There is a pretty amazing lady, Cherie Gruenfeld, that I know through tris. She has done tons and tons of races over the years (including Kona every year except 2 injured ones since 1992!). She might be 63, but yesterday she finished IMAZ in 12:51, breaking the course record for her age group by about 20 minutes. A record she set in 2007. And when she finished, she didn’t run for food, or a massage, but to share hugs with 8 students there just for her.
You see, Cherie, together with Jacque, a teacher in San Bernardino, run Exceeding Expectations, a program for at-risk kids. And as I experienced it, a program sharing a positive mentality, approach, and a pure love. Through the program the kids get to race tris and be a part of something strong, with great mentors. Cherie and Jacque’s goal is not to build elite athletes (although some of those kids are *fast*) but to build great people. This year, Cherie chose Ironman AZ because it was close enough to organize a trip, and let some of the EE kids come out and be inspired. And it turned out they needed a person familiar with Ironman racing to help the kids during the day, and to stay with some of them the nights before and after, and I got an invitation to be that person.
They picked me up on the way out of town, and we (Jacque, Craig – a friend of the program an a triathlete himself, myself, and the 4 boys and 4 girls) drove out on Saturday. They got to see the race site, and go peddle boating where Cherie would be swimming in the morning. For most of them, it was their first time outside California and Mexico — and there was definitely a feeling of excitement in the air! That evening they played in the pool, and some admitted they were nervous for the race, and wondered how Cherie could deal with such nerves as they weren’t even racing!
We gave her hugs before the start, and cheer as the race went off. Soon we found Lee, Cherie’s husband and a writer for IronmanLive. He had a Race Support vehicle, and room to take everyone out on the course in two batches. So the first group followed him to see Cherie out of the swim, and I went with them to make sure the kids got to the car as Lee was going to go through the actual swim area for IMLive photos. But the kids kept following him, and no one said anything, so we watched from there for a bit! Up close and personal with the wetsuit strippers.
Then those kids were off, and the others set to meet up again in a couple hours, so I watched the bikers heading out and cheered, especially for Jonny and Teresa.
Back to the kids, and Lee was soon back to take the last 2, Craig and I out on the course. But he didn’t bring the other kids back — they had stopped to cheer near an aid station, and the kids just started handing stuff out and didn’t want to leave! So we made our way out there as well, cheering for Cherie at one of the turns.
At the aid station I got my first taste of handing out gels, bananas, waters, and gatorade. I have a new respect for those who point at the volunteer they are going for, say what they want if there are options in that person’s hands, and slow to where it is an easy handoff. Some were good enough that we got them what they wanted even if it was a person or two down. Some of the really fast (through transition) ones just managed to knock the banana they wanted to the ground — those in particular were hard to grab, and boxes of them were gone in no time!
Soon it was back to the transition area, and the group of kids that were back headed out for a bit of shopping. I made my way down to the run course, and just in time to start doing crowd control with Michael Lovato as there was one spot where people didn’t realize they were on the course until a runner blew by or was heading straight for them. A more official volunteer soon joined us, and it got pretty control, and I helped out there for a couple hours until time to meet the kids again.
We cheered for a now running Cherie, and then the kids were off to Hooters for a late lunch/dinner, air conditioning, and cold drinks!
I saw Jonny a bit after he finished. It was a tough day out there for him with an incident with a cop motorcycle causing mechanicals! But great finish, and I’m so proud of you for keeping going and having such a smokin’ run!
While cheering at the line I also saw Rachel Ross finish, who is another of my favorites. And I saw her come out of the water as well, being right there with the kids. I met her at CA70.3 a month ago, and know her through online stuff, and was surprised that when I congratulated her in the sea of well-wishers she remembered me and thanked me by name. Of course I never had a camera handy when she was coming by. Just like at CA70.3.
And I cheered for Teresa and was happy to see her make it home — it was a very long day for her being a bit sick, and by the line she had no voice left. She is still one of my favorite tri ladies though — I’m lucky to know her through Mike.
So many inspiring athletes out there all day — made me a bit sad not to be doing one this year. But then the fast athletes out there had me remembering why — I wanna go fast next time, and be better than before. I don’t want to just do it next time, but to be really ready for one. So many times tears came to my eyes watching classic Ironman moments. And not every day will a pro well in the race make sure to give his mom a hug before continuing his run (very classy Jordan!).
The kids came back ready to see the finish! We cheered for Cherie over one last bridge, and got Jose to the finish area to run in with her. She had hoped all the kids could do it, but while some family still sent groups our 8 would be a big one, and we respected the new 1 family member per racer rule. When done, Cherie was just glowing — but I’m not sure if she was more excited to give each kid a hug, or if they were more proud of her having done the race. The rest of the night they brought her food, tracked when it was her massage time, and just gathered around her, telling about their day and hearing about hers.
This morning I flew home to get in a full day of work, while the others drove back with the kids. I can’t wait to see all the kids again at the PossAbilities Triathlon in two weeks — I’ll be wearing my EE visor with pride!