On May 28th, 1953, Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay famously assisted Edmund Hilary in becoming the first person to summit the theretofore indomitable Mt Everest. When asked how it made him feel to see Hilary gain a lion’s share of credit and fame for the historic summit, Norgay replied “If it is a shame to be the second man on Everest, I shall have to live with that shame.” (he also is said to have muttered to Hilary at the summit, “holy s*#!, its cold up here!”, but I digress). In selflessly assisting Hilary in that seminal climb of his life, Norgay unwittingly inspired five 21st Century sherpas this past November in Cozumel.
The day before Ironman Cozumel, while sitting around the lobby of the Sol Melia Resort, discussing race strategy and having the traditional night-before-the-race beer, Coach Martin Dvorak observed that there were exactly as many spectators in our group as participants, and so spectators were matched with individual participants and assigned various duties, including taking photos during the race, carrying various personal items that the athlete might need after the race, providing much needed vocal support on the race course and hailing cabs following the race. Friendly team rivalries quickly developed – triathletes are a competitive bunch, after all. We were matched as follows:
Ironman Sherpa (and relationship)
Andre ~ Joni (wife)
Brian ~ Jodi (significant other)
Lori ~ Harry (significant other)
Melissa ~ Debbie (friend)
Alan ~ Martin (friend, coach, Czech interpreter)
For anyone who has not had the opportunity to cheer someone on during a 140.6 mile event, let me tell you, it’s a long, drawn out affair, requiring its own brand of endurance and perseverance. The previous year, Melissa, Debbie and I pulled Sherpa duty while Martin and Jess did the Cozumel race. From the ungodly 4 am wake-up to the 7am swim-start to the long bike and marathon, the Sherpa’s day is every bit as long and in many ways just as demanding as it is for the athletes. Not to mention the fact that the real work doesn’t even begin until after your designated athlete crosses the finish line, when you must assist them with carrying bags of sweat-logged, foul-smelling clothes and a bike, while also providing a shoulder for the staggering , incoherent finisher to lean on. There is the hailing of cabs, the dispensing of Advil and the fetching of drinks back at the hotel – and after 140.6 miles, this is important work indeed.
I can’t honestly tell you what it would be like to try and complete an Ironman event (or any distance triathlon for that matter) without the encouragement and help of friends. I’ve been lucky in that regard. I’m sure it’s doable, but I can’t imagine its much fun. To see the entire sherpa group on lap three of the bike was worth at least an additional mile per hour or so in terms of the adrenaline-fueled effect on our pace. The morale boost of seeing Joni and Debbie at mile 4.5 of the run – around the time that the warm feelings of accomplishment after finishing the bike find themselves overtaken in a brutal coup d’etat by the dark, brooding realization that 22+ sneering and unconquered miles lie between us and the finish line – is something that simply cannot be overstated. And knowing that Martin would be running with us, barking encouragement in his Czech brogue provided enough motivation to get through the really painful parts of “Zombie Land”.
Never let anyone tell you that finishing an Ironman event is not a group effort. Whether in the form of a neglected, yet encouraging spouse, a friend or family member back at home keeping track of your progress on-line while offering up positive thoughts and prayers, or those who take on the all-important job of cheering you on in person and ferrying you safely back to the hotel after the race – these people are all sherpas in one form or another – and the finish line would be unattainable without them.
To Martin, Debbie, Joni, Jodi and Harry – a big “thank you” and job well done. Our Ironman medals are as much yours as they are ours. Tenzing Norgay would be proud.