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Posts Tagged ‘Ironman Tempe 2009’

Temps were in the high 60’s and dropping slowly as I started my 8 – midnight shift last night as a Finish Line Catcher for the 2008 Ironman in Tempe, AZ. I chose the last shift for a couple of reasons. First, I know the people who come in after 8 pm have been on the course a long time and need lots of encouragement to get across the line. Second, I wanted to be part of the magic that is an Ironman and make a contribution in some way.

As I donned my latex gloves and cherished t-shirt, I took my place in line behind the other volunteers. Our captain, Claudia, had provided an orientation and information session the previous day, so I had some idea of what to expect. A very organized assembly line had been set up for the main purpose of moving the athletes from the finish line through the medal station, t-shirt and hat station, chip removal station, and photo-op location in a supportive yet timely manner. For those that needed extra assistance, a crack medical staff was standing by to provide an escort to the medical aid tent.

The bulk of the finishers crossed the line between 8 and 10 pm. As each one appeared at the start of the finish line chute, the announcer and crowd in the bleachers went wild. Reading the name of each person and where they were from Mike Reilly, known as the Voice of Ironman, would end with the four words every participant waited 140.6 miles to hear: “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”. Each person experienced the thrill of crossing, arms raised, through the tape and across the last line as the Finish Line Tape Holders worked furiously to restring the tape for every runner.

Once they crossed the finish line, the job of the Finish Line Catcher began. There were two of us, one on each side, to support them as they moved through the different stations. As soon as they crossed the line we were right there throwing a space blanket around their shoulders. As we walked with them, holding them tightly in case their legs buckled, the conversations would go something like this….

” So and so…where are you from? Is this your first race? Yes? Well, Congratulations! YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”

or

“So and so…where are you from? Is this your first race? No? Well, Congratulations! YOU ARE AN IRONMAN AGAIN!”

Over and over and over this sequence was repeated as over 1000 finishers crossed the line during my shift. Specific details of the night are already starting to fade (chalk that up to staying up to late…), but here are some things that stick in my mind:

  • The 76-year old man who, after having open-heart surgery in January, finished his third Ironman of the year. His comment? “Just steer me to my wife. She is waiting for me.”
  • The man who just completed his 106th Ironman and his seventh this year.
  • The runners who came determinedly across the line and then passed out as soon as they reached our arms
  • The 50+ woman from Japan who finished in fine form
  • The smiles, the tears, the jubilation, and the relief of those who just completed probably the most difficult event of their lives…

And, as the clock wound down to the official cutoff time of 17 hours, we all waited anxiously in anticipation. Craning our necks to see down the chute we held our breaths and watched for the outline of an approaching runner. Five minutes to go, four minutes to go, then…at three minutes to go we see her. She appears at the far end of our vision and shuffles slowly toward the finish line. The crowd in the bleachers goes crazy with shouts and cheers and cow bells clanging. “Go, go, go! You can make it!” And slowly, step by step, she inches closer with the clock counting down. With just two minutes to go, she crossed the line. I am in place to grab her. Her eyes rimmed with tears and her face held in a position of exhaustion, relief, and disbelief she is so shocked that no words can come. Friends of hers gathered at the finish line huddle around with hugs and support as they move her through her medal, t-shirt, and photo station. She had DNF’d a couple of times before, but this time she made it! SHE IS AN IRONMAN!

As the clock wound down to 17 hours and no other runners approached, the volunteers began to disperse. Shaking hands and giving hugs we promised to be back to support again next year. As we turned to go we looked back and saw one more runner coming down the chute. She would not make the cutoff, but we ran up to escort her just the same. In our minds, she was an Ironman as well.

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