Monday, September 7, 2015

Cheering and volunteering at the inaugural 2015 Ironman Muskoka

If you read my Wasaga Beach Olympic Tri race report, you know in what shape I left for Huntsville. In two words: not pretty. Tired, stinky, hungry, thirsty, and eager to take a shower and relax a little. The drive to Muskoka was quiet and introspective and I reached the destination shortly before 5pm, just as the skies opened up and cleared the muggy air. I joined my friend Wendy at the Super 8 Hotel in Huntsville where we shared a room for the weekend. She was going to race in the Ironman, along with 12 other of my friends and members of the FMCT club, and I was going to be her sherpa and volunteer at the event.

After I settled into our room and took a well needed shower, Wendy and I went to Boston Pizza for dinner and indulged in a healthy meal (salmon, steamed vegetables), and finished with a not so healthy chocolate explosion cake that we shared. Given that I had skipped lunch, I didn't even flinch. Down in ma' belly, decadent calories! We called it a night pretty early afterwards, as the alarm clock was set for 4am.

I slept pretty well myself - but of course, I was completely exhausted and I had no race anxiety to keep me up all night. When the alarm clock went off, I was almost anticipating it. I had no issues waking up and I was ready to go go go, and so excited to see my friends taking on The Beast.

I ate a peanut butter and jelly bagel, while Wendy ate her honey nut cheerios, then we were on our way. I wasn't very hungry, but I made sure to take a lot of snacks with me to have enough to eat until midnight. On site, I waited for Wendy to get her bike ready, then we went inside for a potty break and that's when I noticed that she didn't have her chip on her ankle. I rang the panic bell and together we started running around, asking the volunteers where the Sportstats tent was. To our surprise, there was no Sportstats tent near transition, but I knew from Ironman Mt. Tremblant that they should have chips at the swim start. However, we could not afford to waste too much time going back and forth from the beach to transition with just under 30 minutes to start. After asking half a dozen people, eventually we found a volunteer captain who had the idea of calling Nick Stoehr, the race director (or maybe it was Rich Trenholm), and he confirmed that they had spare timing chips at the swim start. Phew! All we had to do was to run there and hope for the best.

