Over the years, I’ve attended many races to watch and support my friends achieve an important athletic goal. A few years ago, I decided to try something a little different that raised my level of consciousness and appreciation for my mind, body and community. I drove up to Lake Placid, New York to volunteer and watch Ironman Lake Placid, a race which had 2,342 athletes participating in a 2.4 miles swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride and the a marathon – 26.2 miles.
I also took in a bit of training myself 🙂
In addition to the beautiful scenery, fresh air, clean water and friendly people, I was able to watch up close and in-person, thousands of athletes attempt to complete this race in the most horrific weather in the history of Ironman Lake Placid, in 17 hours. To say it rained all day is an understatement. From 30 minutes into the start of the race, it rained hard and didn’t stop until 9:00 pm that night.
But the weather didn’t slow down the spirit and athletic drive of these athletes. Many of these athletes would have spent over thousands of dollars to do this race – from buying a new bike, hiring a coach, doing races in other states/provinces to test their training progress, and then of course just the expense to race in Lake Placid – race entry fee, hotel, food, bringing family etc. So some rain wasn’t going to stop these athletes in achieving what they set out to do. In fact, I met some athletes after the race that even told me they achieved a personal best time.
In talking with many of the athletes, volunteering and watching this race, I came away with a few key lessons that I’d like to share for anyone embarking on their athletic journey:
1. Sense of Humour – while volunteering at the run aid station where athletes picked up their Special Needs Bag (a pre-packed bag with anything they think they might need half way through the marathon - nutrition, rain jackets, disposable camera etc.), I often heard many athletes call out “do you have a new pair of legs for me, in there?” I thought this was great, especially considering how much more distance these athletes still needed to complete. So when doing a race, keeping a sense of humour will help your mind stay away from any negative thoughts, especially in areas that you can’t control, such as the weather. Think of funny stories, favourite jokes, commercial or TV shows – replay them in your head. I like playing the alphabet game, where I try and list a fruit or vegetable for each letter…apple, banana, cantaloupe. You can do this for any category, it’s a great distraction.
2. Thank Your Volunteers – There were over 3,000 volunteers at Lake Placid to help make this race happen. Without volunteers, athletes wouldn’t be able to race. So be sure to thank at least one volunteer. In fact, I challenge each athlete to make it a goal to say thank you to at least 5 volunteers within a ½ hour of crossing any finish line.
3. Don’t Take it Personally - I helped athletes put on dry socks, dry shoes, find their nutrition etc. Some said thank you, some didn’t – if they didn’t thank you for your time, don’t take it personally. At that moment in-time, their head could be somewhere else, as they are mostly concerned about their race, what body part is hurting, wondering how they will finish etc. Athletes know that even leading up to race day, they may get a bit anxious and slightly off as they try to contain their adrenaline and keep calm. When I attended the Volunteer dinner the following evening, we were told that during speeches at the Athlete’s dinner the night before, recognition for the volunteers received the BIGGEST applause. So even though you may not hear it first-hand, athletes are very appreciative of volunteers who help put on the race. Without volunteers, athletes would not be able to pursue their athletic dreams.
4. Words of Encouragement – when cheering on athletes, I quickly determined that certain words of encouragement resonated better, than others. I could see it in their eyes or their body language, sometimes I even got a head nod, which I knew was the athlete’s way of thanking me. Words that embodied the spirit of their determination and commitment, seem to give them what they needed to keep moving forward:
5. Inspired - volunteering is a great way to support your family and friends, give back to the community and check out a new sport to see if you’d like to train for it. But be aware, when volunteering it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and energy of the day. Next thing you know you’re signing up for next year. This is what happened to me, and how I completed my first half marathon.