Tales of an Ironman (Spectator)

Today’s guest blogger is TriForce athlete, angel investor and my wife, Caroline Bontia.  I’m a super lucky guy to have a wife who is such an enthusiastic and talented spectator and photographer.  I asked Caroline to do a write up about being an Iron spectator extraordinaire. (To learn more about spectating Ironman Kona, check out Caroline’s recent write-up, here.) 

It’s 3:45 a.m. The only reason why I’m up at this unnatural, familiar hour is that it’s Ironman race day. And I’m not racing it. My morning routine has been finely tuned to perfection through 6 races.   First I summon a strong and large coffee, preferably Starbucks with two packets of Splenda. I’ll get coffee for myself too, but breakfast will be much later. If I’m lucky, the hotel, shrewd on capitalizing the fervor of the race weekend, will have just what I need in the lobby. If not, I’m outside speed walking for a few minutes alone in the dark angling for the local coffee shop I’ve scouted the day before with the desired caffeine fix.

When I return the smell of coffee cheers my athlete who’s now dressed in his race attire. He’s a 35-39 AGer, 155 pounds, eating oatmeal mixed with warm water from the coffee machine, or some combination of sprouted bread with peanut butter, whey protein isolate with soy milk, and a banana.  Today I don’t mind the sticky mess on the hotel kitchen counter. And I’m a neat freak. Instead I switch to DJ mode and play the usual mix of Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, and ACDC. We’re careful not to wake our neighbors who we suspect are already embattled in their own pre-race ritual.  I research then announce the day’s weather forecast. High 80s–not too bad for Kona. At 5:30 a.m., my athlete runs through his checklist of battle gear. I look at him and feel proud that he’s sacrificed numerous weekends and turned down invitations to be dedicated to this sport that has often left me to go stag to those late-night-calorie-rich parties.  I also check-off my provisions:

–  Nikon D5000 (which also takes HD videos), SLR short and long distance lenses

–       Sunscreen

–       Hat, sunglasses, Power Shower wipes, oil blotters,

–       Snack for later

–       Cell phone (a smartphone is very handy), charger to track your athlete on ironmanlive.com, and portable back-up cell phone charger.

–       Water

–       Bike ticket and family pass ticket (if applicable); and

–        The much loved cowbell!

I’m dressed for a run because that’s what I’ll be doing all day to snap that momentous shot–the picture that will let us relive the pain and joy–of what we’ve both achieved together.

We bid each other farewell at the transition area. He’s now reunited with his bike and prepping it. Other athletes are busy doing the same.  A few crazy outfits, home-made team shirts, and cardboard signs decorated with race numbers and nicknames cut the tension of pre-race morning. Other creative spectators have already used colorful chalk to scribble roadways with words of encouragement or nailed signs on posts and trees.

Oh Canada. CDA IM 2010


Team Coady at Kona 2010. In 2011 I’m on my own.

This time around, I’m alone with no other family or friend and I need to quickly scout for a good spot.

Kids are amazing spectators too.

The key to surviving the assault of spectating for an Ironman is simple:  respect and understand what it means to achieve the mammoth goal.   If you do, the race will touch a part of your core that will dissolve the hours you’ve spent standing in the heat (or cold).  Time will pass quickly as you cheer for scantily clad strangers in pain with their shrill looks of determination.

To be a top notch Iroman spectator I have my “three rules”:

1. Study the race course or bring a copy of it with you. Have a discussion with your athlete the day before and ask him where it’s best for you to stand near the bike ride and the run. Also, find a spot on the route where you know the athletes will return twice.

Kevin giving his dad tips on where to spectate on the race course.

2. Write down your athlete’s expected times for each event so that you can be at your designated spot before hand and memorize your athlete’s race outfit, number, helmet, sunglasses and his bike colors. Trust me. If you have this down, it’ll increase your line-up ability by 50%; and

3. Learn a few basics about your camera. Make sure to turn it on approx (earlier than later) before the expected arrival time. Set it to “sport” and “continuous” shot modes. Some experts warn that these settings might not be optimum, but trust your instincts. Or, use your smartphone to take a video.

By the time the swim starts, it’s usually impossible to get a close-up shot when everyone is wearing the same colored wetsuit, swim cap, with about the same build. Not to worry. It’s a spectacle to view over 1,500+ athletes surging out to swim.  I position myself in an area where I can at least capture a video start. I scan the crowd, find an opening and ask people around me politely if I can sit or stand near them. Usually your fellow spectators are very friendly. That tells you a lot about this sport and the community.

And they’re off!

I’m satisfied with the pictures I’ve taken. I hang around for about 45 minutes then trek towards my next cheering post.

A Peek at the Swim Start

2011 Kona IM. View from our hotel balcony.

Depending on the race logistics, it might be possible to get a shot of my athlete at transition. This time, I decide to make the wiser choice to stand at my bike post. This is where the real challenge begins: to spot your athlete in the aero position, helmet, sunglasses, riding that certain Cervelo model. Now, I don’t want to sound boastful here. But I’ve had 100% success rate at this. Family and friends often exclaim, “How does she do it?!” I explain my three rules to them, but they’re never satisfied. Then each time I capture that in-motion shot, I start to believe a little in my so-called “gift”. As predicted, my athlete zooms by! I know he doesn’t hear my cowbell or my incredulous cheer, as long as I have pictures to prove it.

