Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Lessons Learned from Kayak Support Volunteer - IMStG 70.3

With my focus being on short course this year, there is no Half Irons happening for me this year.  However, there was 150 fellow tri club members racing this weekend, and I knew it was going to be one giant party, and I didn't want to miss out.  I wanted to be involved somehow, so I figured it would be fun to volunteer and have always wanted to do kayak support for a race, so here was my chance! I went to the Ironman website, and signed up.  I was stoked!

I drove down on Friday, hit Ironman Village (this is where a miracle occurred.  I left the Merchandise Tent spending less than $100!), then headed out to Sand Hollow where most athletes were doing bike check in.  The wind was really blowing and there were white caps on the water.  Sand Hollow Reservoir has a history of bad weather conditions, in particular wind, and this was no exception.  It was cold as well, so I knew that if things didn't calm down, it would make for a very rough swim in the morning.  However, I don't love "rough conditions" for the bike or run, but in the water, I kind of relish the challenge and was somewhat jealous I wouldn't be racing in it :)

I headed over to the briefing from Ironman Officials and Washington County SAR officials for all swim support volunteers.  They went into detail about conditions to watch for with swimmers, what protocol was if we needed to have a swimmer assessed or pulled from the water, and what our assignments were going to be for the morning.  The Ironman official said that if conditions didn't improve by morning they would cancel the swim, only letting the pros swim since it was a championship event for them.  My friend Eric from SLTC was also volunteering and we stuck around for the barbecue dinner that was provided.  During dinner the wind and weather calmed down and the water was like glass.  Eric, who competed in the infamous 2012 Ironman there, said the conditions were almost identical to that year, where it was like the calm before the storm.  Then he was nice enough to offer to let me crash on his couch for the night since I had planned on camping out or sleeping in my Jeep. This proved much better than those options would have been.  Thank you Oscarsons!

The next morning I was awoken to the music LET'S GET READY TO RUMBLE at 3:30am. All I could do was smile because Eric's wife, Mandy, was racing and it was race morning for her and this was her pump it up music.  We got up, ate, changed, and headed over to Sand Hollow where our boats were waiting for us.  I had set up my boat the night before with the essentials on it and added my own bag of snacks, water bottles, etc.  I had a head lamp and was glad that I did as we were on the water before the sun was up.  We actually had to paddle in almost a mile to get to where we would be staged for the race.  I got out on the beach to get one more bathroom break and ran up to use the porta potties and ran into none other than Meredith Kessler!  I was so excited to see her, I had missed the pro panel on Thursday and didn't think I would get a chance to see her at all.  Of course, being gracious as always, she let this major fan girl get a picture :)

Getting back out on the water was fun. It was gorgeous, though cool out.  It was nice to see the sunrise on the water.  I swear, when I retire, mark my words, it will be by the water and look something like this:

Then a guy on a boat came up and pointed at me and my friend Eric and appointed us to be the lead kayak (the one the pros sight off of) for the male and female pros respectively.  I was STOKED!  How much cooler was this morning going to get?  Eric has done this several times before and said that the goal was to stay one to one a half buoys ahead of the pros and you had to haul a$$ as they are fast and you have to stay out ahead of them. I could do that!

The gun went off and I did just as I was told. I couldn't believe how cool it was to watch the pros this close.  The swim is always my favorite part of any race, but also the hardest to spectate and hear it was I had a front row seat.  I had the slower male pros right in front of me and the lead pack of pro women right behind me.  It was very, very cool.  They operate on an entirely different level.  Now, with that being said, I was surprised to see how many of the slower male pros (I couldn't tell who they were due to the wetsuits and the swim caps) that really seemed to be struggling with the swim.  Hey, we all have off days, right?  Meredith Kessler was the lead swimmer and KILLING it!

By the time the pros finished, I worked my way back to the start where they had already started the age group waves.  My friend Mike had told me he was in the light blue cap wave and I was there right as it started.  I stayed close to his wave and him most of the time due to the fact Mike struggles in open water with rough conditions.  Apparently, he is not the only one!

