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Ironman Chattanooga Sherpa Race Report

Kathleen Oswalt | October 21, 2019

Sherpa [sher-puh]: an expert chosen by a chief executive to assist in preparations for a summit meeting.

Kathleen standing in front of the Ironman banner on race morning

I take my sherpa duties serious, very serious. I believe the better sherpa I am, the better triathlete Don can be. When he tells me his goal is to go to the World Championships in Kona, it becomes my goal to help him get there.

Before you read on, I want to preface that this is the way I sherpa. I know not everyone wants to put this much effort into their sherpa duties or has this much time to put into their sherpa duties because of other commitments like family and children. Everyone “sherpas” different and that’s a-okay. One of my love languages is…acts of service. This is an opportunity for me to show Don how much I care for him, love him and support his dreams.

Sherpa duties kick in far before race day but full-time sherpa duties kick in the minute we leave for our Ironman destination. This time, it was Chattanooga, TN.

My Sherpa Duties this trip:  
  1. Chauffeur 
  2. Organizer
  3. Chef/Hostess
  4. Assistant/Gofer
  5. Tracker/Cheerleader/Score Keeper
  6. Photographer
  7. Consoler

Three days til’ Ironman Chattanooga 

We started our journey on Thursday, September 24th around 8am. Of course a little later than what we wanted but still it would get us into Chattanooga around 4pm. Just enough time for Don to get in a quick run and for me to unpack and organize our condo, the place we would be living for the next 7 days.

Our condo was in a great spot, only half a mile from transition in a quiet part of the neighborhood. It had an awesome kitchen, space for Don’s bike, a nice big closet and a washer and dryer, (hallelujah!) BUT the one thing it had that we weren’t expecting was ANTS!

It was around 1:30am when I thought I felt something crawling on me, I brushed my shoulder and didn’t think much of it until I thought I felt something again. I decided to get up and use the restroom, got back in bed and felt something AGAIN…my worst fear was BED BUGS!!! I just laid there until Don got up to use the restroom, he got back in bed and I felt him brush his shoulder. I immediately asked him if something was crawling on him and he said yes. That’s when we discovered your everyday ants in our bed. Apparently everyday ants bite, Don had several welts from his face to his legs. Needless to say, we slept with one eye open after that!

Two days til’ Ironman Chattanooga

Friday morning was an early rise and shine to be a chauffeur. I was happy to drop Don and another Ironman athlete, Mike, who we had met at the TriMarni camp this summer, off so they could get on the bike course and get a feel for what was to come Sunday. Much of the drive was beautiful. It was fun to see the terrain and the views that they would be experiencing during the race.

As soon as I made my way back to the condo, you know what I did right? Yes, as the assistant to the chief (haha, when we’re in the kitchen there is definitely a role reversal) I made some phone calls and had the ants taken care of. Later that day Don and I made our way down to the athlete area so he could get checked in (of course I was there to take some pictures). We both got an athlete rundown of what to expect on Sunday. We checked out and used some of the items available to help work out his tight hamstring. Next was a quick trip to the grocery store, meal prep and then hosting dinner for Mike and Melanie (another Ironman athlete we had met at the TriMarni camp).

Don and Kathleen getting the race review run down 2 days before race day.

You know…the assistant’s work is never finished. I swear I threw a black marker somewhere in the pile of “stuff” we had packed but once in Chattanooga it was nowhere to be found. As Don was starting to put his special needs bags together he needed a black marker. So, I hopped in the car and went on a wild goose chase for a black marker at 8:30pm when all I wanted to do was take a shower, put on some comfy clothes, chill a little and try to get to bed early. A black marker is definitely going on the Ironman packing list!

One day til’ Ironman Chattanooga

Saturday was another day and while Don was out testing the river waters with Mike, I cleaned up the condo and worked. There were some things I HAD to get done, so I worked quickly to get them accomplished by the time he got back. I never know when I’ll be needed. The afternoon was about helping Don get his bags down to transition and be 100% checked in by the 3pm cutoff. Once again, we made our way to the athlete area. Don used what was available to help him get that stubborn hamstring worked out. I splurged on a 10-minute massage of my legs and feet trying to get them prepped for a long, hot day ahead. 

Dinner again was with friends, we were happy to host Mike for a pre-race dinner. I found that I enjoyed hosting but was so nervous and anxious about cooking for others pre-race. I know what Don likes and what his body does well with, but for others, my fear was I would be the cause of any GI issues race day. Note to self…if hosting in the future be very aware of what others do well with and have those foods available for them. I now know this is part of being a good race hostess.

It’s RACE DAY!!!

