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The Last Bike at Ironman: A story of gratitude

Ironman Kona
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A longtime Kona volunteer recounts a moment of selflessness and spirit in sport.

Charley Brockus is a multiple time Kona athlete who volunteered this year because he wanted to give back. This year’s IRONMAN World Championship event was the largest ever held on the Big Island. It’s an enormous undertaking, but thanks to the efforts of Brockus and thousands of other volunteers, it goes smoothly every year.

Coming to Kona is so much more than a race for the 2,000-plus athletes who compete there every year. It’s a full-on celebration of the sport: The Parade of Nations on Tuesday, the Underpants Run, the IRONMAN Village, and the Welcome Banquet all combine to make the week truly special.

Like most IRONMAN races, athletes rack their bike and check in their gear bags the day before the race. Afterwards, with no further training to do—and no bike to do it with—more than once I’ve heard an athlete exclaim, “I feel naked.” Even though the cannon signifying race start is only hours away, they’re conditioned to think “what more can I do?” On that particular day, and at that particular hour, the answer is “nothing.”

Along with a lovely woman named Sue, I run the Kona bike check-in. Fortunately for me, Sue lives on a coffee farm on the Big Island and takes on the lion’s share of this task. In five and a half hours, we have to get over 2,000 bikes checked in and photographed, over 4,000 bags racked, and the corresponding athletes acquainted with the pier, changing tents, showers, penalty tent, and bike racks, as well as answer any lingering questions they might have. Our job is to make sure they leave their two-wheeled steed, and the pier, confident and ready for the task that will come with the rising sun.

What if an athlete has a last minute problem?

It’s the volunteer who can make all the difference.

Say you’re Simon Evers, bib #2181, and it’s your first IRONMAN World Championship, and first visit to Hawaii—first of a lot of things, actually.

You have a busy day and are riding your bike to check-in, when suddenly, without warning, your handle bars break. The race starts in 14 hours and you have an unserviceable bike. Plus, check-in closes in 30 minutes.

You’re about a millisecond away from absolute panic, concerned that not only are you going to miss check-in, but after years of works, you stand a chance of missing the race altogether.

In steps Charley Brockus. The situation is analyzed, needs are prioritized, and the first thing Charley does is get a hold of a bike mechanic (Dan Evans of Bike Works) who returns to the store and opens it back up so that he can fix Simon’s bike. Then, Charley checks Simon and his gear bags in, gives him directions to Bike Works, looks him in the eye and says “I’ll wait for you right here.”

And he did.

Five-thirty p.m. came and went, bike check-in closed, and Charley waited. The transition crew finished bag check, put huge tarps over all of the bags, and closed up the tents. Charley kept on waiting. The last thing we do is count every bike, which usually takes until after 6:30. Through this, Charley waited.

Then, from out of the pitch-black darkness comes Simon, hair on fire, all worked up but with a bike running on all cylinders. In a completely athlete-centered move, Charley took Simon’s steed, walked it and its owner to bike slot 2181, and allowed Simon the same time any other athlete would have to rack it and check it one more time.

As the two exited the bike compound, dimly lit by the restaurants on Ali’i Drive, now bustling with hungry diners, a simple shake of the hands bonded athlete to volunteer. Quietly, man to man, this simple gesture of the heart put the seal on arguably the most important day in this young athlete’s life.

This weekend, as we celebrate gratitude, don’t forget the people who hand you gels, retrieve your sweaty gear bags, and maybe even make it possible for you to hit your next start line in one piece.

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