How to be an Ironfan: Preparing for Race Day / by Jonas Caruana

This is the first of a four part series called "How to be an Ironfan", a guide to cheering on friends at endurance events. This first post is about preparations to make before race day. The second is about what to do on race day. The third is for the athletes re: what they can do to help their Ironfans. And the fourth is for the 'Inner Circle' – people who are close to the athlete – and has next-level tips for these next-level supporters.

"We're coming to see you race! Where can we watch you?"

I did my first triathlons in 2014 and anyone who has done any kind of endurance event knows how much of an all-consuming experience it can be. There’s the training you do to prepare. And then there's race weekend, where there’s a lot going on and a lot to think about.

And while I was new to the sport as an athlete, my friends were new to it too and after my first race it occurred to me that figuring out how to cheer at a triathlon and actually have a fun day is also quite an undertaking. "Where can we see you?" "What should we bring?" "Do you want us to be anywhere in particular?" and many more questions like these will arise as your friends try to figure it all out.

The goal of this series of posts is to answer those questions and provide a guide to help athlete supporters know what to do to be most helpful and how to have a great time themselves (athletes, send this to your Ironfans!). Your suggestions are welcome too, so please add them in the comments so that other readers can benefit.

Lastly, it's worth noting that while I focus on triathlon as an event type, the tips here are transferrable to most any other endurance event. With that said: let's go!

Swim start of Ironman Canada in Whistler, BC, in 2014. Big day ahead!

Preparation

Let's break this down into three buckets: Food + Gear, Route, and Crew. If you've got a group of friends all going to an event? Delegate responsibilities amongst the crew – life will be easier!

Food + Gear

Food: cheering at an endurance event is itself, an endurance event! The longer the event, the more food you'll need to bring. If a race is 11 hours long then that is 2-3 meals and at least 3 snacks. Think: coffee, water, coconut water (natural electrolytes), sandwiches, wraps, granola bars, trail mix, fruit… whatever you need to get through the day. Get food beforehand – don't count on it being easy to find food on the day as race courses tend to be set away from urban areas. And for any convenient food locations that do exist, expect line-ups. Pack your own food and skip the lines.

Money: credit card, debit card, cash: for when you happen upon those enterprising kids on course selling chilled, sliced watermelon.

Clothing: wear stuff you’d be active in. Think sweat wicking, comfy, layers. Long course triathlons start early in the morning (cold), go right through the day (hot) and can finish late at night (cold again). So you need to be able to layer up or down with the temperature. Wear your athlete's branded team kit to show support and be more easily recognized at a glance. Consider extras in the case of rain (raincoat, poncho, umbrella), cold (gloves, hand warmers, blanket), or heat (swimsuit).

Gear: cowbell (make some noise!), sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, bandaids, bug spray, blister patches, eye drops, bike (makes chasing your athlete around a course easy), bike lock, walkie-talkies (surprisingly useful), collapsible chair / beach towel to throw on the ground... all that stuff you need to deal with the minor annoyances of a long day outside and potentially away from civilization. Nothing saps the adrenaline of an Ironfan faster than sunburn and mosquito bites! Headlamp and glow sticks for events finishing after dark. Pack all your gear into a bag with two straps that you can wear on your back and have your hands free – do not use a tote bag or anything one-sided; it will quickly become uncomfortable.

Digital stuff: Smartphone with a full charge. Back-up power: charger + cable or portable battery back-up device. Download an athlete tracking app – two good ones for Ironman-branded events are IronTrac (iOS only) and IMtrackr (iOS and Android). Get your athlete's race number which is a unique number that will help you search for your athlete in the listings. While you're at it, get the race numbers of of your athlete's teammates / training buddies so you can cheer them on too.  Pack a camera, if different than the one on your phone. Charge it. Don’t forget the memory card. Happens to the best of us. Establish a hashtag for your athlete – circulate it amongst the crew – so that all social media stories show up in one place.

Finish line treats: Ask your athlete if there's anything in particular they'd like to have at the finish line and find a way to have it for them e.g. watermelon slices, a change of clothes, beer!

Party stuff! More on this in "Crew" below. For now: just remember that whatever you bring – you'll be carrying it around all day.

The definition of Food + Gear for the athletes. This is "T1" or the area where athletes transition from swim to bike. Those bikes are locked and loaded with all the food + gear the athletes will need for 180kms on the bike, the longest leg of an Ironman triathlon.

Route

Look at the course ahead of time. Find the event's website (confirm with your athlete that you have the right one!) then download the course map PDFs and get together with your athlete to plan...

The 2014 Subaru Vancouver Triathlon (Half-Ironman distance) bike course had three out-and-back sections that all passed through one road junction – this spot was perfect for spectators as they would see athletes 3x per lap, for 4 laps!

