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Reflections on Ironman Boulder from atop a paddleboard

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During the inaugural Ironman Boulder triathlon on August 3, nearly 3000 volunteers supported the athletes in the swim, bike and run legs and through their transitions from one to the next. Among those volunteers was Brandon Bailey, who provided support to the swimmers from his paddleboard, situated near the north bank of Boulder Reservoir nearly one mile into the 2.4-mile swim course. A veteran of many triathlons himself, Brandon observed a lot of inspirational and humorous behavior of the swimmers passing near his craft during the first part of their race.

Brandon arrived at Boulder Reservoir as requested at 5:00 AM in time to unload his paddleboard and participate in a briefing at the swim beach for all the swim support volunteers. The volunteers had already received a 50-page volunteer swim packet that explained the duties and rules for the swim race, and then heard the main points repeated at the pre-race meeting:

· Swimmers may hold on to the craft for as long as they wish, but the craft may make no forward progress while they are hanging on.

· Volunteers can use the flags provided to them to summon a jet ski for additional support or to remove a swimmer from the water.

· Bang on your craft to get the swimmers’ attention if they are off course. Swimmers cannot hear you yelling at them when their ears are underwater.

· Watch for people who might be struggling and be prepared to provide assistance.

Armed with this information, Brandon paddled a little more than a mile to the last buoy before the first turn in the swim course, then, watching the sun rise over the glassy reservoir, waited a half hour before the race started.

Brandon says, “You could see the progression of swimmers. The ones in the front had visibly better swim technique than those who followed. It was a continuous stream of swimmers, but you could observe the three categories: real swimmers who were definitely efficient swimmers. The front swimmers are smooth, as if they were just getting warmed up, just waking up. Next were competent swimmers, probably 1 hour and 15 minutes or faster, who can swim pretty well but they don’t have that really smooth form of the first swimmers. Then it was everybody else.”

Of the later swimmers, Brandon says, “I wondered if some of them had been in a pool during the last year. One of the stragglers didn’t even wear goggles and swam water polo style, polar bear swam the whole thing. Never put his face in the water. He made it with about four minutes before the two-hour and 20-minute cut off for the swim leg.”

Brandon saw swimmers hanging on to the buoys before the first turn, some asking him how far to go, or pretending to fix their goggles but really taking a breather. “A guy stopped at my paddle board to fix his goggles and was very chatty. He was from Louisiana and was just loving being in the race here,” Brandon reported.

Brandon saw more than a few collisions. “One guy was swimming crooked, one straight and they swam right into each other. I expected to have to intervene in a fight, but instead one guy said, ‘Hey how’s it going?’ The other said, ‘Hey, pretty good.’ ‘Is it that way?’ “That way.’ “Okay.’ Then they went back to swimming.”

The swim support volunteers follow in the last swimmers, accumulating in a large pack as the final swimmers approach the beach. Brandon says, “One guy in the straggler group, a big guy, was maybe overheating. He hugged his escort when he got to the ramp. That was cool to see him express his gratitude for the volunteer’s help.”

“The very last swimmer was kicking on her back with 10 meters to go, maybe not sure how close she was to the ramp, and everyone was urging her to flip over and do a couple of strokes and finish. The volunteers were trying so hard not to reach out and just pull her in so she could finish,” Brandon said.

Summing up, Brandon says, “I would do it again. I was pretty prepared. I had water and ate a couple of Lara bars, really important because you are out there for a long time. Three and a half hours is a long time to stand on your board. It’s a long morning, but a good vantage point to participate in the race and hopefully encourage some of the stragglers in in a way you can’t do on the bike or the run. You can actually paddle next to somebody for a while and that’s unique. “

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