Kevin bought a t-shirt for me at the expo, in a large white tent erected on a green lawn, in a “store” magically created and assembled and staffed for the Ironman Maryland event. The t-shirt, which is my proud, happy race bling from the weekend, says IronMate, with the “M” a neon-pink Ironman M-Dot. I love that it acknowledges my glad investment in my husband’s accomplishment and a joyful truth: hidden beneath every great achievement are the sacrificial offerings; the strong, loving, encouraging, burden-bearing hands of others who serve in support. He bought our kids shirts too, each one different and fitting for their personalities, each one acknowledging that they too offered something to help him reach his goal.
I’m not even sure I’d know that lawn, that corner of road beside the marina in Cambridge, Maryland, were we to visit again apart from the Ironman event, the Ironman Village, the Ironman M-Dot logos decorating the bare bones of everything. All weekend, we thought of our Dragons and this Dynamic Community, and each time I glimpsed the evidence of so much “behind the scenes,” I thought of how we all are in the lives of these fierce, persevering children. As a community—families, paid staff, professionals, community volunteers—we make up their support crew. And it’s no small thing to be the support crew that facilitates perseverance and accomplishment and the achieving of grand dreams. We must not, in the “ordinary” chaos of our every day, forget the significance of the contribution we can make “behind the scenes,” the way our sacrifices and hard work and participation help our children press on and realize their full potential. Every supporting investment is essential.
Before the athletes ever arrived for Ironman Maryland, a team of people—some city workers, some Ironman staff, some volunteers—came to the city of Cambridge, Maryland to prepare for the race. Someone had to patch the road, because divots cause weary runners to fall right into injury.
photo from the Ironman Maryland Facebook page
Someone had to bend sweaty on the asphalt and mark the race course with tape and signs. Support crews put together tents, built stadium seating, erected transition areas, lifted banners, and positioned arches through which the athletes would run on race day. Support staff readied equipment that would track data and record times for the athletes at specific checkpoints. A crew of people made it possible for spectators and loved ones and interested folks back home to track their favorite athletes online. It takes audio systems and checks to be sure they’ll work reliably, tables for hydration and fuel, for first aid, for vendors. It takes an army of people just to prepare for an Ironman event, and this just for a weekend. The biggest contests–the Olympics, for example—take years of planning, preparation, and behind-the-scenes work. So what of the things achieved in the course of lifetimes? Well, it’s no light thing to be the support crew.
photo from the Ironman Maryland Facebook page
Thursday night, we pull into the hotel at dusk, tired from the week and hardly thinking of all of the in-advance things countless hidden hands have done to make the experience possible prior to our arrival at the venue. Without these hard working people, the Ironman experience would not—could not—be the truly memorable milestone it becomes for those who participate, and it’s the anticipation of this latter thing that we initially embrace as we unfold ourselves from the car and rub the stiffness from our knees.
For the athlete, the Ironman experience begins as a dream, a seed of something challenging that maybe, hopefully they will see all the way to the grand finish. For Kevin, getting to Ironman Maryland meant first that seed of maybe…could I do this, in honor of our kids, maybe to raise money for our school? From there, it meant hours of training. As a full-time dad with a full-time job and a signficant time investment in our church as well, Kevin woke up before light dawned almost every day between the time that he committed to this event and the actual execution of its accomplishment. He ran out the door most days with a duffle bag in hand so that he could shower and change after exercise, before work and other responsibilities. In the course of training, I doubt that he ever got the “ideal” amount of sleep. Kevin’s Saturdays were spent doing longer and longer workouts in preparation for his Ironman, which would bring on more than 12-hours of physical endurance on his race day. In the month prior to the race, Kevin devoted 7 to 8 hours every Saturday to his Ironman training. As a family, we considered ourselves his personal support crew, making sacrifices to help him manage the hours of swimming, biking, and running that would ready him for this accomplishment. We cheered him on enthusiastically, so proud of the commitment and discipline and ability that allows him to excel.
