Equipped with whistles and flags, more than 100 paddlers arrive before sunrise to find their place among the buoys. They are there to support the swimmers along Chattanooga Ironman's 2.4-mile open-water course — aid that is often critical.
"Triathletes are often bikers and runners. Not swimmers," says Buck Meyer, who has coordinated the volunteer efforts since Chattanooga's inaugural Ironman event in 2014. "A lot of athletes just want to survive the swim so they can move on to the rest of the race."
While biking or running, fatigued athletes can stop and sit down if needed. "But on the water, your kayak is the only 'curb' they have," Meyer says. "They may just need to catch their breath or fix their goggles."
He remembers once helping turn around a disoriented swimmer who was going the wrong direction. Another time, he helped a swimmer work out a foot cramp after the man flung his leg into Meyer's cockpit. "I was pulling on his toes, trying to help him straighten his foot," says Meyer. "He finished the race that day."
But more critical support may be needed.
Volunteers are not required to have medical experience, Meyer says, but they are briefed on how to recognize signs of distress — acute coughing, for instance, which could be a sign of swimming-induced pulmonary edema, more commonly called "SIPE."
SIPE is a serious condition caused by severe, sudden breathlessness during open-water swims.
When help is needed, paddlers use their whistles and flags to communicate with EMTs on the bank. One blast signifies a non-emergency; continuous blasts coupled with flag-waving means emergency assistance is needed.
"During the half Ironman in May (2021), we pulled 13 out of the race. Some of them self-selected to [pull out], others were suspected of SIPE," Meyer says. "I've never directly saved someone's life on the river, but I've steered a lot of people away from dangerous situations. But no matter what the problem is, you've saved their day."
And while that is plenty rewarding, Meyer says he likes to tell his volunteers, "You may have to get up early, but the benefit is you get to see the sunrise on the water."
Ready to volunteer?
In addition to both the half and full Ironman, Meyer helps recruit volunteer paddlers for several Chattanooga-area river events. While paddlers do not need to have any special medical training, they do need to have their own gear — boat, paddle and life jacket, for example — as well as confidence in their craft. Kayaks and stand-up paddleboards are best, says Meyer, but canoes are permitted, too.
Here are a few local events always in need of volunteers:
> Full Ironman, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021
> Tennessee River Rescue Clean-up, Oct. 2, 2021
> Swim the Suck, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021
> Half Ironman, Sunday, May 22, 2022
> Waterfront Triathlon, TBD June 2022
To learn more about volunteer opportunities for paddlers, visit tvccpaddler.com.