The one thing I DREAD about race day is the early wake-up call, but surprisingly I felt good waking up at 4am and was ready to start the day strong. Just as Don had been waiting for this day, so had I and I was anxious to see how it would play out. Mike met us at the condo around 4:40am. We gathered up our stuff and headed down to transition around 4:45am. I waited for them as they got everything situated, we had fun taking some pictures and then hoped the bus to the swim start.

Mike and Don on race morning.

Waiting at the Swim Start

We arrived…but about an hour and a half early, what do we do now? We checked out the swim start so Mike could get a better idea of what to expect. We found a spot for sherpa viewing, took more photos and then found a grassy area to hangout. I played on my phone while Mike napped and Don tried to nap and focus on his mindset. As the time got closer I walked with Don until I could go no further and we said our goodbyes for the time being. There was a feeling of wow, it was go-time, this is it, this is what he had been working up to, training so hard for months on end for and it was my chance to see it all play out.

Once I could no longer see Don, I ran to the sherpa viewing area…I think I saw him but honestly, I’m not sure. Ready to start the day, I made my way back to the buses, hoped on and hitched a ride back to the transition area. There I found my spot. Watching the tracker and the time on my watch I waited…and waited…and waited. Expending energy swaying back and forth, a rapid heart rate, jitters, looking at..every..athlete..coming out of the water and then my worst nightmare.

The Ironman tracker alerted me that Don crossed the timing mat…WHAT?!?

 

I ran as fast as I could (with 2 backpacks on my back) to catch Don leaving on the bike. I think I caught a glimmer of him BUT he did not see me. We did not see each other and I was devastated. I was upset but collected myself and waited for both Melanie and Mike to start their bike journey (I wasn’t sure if I would see them again) so I could cheer them on. Then I made my way back to the condo.

Back at the condo

Once at the condo the first thing I did was clean up. It wasn’t terrible but hey I didn’t want to see our friends (ants) back again. So I got rid of the half-eaten mini bagel on the counter, the sticky Gatorade and everything else left here and there in the kitchen and everywhere else. I made some coffee and got something to eat and then I got NERVOUS.

I didn’t trust the Ironman tracker and I didn’t trust the clock. All I could think about was missing Don get off the bike and I’d never find him on the run. I left twice to head down to transition and then re-thought my plan. It was WAY too early to go down. So I made my way back up to the condo, I tried to work a little but anything more than that was impossible. I was too nervous, so I paced and I piddled. I looked at the clock over and over and then FINALLY at 1pm I headed down for a 2:19pm appearance from Don.

Transition 2 

Don came in on the bike and he looked good. I was glad to see him and was ready to track and find him here and there on the run. I waited for him to come down the chute and start the run and as he did he ran up to me, stopped and quickly told me about his bike crash. The first thing out of my mouth was Oh No! Concerned, I looked at his shoulder and hip. I saw blood on his clothes, I saw bloody skin but I didn’t see anything that looked broken or dislocated. I wasn’t sure if he could run, how much pain he was in. The only thing I did know was this wasn’t in the plans and by his emotions, I knew he was thinking the same thing as me…Kona! 

As I watched him leave on the run, I was concerned.

 

I watched the tracker diligently, I saw he was still moving but to what extent I wasn’t sure. Was he running or was he walking? Then, my worst fear, Don was no longer moving on the tracker. At this point, the only thing that made sense was that he had stopped, in pain and needed medical attention. Because I didn’t know what happened I went on a journey to find him. I was bound and determined to get to him. I was walking and walking and walking. But before I made my way to where I thought he was, there he was coming around the corner running. I was so relieved! After the fact, I realized that it was the tracker, several times during the day it froze up, making it look like Don was stopped.

Now, I had to make my way back to the main part of the course, walking, walking, walking, uphill, huffing and puffing, watching the tracker and trying to figure out where I would plan to see him next. I think I was somewhere around mile 8, 9 or even 10. As I was waiting for Don at the top of the bridge I was anxious. I started walking over to the other side. I waited and finally saw him coming. When he reached me I told him he was in 5th place…5th place! He was clearly surprised and said “really?” and then I saw a little smile. This gave him the boost he needed. I didn’t know until after the race that Don had been walking A LOT up to that point. I knew he would be surprised but I didn’t know how surprised he would be. 

The Final Part of the Run

Continuing to track him and trying to figure out where I could see him again, I tried to catch him at special needs. He clearly beat me there, which was a fantastic thing! Then I made my way to about mile 21 or so. I waited and waited. I paced, I swayed, my heart beating fast because I could see he was in a battle for 3rd place. He was getting closer on the tracker. When I caught a glimpse of him way down the street I yelled as loud as I could (I’m sure everyone lined up on that street thought I was insane) “COME ON DON, YOU’VE GOT THIS”.