As we pull in at the hotel, we notice an SUV with a bike on the back ahead of us in the driveway. A man built a lot like Kevin tends to the bike, and Kevin immediately guesses that he’s another competitor. “Are you racing this weekend?” Kevin says, as we climb out and begin to gather our things, and the other man nods. Easily, the two strike up a conversation about triathlon and this event, in much the way we all do when we recognize another family or teacher or crew member well-versed in the language of unique needs and unusual challenges. We should feel grateful for each other, the way we can skip so much explanation, the way we can offer each other understanding without apology. Before the two men finish their conversation, they’ve made plans to visit the race site together the next day, to get in a warm-up swim and bike ride. I hear them making plans and it resonates with me, echoing with things I’ve recently heard at DCCS parent meetings about our kids spending time together after school hours, enjoying sleepovers and fun and mutual understanding. That’s a rare gift that comes with community. It is a happy gift that comes now with all of their hard work, because of what we’re building together. We should not take that for granted, nor ever cease fostering the kind of community that builds those relationships. As it turns out, Kevin and his new friend Brian would not only spend most of the day together on Friday before the race, but they would also meet each other along the race course, encourage each other through, and celebrate together at the end.
The day before an Ironman event, support crews already work full time. Athletes check-in for the event, and a whole staff of people handle registration in advance and then assemble and distribute packets. When Kevin checks-in for Ironman Maryland, they give him a backpack full of information and samples. There are also briefings for the athletes, wherein the race staff reviews regulations and special circumstances. The athletes are given bags that will be kept for them at the transition areas, where they change clothes and prepare for the next part of the triathlon, as well as a bag that they can use for anything they wear to the race site that morning that they will not need during the event. The transition bags must be checked-in prior to the event, when the athletes also check-in and drop-off their bikes, and the morning bags are checked-in by the athletes prior to the swim start, to be picked up after the race. Volunteers organize all of the gear bags, as well as—in full-distance Ironman events—“special needs” bags for certain check points along the race course. The athletes fill these with their own nutritional supplements, sunscreen, and other extras. Volunteers organize all of the bags according to the bib numbers of the racers. 2000 athletes participated in Ironman Maryland. That’s a lot of bags and a lot of bikes and a lot of hands managing some very expensive gear and equipment.
It’s no light thing to be the support crew.
Race morning, we wake early, at 3am—hours before the sun comes up—and I can’t help but think of our kids, and the way many of them have struggled for sleep. Our daughter Riley, who has autism, used to wake up in those bare hours nearly every morning. I have so many friends who have to use medication just to help their children rest. And still, with never the “ideal” amount of sleep, our kids persevere.
Kevin and I park in the dark, and then the waiting begins for me. Most of the day will take him places I can’t go—the transition areas, the course, the finish shoot. Volunteers check wristbands as the athletes enter the transition area, to be sure no one enters who will not be participating in the race. My job for the day is an enthusiastic one. I’m here to wait on Kevin, to crazy-cheer and forget myself, to celebrate every milestone, especially the finish. We had discussed the probable length of each leg in Kevin’s Ironman journey in advance, and I thought I’d have time during some of the longer stints for other work. I brought my computer with me. As it turned out, I could only think about the race and supporting Kevin through it.
I wait maybe a half hour outside the transition area for Kevin to return from finishing last minute pre-race things like having a bike maintenance person (more support staff—are you gathering the list?) check his brakes, and I am caught up in the excitement, in the stream of people gathering for the day. It’s going to be a momentous event. I can feel it. The enthusiastic voices of the race announcers create a background for all the hustle and bustle, setting a tone from the beginning. These two men will communicate all day about the race, everything from reminders to athletes to sharing their stories to announcing their victories. I can’t help but think about how they foster a spirit of encouragement, comraderie, and support, just by the way they offer information.
Just like that, the morning melts, and with it the darkness. I blink and it’s time to wish Kevin well and see him join the pack of swimmers moving toward the water.
As the sun rises, I look out over the river and gather in the silhouttes of so many men and women in canoes and gathered on board boats to watch over the swimmers’ safety. The swim portion of the race is by far the most dangerous and the wait through it on shore by far the most difficult. It comforts me to see all of the people who have assembled for safety—the volunteers, the race staff, the Coast Guard.
Kevin fiinishes the swim portion of the race in just under 2 hours, and I prepare myself for nearly a six hour wait while he’s on the bike, thinking about how patient we learn to be as the support crew for our exceptional children. Every milestone matters, and sometimes their progress comes slowly and takes years to develop fully. Through the waiting, it can be difficult to maintain our belief in possibility, to keep our eyes focused on their limitless potential. While I wait for Kevin, the race announcers share stories with us about the athletes and their lives, about whom they race to honor and what many of them have overcome to be out on the course today. As I listen, it occurs to me that this is often how we support each other as a community too. We share our stories, and in so doing, we spur each other on to remain steadfast in support of our amazing children.
