Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ironman Texas / UK / Autism 8k / CapTex Tri

In a characteristic whirlwind week+, I spent more than 20 hours volunteering for races and more than that on airplanes. Starting with Ironman Texas, flying to the UK for a company conference, and coming back to volunteer for the Autism Speaks 8K running race and CapTex Triathlon, it was pretty exhausting.

I left the office Friday, May 16, and drove to Houston. I wasn't exactly thrilled when I got to my hotel and found there was a prom going on. Fortunately they didn't keep me up and I got a decent night's sleep before waking up at 4 to drive up to The Woodlands to start working in transition. Shortly after checking in, a woman with a badge essentially said "go help out over there," pointing to the run/T2 bags. This pretty much consisted of directing athletes, as in "you'll come in this way," "you'll go out that way," "the start is that way," etc. At first I wandered up and down the two aisles between three rows of reg bags arranged roughly by race number, but it started to get really crowded and I got out of the way. I don't think I touched my transition bags after dropping them off when I did this race last year, so it seemed slightly strange to me that so many people wanted to get into their bags. Around 6:30 they were shooing people out of transition and toward the swim start, almost a mile away. I don't know what state the bags were in overnight, but it was a bit chaotic once the athletes had been through them. I started arranging T1 bags by race number but it didn't take long to realize it was a fool's errand to try and get them into two neat rows in strict ascending order, and instead concentrated on making sure they were in the correct section and the number was plainly visible. With a little help from the volunteers (especially calling out numbers as athletes approached), hopefully everyone found their bag in an efficient manner. A little while after the 6:45 pro/7am age group start, the swim exit team started assembling. I had volunteered to help people out of the water (similar to what I did for the Kerrville sprint in September), so I went straight to the steps. Others were there to strip wetsuits, man a special needs table, hand out water, and whatever else people would need after finishing a 2.4-mile swim. Myself and six other guys were on the stairs. I may not have been in the best position- I was halfway down the steps (with my feet in the water) while everyone else was at the top step. I think being closer to the water may have been good for getting the less strong swimmers, but many times I felt like I was in the way. The position may have been easier on my body- everyone else was leaning way over to grab hands and arms, while I was in a more comfortable position. About 7:30 the first pros arrived, led by Austin's Brandon Marsh with a gap on a small group. I had not expected any pros to be looking for a hand up and was trying to stay out of their way, so I was surprised when a hand came looking for mine and I felt bad I didn't have it ready for him. In the early going, it was waves of fast people, first pros then age groupers. After they were through it was a pretty steady stream until the last swimmers showed up, ebbing and flowing a bit as these things tend to do. I was far to swimmer's left on the steps, not the most direct target after rounding the final buoy; somehow I gave a hand to the two friends I knew were racing. Meredith is super fast, and I didn't quite recognize her until she thanked me by name; David I recognized as he came out and I joked "sorry, you didn't make the cut" as I gave him a pat on the back and sent him on his way. One of the other pullers was an Austin guy, Chris, whom I had never met but had heard of his exploits (he's even nuttier than I am) through mutual friends; it was nice to finally meet him and chat a bit. It was a good, fun job until we got to the cutoff time. At 9:20 (the swim must be completed in 2 hours and 20 minutes), there were four women who were at the last buoy. Mike "the voice of Ironman" Reilly was on the PA encouraging them to hurry up; every volunteer and every spectator was cheering them on. Nobody seemed to be super strict (ie to the second) on the time limit, but it was clearly past 9:20 and Mike declared their day done. I was not about to stand in the way and keep anybody from continuing, but it was heartbreaking when one woman asked "Did I make it?" and we had to say no. Of the four women, three seemed relatively okay with it; the fourth, possibly the woman I later learned missed the cut for her fourth time, was crying. I didn't see anyone else in the water, so I walked away from the steps; as I did I saw three more people still in the water. Apparently two were a blind guy and his guide; at the end of the night Mike Reilly said he missed the cut but they let him continue anyway; unfortunately he didn't make it through the run before midnight. Before I was dismissed from my first assignment, I helped put T1 bags at their respective rack spots, which were now empty because the bikes were on course.
I went to my car to change out of my wet clothes and switch from sandals to shoes before finding some lunch. I ate two tacos and headed back to transition. The shift started at 11:30, but there wasn't much to do until the first pros arrived a little after noon. It did allow me a chance to confirm with Mike Reilly that he will be a the two Ironmans I will be doing this year. The way the job worked was that volunteers queued up behind the arch entrance to transition, about 15 meters past the dismount line, waiting for a bike to come in. Once an athlete came in, whoever was at the front of the queue would take their bike and rack it. Volunteers moved up and down the center aisle while athletes went to their left around the racks, avoiding collisions. For a while it was just a trickle of bikes, one or a few coming in at a time with gaps. Later in the afternoon it was a constant stream of bikes, to the point that after racking one bike and hustling back to the "receiving line," there was another bike coming in to grab. In addition to darting around in the hot sun (I still contend it was not as hot as last year), it was one of the grossest jobs I have ever done. I was warned ahead of time, but I did not heed the call to wear gloves, reasoning that having my hands sweat would be worse than handling bikes. Oh, was I wrong. The bikes being super sweaty wasn't the worst part to me, it was the stickiness of sports drinks and gels. One seat was covered with what I can only hope was chamois cream. In the bustle I did not see my friends come in, I didn't happen to catch either of their bikes. Possibly the biggest surprise of the afternoon was that two age group men got in between and first and second female pros (Julia Gajer had a huge lead on Kelly Williamson; they also started 10 minutes before these guys). I was scheduled to be there only until 2:30, but it was so crazy at that time I couldn't just walk away. I stayed until 3:30 when it had slowed down slightly. I might have stayed longer, but I was pretty tired, I wasn't hustling at all past 3 o'clock. I also needed to get cleaned up and get some more nourishment before my next gig over at run special needs.
My shift in the park that earlier served as the swim start staging area was from 5-9, after which the special needs station was closed. The run is a 3-loop course, and the athletes had one chance to get their bag (prepared by them and dropped off in the morning). I'm not sure the exact mechanism, but elsewhere in the park was a spotter texting bib numbers of people who wanted their bag that loop. At the special needs "corral," the numbers came in and a volunteer was dispatched to find that bag and wait for its owner to come by. The "spotter" system wasn't perfect, or at least wasn't obvious to all the athletes, as many arrived unannounced wanting their bag. While the bags were arranged numerically, it still took a few seconds to locate the proper bag, so it was a scramble to get these last-minute folks; some kept going rather than wait a few seconds. Once they got their bag, anything they didn't take was officially trash, but we did separate the leftovers into clothes and shoes that went to some worthy cause, and reusable food/drink and medical-type stuff. There were an unfortunate number of bags that couldn't be found; at least there was a stockpile of almost anything they might need. Red Bull, gels, Honey Stinger waffles, and vaseline were among the most discarded/picked up by someone else items. This job was not as messy as bike special needs (which I did at Ironman Wisconsin last fall) and not nearly as sweaty/sticky as bike catcher. I did see a few people I know while I was there: David again, taking a walk break on his last lap; Garry Elmitt, a 76-year old Austinite (unfortunately he did not make the finish line before midnight); and two women I sort of know from the gym. Probably the most interesting visitors were a couple who were getting married the next day; my comment was "I hope there are no stairs involved." I saw her finish later, 3 minutes before midnight (he finished before her and was waiting there). After 9 I helped clean up a bit before heading back to the finish line.
The finish area was already thick with people when I got there around 10pm. I couldn't squeeze my way to the fence near the actual finish arch, so I made way to the other side of the street, right at the second to last turn. I cheered the people coming in and stuck out my hand for high-fives. Not everyone went for the high-five, but a lot did. A lot were pretty weak, as you might expect from someone who had been moving for 15 to 17 hours straight; a lot were typical hand slaps; there were a few, however, who gave really hard slaps, the kind where you shake your hand out afterward. Almost everyone's hand was pretty gross and sweaty. There was a big buildup for the final finishers. The stream of athletes had gone from a steady stream to just a trickle. Whenever a finisher approached, the crowd started cheering loudly, imparting as much energy as possible to the athlete to get them across the line before midnight. To me, midnight at an Ironman finish line is the greatest spectator event in all of sports, and I would recommend everyone experience it at least once. A few minutes past midnight, Mike Reilly called the event closed, and the crowd dispersed. I was a little surprised how easy of a time I had getting back to the interstate and back to my hotel.