We said our goodbyes on the parking lot near the beach, I took Wendy's flip flops, then I joined the spectators' side with the plan of going as close as possible to the mass of athletes and check on Wendy to make sure that she found a chip. There were lots of athletes and finding friends in the sea of green and pink caps wasn't easy. I managed to see Amanda (from our club) and Kim (from Two Years to Kona), but the music was loud and all my screaming didn't help. I was desperately trying to find my bestie Carol, but to no avail. Big sad face, as I had promised her that I'd give her a big hug before the start.
While I was looking for both of them, Wendy found herself a chip. You can see her picking it up at 20:30 in the live stream video from the swim start (Won with One red top).
I didn't know this until later when I finally saw her walking towards the start. As for Carol, I missed her when she walked just in front of me. But she was in the middle of a group of very tall guys, so I'm not surprised. There she is at the bottom of the screen beside the guy with TEAM on his wetsuit, and I am against the railing near the speaker with my Ironman backpack (30:05).
I saw Wendy just a minute later and I was super stoked to see that the chip situation was under control. You can see me again with my hands in the air calling her at 30:54 (I had no idea that I was on camera). After all athletes entered the water I was somewhat relieved and went to ask whether Wendy's chip remained the same and if I could track her online. I was reassured that her chip has been paired with her bib and that after the swim it will appear in the results. Okay then, that sounded rather promising. And on that note, I walked over to the swim finish.
It was a cool and overcast morning and the temperatures were forecasted in the mid 20s C. Just perfect for racing! I thought about the IMMT athletes and how much they suffered in the heat and told myself that people at IM Muskoka were much luckier, especially while dealing with this grueling course. The flatter part of the race though, the swim in Peninsula Lake, was looking like it was going to be fast. The water was like glass and not even The Beast, that was hiding at the swim exit was going to disturb it. (Who put that thing there?? So fitting.)
Just as I thought, the first athletes started coming out the water around the 54min mark. I saw many of the people I knew finishing the swim and I was so happy to finally see Carol, that I started screaming like an idiot. I ran up after her to give her a hug, which I managed to do just before she hopped on her bike. Then I came back to wait for Wendy and once she came out of the water, I followed her back up. Who said spectating wasn't a sport? It wasn't even 9am and I was spent. She went in transition to her bike, but not before having a swarm of volunteers coming to cover her in sunscreen. I found the scene absolutely hilarious and I could not resist but taking a snapshot.
The Sunscreen team in action
I chose to stay around Deerhurst for the remainder of the day. I waited until everyone else I knew got on the bike, then I went to check out the Ironman store. So much M-Dot swag, my eyes started to bleed. I did buy my husband an IM Muskoka 70.3 backpack because I lost his string bag from a few years ago when we did our first 70.3 there, then I went to sit down and rest for a bit before deciding what to do with my free time. While I was hooked to a plug, charging my phone, I chatted with Paolina Allan from Ignition Fitness about Kim and her spectacular swim, then Paul from my tri club joined me after arriving at the resort for his bike handler volunteer job.
Look who I found in transition! The fantastic Captain Tracy.
Paul and I went to look for the volunteers' tent and we were lucky to find breakfast being served. I had a muffin and a juice, then went back to transition to find the bike handler team captain. It took me about 30 seconds to decide to take on a second volunteer shift that day. I had done bike handling at IMMT and this team looked like they could use some help. We spent the next 1.5h talking about catching bikes, running with bikes, putting bikes on the rack, what to ask the athletes, what to do with the numbers on the rack, with the bike computers, their nutrition, their shoes, where to line up to hand over the bikes, which side athletes were dismounting most on, etc. I quickly realized that this team had very different instructions/opinions than the team at IMMT, so it took me a moment to re-adjust my thinking. It's hard not to judge, knowing that this was a first Ironman for this team, while IMMT had it going on for a few years and it was a well oiled machine. But I gave up on my (strong) opinions and let the captain run the show as he thought was best. Sometimes you just have to trust the people and the process, even if they are different. And guess what? It all worked out very well in the end. Given that this race had 1200 less athletes than IMMT, the stream of bikes was spaced enough that we weren't rushed and we didn't even have to use the spare rack.
Paul showing everyone how it's done
I spent most of the day running with the bikes, leaving the catching to the most eager folks in the team. In the end, while it was a hard job because I had to walk/run a lot, it was also a lot of fun. It allowed me to see all my friends coming in with their bikes, and give them hugs, encouragements, high fives, or just play the paparazzi by taking photos and videos for their friends and family.

Around 5pm I asked to be excused since I was getting tired and I really wanted a little break before starting the next shift. I went inside Deerhurst and noticed that they had dinner food for the athletes and volunteers, but I didn't have a wristband that would give me access to it. Since I joined the bike handlers team impromptu, I was only given a tshirt, but no wristband - so I went over to the finish line where I checked in with Kari and got my wristband. Now I was legit and I could eat. Not even 5 minutes later the same wristband was being cut and I could put some food into my plate. I took a sub, pasta salad, an apple and another banana. I ate the pasta and the fruits and decided to keep the sub for later. I charged my phone again for a bit and spent about 30 minutes catching up on social media, lounging on one of the fancy chairs inside the building.

However the clock was ticking and I was missing all the action at the finish line. I put my backpack away, I said Hi to all my volunteer friends and joined in the fun. It took me a few minutes to understand how this finish line was working and oops, I must have jumped the line before the other volunteers a few times until Dorothy kindly reminded me that I should line up like everybody else. I looked around me and that's when I realized how many of us were there. Whoa, quite the blue and red army!
I was quickly made aware of the rest of the rules (no swearing! - cameras were on us), the Tough Toonie bibs and medal, and the chip strap that people could keep if they wanted to. The rest was just about the same as I knew it. Catch people, make sure they don't collapse, and if they do, use the wheelchair and call a medic. Offer as much support as needed, be it physical or emotional. Don't shy away from sweaty hugs and people crying in your arms. After all, I had done that just the day before and it wasn't even an Ironman. Slaying The Beast must have been a huge challenge and it's totally understandable that the relief of crossing the finish line makes all the bottled emotions spill over.
Personally I had promised a few friends to catch them and/or give them their medals. The first one to cross the finish line was Kim who is on her journey to qualify for Kona. She had a tough run, but she persevered and finished 3rd in her AG (read her blog report here). I could not have been more proud to catch her. I gave her the medal too, then together we took the slow walk towards the massage tent where she had her legs looked after. I don't know who took the picture above, but it's special to me and I know that I'll cherish that moment forever. I am happy to have it immortalized.