When the swimmers exit the water, volunteers called wetsuit strippers help them peel out of their wetsuits. Then the athletes run into the transition area, where still more volunteers hand them their transition bags. They take the bags into a changing tent to prepare for the next portion of the race. Volunteers stay in these changing tents all day to assist the athletes as they transition. Throughout the race, I hear the announcers call out special thank you’s to these tireless volunteers, who have given themselves over to some of the most tedious efforts of the day.
At around 3 in the afternoon, I spot Kevin riding back into the transition area on his bike, and I forget myself completely, yelling for him and running crazy beside him, asking him how things are going so far for him. I almost run into someone as I go all hoppy and crooked, with my eyes trained on Kevin’s face. I smile that no one even bats an eye over my behavior, not even the silver-haired man I nearly run into, and all because they have either already had their own turn at it or soon will. In fact, at many times throughout the day, other spectators even join me in my cheers. All day, in fact, I feel bouyed along by the encouragement of others who comment on my posts or retweet them as a show of support. I feel surrounded by a whole crowd of people cheering with me from afar. At some point later in the evening, I comment to Kevin that it would be beautiful if we always did that kind of cheering for each other even just in the every day churning of living. But in the middle, I think again of all of you and how we cheer together for our kids, how everyone understands and joins each other in wildly celebrating things that might not seem as significant to others who don’t share our journey or belong to this community.
More volunteers meet Kevin at the transition area and rack his bike for him, still others call out his bib number and gather his transition bag to hand him as he runs into the changing tent to prepare for the run. Once again, I collect up a single thought: It’s no small thing to be the support crew. It’s a diligent, committed, steadfast, often repetitive effort that makes the race happen and facilitates the accomplishment of these athletes. Likewise, our steadfast, committed, sacrificial investment in this community as the support team for our students builds and bears memorable fruit. We facilitate their accomplishment with our investment and should never take that opportunity lightly.
Within minutes, Kevin runs back out of the changing tent, where more volunteers slather sunscreen all over his shoulders before he starts his marathon run. A few yards down the course, other volunteers hold out their hands, offering cups of water and sports drink to the runners. I am teary thinking of all that Kevin has accomplished already as well as the 26 miles still left before he runs into the finish shoot and all the people who have made the day’s efforts possible.
Kevin raises his arms as he leaves on the run, raising them in honor of our persevering kids and all the challenges they have already overcome, all the milestones they still must reach.
It takes Kevin roughly 4 and a half hours to finish the marathon, but for me, that time is broken into increments of waiting between sighting and cheering for him. The run course makes three loops, so I am able to glimpse him and yell encouragement multiple times, jumping up and down with my fists in the air. In the space between, other runners sometimes ask me the time of day (because you lose track during an endurance event) or other spectators tell me a bit of their own stories. I am touched that communities of people can come together so easily around a common purpose, and thankful that our Dynamic Community has discovered the same gift in each other.
The last time Kevin passes me, it’s mile 18. I yell to him that I will see him at the finish, and I leave immediately to find a spot there to wait with the crowds of celebratants. Another spectator walks with me from where we stood along the course to a place near the finish shoot. He doesn’t know my name and I don’t know his, just that his wife is racing today and it’s her first full Ironman too. We share stories as we walk, and exchange pleasantries before going our separate ways when we reach the finish line. I stand cheering for the athletes running in, swallowing so much emotion every time the announcers call out to them, announcing their victories.
Some of the runners lift their arms as they run–or stumble—down the shoot. Some catch high fives from the crowds as they go by, and always a small group shouts a little louder and snaps pictures and runs to find them at the end. The encouragers, the celebrating crowds make up an important part of the support crew too. Their voices matter to these athletes. I clap and cheer and refresh the athlete tracker on my phone, noting Kevin’s pace as he passes through each checkpoint, until finally I know he has less than two miles to go. I train my phone on the finish line, and the people next to me smile, knowing that my athlete must be due to arrive at any moment. It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to know all that it took to get to a moment like that and then to see it happen, to spend the day thinking about all the people that made the day possible, how their efforts—our efforts—supported Kevin’s hard work and facilitated his accomplishment, culminating in such a grand moment. But I don’t have to explain, really, do I? You know what it’s like…You’ve watched your children—our children—press on through so much and work so hard to make progress. You’ve gathered up their hard work and all the other faces and hands and voices and efforts—the support crew–it took to facilitate their success, and you’ve celebrated and felt that same joy rise up in your throat. You know, and this is why Kevin raced in honor of them and in honor of you, too. And so you know already that no one’s contribution to achievement is insignificant. You know that it’s no light thing to be on the support crew. You know the strength we all find together to accomplish grand things, achievements that begin as just a hope, just the seed of something exceptional.