Serving Others: Ironman Edition

I recently attended my first Ironman triathlon in historic Lake Placid, New York. I accompanied two of my childhood friends who were participating in their first Ironman. I initially committed to attending the race for two main reasons. First, I wanted to support my friends, Mike and Dave. The three of us ran the Chicago Marathon together this past October. And, while I was not prepared to undergo the training commitment necessary to join their Ironman foray, I was willing to commit my time and energy to support them in Lake Placid. Second, I viewed participating in the Ironman weekend to be a potential professional development opportunity as I am on the verge of completing my master’s degree in sport psychology. If nothing else, I felt as though I could learn more about athletes simply by immersing myself in the atmosphere, observing highly-dedicated and highly-conditioned athletes take a major risk in attempting to complete a grueling race. It was largely a no-lose proposition in my mind as I would be attending for both selfish and selfless reasons. Put another way, my participation was both self-referenced and other referenced (Stukas, Hoye, Nicholson, Brown, & Aisbett, 2016). As Stukas and colleagues point out in their study, volunteers aren’t typically motivated entirely by self-interest or entirely by benevolence. In fact, there are a number of specific motivators for volunteers, including the need to express personal values, the desire to learn, the desire to feel good about one’s self, the desire to connect with others, and the desire to further one’s career (Stukas et al., 2016). In my case, I was motivated by all of these factors.

As the race weekend approached, I started to think carefully about what I might do during the race since my friends would be racing for roughly 13 to 15 hours. I posed this question to another friend that completed his first Ironman last year and he suggested volunteering during the race. Volunteering hadn’t even crossed my mind. I didn’t instinctively think of volunteering despite the great enjoyment I receive from helping others. Further, I had no idea what my options might be as a volunteer. So, I pulled up my trusty Google machine and typed in something like, “Ironman Lake Placid volunteering.” Turns out that there is a whole web page dedicated to the act of helping out at Ironman races. I guess this wasn’t really shocking, but it was certainly new to me. Volunteers could work in varying capacities over the course of the entire weekend doing things like crowd control, registration, helping supporters to make signs, and of course, volunteering on the course handing out water and other provisions. Volunteering on the course was very appealing to me, so I decided to serve on the run course in the latest time slot available on Sunday.

Before the race even started, I had the opportunity to be of service to Mike and Dave throughout the course of the weekend. I helped them move stuff around in preparation for Sunday and drove them to the course around 5:00 am on Sunday to get checked-in. I camped out at the swim-bike transition to greet them with support. After that, I picked up ice and drinks for after the race guessing Mike and Dave would just want to relax after racing for the whole day. In the afternoon, I was able to greet them at the bike-run transition. Mikey and I even took a picture in the midst of his transition. From there, I headed off to my volunteer post on the run course. I spent three hours on the run course handing out everything from water to Gatorade to bananas to even chicken broth, which I had no clue was actually a thing. I saw a lot of long faces as many of the athletes were in their 11th, 12th, 13th hour of Ironman-ing. I can’t say I blame them. I’m sure I would have felt the same way after logging over 100 miles of physical activity. Nevertheless, I had a number of athletes thank me for providing them with nutrition and for volunteering in general to make the race happen. I wasn’t fishing for positive responses, yet it was certainly nice to hear. Perhaps most rewarding was the appreciation that I received from Mike, Dave, and their loved ones for helping them out throughout a long and stressful weekend. We even had a few laughs along the way despite them experiencing a bit of stress being that it was their first Ironman.

In the Spring 2019 quarter of my master’s program, I was asked to develop a detailed philosophy for my mental performance coaching practice. The core theme that emerged was helping others through service. I learned that it doesn’t really matter to me exactly how I help others, but rather that I have clear intention to help make their performance and lives better. The content of my coaching is less important to me. My work could entail helping elite athletes, business executives, or any individual seeking to get better. This very same theme came through in my first Ironman experience. I was just happy to be a part of it and helping others successfully achieve their goals. I journaled a bit throughout the weekend and wrote this, “I must be getting old because I’m not jealous that I’m not competing.” I found this to be extremely telling. Normally, my ego would have been screaming at me that I should be competing. In the past, I likely would have compared myself to the athletes that continually rolled past me on the course. However, I didn’t have to entertain such self-critical thoughts because they didn’t come up. Perhaps it is because I am nursing an arthritic left hip and I simply accept the fact that I probably will never be physically equipped to participate in an Ironman. Or, it could just be the idea of training for 25 to 30 hours per week didn’t really appeal to me after running a marathon. Regardless, I would have normally made it about me and not the competitors and their experience. This shift in my thinking might be a hint that I am transitioning into my primary role as a coach to others rather than focusing on myself first. In fact, I am sure this is true, and I am content with this shift.


Stukas, A.A., Hoye, R., Nicholson, M., Brown, K.M., & Aisbett, L. (2016). Motivations to volunteer and their associations with volunteers’ well-being. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 45(1), 112-132.

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