Each year approximate 3,600 people volunteer to support the 2,600 athletes during Ironman. Many volunteers either have raced in triathlons or Ironmans before, others volunteer because it provides access to early registration for the next Ironman in Lake Placid, many have friends or family in the race, and some for the pure pleasure they get from supporting the athletes competing.
For several years my favorite job was in the massage tent helping the athletes loosen their muscles after a strenuous day of swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and finishing it off with a 26.2 mile marathon. I liked talking with the athletes and hearing their stories about the race and why they decided to take it on. A job that appealed to me was stripping, those who literally strip the wet suits off the athletes as they come out of the lake. I have also enjoyed working the aids stations where you supply them with water, Gatorade, goo and bananas, those jobs where one has a chance to connect with the athletes.
This year I decided to go watch the start and then head around to the Keene aid station near Irish Hill Lane a couple miles north of Keene. However attending a Mojito party the night before may have contributed to a slow start so by the time I reached Keene the swim portion was well underway and the lead biker had cleared the Cascade Lakes. My option was to park my car and catch a ride with an official vehicle that let me off at Irish Hill where I met about 40 people, mostly from the Oak Grove Baptist Church in Bel Air, MD. With tables loaded with sports fitness drinks, goo, water and bananas they were ready and eager to meet the onslaught.
"We are on a mission trip," said Nick Ferrara.
"Does that mean you are going to quote inspirational scripture as the zip by?" I said.
"No, we don't have time for that," said Janice Scott, "but we will pray for them."
"We are here for a week," said Ferrara. "We do breakfast on the oval, we work the awards banquet, and we help with the tables and chairs. We are here to support their physical and spiritual needs. For most of us this is our seventh year volunteering in Lake Placid."
"Here he comes," yelled Jay Scott and we all turned to see a biker zipping toward us with a pair on a motorcycle seemingly inches away filming every labored breath and bead of sweat popping out of the athlete rapidly approaching.
"Sports drink," they all shouted as Adam Frederick held out a bottle ready to dash along with the biker to make it easier for them to snatch.
"The pros come in one or two at a time," said Scott. "They come in pretty spread apart, it is the amateurs that come in all in packs."
"I have done Half-Irons (Tin Man)," said Frederick. "Next year will be my first Ironman. "I have done one Half Iron this year and I have three more planned. The way it works out is if you keep moving, if you have constant forward motion, you will cross the finish line."
"Which part do you love and hate?" I said.
"I hate the run. Every photo of me during the run I am hating the world. I am a biker. I love the bike. Lake Placid will be my first Ironman. I am registering tomorrow."
"We will be right here cheering him next year," said Janice Scott.
"Lake Placid has a reputation as a hilly course," said Frederick.
"and for having the best volunteers," said Janice.
"It is very well organized here," said Frederick. "There is a growing movement to move the championships around because Kona favors a certain type of body, a slightly smaller body, but I do not see that changing any time soon, certainly not in the next decade. Kona is everybody's goal. Everybody wants to earn their spot."
Down at the water table I met Elizabeth and Michael Bassett and their son Owen, and Joe Manning.
"This is our first time working at an aid station, except Owen, he has done it five times," said Joe.
"How is it you have worked more Ironman's than your parents? You are how old?" I said.
"Eight. I did them with my grandfather," said Owen. "I like being out in the cold and helping people."
"We like helping the athletes," said Elizabeth Bassett.
"Have any of you raced? What's the best body size?"
"I have done Ironman St. Louis," said Joe.
"I have done a Half," said Michael.
"Tall is not bad, heavy is not good," said Joe.
"Bikers tend to be smaller," said Michael. "They may be as tall as us, but their frames are smaller."
"I am originally from upstate New York," said Michael. "I live in Colorado, but I want my first Ironman to be back here."
"Water! Water!" they start to chorus as several of the pros approach, holding out a bottle and, once gaining eye contact and seeing the athlete nod, then dashing down the road with a bottle in their left hand outstretched making it easier for the athlete to grab.
"There are a lot of women up near the lead," said Elizabeth after the wave goes by. "I think I got the technique. You can't look back. I'm getting better at this."
"Did you notice their age is written on their legs," said Michael. "It helps them know how they are going against others in their age group."
"You volunteers are great," shouted a biker going by.
"Looking good," said a volunteer at one of them.
"Water, Water. He's got you."
The onslaught was on and it was clear the water team needed help so I put down my camera and pad, signed a release form, and joined the rotation of holding out bottles, running along with the bikers, looping back to do it again.
"Thank you. We couldn't do anything without these volunteers," said Stephanie Graham while stopping to get her water pack filled. "They are wonderful. They are awesome. I did Florida last year and Lake Placid is so much nicer. It's a wonderful place to race."
Later our station manager John Ferra said, "A good volunteer thinks of other people before themselves. They have to be able to meet the physical needs of the athlete and be able to connect with them. We need people willing to work with others for the greater good."
"I have raced in 10 Ironmans, three times in Lake Placid, I qualified here, and three times in Kona," said Liz Kollar. "I think this town is amazing. The vibe is even better than Kona. They know how to treat athletes here."