My brother is shooting strangers with a water gun. I am standing in the middle of an obscure street in the middle of a suburb looking like I’m ready for a day at the beach. A strip of zinc sunscreen is swiped across my nose, and the sounds of labored breathing, footsteps, cheering, and “Hawaiian” music are filling the air. It is 2014; my dad is competing in his first ever full Ironman—a triathlon that includes a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run—and my extended family and I are volunteering at one of the many water stations along the run course to support him.
This isn’t my first time volunteering at a race. After a bet that my parents made against an uncle, my family became immersed in the world of marathons and triathlons, and water stations became the weekend home of me and my less athletically inclined relatives. My time spent passing out water has proven surprisingly educational. Trial, error, and observing my fellow volunteers has helped me develop a water station battle strategy that ensures my area runs smoothly in the face of herds of panting runners. I have learned how to best pour water into the bottles of agitated in-a-rush racers (distract them from their panic with small-talk), how to quickly pour large amounts of water (make a friend to deal out cups while you pour), and most importantly, how to ensure that runners always get cold water (always move water from the back of the tables forward so that you don’t end up with a mass of lukewarm water at the back). Though I won’t be making a living off of my water-pouring tactics, my time at water stations has fundamentally changed how I view the world. Managing water stations has helped me learn to think on my feet, and I’ve inadvertently stumbled upon my aspirations by observing the racers during Ironman events.
As people pass and take the water from my outstretched arms, I admire the fact that despite the overwhelming heat, most of the runners are smiling. They smile when we cheer them on, they smile when we pass them drinks and food and when they see my brother and cousins, all still below four feet tall, holding their giant water guns. If there’s anything that volunteering at races has taught me, it’s that it’s extremely easy to make people smile. A cup of water and a “You’ve got this!” and people’s eyes will light up. Watching bib number after bib number pass me by, I’m overcome with a confusing mix of pride and terror. I’m proud that number 3061, now on her second loop, has made it this far. I’m scared that number 4315, standing off to the side chugging Gatorade and dousing himself with water, may not make it to the finish in time. Race days are made up of a culmination of months of blood, sweat, and tears and I want for these strangers what I want for my dad—for them to make it to the finish and hear the words “you are an Ironman”.
Standing by my cousins, cheering for strangers, I realize that I want to do what I can to help people pass their finish lines, regardless of whether it’s by doing something as small as making them smile. I want to be a person that can help people reach their goals, and standing at this water station, watching seventy-year-olds, war veterans, people who have lost limbs, and parents who have herds of children chasing after them, has made me hopeful for my future. If these people can take enough time out of their day to train for something as daunting as an Ironman, and make it all the way to the run portion of the race, then surely I can do anything that may seem bigger than myself. Standing here, watching hordes of people pass by before my dad arrives, I have learned to be patient with myself. I realize that reaching your goals takes time and at the end of the day, it’s okay if you get to the finish line a little bit later than the people around you. After all, whether you finish at eleven in the morning or eleven at night, you are still an Ironman.