When I mention to someone that I participate in triathlons, the first thing they usually ask me is, “You mean an Ironman?” Like Kleenex, Jell-O and Coke, name brands that have become synonymous with an entire line of products, Ironman has come to represent triathlon. Even if you don’t know a thing about triathlon, you know Ironman and its ubiquitous M-dot logo. Ironman branded races have become well known through brilliant marketing and, more importantly, race organization unparalleled in the industry. This past weekend, 10 SDSU Sports MBA students witnessed the power of the Ironman brand firsthand as we volunteered at the Ironman 70.3 California race in Oceanside.
The Ironman 70.3 California race is what’s known as a half-Ironman: 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and a 13.1 mile run. This race is one of the first of the season, and allows some of the top pros to come out and stretch their legs. But it’s not just pros. Over 3,000 “age-groupers” or – regular folks just like you and me – test their minds and bodies over the 70.3 mile course. It’s a tough race no matter what, made even tougher by the fact that most of the athletes are still shaking off the rust of the off-season.
The race began in Oceanside harbor, where the athletes braved chilly morning temperatures for the swim. It’s always amazing to watch the line of swimmers in their colored swim caps pull themselves through the water, especially the pros, some of whom finished the swim in just over 22 minutes. Rekha Aramuthu assisted with timing the athletes by keeping track of their race numbers both at the swim and run start.
After the swim, it was on to the bike. Most of the bike course winds its way through Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps Base situated on the coast between Oceanside and San Clemente. Many of the young cadets volunteer for the race as well, giving the riders mostly empty roads. However, it also means being far away from anyone who can help them in case there is a problem with their bike. Luckily for them, Danelle Hauther, Zach Johnson, Claire Kooperman and I were out there as bike tech drivers. With a bike tech in tow, we drove the course and stayed in constant communication with the race command center. When a participant reported a bike problem, we drove to their spot, and our bike tech took care of the rest. Flat tires, broken chains, rubbing brakes and broken deraileurs were just some of the issues that came up and were fixed by the amazing bike techs. We even helped out some participants whose bike issues were too difficult to fix or who couldn’t continue by getting them rides back to the start. The resilience of the athletes was amazing: one gentleman had six flat tires, but was still able to finish the race.
One thing both participants and spectators forget is how difficult it is to make sure everyone stays on the course and is safe. That’s where crowd control comes in. The bike comes to an end with a very sharp turn into transition (where the athletes leave their bike to start their run). To make sure no one crashed while making that turn, Caroline Bartolome and Erica Luster warned athletes as they headed into the turn. The athletes were incredibly grateful for this, consistently thanking Caroline and Erica for volunteering their time. From where they were standing, they were also able to watch some of the run. The run is always where you see something unusual, and this race was no different. Erica mentioned that she saw a firefighter running in his full gear.
The bike in and run out at the transition area can be pretty crazy as well, so Sebastian Hafner, Jeff Shin and Alex West were stationed there. Given the opportunity, bikers would just ride to their spots in transition, but you’d obviously see a lot of crashes if that happened. Therefore, the athletes need to get off their bikes at the dismount line just outside of transition. Sebastian and Alex were responsible for warning the athletes and making sure they dismounted in a safe manner. Just outside of transition, it was Jeff’s responsibility to make sure that athletes heading out to the run didn’t cross in front of bikes. With so many spectators, all three of the guys also had to make sure that the spectators stayed out of the way of the athletes.
Once the race was over, we had a chance to head down to the race expo and see some of the gear for sale. Then it was back up to transition to help out with bike checkout. After the race, the athletes are tired and ready to head home. But they want to head home with the bike they showed up with, some of which are very expensive. To make sure an athlete left with their own bike, we checked the race number printed on their wristband to the race number on their bike. The athletes were exhausted, but I can’t tell you how many times I got a smile and “thank you for volunteering.” It was nice to know that they appreciated our time and effort.
Having never raced or worked on an Ironman branded event, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Was it really that much different than other races? The answer is yes. World Triathlon Corporation, owners of the Ironman, puts on an incredibly well organized race, but it goes beyond that. The event feels like a spectacle, and it’s easy to understand why triathletes all want to compete in one of the Ironman races, to have the announcer say as they cross the finish line, “You are an Ironman!” The SMBA students who volunteered had a great time, and learned a great deal about pulling off an event of that size. But what made the day worthwhile were the smiles and thanks from the athletes. Knowing that we helped these athletes as they pushed their limits to succeed was the best part of a beautiful Saturday in Oceanside.