Ironman Florida (IMFL) was this past weekend up in Panama City as I mentioned in my last post. Panama City is about a 7 hour drive from Tampa which makes it a very doable race for anyone in Florida. Since our plan is to do this race next year and it sells out pretty much immediately when registration opens (it takes just a minute) the only way to guarantee a spot was to go up and volunteer since volunteers get priority. I’ve never even spectated a race before so this was going to be a whole new racing experience for me! Fortunately I wasn’t doing this alone and really how could I be doing it along? My friends Amanda and Hugo were also along for the ride over the weekend.
We had a lot of plans of doing our own little recon of the course by swimming, running and biking parts of it. We had limited success there. The sea was angry when we arrived Friday and it was double red flag conditions. No one was allowed in the water. So we did our volunteer check-in duties and got ready for an early morning. The plan was to run from our hotel that was 4.5 miles from the starting line to get there by 7 am to see the mass swim start and then run 3 miles down the run course before turning around and getting back to the hotel.
I’ll just get it out of the way – we ran to and from the race which was 9 miles but did not do anything else. We had good reason though. The swim start was incredible. I’ve never seen so many people jump into the water at the same time. The water was a little rough where the waves were breaking but out past the breakers it looked flat and calm. Really all that you could hope for. After we watched the first lap or so we got ourselves over to the T1 bag area to see the swimmers coming in. This promised to be one of the more exciting aspects of the race since the athletes were all still packed together.
The elite athletes came through first. There aren’t many of them and they were well ahead of the age groupers. It wasn’t until about the 90 minute mark that the surge through T1 started. It was quite unlike any T1 I’ve gone through before. I’m used to laying out my gear with my bike in the transition area of a race. Run & bike gear is all organized by me on race morning. In an Ironman, your gear is bagged and put in transition the night before. There are good and bad parts to this. The great part is that you’re set before race day. If you’re running a bit late that morning there is no freaking out that you won’t be in place by the start time (its happened to me!) The downside is that you’re depending on your bag being in the right spot. If its not the volunteers might have trouble finding it and chaos then ensues. I saw it happen and the athlete who lost his bag was wigging out. There was a happy ending for him but if you don’t get that bag you can’t race.
At this point we had taken up our run time to watch the race but that was ok. We started back to the hotel for a rather strange run. I’m not used to standing in the cold for a couple hours following a run and then running again. We were all pretty stiff and it made for an uncomfortable run back. But we of course made it and quickly got cleaned up and changed so we could get back to the race. At this point, Hugo and Amanda went off to their stations and I went gift buying & lunching since my station started at 6 and it was only 11.
Since I had a run aid table at around mile 4.5 and I had no transportation there I decided to walk after lunch. It was a ton of fun walking along the course and cheering everyone who ran by me on. I’ve always appreciated spectators and I wanted to return the favor. I got to see the elites run by as well on their way to win the race which was pretty cool to see. I also saw the prince of Bahrain a few times. Yes, he was really doing the race.
I worked my station for about 6 hours (probably a little more) and was watching for people I knew coming through since they’d pass 4 times each. Somehow, I only managed to spot Pete. He was looking good the first time I saw him (on his 2nd pass) but then when he came back I could see he was struggling. I gave him soup and then waited for him to make his final pass of the table before walking him all the way in. Pete is one of the guys who I train with and one of the first people I met when I got into this so I was happy I could give him some help bringing in his first Ironman. I then had dinner and found Amanda since Hugo was volunteering till the end and watched the rest of the race until just about the end. It was really an amazing thing to see people crossing that line as happy as they were.
We made it back to our hotel around 1am and went to get some good sleep since we’d been up about 20 hours. We had planned to ride our bikes in the morning but we were all exhausted and it was a bit chilly out. That was enough to convince us to sleep in. I slept all the way till 7am! (Ah, the life of a triathlete. 7am is sleeping in.) We made our way back to the expo area where we would sign up for next year’s race. I have to give MAJOR kudos to Ironman for their signup process. We were in line at 8:15 or so and registration opened at 9am. They had us through the line by 9:30 or so thanks to their extreme efficiency.
After that it was just another long ride back to Tampa. We did discover that we apparently fail at road tripping since we had no food with us at all. Its all behind us now. IMFL 2014 awaits but its so far in the future that training isn’t even something we need to worry about yet. Yet. I did get some great things out of the weekend too. The big one was, if you haven’t volunteered a major (or minor) race, do it. It was a great experience. I gained even more appreciation for the volunteers. I went up for purely selfish reasons (I wanted guaranteed race access) but I could see volunteering an event I wasn’t planning to run in just to be there especially if people I knew were doing it.
There’s also a few lessons we (mostly me since this is all new to me) learned for next year. I’ll keep a list of this stuff somewhere but here’s some of it:
1) Decorate T1 bag so its easy to find. You don’t want to be that one guy whose bag vanishes. I saw it happen and it looked terrible (they did find it)
2) Put flip flops in your T1 bag so you don’t have to barefoot it on concrete.
3) Don’t kill yourself on the bike. If you do and then blow up on the run you’re in for a long day. Well a longer day anyway.
1) Catch the swim start at 7am because an amazing sight to see and then make your way to T1 transition to watch the swimmers come in. Its one of the best times to watch the race
2) Go find something to do for a while because honestly there’s nothing to do for the 6 hours or so I’ll be on the bike.
3) Monitor my progress on the IMFL site so you can estimate where I’ll be. The best times to watch someone you care about are through the transition.
4) Be at the finishing chute for the big finish!