This year’s Ironman Arizona was held on November 18. Once I had my mind set on doing an Ironman, Ironman Arizona was the race I targeted. It is supposed to be great for first timers and the timing at the end of November was ideal as it allowed me enough time to ramp up and train for it. Because it is so popular, it is difficult to get in and typically requires that you register within minutes of registration opening. One way to guarantee you get in is to volunteer the previous year. So with this mind, my plan was hatched. I managed to convince my sister to go volunteer with me and to also sign up for the 2019 edition.
I had originally volunteered to handle bike checkout, but Alana wanted to do wetsuit stripping and so I switched so we can volunteer together. I had originally chosen bike checkout as I didn’t want any of my actions or inexperience to impact a competitors race.
Alana and I both arrived in Tempe AZ on the Saturday. We got in early and that gave us a chance to walk about the Ironman Village and to scope out the transition area. The first thing we noticed is that the village and number of vendors was greater than Ironman Texas. The other thing that stood out early, and that was re-enforced on race day was how compact everything was. The village and transition areas was all right next to each other. This was a stark difference to Ironman Texas where everything, while still “walking distance” was quite far apart.
At 3pm, we met with the wetsuit stripper team lead to collect our volunteer t-shirts and bracelets. This was a quick and painless process.
Our day began early, although not as early as the athletes. We had to report to the stripping around for 7am. We went early to try and find it, but that was an adventure itself. Alana and I must have spent about 30 mins walking around trying to the find the right area. Since this was the first year with a new location, no one was able to tell where to go. About 6:59am, we found one person that knew so we made it on time.
Alana and I were in shorts and t-shirt as we figured we’d get wet and that the day would warm up. It eventually did, but it was rather chilly with the temperature around 50F. In hind sight, we should have dressed a bit warmer. All the other wetsuit strippers were dressed warmly.
After a short briefing, we were ready for the pros to start coming through. It turns out that all the pros pretty much bypassed us as they prefer to take off their own wetsuit. The first sign of what we could look forward too was some of the pros coming out of the water shivering. The water temperature was 61F. It was cold. Throughout the day, we came across various competitors that were shivering and almost, if not, hyperthermic. This is a good experience for us to know what to expect next year and to be prepared.
Lesson 1: Consider having booties and a neoprene cap
After starting off a bit apprehensive, I quickly got into a rhythm and felt quite comfortable stripping wetsuits. The best and easiest were of course the athletes that had the wetsuits down to their waist. We did have a fair amount that came into the stripping area with their wetsuits fully on. Those took the longest as we had to unzip them and get their arms out. In almost all cases, that was a challenge, especially getting them over their watches.
Lesson 2: Take off my wetsuit next year and have it down to my waist to make taking it off easier
The highlight of the day had to have been the athlete that only wears a jock strap under his wetsuit. We were actually warned about him as he appears to be a regular at the event. When we were first told to look out for him at the start, I was a bit skeptical, but it was a shock and surprise to actually see him. He was stripped and then ran in his jock strap to the changing room.
Alana had three friends doing the event, Jackie, Cherise, and Ian and we got to strip each of their wetsuits. Cherise was one of the athletes that was shivering uncontrollably and Alana was able to go with her to the changing tent to help her get changed and warmed up and on to the bike.
Our volunteer day ended around 10am as we witnessed the trailing end of folks that did not make the swim cutoff. That was heartbreaking!
This was the first time I have ever volunteered at any kind of race. I have run many 5Ks, 10Ks, and a marathon, but I have never volunteered at any. I would recommend this experience to everyone, especially those considering doing the even their are volunteering at, or a similar distance. You get to see and interact with the athletes directly and see how they are doing, what they are feeling and experiencing. And, if you have friends or family doing the event, you get to actually be part of their race and interact with them directly as opposed to just spectating and cheering them on. I know Cherise appreciated having Alana right there to help her in her most vulnerable state during the race.
The following day, Alana got out priority registration links and signed up for the 2019 Ironman Arizona race. I know when we come out of the swim and lay down on the group to have our wetsuits stripped, we have a special bond with those taking off our wetsuits. Just as we helped athletes this year, they will be helping us next year.