As he got closer, I yelled: “GUESS WHAT, GUESS WHAT???” “YOU’VE MOVED UP”. The emotion flowed over him and he asked… “Where am I?”, I said “THREE!!!”. As he ran down to make his way to the Veteran’s Bridge I yelled…

“IF YOU WANT IT YOU CAN STILL HAVE IT!!”

and then he disappeared. 

I really wanted to see him again before I went to the finish line but I was too worried he would beat me there. I decided to make my way straight to the finish line and wait. Finally, I saw him running towards the chute and a wave of fear came over me. I was afraid he would have the same finish in Chattanooga that he had at Kona but to my surprise, he looked fairly good. 

Don ready to cross the finish line but first I got a high five.

He made his way over to me for a high five and then somehow got BOTH arms in the air. When I saw him do that I screamed (I think the people next to me said…oh my god. Yes, I WAS that person that day.). Don always crosses the finish line looking at his watch but not this time, this race meant so much more. I was so excited and so proud of his accomplishment.

I ran to find him so I could tell him he finished 3rd and give him a big hug. We walked over to the medical tent. About 10 minutes later I realized that, because I was so excited, I had left my backpack on the ground back at the finish line. We ended the night awaiting the verdict at the award ceremony the next day.

Post Race Day Blues

As we moved into Monday and then Tuesday the mood was somber. Don didn’t get his fairytale ending and it was hard to watch. Not only was he disappointed but he was sore, bruised, depleted physically even telling me he just felt “blah” and his spirit a little broken. Recovery was a little harder this time than it ever has been in the past. After watching Don work week after week, month after month to prepare himself for this race, to make his dream come true and then watch it disappear in a moment was tough. 

Relaxing 2 days after race day.

As sherpa, the consoler duty is no fun.

 

I’ve never had this duty before and honestly, I hope I don’t have to work on perfecting it. I tried to shine a light where I could find the light.

I focused on:

  • all the supporters and love he received through social media and text messages.
  • his determination and perseverance and that most in his position would have settled on walking or maybe not even finished the race.
  • the blessing that he was able to get back up after his crash and finish his race because let’s be honest it could have been so much worse.
  • the fact that his dream is nowhere near dead it’s just been put on hold and that brought me to the universe.

It handed him the opposite of what he wanted that day but somewhere in there a lesson resides. So I tried to focus on being open, in the coming months, to what that lesson is.

Being sherpa is a job full of ups and downs.

 

Sometimes it means working extra hard to make sure your Ironman has an exceptional race day, sometimes it means doing things you really don’t want to do! But hey – when your Ironman needs a black marker at 8:30pm then you go get one. Sometimes it means washing sheets and remaking the bed for the next 5 nights after race day because your Ironman’s body is doing weird things, like profusely sweating during the night. Sometimes it means multi-tasking and I’ve finally figured out I suck at this on race day.

After Ironman Chattanooga I succumb to the notion that sherpa NEEDS a sherpa to take great photos of Triathlon Don, this is where I fail. I cannot cheer, yell and take photos all at the same time. The sherpa’s job never seems to be over. There are races where being sherpa seems daunting and I’d much rather be doing something else but once in the swing of things, there’s no turning back!

Before heading home we stayed 2 extra days in Chattanooga to rest, recover, relax and just rejuvenate. I always like to ask Don for a couple of extra days post race to relax, have some fun and spend time together.  He’s ALWAYS more than happy to say yes! Leading up to a full Ironman race means lots of quick conversations in passing, lots of weekends alone, extra duties around the house and so on. As much as I love showing Don how much I love him by being his sherpa I also need some love back. Spending a couple of days wherever we are post race day before we get back home to the real world and the grind is something I really need and he’s more than happy to make me happy.

Enjoying ice cream at Clumpies ice cream company.

My Biggest Take-Away From Ironman Chattanooga

I realized when Don told me he had crashed on his bike, he was in pain, I saw blood and his emotions welling up I was more than ready for him to quit right there. I was okay with that. It was a very hot and humid day and being 6+ hours into the race already with another 3 + hours to go and a mindset on getting to Kona, I wasn’t feeling confident he could or would make reasonable choices if it came to that point. 

But as I saw him each time on the run, standing upright, his body doing amazing things, his short conversations making sense and even catching a glimpse of a smile on his face (during a very tough day) I understood that he was nowhere near quitting. Giving up that easy is NOT an option and I need to learn to be as strong as he is.

To hear Don’s full race report, check out this post!

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