In August, amid beautiful mountains and lakes at a British Columbia provincial park, a corps of massage therapists will give 10-minute massages to an army of well-conditioned but aching athletes.
The Subaru Ironman Triathlon, annually held in picturesque British Columbia on the last Sunday of August (August 27th this year), has become Canada's largest triathlon and one of the largest in the world. And massage therapists play an important behind-the-scenes role. The excitement begins at the arrival to a place packed with energy and enthusiasm. Signs and announcements on motels bid spirited welcomes to Ironman. A drive down Pentictons Main Street leads to beautiful blue Okanagan Lake, where the race starts and finishes. The Penticton Lakeside Resort is the starting area for the three
events. Sue Williams, who serves as a captain and manager in the Ironman Canada Massages two tents, oversees all associated activities. She and the other captain, Linda Howard, tend to some 200 to 300 volunteers in the massage area. These two live and work in Penticton, and enjoy the long months of planning to pull the massage area off with great success.
The Ironman Triathlon event brings men and women athletes (last year nearly 1,700) together from almost 40 different countries. They push their bodies to the limit as they challenge themselves in a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) lake swim, a 112-mile (180.2 km) bike ride through scenic mountains and finish with a 26.2-mile (42.2 km) marathon run, all to be completed within 17 hours to constitute an official finish. The contest in Penticton is one that serious athletes of the world dream of finishing.
Preparation training typically requires 18 to 24 hours per week, for 6 to 8 months prior to the race. Competitors face challenges in physical and mental endurance that make them some of the fittest people in the world.
A typical training week includes 6 miles of swimming, 200 miles of biking and 35 miles of running. Every athlete who takes up the challenge to compete in an Ironman race is an incredible person, says Kevin Makinnon, director of Subaru Canadas Media Center.
Massage tent captains Linda Howard (left) and Sue Williams (right),
worked with author Roger Blood (middle).
The Massage Corps
With another challenge in mind, massage therapists show up at this event, anticipating a chance to gain knowledge and experience beyond the ordinary. They also have a lot of fun. Williams recruits and organizes the volunteers, and requests that each one take at least one 4-hour shift or two 2-hour shifts that day. Some will come for two shifts and leave for two and then come back, she says. Last year brought about 250 massage volunteers who took on duties from go-fors to actual massage.
With more than 100 massage tables and as many therapists, more than 1,000 athletes were massaged that day. They go through here pretty quickly, she says.
Asked at the 1999 event why she is so excited about each event, Howard, who has volunteered since the late 1980s, puts on a big smile. Look around, she said with a wave of her hand, That is what it is. It is the people. It is the athletes, it is the volunteers, it is everything. Imagine having 2,000 athletes signed up and knowing you will have approximately 1,700 potential clients for that day only who will receive massage at no cost, she adds.
There is a lot of work behind the scenes to make it happen with as few glitches as possible. Although not all massage helpers are licensed therapists, Howard stresses the importance of getting volunteer help from the pros, so athletes can get the best possible massages that can be offered. Therapists who volunteer can feel proud of their contributions while they are having a good time. She adds that there is a possibility of adding continuing education accreditation units as another incentive to recruit massage volunteers in the future.
Registered and licensed massage therapists from around the world are welcome to volunteer. Bilingual people are especially appreciated. You meet people from all over the world, too, Howard says. It is just a really exciting time a lot of work, but a lot of fun.
The event also gives Canadian and possibly American massage colleges great exposure for their students, a chance to practice on international athletes and to build up their palpatory skills.
Williams and Howard start pulling things together the March before the event, planning everything from tent to table setups. They make sure the masses of laundry items needed are in place and kept clean by official dry cleaners. They gather and fill some 300 8-ounce oil bottles, set up wash stations for the therapists and stack the hundreds of clean linens in long rows. They put up instructor signs, hang entrance and exit signs, set up food tables for the athletes, and coordinate a hundred little things to set the stage. Finally the massage tables are ready. The facilities look like two huge army MASH tents prepared for a war zone.