First, identify the good athlete-viewing spots. Notice which points will enable you to see your athlete multiple times without moving positions. These tend to be on out and back sections, and at road junctions (see example from 2014 Subaru Vancouver Triathlon). Also think about where there will be low crowd coverage – these points get lonely on the course and you'll get major brownie points from all the athletes for showing up and cheering there.

Ask if your athlete wants you to cheer at specific places? And if so, what approximate times do they expect to be at those points so you can be ready.

Second, take note of:

  • Where are the transition / check-in areas?
  • Where can you get water / food? (Aid stations = for competitors only)
  • Where is there shade?
  • Where are the bands (tons of races have live music nowadays)?
  • Where are there paths that run alongside the race course (so you can follow your athlete)?

Third, now plan your race day route. Involve your crew in this process so they know where peeps will be, when, and who's joining for what parts: some people will be in it for the whole day. Others will just want to see the finish line. Think about the flow of the day: where will you be in the morning, where will you go after lunch? Know when you can take a break: this really applies to longer course events. At Ironman Canada, once the athletes are on the bike and have come back through Whistler and are headed out to Pemberton - you have a 3+ hour break depending on how fast your athlete is. Go get brunch, head to the pool, relax!

My training buddy Greg at Ironman Canada; stoked to see us cheering!

Then, know when to get into gear and really turn it up for your athlete. Toward the end of the day is when they need you the most. Cheer them on at one point, then leapfrog them and cheer 'em on again. Hat-tip to Matt Corker who does this for his Ironman-sister Steph: he rallies the "Irontribe" who chase Steph around the course, stopping and cheering her on, then hopping on bikes and riding on to the next cheer point, constantly leap-frogging her and giving her as much encouragement as possible. Plan to follow your athlete around the course: they will love you for it!

    Last tips:

    • Pace yourself: you won't see athletes in the swim (obviously) and depending on the course, potentially not much on the bike. So save yourself for the run, that's where you'll be chasing them around the most.
    • Set expectations with your crew upfront: what people are up for and can handle. Do this the night before! Not everyone wants to run around an Ironman course like an Amazing Race participant for 12 hours. That's ok – just plan it accordingly and everyone will be smiling at the end of it.

    A quiet spot on the run course of a half-Ironman in Spokane, Washington. It's great to show up in these spots because you get to lift the athletes where they otherwise wouldn't get a boost. That's my friend Juliet in the picture, focused and laying it down on the run.

    Crew: People Make the Party!

    The "Irontribe", Ironman Canada (Whistler), 2014 

    Don't go it alone! Even an Olympic distance triathlon is well over two hours for most athletes. It can be a boring-ass day if you’re unfamiliar with what the event entails. So make a day of it with friends! Pack a picnic. Barbecue. Beer!

    Pro tip: exchange phone numbers before race day and set up a group text message thread so that everyone can stay in contact. This is crucial because oftentimes people in the cheer crew don't know each other. WhatsApp is an awesome chat app that works on every major smartphone, and allows you to communicate by group text regardless of who's got an iPhone, Android, Windows phone, etc.

    Go crazy: wigs, whistles, vuvuzelas, cowbells, costumes, wear matching colours, make signs… come up with some fun stuff to get your athlete’s attention. Tell them what to look out for and give some hints for where the on course you’ll be. Trust me, after however many hours of ripping their guts out on the course, they’ll be looking for you like a lost explorer and magically you will appear, beaming all the encouragement and energy they need to pick it up and keep moving. Super Soakers are rad on a hot day (ask athletes as they go by whether they want a spray). Portable speakers for music are awesome: the Bose SoundLink III pumps out some epic sound, connects to your phone by Bluetooth and lasts for 14 hours on a single charge. Megaphone: cause a raucous! Put a mic in peoples' hands and see what happens. Go crazy! 

    Get ready to rumble!

    So: Food + Gear, Route, and Crew. Plan out your day with those three things in mind and you're going to have a great day. And if you don't have time, just throw these five bare essentials into a daypack and hustle on over to the course: your athlete's race number, food, water, cowbell, phone.

    Hopefully this post has set you up to be fully prepared for a great experience supporting your athlete on race day. Now read the next post: How to be an Ironfan: It's Race Day!

    Did I miss anything? Got some pro tips to add? Please put them in the comments below for others to benefit from.

    Thanks

    Appreciation goes out to Dave Mackey, Sam Sykes, Matt Corker, Jaryd Zinkewich, Sian Slawson, Dave Gordon, Alexandra Plante, Jenna Nutting, Nancy Loo, Juliet Korver and Dierdre Douglas for contributing ideas to, and reading drafts of, this series.