Ship Mates

Not to be missed: Pirates swamped the city of Frankfurt
Never underestimate the demands of being a supporter; it takes as much commitment as participating in an event but there are no medals to show for it. Whether it’s a 5K run or an Ironman triathlon, supporters (from now on they’re called sherpas) are often a pre-requisite for an enjoyable race experience. You may not know it at the time but giving a yell of encouragement can be the difference in someone giving up or having the motivation to keep on going to the end.

As this year’s pirates made last minute preparations for their race in Germany the sherpas took position to gain maximum exposure and give all they had. Jostling for position at the swim entrance chute the sherpas started their own endurance race. Cheers of “go pirate” accompanied each athlete as they headed down for the swim and as soon as they were all in the water Operation Sherpa took hold.

Captain Candy (Andy Collier) took a crew to piratise the run course before setting up camp on a city section of the bike course. Others pitched up around the lake for the end of lap one and the swim exit. I paddled knee deep into the lake with Jellybabe and LJS in preparation for the inevitable onslaught up the swim exit chute. Since each pirate had been cheered into the water it was only right to cheer them back out.

The wetsuit ban had been an unpopular decision but it sure as hell made a sherpa’s life easier. Most opted to swim in pirate kit and as they surfaced there were more pirate cheers. Intrigue set in among other supporters, with even the announcer boarding the “ship of fools”. “Pirates aren’t good swimmers,” one German commented, though he was soon put right as to why pirates set sail on this type of challenge.

As time ticked on the atmosphere could be cut with a knife. Two pirates were still in the deep and the official cut off had passed, but a plea from LJS meant all pirates made it out onto the bike course. The heavens soon opened but there was nothing that could dampen the spirits of the sherpas, who themselves were entering the next stage of supporting. The lengthy nature of the bike course meant sherpas were scattered far and wide but it was on the run course where pirates excelled.

Supporters take a deserved rest before the Pirates reach the run course
A pirate camp was set up beside the youth hostel and a chalked Pirate zone, which had been all but washed away, was on the opposite bank. There was no escaping the yellow and black, not even winner Cameron Brown could get away as Pirates invaded the finish chute during the victory parade.

As the night drew on and fatigue set in among the Ironmen there was shift in gear at Pirate central. Big Dave instigated a Mexican wave guard of honour aimed at lifting the spirits of those who looked in desperate need of encouragement. It was enough to get some back into a run, for others it was only for the moments it took them to pass through the encampment. Either way there were smiles and thank yous.

Forumite Andy Partridge got the boost he needed to get back into a run and finish. “So thanks guys for the support not just in that group but from all the pirate supporters who were cheering all competitors regardless of nationality,” he’s written in the Pirate Race Report thread. “It made the event really special.”

As the numbers of pirates reaching the finish chute increased the guard of honour duly reduced in numbers until the last, but by no means least, came through. Then it was just a short trip across the river and up to the finish.

A sherpa’s duties aren’t done until their pirate is back safe and sound at their hostel/hotel. My pirate (Debbo) had a husband and son to support so I was free to a good home. It didn’t take long to be assigned more duties and soon I was escorting a worthy finisher back to T2 for bike and bag collection and then back to the hostel where post race celebrations and post mortems were in full swing.

Being in Frankfurt was a first for me; it was my first race as a spectator and my first pirate event. It was such an inspiration to see so many get through the day, with gritted teeth or smiles, that I have made the decision to return to Ironman a year earlier than planned. My one wish is to have the same kind of support the sherpas had on offer.

How to be a successful Sherpa
  • Learn as much about the event as your competitor – route, rules, start times and venue, kit requirements etc
  • Plan a supporting strategy (identify potential spots beforehand)
  • Make as much noise as possible
  • Cheer on as many as possible, especially those who look in need of a lift
  • Be visible – stand out from the crowd so you are easily spotted (pack balloons, banners, supporter uniforms etc)
  • Set up camp near good facilities (toilets, refreshments etc)
  • Check forecast and pack accordingly
  • Pack a chair if expecting to be out for long periods
  • Arrange where you will meet your competitor at the end of the race
  • Forget to eat or drink - you need to be fit to help your competitor after the race
  • Pack too much – you will be carrying your bag for the duration of the race
  • Panic – your competitor needs you to be calm
  • Expect your competitor to be fully alert after the race
  • Be critical of their performance