Supporters this one is for you!

Written by Rosanna Hutton, the Non-Triathlete at Tri Training Harder

Triathletes, you're the bees knees!

However, this article does not tell you how to swim faster or race harder. It does not contain the secrets to perfect nutrition or tips to help you understand gearing. This article is a shout out to your supporters.

I myself am a 'non- triathlete'. The 'non-triathlete' in a triathlon business, in a triathlon friendship group and in what I can only describe as a triathlon-centric relationship (spending most of my time as a triathlon widow whilst my boyfriend trains). Sure, I can swim well, I enjoy a nice scenic bike ride, and the more I do it, the less of an an ordeal running becomes, but all three at once in quick succession while wearing lycra… no thank you. I would forgive you for assuming that as I am not a triathlete, I don't feature much throughout race season but how wrong you would be. I am one of those crucial elements in a triathlon… I am a supporter.

Supporting at club relays with a fellow triathlete widower. 
Years ago, I was taken to my first triathlon by a handsome young man who went on to win the race (not the young man in the picture above I hasten to add). It was a thrilling experience although I had my reservations when I was dragged out of bed at 3 A.M. "What looneys get up at 3 A.M. and get into a murky, mist covered lake?" I pondered as the athletes warmed up. As the race started and my triathlete disappeared into a sea of arms I remember thinking through my adrenaline rush, that the competitors looked like a school of flying fish. "Beautiful" I breathed as the sun burst through the clouds and bounced of the wetsuit cladded arms.

Another Tri Training Harder supporting team. 
However, once I lost my athlete to the swim, it did not matter how beautiful the scenery was, or how big the pub lunch I had been promised after the race was going to be, or how sweet my over sugared coffee was, I found myself suddenly feeling very alone. I felt very conspicuous as a newby in this crowd of seasoned supporters. Whistles blasting, cowbells dinging and donging, dogs barking, kids shouting and jostling for space to display their "Go Mummy" or "Tri Daddy" signs on the railing. Lean and leathery old men held stop watches in anticipation of their triathletes exit from the water while yummy mummies in Hunter wellies, with pushchairs and labradors shouted to each other in loud voices. 
I have not seen this yummy mummy at a triathlon yet but you get the idea! 
It was one of these mummies, a heavily pregnant woman with three little children and a spaniel who pulled my arm under her Barbour clad one and said "Come on, over here darling or you will miss his exit". As it happened I did miss his exit… I was talking to much to my new friend. I did however cheer on a few men (and women) I mistook for my triathlete.

Returning to the scene of my triathlon induction the following year I knew to wear many more layers... I now know how cold supporting can be!
It was at this race that I fell in love with triathlon. Unlike the athletes who work hard, push themselves and achieve glory for their efforts, my joy came from seeing my athlete in his element and being in a crowd of good natured and friendly people united by the strange activity of supporting. It has to be said that crowds at triathlons are some of the most accepting and inclusive people I have ever met. Something that I think does great justice to the sport. At this event I learnt the importance of the positive energy that the supporters bring to an event. Without the athletes there may not be a race, but without their supporters the race would not be nearly as fun!

Look at all those supporters making the finish truly memorable for every athlete.
It was much later on in my supporting career that the revelation hit me… the triathletes NEED their supporters. Our role matters!

Loving support during Ironman South Africa, this athlete went on to finish his race after hitting the wall big time. 
I was taught this crucial lesson by a formidable Scottish IRONMUM who after years of watching her sons play rugby, cricket, row and compete in triathlons, had supporting down to a fine art. Umbrella in hand, fold up chair under her arm and list of times tucked in her pocket she led swarms of uninitiated supporters around Wimbalball lake, the IRONMAN 70.3 UK course, while her son and many of our friends bested themselves in the race. While the rest of us cheered our athletes with gusto, she calculated splits, tracked down her sons competitors and timed the distance between them. She enthusiastically cheered every competitor with helpful tips; 'hold your technique', "hunt her down", "only 8km to to go". I was in awe, and just a bit terrified. I had found the secret to this triathlete's success. His supporter mother. Sun, wind or rain she would be there, whatever the continent, what ever the distance. Fighting for the correct nutrition and ensuring her son's undisturbed sleep before the race, and feeding him his and his competitors times during the race.

