Watching Ironman like chasing twisters

Two Saturdays ago, I was in Kona, Hawaii for dual purposes - to attend a five-day sports medicine conference, and to support 24-year-old ONEathlete (and my brother-in-law), Benjamin Ooi, as he competed in the Ironman World Championships. Together with my wife, Bel, and her family, we showed up in full force on race day as Benjamin made his debut at this landmark event.

He had earlier qualified for the prestigious event by finishing first runner-up in his age group at the Half-Ironman Triathlon in Hefei, China, last October. Since I was still enjoying some downtime after the SEA Games, it was the perfect opportunity to have the tables turned for me to play my first supportive role at an endurance event. And wow, was it difficult!

PLANNING AND NAVIGATING

To be a good supporter, one needs to plan and navigate well. The Ironman Triathlon consists of a 3.8km out-and-back swim in the sea, followed by a 180km bike ride, and culminating with a 42.195km marathon. To catch Benjamin at as many points along the race course as possible, we had to strategise and plan our "supporters' route".

Days ahead, we painstakingly laid out the maps and plotted the roads which would be closed for the race. We then had to determine where along the race course would be the best places to meet him and when we should be there to cheer him on.

During the race, we also had to use the Ironman live-tracking application on our phones concurrently to keep track of his location along the route so that we could be at the right point at the right time. The immense brain power required for this endeavour was much higher that I had expected. Running to our car in between checkpoints and racing to the next felt like we were chasing tornadoes, like in my childhood favourite movie Twister.

BE SEEN

I had never realised how difficult it is to grab the attention of your "supportee" when hundreds, if not thousands, of other supporters are shouting simultaneously for the other competitors.

Bel and I screamed our lungs out and waved our banners frantically to attempt to stand out from the crowd so that Benjamin would sense our presence. At several points where we could, we ran alongside him behind the barriers, shouting reminders for him to get his hydration and nutrition throughout the gruelling event. After all, the best live support is when the athlete sees you, right?

FATIGUE

After the entire event, I wasn't sure if I would have preferred to be the one out there on the arduous course, or the one cheering from the sidelines. It was tough being a good supporter - a huge proportion of the time was spent rushing to different checkpoints and refreshing the live-tracking application every few minutes to see if Benjamin was still going strong in the race. The times which we were able to cheer him on account for just a minuscule fraction of the entire race.

Physically, it was extremely taxing, having to dash around and stand under the hot sun in a sea of people. Mentally, I was left drained. I found myself constantly anxious about Benjamin's performance ("Did he stay hydrated?" "Why is he taking so long to cross this checkpoint? I hope he didn't get a flat!" "Wow that was a fast 5km split on the run, he is so going to catch up with those other competitors!"), bursting with questions yet without any immediate answers. Multiple thoughts - both negative and positive - raced through my mind whenever he was out of sight.

FINISH

Finally, after 10hr 34min, Benjamin crossed the finish line. Unfortunately, due to some technical error on the live-tracking application, all of us missed his run down the finishing chute.

This led to further despair - to have been there throughout the race but miss out on his finish was rather disappointing for us. Fortunately, a friend who was at the finish line managed to take a video of Benjamin's vibrant finish.

Once we received news that he had completed the race unscathed, I felt a wave of overwhelming relief and gratitude.

It was also a bonus that he had achieved an excellent finishing time, in the top 40 per cent of the 1,600 elite triathletes who had qualified for this pinnacle Ironman event, making his performance one of the best ever by a local male.

MY APPRECIATION

It was an exhilarating experience being on the other side of the fence as a supporter.

Having experienced the "hardships" of a supporter, I have grown even more appreciative of what my parents, loved ones and supporters have done for me at my previous races.

From the bottom of my heart, a huge thank you to each and every one of you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2017, with the headline 'Watching Ironman like chasing twisters'. Print Edition | Subscribe