I wanted to get a run in Sunday; running near my hotel would have been convenient in terms of taking a shower before going to the awards/volunteer appreciation banquet, but it was smack in highway hell. I checked out and drove up to The Woodlands, where I ran some of the Ironman course. I was a little sweaty at the luncheon, but I'm sure it wasn't the first time anyone in that room had been around a sweaty person. I stuck around for the age group awards, at least long enough to see Meredith (and her sister) up on stage. I went over and congratulated her before heading out. In the evening, back at home, I unpacked and repacked for a few days outside of London. I went to work Monday morning, and left from there to go to the airport. In a bit of poor planning, I had a layover in Houston, roughly 7 miles from where I had just spent two nights (and I was back in Houston a week after getting home for a stair race).
A few other coworkers were on on the same flight that landed around noon; myself and three others crammed into a "hire car" for the short drive to Beaumont Estate in Windsor. The estate apparently dates back to 1300, but I'm pretty sure none of the buildings do. Before it became a conference center, it was a school. It's a huge place, very pastoral (though the wing I and most people stayed in was much newer and not as charming as the older buildings). I had lunch in the pub before I could get checked in to the conference and my room. When I did get into my room, I sat on the bed with my laptop, not intending to sleep, but I set an alarm on my phone just in case. It was a good thing, because of course I fell asleep shortly after I sat down (I had only slept 2 or 3 hours on the plane). It was an internal engineering conference, so of course I can't divulge anything, but it was pretty interesting to learn about other things going on throughout the company, and to hear from top executives. It was roughly four days of too much food and not enough exercising. The schedule didn't allow time for much personal time, so I skipped some social time Wednesday and Thursday before dinner to get something of a workout. Wednesday I went for a run to Windsor Castle, that was about 10k round trip; Thursday I went for a swim, but the water was so hot I could only stand to do 1000 yards. The conference officially wrapped up Friday afternoon, but my flight wasn't until Saturday morning, so three coworkers and I took a taxi to tour the castle. We arrived as a tour was starting, which we joined, and which was entirely outdoors in the rain. It was a fairly light rain, and I had a rain jacket, so I didn't mind. After seeing the gardens, gates, grand entryways and such, along with a history lesson, the tour dropped us at the cathedral. That was nice, but the Royal apartments were quite impressive. There were several large rooms, with the hall for the Order of the Garter the largest by far. As huge as the public section of the castle is, the place is still big enough that it's still open when the Queen is in residence and still quite removed from the tourists.

