Ripped wetsuits, bike sabotage and gridlock: Triathlon Plus and columnist Phil Graves on why supporting is as stressful as racing.

Phil Graves Blog: Graves' ExpectationsSo, this year has been a nightmare for me injury-wise. I fell off my bike in April and ruptured all my ligaments in my shoulder. Then just as I got over that, my asthma flared up out of nowhere, which took me out of Ironman 70.3 UK, and then just as I had got over that I developed some knee problems, which kept me out of IMUK. It’s all been far from ideal, and as a result I’ve found myself watching from the sidelines several times this year. I want to tell you what it’s like to be on the other side of the line – what all your loved ones go through every race day.

This past month I have helped my girlfriend Desiree Ficker at both IM Frankfurt and IMUK, and I can honestly say that it’s much easier racing than watching.

Every Ironman day starts at 4am (the middle of the night if you ask me!). The alarm goes off and you have to get up at a time that feels so unnatural. First thing – breakfast time. Now I know we all care about our athletes we are supporting, so we encourage them to try and eat as much as possible at a time when they are so nervous they don’t feel like eating anything. After some last-minute checks (at least we don’t have the bike to look after and worry about, as we’ve racked it the day before) it’s off to the swim start. If you can sneak into T1 and sort your athlete’s bike then that’s better. You can sort the bike, pump up tyres and make sure everything is good to go while they are warming up. Obviously, because you have taken care of your athlete’s bike, cleaned it and made it look as new as possible, you’re hoping they don’t get out on the bike and they get a puncture, as you know you will feel it’s your fault if they get a mechanical.

After your athlete gets back from warming up, it’s on with the wetsuit, trying not to break the zip as you zip it up (yes, I’ve been there, done that). As soon as you’ve said your goodbyes and they pop into the swim, it’s then that the worrying really kicks in. Firstly, T1 and T2 are in different locations, so right now I’m worrying how on Earth I get from the swim out to the bike somewhere to give a time split with all the road closures. I think for a supporter, worry is the one word that describes the whole day.

My personal tactic is to get away as soon as the swim has started – let’s face it, there is not much you can do, and with all the road closures, if you don’t you’ll be stuck at the swim until the last athlete has got themself out the water. It’s out on the bike then, in the hope you get to your spectating point before your athlete. If you manage this and get there before the race leader gets there, even though you know your athlete is behind you, you still start worrying; I hope they haven’t punctured, got stuck in their wetsuit, been beaten up in the swim, crashed, gone wrong on the course etc. You’re standing there worrying your socks off until finally you see him or her ride past, and then it’s a huge sigh of relief!

Let’s face it, this goes on for the entire bike and run, getting to points on the course and just praying they turn up and something hasn’t happened to them. Worry, relief, worry… you just hope they finish. And then, if not, it’s a lot of soul-searching: ‘What did I do wrong? How can I help them better next time?’

I’ve never thought about it until I’ve been the supporter. I know there is a lot of worrying, but strangely, I really enjoy it, whatever the end result. I just like knowing I can help someone and make life as easy as possible for them, when they have a race to concentrate on. So, all you athletes out there, say a special thank you to those that support you at your races – they will really appreciate it.

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine – click here to subscribe