Behind every great Ironman is an Ironsherpa

Your Ironsherpa is the person who's always there to greet you at the finish line.  Credit: Sandra Mu/Getty Images
Do you get goose bumps watching the finish of an Ironman? You know that terrific late-night drama of the finishing line as the Everyman competitors run, walk, stumble or even craw across the line to the cheers of the crowd.

It's one of the best moments of any triathlon, no matter the distance; when you can actually witness human will overcome all obstacles in vivid Technicolor.

But what really gives me goose bumps is the wild crowd of cheering well wishers. Because I know this crowd is filled with the heroic stories of the Ironsherpa that made the finishers' race possible.

Who's your Ironsherpa?

Who's your Ironsherpa? All triathletes have one.

An Ironsherpa is the person who carries your load so you can train and race. It can be your husband or wife, mother or father, sister or brother, or perhaps your best friend.

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An Ironsherpa is the person in your life who: Puts up with all your triathlon talk, rubs your sore muscles, cooks your recovery meals, makes your bed on those early mornings, takes the kids to school so you can swim, understands why you prefer a long run to a good movie, doesn't mind your uniform of workout clothes, goes to the bike store with you and smiles politely while you discuss the merits of this or that wheel, gives up his or her vacation plans around your race schedule, washes your smelly socks, buys your protein powder, puts up with your bike lust, works while you play, makes your pre-race peanut butter and jelly sandwich, takes up running because you run, understands why you're too tired, understands why you really, really need to ride today, and who cheers you on as you cross the finish line.

An Ironsherpa is the person who really deserves all the glory but instead gets most of the toil.

During my last Iron-distance race I came face to face with the incredible virtues that really make Ironsherpa so wonderful. The 2005 Great Floridian Triathlon (GFT) was held about a dozen hours before Hurricane Wilma slammed into southwest Florida. It was a small miracle that the race was even put on. But the looming hurricane and last-minute planning didn't make for a smooth race. Many of the volunteers who work the aid stations either didn't show up or left earlier.

Probably the best known feature of the GFT is a substantial climb on the bike course called Sugarloaf Hill. Sugarloaf is no picnic to climb and worse yet, it comes at the end of both bike loops. The summit of Sugarloaf is also a popular place for Ironsherpa to watch and cheer on their friends and families, and it's probably the most anticipated aid stations on the entire 140.6-mile course.

During the 2005 GFT a small group of Ironsherpa showed up at the summit of Sugarloaf shortly after the start of the race. To their surprise, the aid station was set up, but nobody was there to work it. The aid-station crew never showed up, so the station sat partially stocked, but almost completely abandoned. So being true Ironsherpa, these fine folks worked the station for the entire nine-plus hours of the bike portion of the race.

What's more incredible, is when the aid station ran out of water, some of the Ironsherpa drove to a nearby store and purchased cases of water to hand out to those of us still on the course.

My Ironsherpa experience

These words can't really express how grateful I was to have water at the top of Sugarloaf. Especially after many of the prior aid stations were long abandoned and completely dry.

I have my own special story of Ironsherpa gratitude. That's one reason why I'm just as happy being an Ironsherpa as an Ironman.

During my first half-Iron-distance race I had a "bit" of a problem on the run. It was extremely hot (90 plus) by the time I started my run. To make matters worse, there wasn't a tree shade to be found.

I drank enough on the bike, or so I thought, that I didn't need that bottle of now-warm Gatorade I'd left behind at the transition area. In fact I felt fine, so I decided to forgo the first two aid stations on the run.

By the next aid station at mile three, I was getting a bit thirsty so I drank two cups of water. The problem was that these cups were those little Dixie cups that we used in grade school, so two cups equaled about four ounces of water.

I kept up this "hydration plan" for the next several miles in the scorching sun. By mile eight I was walking, and by mile 10 I was getting tunnel vision. I was extremely dehydrated and worse yet I didn't know it. But my Ironsherpa knew it. With her help, encouragement and guidance, I got the immediate medical attention I needed.

Looking back, I realize that I wasn't thinking or acting rationally. I was very sick and ready to pass out, but I just wanted to keep going. It took only about 20 minutes in the ambulance before the hydration IV kicked in, and I was back to normal. Funny thing is, I still wanted to go back out on the course and finish the last three miles of the race. It took me a while to realize just how close I'd come to doing some real damage to my body.

Feeling dejected, foolish and stupid for allowing myself get so dehydrated that I dropped out of my first half-Iron-distance race, I sulked home to my wonderful Ironsherpa.

That's why when I watch the finish line of any triathlon, I get goose bumps. And with Valentine's Day upon us, don't forget that behind every great Ironman is a greater Ironsherpa.


Roman Mica is a Clydesdale amateur triathlete who lives and races in Boulder, Colorado. His favorite race drink is brewed by the Boulder Brewery and his favorite nutrition supplement is made by Dairy Queen. Visit his Web site at www.everymantriathlon.com.

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