IRONMUM central to the photo with a gaggle of her uninitiated supporters.
"You have to be an active supporter" she explained to me as she cast an irritated eye over her husband who was snoozing on the picnic blanket next to me. "I still blame myself for the fact that my son missed out on qualifying for the Ironman world championships by 24 seconds when racing in South Africa. If only I had realised that on the run the competitors can't see the athlete ahead's number because it is on their front. I should have told him what his adversary was wearing and I am sure he would have qualified for Kona."

While I don't think it was IRONMUM's fault her son did not qualify for Kona in that race, her words did come back to me again and again when it was my turn to be the solo support of my triathlete in South Africa. And oh boy, I learnt what it meant to be a triathlon supporter that week, (not day… week).

My triathlete for this race was my boyfriend, a powerful athlete who had raced in the IRONMAN world championships three years before. He knew his stuff and I had to learn the solo supporters role fast.

I took this while the morning of the race before zipping my triathlete into his Huub. 
For those of you who have not yet had the privilege, below are the key roles for a solo supporter;

Duty number one - The solo supporter is given the role of 'driver' - "I have to rest my legs" I was told frequently in the build up to the race - I drove back and forth from accommodation to the race centre about 100 times that weekend. I was just grateful my athlete was not one of these age groupers that take a seat to the registration with them- cringe!

Duty number two - The solo supporter doubles as a donkey and guard dog - what no athlete will tell you is that as a supporter you will be lumbered with all the kit that they don't need after they have put their wetsuits on, or after they have donned that all important 'finishers t-shirt'. I have spent hours waiting with bikes while my triathlete socialises, holding back packs, wetsuits and water bottles, shaking and tapping nutrition into containers. I am now very good at holding, and guarding.

Me 'guarding' a helmet while reading the race guide and sporting a dubious choice in shirt. 
Duty number three- A solo supporter becomes an accomplished hunter gatherer. No red meat, not too many carbs etc. etc. I scoured supermarkets, scouted out restaurants and ensured that my athlete was well fed and watered. While he would strongly deny that I fulfil this role, with his mind on tyre pressures and 'body glide' finding his own food became too stressful!

Duty number four - A solo supporter becomes a masseuse- I may not be as muscly as a triathlete but my gosh, my thumbs are well defined after months of calf massages (huge thanks to coach Chantal who also under took this duty with me).

My triathlete enjoying a quick, roadside 'rub down' from coach Fiona - in triathlon, I have learnt, this statement evokes more pain than pleasure.. or so I am assured!  
Duty number five - A solo supporter must cultivate mind reading skills. However wonderful and good natured your athlete is - and mine is lovely - there is always an element of mental preparation needed before a big race. The nerves and excitement that build up pre-race are dealt with differently by every athlete. I found myself taking the role of clown to lighten the mood but often I hear of supporters having to leave their athletes to it. A friend (herself a very good athlete) said that her athlete regressed to a child like state before a race "I just know that he is awful for three days before the race and then I have him back" she laughed when I gasped at stories of this full grown man's demands.

Swim start in Ironman South Arica.
In the midst of learning all these new skills the race happened. The day of IRONMAN South Africa dawned misty and cold and I am rather pleased that all the pictures from that day are of my athlete as I looked totally bonkers. Dressed head to toe in Tri Training Harder kit, with a huge IRONMAN backpack filled with kit for all eventualities. A Union Jack around my shoulders, camera hanging of one arm and a vuvuzela off the other, I sprinted around the course all day shouting times, athletes kit colours and relaying messages to and from keen followers back in the UK. It was 33 degrees centigrade in African sun, and while any self respecting South African supporters set up base with marquees, barbecues, paddling pools, sofas and huge amounts of beer, the hard core supporters put in the milage.