Floyd Norman, a registered massage therapist with his own clinic in Penticton, has been involved with the Canadian triathlon for almost 15 years. He instructs volunteers who help with massage, but are not licensed. I talk to them about what they will see and what to be aware of and that sort of thing, he says. The day before the event, he does a mandatory massage demonstration for all the Ironman volunteer therapists. He instructs for about 45 minutes, demonstrates massage techniques, and covers basic types of treatment that can help remove the toxins in the muscle. He describes the symptoms of dehydration and makes sure the therapists know when to bring in an expert. In the case of dehydration, Norman says, Most times I wind up helping the athlete get over to the medical tent because if it is dehydration you can massage them until the cows come home, but you are not going to make that cramp go away. These volunteers may have no experience so we are not going to give them anything that is too difficult, he adds. Norman explains that registered massage therapists (RMTs) are spread out all over the tent. You can tell when somebody is running into trouble, he says.
He appreciates the way the massage therapists work with the medical team. It's nice to have referral by a medical doctor, Norman adds. A lot of our patients come with those referrals.
Norman considers it his civic duty to volunteer for this event. It is something he can do for others with his skills. He shows up at his scheduled time of 5 p.m. on Sunday, the day of the event, and stays until 1 a.m. With my experience I like that time because, although difficult cases come throughout the day, as the day wears on the numbers of wounded ones increases, and frankly they are the ones I want to work with. More athletes need my help.
It is fun, too, he stresses. And you see stuff here that you would never see in a practice. I mean you see muscle spasms that just do not happen, unless a person is profoundly dehydrated, so if someone walked into your clinic because they hurt themselves yesterday, their body works differently than it does in here.
In addition to Norman's work, three floating lead registered massage therapists are picked and assigned each year. Last year, Dale McLean and Elaine Gowing from Canada and Roger Blood from the United States took on these roles. This trio monitors the 150 therapists, helping with special problems that might develop with the athletes, and when necessary, assists with getting athletes to the medical tent for physician care.
Ironman enthusiasts gather on the sandy shore of Okanagan Lake
encouraging racers to finish the grueling 2.4 mile lake swim.
The therapists critical work, the work that pumps their adrenaline to loftier heights, begins a few hours after 6:50 a.m. Then, the magical singing of the national anthem is followed by the 7 a.m. cannon blast that calls the swimmers to hit the water on Sunday's race day at Okanagan Lake beach in Rotary Park. Massage therapists stand waiting as athletes experience the first limits of their bodies with muscle pain, stiffness, and other problems that without the therapists might keep them from finishing.
A typical massage lasts no longer than 10 minutes. The first 5 minutes usually cover the athletes front body and the arms and legs. Effleurage is the main stroke used. The second 5 minutes usually repeats on the back side what has been done on the front side more flushing and effleurage strokes. Usually, there is no time for more advanced massage techniques. Two of the lead massage therapists, McLean and Blood, also spend much of their time in the emergency medical tent that is under physicians supervision.
Emergency medical massage is given to athletes with severe muscular spasms. Both men have witnessed tremendous recovery of some of the most challenging muscle spasms. With athletes enduring 15 to 17 hours of stress, heat, cold and metabolic changes, the fatigued muscles can be thrown into spasms. Amazingly, and probably because of the athletes superior health conditions, their recovery can come in a few minutes to a few hours. Highly competent physicians and nurses who perform with tremendous teamwork, add to the success in the medical tents.
Two huge tents overflowed with volunteers, aching atheletes
and more than 100 massage tables.
The swim over, the bike people start to return, and other athletes begin the run. Many vie for top prizes, the highest being $12,000 each for the man and woman winner, but many come just for the thrill of finishing or even just participating. Massage tents stand easily accessible to the athletes in a high security zone in the central hub near the start and finish areas. As athletes come into the tents, hot and sweaty, full of emotion, feeling pain in various places, foremost still is their drive to finish. Their determination to succeed overrides the pain, permeates the air and transfers to the therapists. Toward evening, two lines start forming in front of the massage tents. The large medical tent is filling, as well.
It is common for a massage therapist to work on five different athletes from five different countries around the world in the same hour. Some do not speak English well, or at all, but even those who do not speak or understand English are able to convey their need. Individual countries and their countrymen value the power of healing that comes from effective massage. There is an appreciation of these therapists who contribute their skills and time.
