Spectating your First Triathlon?

The time has come to follow through with the promise “sure, I’ll come and watch your race.”  If you’ve never attended a triathlon, you may think, as I did, what will I do with myself?  There are no stands to sit on, no home and away teams, no halves, quarters or periods, no playing field or a ball for that matter.  As a spectator, what can you expect?

Expect a rush of nervous, excited, and focused athletes hauling a bunch of equipment on a bike and a crowd of people drinking coffee trying to wake up enough to cheer since most triathlons start well before 8 am.  As a newbie spectator, just remember, the best way to help would be to hang back and help only when asked.  Most triathletes become some sort of alien during set-up for a triathlon due, in part, to the loads of equipment they have to set-up before the race start.  Some athletes become prickly, nervous, spacey, worried, angry, or just quiet.  Everyone is different and they all have a unique way to focus before the race start.  Just stick to the side lines and help when needed.

Keep in mind, as a spectator you will have important duties.  First duty: take as many pictures as possible.  Triathletes love to see themselves in action and are dependant upon the spectators for the shots.  To help your photography skills, get your triathlete to print a course map prior to the event.  This way you won’t get lost and will know how many times you can expect to see your triathlete.  Second duty: carrier of extra crap.  Most triathletes head down to the swim start with shoes and potentially a shirt or shoes.  Prior to jumping in, guess who gets the shoes and clothes?  The support team!  It’s the price you pay to get to watch your athlete race around in spandex, which may or may not be future fuel for jokes.

As photographer, where are the best shots?  Take a shot of your athlete before jumping in the water, and then give up taking any pictures until they are finished swimming.  All triathletes look the same in the water except for different colored heads bobbing around.  After the swim, follow the crowd to transition where the athletes must change gear from swimming to biking and from biking to running.  It’s easy to get action shots here because it’s the only time your athlete is moving slowly.  Transition is easy to find considering most races have huge “Bike Start,” “Run Start,” and “Finish” banners flying.

Once on the bike, you have time to play with the camera.  Take practice shots of other athletes riding.  Timing is important or you end up with pictures of part of the bike, a wheel, or may miss them altogether.  Running shots are simpler because the athletes cannot run as fast as the bike.  If the course loops, great!  More shots of your triathlete’s face becoming more and more tired with each loop.  When the triathlete crosses the line, be it first or last, it’s an exciting moment – make sure to capture it.  Completing a triathlon, be it short or long, is an accomplishment.  Once the race is complete, take some happy pictures with other triathletes, supporting crew, and the awards ceremony if your triathlete did well.

While the triathletes are out on the bike and running, most of the time you won’t see him/her.  Take that time to enjoy the day and chat with other spectators.  Most people who compete and attend these events are friendly, personable, and approachable.  Why?  One reason may be very few of the athletes will race fast enough to place; everyone else is there to keep fit, test their limits, and have fun.  Besides, everyone else in the crowd has to wait around for the athletes to return as well; we’d all get bored without chatting with other spectators.

Remember to have fun, cheer extremely loudly for your triathlete and others you don’t know, and enjoy the time outside doing something different.

The above advice can be used for pretty much any event that you spectate at. In summary:  cheer hard, cheer loudly and bring a cowbell everywhere you go.  It might seem like they don’t hear you, but your voice sticks with them for many many miles after they have passed you.