A few weeks ago, I headed out of town with four friends to serve as their support gal for the Presque Isle Triathlon. A year ago, none of these friends had contemplated racing and now they were preparing to complete their first-ever swim-bike-run competitions. It was a day I did not want to miss.
As we talked and laughed our way to the hotel the evening before the race, I kept thinking about why I was there. Of course I had tagged along out of friendship. But there was more to it. In my role of support, I wanted to pour the same intensity and energy into their races as I do my own. I wanted to help them in every way that I could. I wanted their individual races to be injury and stress free, their bodies to perform, their journeys to feel shared and their fears to be conquered by their mental toughness. In other words, I wanted this race to set the mold of success for all their races to come.
Since support on this heightened level was somewhat new to me, my mind kept churning, trying to discover the best ways to provide encouragement where, when and how it was needed.
Physically supporting my friends was a no-brainer. My bag was stocked with first aid supplies, spare equipment, fueling options and yummy post-race treats. I was locked and loaded to deal with minor injuries, gear emergencies, energy needs and post-race hunger.
My camera was slung over my shoulder, poised to capture the movements, jokes and togetherness of my friends. While racing your mind is so occupied that it often doesn’t fully absorb or recall the events of the day. Race photos help us see ourselves as others see us, assure our disbelieving minds of what we have accomplished and – over time – tell our fitness stories.
My body was equally at the ready to do whatever was necessary to keep my friends going. I was prepared to offer a hand, a shoulder or running feet to help them ultimately propel their bodies across the finish line.
Physical support is clear cut and somewhat obvious, but supporting the mental game of any athlete is not so straightforward. More and more I am convinced that succeeding at anything is predominantly a mental exercise. I could not erase negative thoughts from my friends’ minds. But together we could challenge and counter those thoughts when they arose. Talking through their concerns would minimize their anxiety, suggest strategies to overcome obstacles, reinforce confidence and plant seeds of courage to endure when brains urged giving up.
Thinking along these lines, I realized that support doesn’t begin or end with start and finish lines. It happens during training, the tender pre-race hours, the race itself, the post-race storytelling and forward through our lives. On this specific day, we were building memories and race traditions that would sustain us for a lifetime of sport.
When we provide support, we are our racer’s tape, bandages and salves. We bind weak areas to make them stronger. We support and protect against injury. Our hold repels race-ending aches and fatigue. Our painstaking application encourages endurance and greater achievement. Our presence is reassuring. Our very existence makes more possible.
I cheered without reserve as each friend moved from swim to bike to run to finish. Watching them race, I was struck by their individual style and grace. Oftentimes at races the human machines draw our eyes. The athletes who race at peak levels deserve our awe. But ask anyone who has provided support to an athlete and they will tell you about the incredible beauty of an individual racing their own race. I saw this beauty times four as Jody moved with a sense of calm and purpose, Kathy hunkered down to grind it out, Autumn skipped and danced from the water to her bike and Karen simply asked for reassurance that she could do it as she headed into the run.
Later that day, sharing a meal and race stories with my triathlon-completing pals, I realized that support is even more than providing for the physical and mental needs of a racer. Support is larger than any race, it is how we move forward. Support is how we keep something going…our feet, our journeys, our dreams. I had come along with the intent of keeping my friends’ bodies and minds moving positively toward their goals. But I found that support is a two way street, with energy flowing from crew to athlete and athlete to crew. In this exchange of energy we had managed to keep one another going for this race and for all the challenges that lie ahead.