South African supporters have it right - road side support avec paddling pool

Ice and bananas! 
Joining me in my manic and dedicated supporting was a lady who deserves a medal for her supporting efforts. The wonderful Hannah put me to shame as she supported her husband with a double push chair and two little girls under the age of four. "I will cheer yours if you cheer mine" she smiled at me. In between her husbands laps she rushed her over-heating toddlers to the sea, and back up to the shops for a drink before being back on the race line for their daddy's next lap. Another IRONMUMMY of note!

My athlete podiumed. He came second in his age group and will once again be going to Kona. Although he was pleased with his race I questioned my role in his success. When he wanted to walk I shouted at him to run, when he was losing heart I gave him the next person to hunt down. But I regretted this commitment to his race later when I found myself sitting outside the hospital tent while seven doctors swarmed around my athlete who looked like he was suffering from a stroke. Joining me outside the hospital tent was a young man who had tears rolling down his cheeks. His girlfriend had just won her AG but had got her nutrition wrong and was now in intensive care. And an older woman sat stoically behind me, her husband's midlife crisis had lead him to his hospital bed. What the supporters go through for their triathlete's passion...

My triathlete podiumed coming second in his age group.
So as Kona looms on the horizon and my triathlete gets even fitter to prevent himself ending up in the hospital tent again, my supporter mind-set is starting to kick in. I am blanking out any thoughts of his race at the moment (still too scary), but I am making my own kit list: Comfy shoes (two words that had never been coupled together in my life up until my supporting initiation), zero tab hydration salts for those hours in the sun, camera and stop clocks with extra batteries.

As a supporter your money also goes on triathlons, perhaps not on bike parts but on traveling to support your triathletes. Your holiday time seems to evolve around training and racing and I can tell you from experience that there is no point trying to holiday after an Ironman race (I will never forget my triathlete falling asleep in a safari jeep while the rest of us ogled at lion cubs playing!)

This was the happy creature I went on Safari with... never again.
My triathlete slept through this sighting! 
As well as being broke for someone elses passion I have found that my boyfriend has a mistress who is very hard to compete with! His Cervelo P5 (I now know this to be a very snazzy bike) tends to spend more time with him than I do, has more money spent on it, and is lavished with much more care!

The mistress I compete with daily.  
Being a supporter Its a selfless thing. We do it because we love our triathletes, we respect their drive and passion. We love seeing them happy and complete the challenge they set themselves. I personally respect sport and believe exercise is vital.

Not being able to compete with the P5, I have taken up cycling. Many of my friends swear that the best way to deal with begin a triathlon widow is to take up the sport yourself. Get them out there supporting you. However, for many of us (and I include myself as the idea of racing fills me with horror) this is just is not going to happen.  I am satisfied that my triathlete does his share in supporting in other areas of our life.  Instead like many other supporters I take pleasure in my triathlete's success and the happiness he gets from his training and racing.

We don't get the glory of the competition, and those whopping trophies never have our name on them. However when I got a wonderful text from a good friend (she has a an ultra marathon runner as a boyfriend!) after Ironman South Africa saying"well done! you did it! super supporting", I thought, yes, I did my bit and thats enough.

Broken, tiered, sweaty, proud... and thats just the supporter! Me with my triathlete after Ironman SA. 
Triathletes, remember to give your supporter that sweaty hug after your race. Being a supporter is hard both emotionally and physically. Athletes train for their races, supports do not and athletes do not have to watch the one they love going at 40mph on a flimsy bike or sobbing on a hot run. Who ever your supporter/supporters is/are be it husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, Mum/Dad, your kids, coach, friends, or club mates, recognise what they do and sacrifice for your passion. After all what would you do without someone to peal off your sweaty tri tops post race?!