ON THE SCENE: Ironman athletes, volunteers have special bond

Volunteers and former Ironman Lake Placid racers Amy Voorhees and her husband Peter, of Dryden, New York, give out water at an aid station. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

More volunteers participate in the Ironman Lake Placid triathlon than athletes, and a tight bond exists between these two human aspects of the race.

The volunteers come from California in the west, Georgia in the south, nearby Albany, Plattsburgh and Vermont, and, of course, the Tri-Lakes and High Peaks regions. They consider themselves part of a mutually supportive family. Each needs and cares for the other.

“We couldn’t host Ironman without the volunteers,” said Ironman Lake Placid Race Director Greg Borzilleri. “They’re vital. They’re the key cog in the wheel to putting this event on by far. They can replace me, all of our staff, they can completely replace vendors, but without volunteers, this would be a tough event to pull off.”

Second-place finisher in the men’s division Arnaud Guilloux of France agreed.

“The race is very hard,” said Guilloux. “So, the volunteers are essential because they support the athletes during the race.”

Medical volunteers check out third-place women’s finisher Swiss athlete Joanna Ryter. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Athletes say that while there are volunteers at every Ironman race the world over, there is something special about the Lake Placid volunteer; in many respects, that’s because the race is so challenging. The Lake Placid course is to Ironman as Lake Placid’s Mount Van Hoevenberg track is to the sliding sports of bobsled, luge and skeleton. Both are standouts in the respective sports as being one of the top two toughest in the world.

“We’ve done many races in the world, and Lake Placid is a very famous race,” said French team Manager David Lacombe. “That’s why many French athletes want to compete at the Lake Placid Ironman. It’s a stunning course and a challenging race. Its volunteers make it even more special.”

Ironman Lake Placid has a mystique about it. Whether you come in first as Swedish athletes Rasmus Svenningsson and Lisa Norden did in the men’s and women’s professional ranks or finished just before midnight, you have bragging rights of completing the race.

While moving around the Ironman course on Sunday, July 25, I stopped at the aid station at the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg. It’s located just before the long steep set of hills going down to Keene. There I experienced the kind of care and support volunteers gave to athletes that have already completed the 2.4-mile swim on Mirror Lake and, on their second lap, about 60% of the punishing 112-mile bike course. Many are tired and know full well what’s ahead, a downhill not for the faint of heart at a time when they are no longer at their best.

One athlete arriving in the station hit an emotional and physical wall. She was spent. In her heart, she knew if she continued, she might fall and get hurt. She had trained so hard to get to this point and felt terrible about letting her friends and family down by not continuing. She was in tears.

French team manager David Lacombe poses with second- place finisher Arnaud Guilloux. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

The volunteers, several of whom had competed in Lake Placid before, assured her that her family would be even more proud of her for recognizing her limits and putting her safety first. They praised her accomplishments. You could tell their words and support, including arranging a ride back to Placid, made a difference. She felt loved and cared for by people who had been through the course. She couldn’t thank them enough.

A short while later, another athlete arrived who had witnessed a terrible fall on the very hill she was about to descend. She didn’t know if she could do it with that image in mind and the many other challenges still ahead. Here, the volunteers helped her find her center. They first got her to take some deep breathes to help her relax. They provided her some water and nutrition and got her to walk about a bit. They didn’t advise her what to do but instead enabled her to relax, refocus and make her own decision, which in this case was to proceed and ultimately complete the race.

“We did the race a couple of times, and we just love coming up here pretty much every year since 2008,” said Peter Voorhees of Dryden, New York, volunteering with his wife Amy. “We know what they’re going through. We know how tough the hill ahead is. We see people from all walks of life in the race, all different shapes and sizes, having different means and reasons for being here. Our goal is to support them all the best we can. It’s fun. We enjoy doing it.”

I witnessed that kind of support again, again and again throughout the day. An example was the crowds along the final stretch up Mill Hill, up past Mr. Mike’s, the American Legion, and Central Garage to the finish on Main Street in front of the Olympic Speedskating Oval. You could see how their cheers and applause lifted the athletes throughout the afternoon and into the evening, helping them make it across the finish. Once there, volunteers brought them water and refreshments, and volunteer medics stepping in with any support they might need.

One example of the latter was third-place women’s finisher Swiss athlete Joanna Ryter, who arrived looking a little battered and bruised. When transitioning from the bike to the marathon, she hit her brakes a too hard and went over the handlebars, crashing headfirst into the pavement.

Thankfully, Ryter had a helmet that saved her from a worse injury, but she still ended with a cut lip, a scraped leg and, no doubt, bruises she still feels to this day. The medics cleaned her cuts and treated her wounds as soon as she arrived. Ryter had great praise for all volunteers, especially those at the transition who cared for her, her bike and equipment, enabling her to continue the race.

“I fell with my head first, so thank you to my helmet,” said Ryter. “It could have been worse. Thank you to the volunteers, too. They are crazy. I thank them for the aid stations, for the directions, for all their help. I love racing in the United States because their volunteers are amazing. So, too, are the spectators. After I crashed and hit my face, they are all encouraging me. They and the volunteers gave me so much energy. And now, at the end of the race, the volunteers have bandaged me up. Of course, I want to come back. I’ve had such a good time.”

Ryter said that she arrived with the French athletes, who all agreed that even if they had a bad race, they still want to return because they had such a great time in Lake Placid even before the race started.

Eleventh-place finisher Yu Hsiao, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, described the course as a gorilla, adding praise for the volunteers who made such a difference and for the community as he trained in the days leading up to the race.

“Everybody waves,” said Hsiao. “They make us feel welcome.”

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)