake up really early one morning and take myself and my brain to Oceanside. He prepared for months, years and was thanking ME?? Uhh, I wouldn’t be needed if there weren’t people like him willing to do events like these.
The head medical personnel had walkie talkies on them, and there were EMTs (with Ironman, not with us) out on the course, picking up people, bringing them in, things like that. We stated hearing chirping about a guy who had cut his head open, and we should expect him in soon. Sounds good, and interesting. Us medical people love interesting (read: bloody) things like this. We waited, and waited, and eventually kinda forgot about him, figuring things just worked themselves out. Then later on, much much later, a guy comes walking into medical tent under his own power, with a shirt that used to be white and is now fully red, and a bandage around his head. Turns out he fell during mile ONE of the run, cut his head open, and was determined to finish. Race officials made him stop for about 45 minutes to try and stop the bleeding (much to his dismay about his finish time). But he had a medical condition which made the bleeding nearly impossible to stop. He signed the waiver they wanted him to and continued chugging along. 12 miles later here he was in our tent, a finisher. I can’t imagine the talking to his wife gave him later. She bought him a new shirt to go home in though. He said he was going to frame this one with his finisher medal, forget that washing business! We had our first stitches of Ironman Oceanside.
Things were slowing down in the medical tent after that excitement, people were finishing, heading home, but there were still plenty of people out on the course. I headed out to the finish line. That, ladies and gents, are where the true inspiring stories of Ironman are. Hours after the pros had finished and well after the elite amateurs. Over half the field were first-timers. I saw a husband and wife, the husband had obviously done this before and finished well long ago, he was standing at the finish line when his wife crossed, looking like she had done many more enjoyable things in her time. The emotion on his face when she crossed that finish was intense, the joy he felt that his wife had finished her first Ironman, the hug he gave her when she reached him…several of us were wiping away tears. Let me tell you, if you don’t work the medical tent, work the finish line, that is where the best stories are. Where the Tri clubs wait and cheer in their own, where people that you would see on the street and think they didn’t know what a bicycle was show you what they are made of and become finishers. From the guy in his Tri suit and fancy watch to the guy in gym shorts and a tank top. Both finishers. I stayed there until the very end, 8 hours after the last wave of swimmers started. 9.5 hours maximum course time. As the cut off was coming, I saw a wave of teal coming down the track. The volunteers from the run course had gathered behind the last runner before cut off and were cheering her on, a tidal wave of support carrying her in. I don’t know what the cheers were like for the first finishers, but I bet they weren’t the decibel that the volunteers made for the last. It was incredible.
After treating the last few cases of dizziness, it was time to pack up and head home. What a rewarding day. The lesson I learned? It doesn’t matter first or last, it matters that you finished. Not even that, it matters that you did the work, got out of bed that morning, and were there when the whistle blew. That makes you Ironman. And I thank each and every one of them for allowing me to be a part of their journey, allowing me to support them in their goals. I can’t wait to do it again.