A Day in the Life of an Ironman Bike Check-In Volunteer

Last week I was in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, for Ironman CdA. A good chunk of my teammates, including my boyfriend the BFG, were racing and I was there to get some training in for my upcoming Ironman (Canada 2: Electric Racealoo) and to cheer for my peeps. A few months ago I decided to sign up for a volunteer spot as a way of giving back to the Ironman community since the volunteers do such a great job of making the races run smoothly and ensuring that the athletes make it across the finish line in one piece. I thought it would be cool to be an athlete catcher at the finish line or do something on race day, but since Jason was racing I wanted to be free all day to spot him on the course, so I opted to volunteer the day before at athlete bike check-in. My summary of my shift is below:

6:00 am

I wake up and contemplate going right back to sleep because waking up early sucks balls, but I have a stupid 90-minute run on my schedule and it’s supposed to rain later so I should get this damn thing out of the way before I start my volunteer shift. Blargh.

6:40 am

My teammate Jill and I hop into her car–she’s meeting some TN folks for a swim and I was tagging along so I could begin my run from the trail that’s adjacent to the lake. We ride in silence for several minutes before Jill breaks the silence with this amusing confession:

Jill: “I ate a whole box of cookies last night!”

Chick, you’re doing an Ironman tomorrow. Eat all the cookies you want.

7:00 am

Jill begins her swim while I start my run. I make it about 5.3 miles out before turning around and heading back. The weather is cool and it’s very quiet and serene. I feel pretty good and tell myself I should wake up early to do my workouts more often. (I probably won’t.)

8:30 am

I finish my run and sneak a shower at my coaches’ rental house, then chow down on a Powerbar before heading over to bike check-in to start my volunteer shift.

9:02 am

I head to the Ironman tent marked with a gigantic “INFO” sign and get the attention of a surly, fuchsia-haired woman of middle age.

Me: “I’m volunteering at bike check-in and was wondering where I need to go.”

Her, scowling: “They’re all grouped over there. The meeting has started already.” She glares at me for daring to be two minutes late. My shift doesn’t even start until 10, lady, so chill yoself. I mentally throw a “Screw you, ya purple-haired bag” her way but smile politely before wandering over to the group.

9:03 am

Forty or so volunteers are huddled around the captain while he explains how the transition area is set up and how bike check-in will work. I cannot hear him at all, so I stand around awkwardly until the meeting adjourns. Someone hands me a purple wristband and a matching Ironman Coeur d’Alene t-shirt that has “VOLUNTEER” emblazoned across the back. It’s soft and comfy, so I immediately mentally assign it as my new sleepin’ shirt when I get back to Seattle.

9:10 am

Everyone wanders off. I find a couple of people and ask them to basically repeat what the captain had told us since I had no idea what he was saying. Most everyone I pester is just as confused as I am, so I resort to standing at the bike check-in entrance like an idiot.

9:15 am

The bike check-in captain comes up and starts assigning us positions. I offer to be one of the two volunteer greeters who corrals athletes into one of four transition entrances. It’s a simple enough job that doesn’t require me to do anything other than say, “That lane is open so why don’t you stand in line there?” I think I can handle this.

9:30 am

We’re all standing around bored so the captain opens bike check-in thirty minutes earlier than scheduled. My shift has officially begun!

9:30 am – 2:00 pm

I lose track of how many times I’m asked the following questions:

  • “Where do we bike in/out?”
  • “Why are we getting pictures taken of our bikes?” (Photographers snapped a picture of each athlete’s bike before he or she was allowed in transition; supposedly this was for security purposes as there actually have been instances of athletes peeling their numbers off their bikes and slapping them onto nicer bikes and stealing the nicer bike out of transition.)
  • “Aghhhhh, I forgot to add this to my bike! Can I get back in transition?!” (Yes.)
  • “Oh god, I forgot to add something to my bike/run gear bag! Am I allowed to access it tomorrow?” (Yes.)
  • “So, uh, how does this work?” (On more than one occasion I had to take a first-time Ironman athlete through virtually the entire race process: “You’re going to come out of the swim, take your wetsuit off down to your waist, have a stripper yank off the wetsuit, run into transition, grab your bike bag…” etc. It really helped that I have done an Ironman before; some of the check-in volunteers weren’t as familiar with how the day unfolds, so I was able to offer a bit more guidance to some confused athletes.)
  • “What did you wear when you did your Ironman? What should I wear? How does the changing tent work?” (These questions surprised me; you’d think these people would have tested out what they wanted to race in and would have figured this all out sooner than the day before the race.)
  • “Is the bike 112 kilometers or 112 miles? Miles?! Seriously? So it’s a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and a 2.6 mile run? Twenty-six mile run? Good lord…” (Thankfully, this was asked by a spectator, not an athlete.)

2:15 pm

I realize I haven’t peed in about five and a half hours. I haven’t had lunch, either. One of the volunteers said we’d get lunch brought to us but I haven’t seen anything. My run-starved stomach is hating me. So is my bladder. (I later find out that there was pizza but I never thought to leave my post and grab some. Derp.)

2:30 pm

Let the “Wait, bike check-in closes at 3:00?!!” freak outs commence! One first-time athlete was on the verge of tears because her bike and most of the shit that would go in her bike and run gear bags was en route but was still about an hour and fifteen minutes away.

Me: “Well what do you have?”

Her: “Um, I have…my helmet.”

I assure her that she should be able to check her bike in after 3:00 if she explains the situation to the captain. She nods and looks slightly less likely to pass out from nerves.