I have more than a few hours to kill now, which means it’s officially breakfast time.  To reward my hard work and get to that café I’ve been craving, I’ll have to cross the street.  That means navigating around a one-way barricaded route and squeezing myself into a crowd that’s waiting for the green light from a cross-guard.  He’s just scolded a few testy pedestrians against the onslaught of bike riders.  This can take up to a few minutes and at some races, has taken me up to an hour. Surprisingly Kona, Hawaii has been the most relaxed crowd.   Coeur D’Alene, on the other hand, can become a nauseating maze near the downtown stretch. However, the Zurich IM takes the cake for being the most difficult with having to board a shuttle to and from Heartbreak Hill.

Zurich IM 2009. Heart Break Hill.

2011 Kona IM Bike.   I got “the shot!”

I went to the very crowded Lava Java, in Kona, HI for breakfast and shared a table with another spectator named Angie, from Texas. We immediately exchanged our respective athlete’s stories and our own athletic interests.

Lava Java, Kona

Finally. Bacon.

Angie told me that her worst finish shot experience was when she was abruptly pushed aside by a non-speaking English lady just as her husband finished. My jaw dropped. I shook my head sympathetically. Inevitably, we segue way on how we’ll exploit the hours until our next cheering duties. We say our good-byes, good-lucks, and try to remember the other’s athlete number.

How do you kill time when your athlete’s trying to suspend time? Sometimes I wander around town and shop, nap, or sun bathe depending on the race location. Or, all of the above. For this past 2011 Kona Ironman, I stopped by the grocery store to pick-up post-race recovery treats. My athlete likes to reward himself with a Coke (with real sugar!) and plain potato chips. I also pick-up some Aloe, Bengay and Advil, just in case.

Back at the hotel, I get into cleaning mode so the room is respectable enough to request cleaning service. I also upload pictures I’ve taken and share them on Google+ and Facebook, exchange a few IMs on the topic of IMs, then obsessively check ironmanlive.com for updates (refresh, refresh!) deciding if my athlete is on target from last year’s race and his expected finish times. By now I’ve killed almost 4 hours. I switch gears, grab my recovery grocery purchases, post race clothes, and head back to the race course. The professionals are probably making their return from the bike. It’s fascinating to watch them glide by to begin their run.

Krissy Wellington, Kona Winner

Craig Alexander, 2011 Kona Winner

For the next couple of hours, I cheer for other age groupers beginning their run. I’m also cursing Ironmanlive.com and my mobile network to work faster on my phone. Finally. I see my athlete in person! He looks happy…and very sweaty. I cheer him loudly.

Kona 2011 Run

He stops to give me a sweaty kiss and tells me he loves me (part of his “fun run” plan for this year.) I also cheer on other athletes struggling. I ring my cowbell. I try to yell out loud every persons’ name from their race bib that I can pronounce.  I get a few thumbs up and thanks.

I have just one more hour remaining to find a spot by the finish line.  I walk on Alii drive filled with tense anticipation. Will my athlete reach his expected goal time? Will he make it? I squeeze by the crowd, set my camera on ready, then wait to sweat the heat and humidity some more. It’s loud and Mike Riley is screaming with equal weight and excitement “You are an IRONMAN!” to every professional, age-grouper, and physically-challenged athlete.

2010 Kona Finisher

Meanwhile, I’m counting down the time on the Timex monitor like it’s another qualifying race. Then he appears, mustering the last few yards with a smile. He achieves his time goal! Less than 10 hours, six sub-10 Ironmans in a row! It’s time to finally celebrate!

The Finish, Kona 2011

Last but not least, every Ironman spectator has to experience the midnight finishers. It’s another level of spectating. Admittedly, I’ve only attended one mostly because I’ve never been able to keep myself awake. But it’s worth it. Every 70+ or even 80+ AG finisher that’s announced, grabs your heart, makes you teary-eyed and makes you question your own mortality. This is why we love spectating Ironmans! And why we’ll be back again.

Midnight AG 70-74 Finisher

A very vivacious crowd. Every cheer counts.

Congratulations to all the finishers!  And congratulations by the way to you too! You Ironman Spectator/Ironman Support Crew/Iron-Mate!

About Coady

Lucky to be coaching some really awesome & fun people!
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6 Responses to Tales of an Ironman (Spectator)

  1. Jake says:

    Awesome post Caroline! Very cool.

  2. Guillaume says:

    Thanks Caroline, will be forwarding this to my IM Lanzarote spectators! 😉

  3. Caroline Bontia says:

    Thanks, Jake and Guillaume!
    @Jake, Looking forward to spectating you at CMDA next year.

  4. mame corcoran says:

    Great post! Congratulations to Kevin and to you for being his greatest supporter,

  5. Joey says:

    Thank you for sharing! My friend just did Ironman Louisville and your post really helped me (I was the spectator!) I’m not a huge fan of the athlete tracker (it’s always late!)

    • Caroline says:

      @Joey – Glad you found the post helpful. I hope you got awesome shots of your friend and that he or she did well too. Ironmanlive seems to be getting worse and not better :/ My next post will likely be on Ironman Arizona 2012 and my favorite things to do around town. Good luck on your next spectating or racing event.

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