Many returning athletes have expressed their appreciation of the tremendous speed of their recovery, which they attribute to these massages. The highs that the massage therapists experience in this setting are hard to explain. It is quite a contrast from working alone in a clinic to being one of more than a hundred therapists in an open tent working together with a common goal. With so many athletes coming and going, the noise level is high, but each still feels the connection of therapy with his or her individual therapist.
Volunteer therapist Debbie Brag (left) looks on as Vern Quiring (right)
massages a participant's shoulders. Midday outside massage stations
helped keep Ironman competitors in the race.
Helping Athletes Achieve
The female first prize in 1999 went to Lori Bowden, of Victoria, Canada, with a 9:14:03 time. In 1998, Bowden had astounded Ironman enthusiasts with one of the most incredible women's athletic achievements in Canadian history. Bowden raced so well on a day that was literally destroying the rest of the field despite 90¡ F-plus temperatures and strong winds that at some points it looked like she might be the first person over the line. Her time of 9:21:15 actually placed her seventh overall, including the 14th-fastest bike ride of the day, and the third-fastest run. She won the first place women's finish that year, too, just weeks before she would finish second for the second year in a row at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. She has become a woman to watch.
People like Bowden and other determined athletes give inspiration to others to work the human body to its full potential, and experience the joy of accomplishment.
Massage therapists find joy in being a part of helping encourage and spur athletes like Bowden on, to help make victory possible. Thomas Ingam feels good about opportunity to lift athletes up when they are down. Human sunshine, he says. That is what they need (as well).
Rick Therum, a registered massage therapist, tells about another massage opportunity for licensed Canadian therapists, in addition to volunteering. Three days before the event they set up Ironman Village, a massage area where the public may walk in and pay for a massage. Last year, 12 registered massage therapists offered massages for $30 a half-hour, or $55 for an hour. It was a tremendous success, he says. Therum qualifies the therapists by hours and by experience.
The Ironman Village tent centralizes all therapists who qualify for work, eliminating problems they once experienced with individual therapists trying to set up isolated areas around downtown Penticton for this type of work. We know that everybody is getting quality care and a quality service so it is a very professional sports atmosphere, he says. Therum looks at his 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. workload as an exhilarating experience. We just go and go and there are no breaks. I am always getting somebody on my table and eating my sandwich at the same time, because I have to feed myself, but there are so many people who want the services and need the services. Therum attributes their success to educating people about the importance of pre-event massage. Following this pre-event paid service, most of his crew join the race-day volunteer crews, as well. There's a certain sense of satisfaction that comes from giving freely of your time and skills to high achievers who need you as they strive to reach their potential.
It is a small part, says one massage therapist, but a big victory to each one of us. By midnight on race day, all the volunteers have crossed their own finish line as they revel in the satisfaction of a job well done.
Roger Blood practices massage therapy in Walla Walla, Washington.
Overwhelming 1999 Statistics
Massages given to athletes: 1,025
Massage volunteers: 250
Ironman T-shirts given to massage volunteers: 250
Tables and bubble pads: 130 of each
Pillow Cases: 2,200
Aluminum Space Blankets: 1000+
Non-analgesic oil: 50 5-ounce bottles
Massage oil: 24 liters
Massage oil: 300 8-ounce bottles
Soap pumps: 25
Soup: 50+ gallons
Water: 20+ liters
Soda Pop: 500 cans
Cookies: Hundreds of dozens
Carrots, watermelon, oranges, grapefruit, apples, celery: Hundreds of pounds (Free meals to all massage volunteers)
Any Therapist Can Volunteer
Potential massage therapist volunteers should contact:
Ironman Canada Office
Web site: [www.ironman.ca]
In the United States, take Highway 97 north through the central part of Washington state, through Omak, Washington, past the Canadian border to Penticton, British Columbia. As you enter the beautiful Okanagan valley at that time of year, your eyes will take in a feast of fresh fruit stands with peaches, apricots, apples, as your nose senses produce aromas wafting in the air.