Another woman comes up to me with a bike that clearly doesn’t belong to her.

Her: “I have a question for you…” She’s holding a bike pick-up ticket that allows an athlete’s friend or family member to pick up his or her bike and gear bags if s/he is unable to retrieve them after the race. I assume she wants to try and check in her spouse’s bike for him and prepare to lecture her about how the ticket isn’t designed for that.

Me: “Yes?”

Her: “So my husband got into a bike accident. He’s coming here from the ER with his gear bags and I’m supposed to drop off his bike at the mechanic to get it fixed. Will it be all right if he checks in all of his stuff a little after 3:00?”

Me: “Wait, he got in a bike accident? Just now?”

Her: “Yeah, it was a head-on collision. So can he check in after 3:00?”

Me: “Uh, is he okay?” Screw checking his shit in, this dude just crashed, for crying out loud.

Her: “Yeah, he says he’s fine. He got some stitches in his finger and his knee, and he’s got some bruises. Some swelling.”

Me: “…and he still wants to race tomorrow?”

Her, laughing: “Apparently. I mean, it’s an Ironman, right? So I guess he wants to go through with it.”

I tell her that so long as she explains the situation to the captain, it should be fine for her husband to check his bike in after 3 pm. I’m not confident he’ll be at the start line in the morning, figuring that as soon as the adrenaline and whatever pain meds the ER gave him wear off, he’ll be sore as shit that night and won’t feel like doing much of anything the next day (if Jason’s crash is any indication). But hey, maybe I’m wrong and he raced anyway. If so, kudos to that guy because he is one BAMF.

3:00 pm

Bike check-in officially closes. My shift is over! I stand around for a few minutes chatting with a fellow volunteer who has done some Ironman races.

3:10 pm

Chris Lieto strolls in to drop off his bike. He’s all “Whatevs, I’m a pro.” Rule breaker!

3:15 pm

I decide it’s time to peace out and head back to my coaches’ house, where I promptly empty my overly full bladder and then scarf down some chicken and rice.

Later that night I realized that my wristband said “Transition access;” thus, I could get into transition the morning of the race. I took the opportunity to sneak in and help Jason and Jill in transition before the race started. It pays to volunteer, people!

Overall I really enjoyed my volunteer shift. The other volunteers were pretty laid-back and it was fun interacting with the athletes. Most of them were pretty nice (one guy I checked in had the same Cervelo P2 as me and was like, “No way, you call your bike White Lightning? That’s what I call mine!!”), and I only ran into a couple of snooty a-holes who treated the bike check-in process like some sort of huge inconvenience to them. I’d love to volunteer again in the future, maybe at a different post (anything but the changing tent–I don’t want to interact with nekkid ladies).

3 Responses to “ “A Day in the Life of an Ironman Bike Check-In Volunteer”

  1. Thom stein says:

    Thanks for volunteering; my 1st IM. Although I managed the bike check-in without issue, many other volunteers helped make my race go smoothly (good call on the changing tent). I would heve loved to have met you, been following your blog. Good luck in Canada, hope to to it next year.

  2. Karl D says:

    Hi, Thanks for volunteering. I volunteered at IM Wisconsin for the same volunteer shift you did but wanted to add something about the photography of everybody’s bike. The story you were told about getting pictures for security was a different story than I received, and was a bit disturbed by. The photography was sponsored by TREK and we were told without exception *everybody* had to have their bikes pictured. The lead photographer at the bike check-in explicitly said “No photo, no race.” This whole processes resulted in a massively long line for athletes to check in and disgruntled more than a few. We were told it was for “Documentation and Security”. In the event someone did swap numbers, nobody at bike check-out was actually verifying the bike was the athlete’s real bike. The check-out volunteers had absolutely no tools to validate that.

    Instead, as I helped arrange the bikes for photography I realized that it *has* to be for TREK marketing. The bikes were always photographed without the athlete, with the drive train facing the photographer, in the same position, crank arm down, no bottles on the frame. My guess, TREK has an algorithm that looks at each picture and figures out the bike and components and is using this “captive” audience to do their research and marketing on.

    As an athlete racing this year at IM Florida this process didn’t bother me for whatever their intended use of my bike photo. But when the process caused 45 minute waits in the hot sun to check in at Wisconsin and an outright lie by the lead photographer that you couldn’t race without your bike picture being taken and a half-truth about the reason for them, I can certainly see why so many of the IM WI athletes were annoyed and trying to cut the line. Oh, the guy leading the photo process in WI where I volunteered was also on-site in Florida where I was an athlete. He was giving the same story there too. Then I remembered, in Lava Magazine from last year’s Kona Championships, there was a break-down by TREK of what everyone used for a bike and component during the race. It all added up. I don’t see any of this as a “security” process. It has to be purely marketing and research by TREK (IM’s sponsor) and there is no Opt Out when photographers are telling athletes that they cannot race without contributing their bike photo. Imagine being some of the Wisconsin athletes standing in the sun on the eve of their race *knowing* the only reason you’re standing there for 45 minutes is because they are taking pictures of bikes that other photogs will get anyway out on the bike course on race day.

    All in all I liked my volunteer shift and IM cannot survive without the volunteers. I just wish they’d be more honest with the athletes and the volunteers about what’s going on and not unnecessarily delay them over the check-in process.

    • Rebecca says:

      If that is the case (and it does seem to be the case, as I didn’t notice them comparing bikes to the pictures they took when athletes were picking up their stuff after the race), I would call them out on it as it doesn’t actually serve the athletes’ best interests. What a sham.

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