I was then amazed by how many people do not prepare for the swim portion of triathlon.  By this time, it had clouded up again, cooled down, and the wind and rain started.  The water was choppy and far from ideal conditions.  I had dozens of people grab my kayak over the next few hours grab and hold on to my kayak.  This is completely fine and allowed as long as the kayak makes no forward motion.  I heard time and time again from numerous swimmers the following statements that left me completely dumbfounded:

  • This is my first time in a wetsuit (or this wetsuit)
  • This is my first open water swim
  • I am so much faster in a pool, I don't know what my problem is today
  • I haven't swam in open water in years.
Are you friggin kidding me?  Why on earth would you do this to yourself?  As the conditions only worsened through out the morning, this lead to some scary incidents on the water watching people that were struggling and adding to it rough conditions.  They then said, "I just try to survive the swim to get to the bike and/or run".  Um, survive is the key word here!

So here's my rant.  First off, I firmly believe that this sport has a spot for everyone.  However, with that being said, if one is not prepared to swim in open water, one should not do so.  That is why there are sprint triathlons and many with pool swims.  A Half Iron distance tri held in a lake with a history of bad swim conditions is NOT the place to start.  I had many people tell me "Well, everyone has to start somewhere."  Yes, they do, but this is not the place.  Or I also heard, "They are chasing a dream."  True, but again, most dreams have to built upon.  This should not be the first step to your dream.  Dreams take time and work.  THIS was not the place to start.

To further clarify, I am not talking about slow swimmers.  I have no problem with them. I have an issue with those that can barely swim.  There were many slow swimmers who were still getting the job done needing no assistance from us volunteers.  I am talking about the ones that in a pool would put the lifeguards on edge (you know, like myself when I attempt butterfly) and put us volunteers on edge for 1.2 miles.

So, moral of the story (aka, my rant) is be prepared.  Start somewhere, hire a coach, go to Masters swimming, take lessons, practice in open water prior to race day with a wetsuit, and be safe out there! This all seems like no brainer information, but if you saw what I saw on Saturday, you would see that apparently it is not.

I had a great day volunteering/spectating.  After helping the final swimmer out of the water, I went to get out of my boat and could barely stand I was shivering so badly.  I was immediately escorted into the med tent to be treated since (according to them anyway) I was hypothermic.  They wrapped me in tin foil blankets and forced chicken broth down me.  I won't lie, that stuff was amazing at that point. It took awhile to stop shivering, but I eventually warmed up enough they let me leave.  I was anxious to go and change into dry clothes and head over to the run course to cheer on my tri club mates.

I later found out after the race that there was a 27% DNF rate for the day.  No doubt, it was tough out there.  I give mad props to all those that raced under such tough conditions.  I personally had 5 friends not finish on Saturday.  The conditions on the bike were terrible, making it to where people were so cold they couldn't shift or brake.  With so many hills on this course, that would be unreal!

I firmly believe every triathlete should volunteer for a race.  If you choose to do kayak support, even better!  It is a great opportunity.  Here are some suggestions I wish I woud have known prior:

  1. Dress in layers.  It might be cooler in the morning than later in the day, so be prepared to add or take away layers as the conditions arise.
  2. Wear clothing that can get wet, because you will get wet.
  3. Wear gloves of some kind, exercise gloves like those for weight lifting or cycling would be great.  I got a blister on the inside of my thumb from paddling.
  4. Take snacks and enough fluids for a long morning on the water. I  was out there for 4.5 hours.  
  5. Having a head lamp was invaluable for the morning.  We started paddling at 5:15am, before the sun was up.  It was great to have the lamp.  Have a whistle ready as well, though Ironman provided them for us.

So what's next?  Ironically, I am volunteering at another triathlon this weekend (a sprint) that is held right in my neck of the woods.  Then I have Salem Spring Sprint tri (attempt #2 to qualify for Nationals) in two weeks.  Happy training, racing, and volunteering all!

1 comment:

  1. What a cool experience that was! I am jealous!!! My wife wants a kayak for her birthday so I am trying to find the right one for her, she would love to spend her free time floating around on the water enjoying the outside!