Race day: what to expect from the sidelines of a triathlon event.

Triathlon days, depending on the distance, are typically MUCH longer than an open marathon race or other running distance race. That means a few things:

  1. You will probably get there earlier than you would like
  2. You will do more math calculations
  3. You will spectate each sport differently
  4. You will need more snacks (and other essentials)
  5. You probably need something to keep yourself busy for some portion of the day
  6. The race doesn’t end when your triathlete crosses the finish line

A lot of the same tips from my previous post “Race day: what to expect from the sidelines of an open marathon” apply to triathlons as well!

Race morning. I have woken up in a tent at 4 a.m. to brush my teeth from a water bottle and get ready to spectate a half Ironman. You will definitely wake up early! Parking for triathlons has been stressful at ones that take place near parks in more rural areas so you want to avoid waiting in a long line of traffic.

Pro tip: Bring a headlamp for yourself and your athlete. It will be helpful to not only pack up your tent in the middle of the night, but for your athlete to set up transition and for you to help get gear out of the car. Transition is decently lit but the parking lots are very dark.

Pro tip #2: For the night before, consider bringing a sleep mask because your athlete (and hopefully you) will be going to sleep before 8 p.m. when it is probably still light out. I won’t post the picture of Jon with my black sports bra over his eyes acting like a sleep mask, but hopefully you can picture it. 

Calculations. Ironman FINALLY (finally, finally, FINALLY) stepped up their tracking game. The app actually is FANTASTIC. If you haven’t spectated an Ironman in the last year, get ready. That large race fee is finally being put to some electronic use. You track your athlete in almost real time. That doesn’t take away from the need to know expected race pace times. I typically write down expected swim, bike and run times. Transition times are irrelevant unless they are spaced far apart and you need to decide how much ground you can cover between the swim in and the bike out to see your triathlete.

Spectating each sport. Swim: The swim (to me and to Jon) is the worst part. Jon did get me a pair of binoculars to help with this. It really depends on the type of start the race has. If it is a rolling start, it is a lost cause to find your triathletes little blue swim cap in the sea of blue swim caps. Just keep an eye on the time, find a spot along the swim in transition that is convenient to get to the bike out chute and keep your eyes close to the shoreline. If you don’t have binoculars, the zoom on a digital camera works very well too! If you do spot your athlete at the beginning, the second you take your eyes off of them it will be so hard to find them again! I swear, every person looks like they swim the exact same way when everyone has a black wetsuit and the same color swim cap.

Pro tip: swim caps are colored by either age group or the distance the race is (for tri-festivals). Knowing the cap color is the only way you will be able to find your triathlete until they are running past you after the swim!

Bike: Spectating on the bike depends on how many turn around points there are. It isn’t too safe to actually go spectate on the course at most events; however, some of the full Ironman races offer a spectator bus that will take you out to the halfway point of the bike. I haven’t done this yet because the bike is usually the time when I go for a run myself and get lunch. Try to see them on the bike out, at a turn around point and at the bike in. They likely won’t even see you when you are spectating at this point because they are FLYING. Just know the average mph speed they are shooting for and plan to be back to bike in 10-15 minutes before that.

Run: Back to marathon basics. Hopefully it is a looped course and you can see them multiple times without having to run around yourself! There are typically fewer spectators at triathlon events compared to open marathons, simply due to the smaller number of competitors. Take all that you know about spectating and be prepared that your athlete is not going to look quite as good running a marathon after 6+ hours of biking and swimming. Run with them and check in as they are running by you. If they have a friend who is also competing that day, let them know how they are doing too. (I have wanted to say things like “Mike started the run 4 minutes ago, you can catch up and run the rest with him” but I know it probably came out more like “Mike passed me a few minutes ago, chase him down!”  While you cannot aid your Ironman, I have collected sweaty socks after Jon grabbed a fresh pair from his special needs bags. That was probably the grossest thing I have done during a race to date!

Snacks and essentials. It is a long day for you too! My backpack is always full of water, snacks, lunch, cash, books, sunscreen, umbrella, hat, gloves, etc. Don’t forget your course maps, watch and camera. I typically bring a lawn chair but I honestly don’t end up using it too much. I definitely end up thankful for my snacks though– you do not need to be a hangry spectator. Most races have some sort of concession stand if it is a more rural area , or there are likely restaurants nearby. Check out a few that are near the transition area so you are close to bike in and run out. In planning for food, your athlete probably isn’t going to be ready for a big meal as soon as they finish the race. Maybe they are and that is great! I would recommend that you eat again at some point during the run just in case you won’t be getting dinner until much later than you might hope.

Remember, wear comfortable shoes. Some races have very long transitions and if you want to see your triathlete you either have to skip the swim start or book it immediately to transition area (we are talking MILES away sometimes).

What to do all day. You will probably see your athlete for < 5 minutes total for the 9+ hours they are out there. That means you have a lot of time! I always say I’m going to get a long run in during the race but every single time I go out for a little bit but I honestly get too much anxiety to be focused on running myself. I would recommend some books or magazines to keep yourself busy. You can always spectate the race and keep cheering for other triathletes too!

Pro tip: A cowbell or some other type of noise making device is your friend for triathlons. Clapping for that long is just HARD. Think of words of encouragement you can shout out to the athletes:

  • Looking good!
  • Keep it up!
  • You got this!
  • Way to go!
  • DO NOT SAY YOU ARE ALMOST THERE OR ALMOST DONE. THAT IS NOT HELPFUL (and 99% of the time not true unless you are standing in front of the finish line)!!!!!!

Go back to the finish line. This is so much fun! Go cheer on the athletes who have 15+ hours in on the course. The finish line is one huge party! It is amazing to be out there in the dark! The race finishes officially at midnight so encourage your athlete to get a rest in and then go back out there!


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