Sunday, September 8, 2013

Day 119 - Volunteering at Ironman

I have never volunteered at the Ironman triathlon. Although I know people that have volunteered at this annual event for years, I have never taken the time to offer my assistance in making the race possible. In many cases this was simply the result of my ignorance in regard to the race’s occurrence, which left me in the dark it was happening until I began to see the familiar signs of the course being setup around downtown. With knowledge the race relies on thousands of volunteers to prepare the course, help the participating athletes transition between phases, staff aid stations, and provide medical assistance along the 140.6 mile racecourse, I made a commitment to myself that I would volunteer to assist at Ironman for my first time during my “I have never...” year. After all, doing so helped me gain a new experience, and it fit my “I have never...” objective of volunteering at one new opportunity each month. As a result, I kept my eyes peeled for notices about the race and narrowed in on some volunteer shifts I could make possible. Eventually, this resulted in Rachael and me signing up to volunteer our assistance at marathon aid station number four this afternoon. While I anticipated our efforts would provide a volunteer experience unlike any other, I would eventually walk away from the experience feeling more uplifted and inspired than I have from any other volunteer experience to date.

The truck
Our day began with a trip to the University of Wisconsin boathouse, which served as the location for aid station four in today’s Ironman race. Upon arriving, Rachael and I were greeted by two station leaders and a substantial group of volunteers eager to begin their volunteer shift. After a brief explanation of our plan of attack, our organizers informed us that our first duty would be to setup the aid station before the Ironman athletes hit the third leg of the race. Fortunately, the 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike race the preceded the marathon meant we had several hours to unload all of our station supplies and setup individual stations to provide food, water, and supplies to the runners as they passed our location over several laps of the marathon loop.

With our plan laid out, I immediately offered my assistance in unloading the moving truck full of supplies we would be dispersing throughout of aid station location. Happy to accept the offer, our station leaders worked with me to establish an assembly line approach to pulling the boxes of supplies from the truck and handing them off to other volunteers for placement at designated locations around our aid station. As I pulled box after box from the palettes in the truck, it quickly became apparent we could speed the process by having more volunteers handing items from the truck to the nearly two dozen volunteers on the ground. In response, several more volunteers climbed into the truck alongside me and began lending their hand in our unloading efforts. In minutes we had developed a fast paced, teamwork approach to clearing the palettes of goods from the back of the moving truck, which kept the line of volunteers on the ground churning in a constant cycle. Eventually, those efforts resulted in our team dispersing goods at both main areas of our aid station well ahead of schedule, which set into motion preparation efforts to get the water and food goods ready for the runners.

Fortunately, our earlier efficiency in unloading all of the materials for the aid station gave us plenty of time to organize and set up the materials at our location. After taking a brief break lakeside, our team returned to our setup duties around 12:15, which gave us more than enough time to get all of the food and drink items prepared for the race. Our preparedness eventually caused another lull in activity until the sound of a ringing cowbell and cheering began to slowly creep our way. Suddenly a brightly colored jersey appeared down the lakeside path, which meant one thing; the runners were officially on their way through our aid station. Excited by the prospect of our hard work being put to good use helping the runners, everyone on our team cheered and applauded the first runner before we hurriedly gathered our trays of food and cups to ready ourselves for the coming waves of Ironman participants. Our position in the aid station defaulted Rachael and I to food duty, which prompted us to grab a variety of food trays we had prepared minutes earlier. Another woman volunteer, Brady, was quick to join us at our location, which gave us the ability to get all six of our food trays out for the runners. Shortly before the first runner passed our location, the three of us divvied up responsibilities, which put Brady on potato chips, put Rachael on protein bars and Gu duty, and put me on cookie and pretzel duty.

Ready to go!
With the first runner closing in our location, we promptly grabbed our designated trays and line up along the racecourse with the rest of the volunteers at our location. Then in the first brief moment of excitement, the first place runner breezed past our location. Although he opted for water and sugary drinks over all of the trays Brady, Rachael, and I had on display, the combined feeling of experiencing the unbelievable athleticism of the passing athlete and the warmth that came with knowing I was helping make the athletes goals and dreams possible was overwhelmingly powerful. It was impossible to feel anything but excited and proud of my decision to volunteer, and all I had really done is help unload a truck and hold up some trays of food. It was simple, but it meant a lot to me to be there lending a hand and gaining that experience. I couldn’t think of any better way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

This feeling continued over the next few hours as Rachael and I worked through the rest of our volunteer shift. As time passed the waves of runners passing our station grew in size and frequency, which kept us busy throughout the afternoon; however, the feeling of excitement and honor that came with helping the Ironman athletes never lessened in intensity. This positive feeling made the remaining portion of our volunteer shift fly by in what felt like a matter of moments. As a result, I didn’t feel like I was ready to wrap up my volunteer effort when Rachael and I were inevitably relieved by the second wave of volunteers at our station. In turn, Rachael and I decided to stick around after volunteer shift ended to assist our aid station crew in any way possible. Over the next hour we helped the rest of our team with racecourse cleanup and maintaining supply stocks at the aid station. With activity buzzing all around us, we did our best to continue helping until it became obvious the second wave of volunteers had all of the processes covered, which prompted Rachael and I to reluctantly draw our first Ironman volunteer experience to a close.

On our way home Rachael and I talked briefly about the volunteer experience and about the amazing degree of athleticism we witnessed throughout the day. In our remarks it was apparent we both felt the positive, rewarding feeling that echoed throughout our aid station throughout the day. Although I anticipated this volunteer experience would be highly unique before today’s events, the sense of accomplishment and joy I felt on our ride home was unlike that of any other volunteer experience I have had to date. I still can’t pinpoint what the source, but something about volunteering at the Ironman event made it stand out among my “I have never...” experiences to date. I have never been so inspired and felt so proud in response to a single event before, and I know that will stick with me for some time. Needless to say, this is one volunteer experience I would gladly do again... and I intend to do just that this time next year.

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