As the night fell on Deerhurst, the athletes kept coming in, tired but elated, finishing a journey that may have started months or years before. I was absolutely astounded to see so many first time Ironman finishers that came in under 12h. My mind could not comprehend how come so many of them liked the course. Out of all North American races, Muskoka is in the top 5 for toughness. Yet, people must be gluttons for punishment. Or they trained for it really well, or they were so freaking high on endorphins that they had no clue what they were talking about. Most likely a mix of all.
Our volunteers team kept everyone entertained and welcomed every finisher with a high five and a few words of congratulations. Those two above were a hoot, dancing and singing and pumping up the audience. Even the photographer played along. Nice photobomb, lol! Some friends finished the race before the night fell, others came in after dark. Carol started her run without her chip, so it was hard to track her, but eventually she made it and I felt so relieved (what's it with my friends and their timing chip)!! I gave her a long, teary hug. She is one of the crazies who chose Muskoka as their first Ironman and because of health issues I was nervous that something may have gone wrong. But she is also one of the strongest people that I know and I had no doubts that she'll want to finish no matter what. I was assisting another athlete when she crossed the line because without a chip they could not announce her arrival in advance, but I found her right after she got her medal and the moment we had at the finish line won't be going away from my memory any time soon.
Wendy came in about 1h later. Another fighter who battled injuries and a hectic training schedule the entire season. Wendy and I have known each other for a couple of years now and Ironman is what brought us together. We became training buddies and friends when we realized that we were neighbours, and I could not fathom not being there for her, just like she was for me last year at IMMT. Muskoka was her third Ironman and because of circumstances, her goal was to finish. There she is, looking awesome as usual, a big smile on her face, despite running on huge blood blisters. After giving her too a very sweaty and squeeshy hug, she left to get some food and I continued my shift. There were still 40 min left and about 50 more athletes on the course. Last athlete finished with about 3 minutes to spare and it was rather anticlimactic, since we were told that there were two more to follow, but actually none were left (because of some error).
And just like that, it was over. We watched the fireworks, said our goodbyes, Kari, Dorothy - the most amazing finish line team captains. Got a hug from Rich Thenholm, doc extraordinaire and the life of this event. I'll most likely be back next year, as both athlete (IM Muskoka 70.3 "Redemption") and IM volunteer and I know that no matter what, this place will remain a special one. One day, I may choose to measure myself against The Beast as well, but I am in no hurry - this body of mine is still on the mend.

After leaving the finish line I managed to find Wendy who was chatting with friends made on the course. I checked her bike out, then I left her with her belongings to wait for me to come back with the car from the air strip parking lot. It took me a little while to find the shuttle bus (it has been changing locations every year) and I almost got in a panic, thinking that I may have missed the last one. Thankfully I saw a bus silhouette in the distance and I ran to it just before it closed its doors. Fifteen minutes later I was back with the car and to the hotel shortly thereafter where I collapsed in my bed, happy to be able to rest and appreciate everything that happened.

I will leave you with 2 videos from the event, so you can appreciate as well the way this day unfolded for athletes, volunteers and everyone else who came to witness history being made, right here in Muskoka.


  1. Sounds like fun! I would love to volunteer at an Ironman! Maybe I should sign up to be a hugger? ;)

  2. might be back at IMMT volunteering again, have to see how next year goes :) I will be at placid 2017 to volunteer, planning on signing up for 2018...something to think about? I too, am on the mend. maybe we can recovery and train together.