Monday, March 3, 2008

triathlon volunteering: lessons learned

I was a volunteer at yesterday's Stanford Treeathlon, a relatively short triathlon (500m swim, 20km ride, 5km run), as a way to see, up close and personal, how the triathlon transition stuff works now that I'm just six weeks away from my first triathlon.

Given how much I stood to learn, I wasn't too put out by the request to show up at 5:15am on a Sunday morning. My assignment was to be in the transition area to help with the bike in/bike out duties:
  • security: make sure only competitors were allowed in the transition area
  • bike out: make sure the competitors didn't mount their bikes until they cleared transition
  • bike in: make sure the competitors didn't enter the transition area until they'd run the length of the area and crossed the mat
The weather was clear and crisp: around 47 degrees as I drove in, with at least an hour of cooling down before the sun came up, with a slight breeze out of the southwest.

When I got to the transition area at 5:30am, all that could be seen in the pre-dawn light were rows upon rows of racks for the bikes. There were so many that, if pressed, I couldn't have guessed they'd be full by race time. Yet, slowly but surely, as the dawn began to glow, the expensive bikes began to hang from the racks: Felts, Fujis, Cannondales, Treks, you name it.

By 7am, there must've been over a million dollars worth of bikes in the Transition area. That, and all the shoes, wetsuits, outfits and other accessories, no wonder access was limited.

Athletes were getting marked with their numbers and age/categories by a crew of folks armed with permanent markers: the bib number on both shoulders and then on the left calf both their age and a C for collegiate or A for age bracketer. I was bundled up in many layers and felt bad for these folks having to strip down to get marked.

The first wave of racers took off at 7:30am and within minutes they were running from the swim out and into the transition area. These first wave folks seemed to include the elite racers: all had on their college tri-suits (Cal, Stanford, UCSB, Cal Poly, etc) and they peeled off their wetsuits in front of their expensive bikes (solid wheels, natch) and donned their aero helmets as they ran to end T1. The second wave were the top female athletes and they scampered through to their top end bikes and out of the transition area, too.

Most everyone was peeling off their wet suit as they ran through the Transition area and everyone in the first couple waves stood to pull their legs out of their suits. As far as I could tell, all their shoes were already in their pedals and they simply ran out to where they could mount and then put on their shoes.

The waves of racers coming into T1 seemed to go on for a good hour, and they overlapped the folks coming into T2 (and that's when things got hectic). The bike in folks had to run the length of the transition area to cross their timing mat (and not get an advantage for their equipment placement within the transition area). Since there were only cones marking the lane (no barricades), it meant I had to watch the racers coming in and yell out "ALL THE WAY TO THEN END AND CROSS THE MAT!"

I must've said that 500 times by the end of the day, and while the first couple waves of racers seemed to grouse about it, by the time we got into the middle waves, folks took it well and most even said "thanks!" as they pushed past.

Watching these people run the length of the transition area, I could see a variety of techniques to T2: Some took off shoes and socks at dismount and ran. Some unclipped and ran in their bike shoes on their cleats. Some took off shoes but kept on socks. I couldn't tell which had the best technique, but I imagine those that kept their shoes on will need to replace their cleats sooner than later: you could hear the scraping of plastic on the asphalt as these folks tried to get used to running after the ride.

Much to my surprise, I only had to tell one rider to dismount from her bike after she prematurely hopped on during her T1. Aside from repeating my instructions to the bike-in folks, I did a few other tasks necessitated by the cold cold water: helping a couple riders clip their helmets straps in place, pinning the bib on a racer who couldn't handle his safety pins with numb fingers, keeping the spectators out of the transition area, and hanging out until the last racer made it through at 10am.

Our last racer was quite inspirational: a paraplegic who did the swim, then hand-biked the 20km before getting into his wheelchair and spinning the 5km to the finish. Well worth the wait to the end, and it was good to see everyone milling about give him a big hurrah as he rode past.

I got a chance to talk with some of the triathletes that were volunteering as well, and they all pretty much confirmed what I'm already suspecting: once you train for and race a triathlon, you're hooked.

Can't believe it's just six weeks to go. After helping with yesterday's race, I can't wait for mine to begin.

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