I didn't sleep much on the flight back on Saturday, so it was almost miraculous I stayed awake until 9pm. That did, however, help me wake up early the next few days. While I was in the UK, I got an email calling for volunteers for the Autism Speaks 8k Sunday morning; at one point I had thought about racing this, but decided against doing that right after crossing the Atlantic. My race team (Big Pistachio) was manning a water station, and since I didn't have any other plans for that morning and I figured I would be awake, I said sure. So I spent the morning hanging out with friends passing out cups of water. The race winner is apparently a super fast runner (like 2:11 marathon fast) who decided to do this race rather than his normal workout; there were a few guys hot on his trail, but the two times they passed us he looked well in control. After helping break down the race, I went downtown to the CapTex Triathlon expo. I had signed up to be a handler for the paratri (like last year), but at the supposed meeting nobody knew what was going on. There were much fewer physically challenged athletes this year since USAT had to move the national championship to a later race, due to some late rules changes implemented to get triathlon part of the Paralympic Games in Rio. By the time I found out what was going on, it had been sorted out to where every athlete who needed a handler had one, and I wasn't on that list. I took a job in transition instead. I went for a run around the lake, cleaned up at the gym, and was back at the expo to help out with Life Time's "bike valet," a corral in the expo to hold a bike while getting registered/shopping.

The jetlag was still working in my favor Monday morning, making it fairly easy to get up super early to get to the race site downtown. It started raining on my way over and continued for about an hour. It was never heavy, but enough to be a nuisance; fortunately I had anticipated it and brought my rain jacket. Shortly after arriving and getting checked in, I was dispatched to the corner of transition that would later be the entrance from the swim and the exit to the run. Nominally my job was to keep people from coming in that side, but most of what I did before the race started was to explain the course to people. Due to construction on the park lawn that has always been the transition area, the whole course was different this year, so nobody had raced it before. Like myself, some people had taken time to study the maps and line those up to the actual race site. Once transition closed and the race started, I moved to the corner just outside of transition to guide athletes in. Most people knew where to go and/or figured it out for themselves, but a few nearly missed the turn; a couple I physically corralled into the proper chute. In addition to all the pros, I got to see a bunch of my friends come by, and I gave them cheers. I was there long enough that the pros finished their bike legs and came around behind me on the run. Around 9am another volunteer came to relieve me; after 4 hours of standing and waving I was more than ready for a break. After a bit of sustenance I contemplated volunteering somewhere else, but I didn't see the volunteer coordinator so I just wandered around. All the pros were hanging around the finish area; I chatted a little with men's winner Cameron Dye. I hung out with some friends spectating, cheered on some friends racing until 10-ish. My plan well before the day had been to go for a bike ride after the race; I ditched that idea when it looked crappy leaving my house. It had gotten nice out while I was working, so I started to think about going home to go for a ride. Before I actually headed out, the skies were looking dark and ominous again. I went to the gym, apparently to remind myself how much I despise spin bikes, and the skies opened up just as I got there. The storm was bad enough that they stopped the race and encouraged everyone to seek cover. I didn't see any stats, but quite a few people weren't able to finish; supposedly some people were still in the water, but that doesn't sound right to me. All in all it was an unusual, most likely one-off, race day.

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