The Chainlink

Spectating the Ironman (How to be an Iron Sherpa)

By Lisa Luttenegger 

Remember that friend, cousin, teammate, wife, or boyfriend you had a few months ago? Chances are you haven’t seen much of them, or if you have, you are likely well-aware of the Ironman race they’ve signed up and are training for. And if you’ve seen them in the 10 days leading up to their event, you are most definitely well-informed of the locale’s weather forecast and water temperature.


What’s all the fuss about? I don’t usually ask my family to come to races, but a year ago I insisted on one, my first full Ironman. My mom later expressed concern, that she thought we’d all be in agony and she didn’t want to see it. Understandable—this ultra-distance triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon (26.2-mile run). “Brag for the rest of your life.” It’s also an eating contest and perhaps half a dozen mental battles. Each participant has 17 hours (midnight) to finish the race, with intermittent cutoffs. But for most (especially first-timers), it’s one of the proudest accomplishments and best days of a person’s life—hence the events being well-spectated and lively. If you’ve been asked (or required) to attend, someone wants you to be part of a pretty special day, and if you’ve just decided to attend, you’ll be part of what makes the day so extraordinary.


So if you’re preparing to make the voyage up to Madison, WI this weekend and either have no idea what to expect, find yourself overwhelmed, want to hit this Sherpa thing out of the park, or are still asking…WHY, you may be seeking a few last-minute tips and perspectives.



The signs are there. Phrases like “wetsuit legal” and “cutback/taper” have been finding their ways into conversations. These are great indicators to get a move on your spectator to-dos!

  • Are you going up the day before/staying the day after? Make sure you have your accommodations arranged. Hotels are slim pickings by this time. Likewise remember to cancel any reservations you won’t be using.
  • Download the Ironman app and add athletes to your tracking list. Ironman finally released its own app mid-summer and it’s incredible. Gone are the days of doing math to predict your buddy’s run splits. The tracker notifies you of athlete progress and there is a map feature that shows estimated course position.
  • Pack your day bag. Remember important items like sneakers, water, snacks, and sunscreen. Think about items that become hot race-day commodities, like external phone chargers and cowbells. If you’re eyeing that folding chair in your basement storage area…bring it and thank yourself later. Dress for comfort and heat, but bring layers—you’ll undoubtedly experience a couple of drastic temperature changes over a long day. The more comfortable you are, the better you can support your athlete.
  • Consider a costume, sign, or prop—a friend’s mom brought a giant cookie monster balloon to the course last year—believe it or not, it can actually be easier for your athlete to spot YOU than the other way around. And it gives your athlete a mental break as they look for you. I knew my own family was nearby whenever I saw my teammate’s Cookie Monster on the course!
  • Check street closures and parking/shuttle situations—Wisconsin has a great shuttle! Try to avoid driving on the bike course (they’re not always completely closed courses and if being an obstacle to 2000 cyclists isn’t enough…know that traffic congestion is real).
  • If you want to help your athlete by picking up their bike after the race, make sure they give you a bike check-out ticket. Bikes can be retrieved after the 5:30pm cutoff on race day. I was lucky to have friends/teammates collect my bike for me and bring it to my hotel, so neither I nor my family had to worry about it.
  • Plan a post-race meeting spot. Your athlete likely won’t be crossing the finish line with a cell phone.

Athlete note: as a 2016 participant, I picked up an idea to make spectator care packs for my family. I’d likewise remind participants to take care of your loved ones who are supporting you. Throw a few snacks, bottles of water, Starbucks cards, noisemakers, and a copy of the official spectator guide into one of those drawstring bags and you’re set.



The Swim, aka The Washing Machine

Ironman Wisconsin has up until now been a mass swim start—as in all 2000 athletes began at the same time—2000 people in a 200-meter-wide area (that’s a complete approximation), waiting for a canon to send them off. If you’re curious what a human washing machine looks like, I recommend Googling “Ironman Wisconsin swim start.” And you thought hockey was a contact sport…

The most popular view of this iconic start is at the top of Monona Terrace, but you’ll have to get there early if you want to get yourself a good view.

Manage your time; it’s possible to see your swimmer exit the water, but consider where you plan to be on the bike course and give yourself enough time to get there. The swim will take between 00:50-2:20 (2 hours and 20 minutes is the official cutoff for the swim course). Make sure you ask your athlete what their goal is if you’re sticking around the Terrace!

(And don’t forget to eat breakfast—there are plenty of amazing brunch restaurants within walking distance of the race start.)


The Bike

A common breakdown of the IMWI bike course is “the stick” and “the loop.” Cyclists ride 14 miles out of Madison and begin the first of two loops in the city of Verona. It’s helpful to let your athlete know where you plan to be.

Last year, my family took a race day eve drive out to the spot they planned to be, so they knew where to park and how much walking they were in for…and how to avoid driving on the course.

The Wisconsin course is hilly, and the hills draw a good number of spectators. I’ve heard the vibe compared to that of Le Tour de France, and after racing I can say that there were definitely parts of the course where I felt I was riding through a tunnel of costumed spectators. From an athlete perspective, it was something to look forward to. Dear spectator, your presence on the course is more appreciated than you can imagine!

While it helps to know what your athlete is wearing (kit and helmet color), my parents spent a good deal of time asking my coach if it was me coming up every time they saw a yellow helmet—this is where you’ll appreciate a prop. Thanks to Cookie Monster and the trusty Chicago Endurance Sports tent, I was able to spot my friends and family and prepare for some epic high fives. 

The official bike cutoff is 5:30pm, though there will be athletes hitting the run course as early as about 1pm.


The Marathon

If I did this race again, it would be for this marathon. IMWI is a 2-loop run course through downtown Madison through the University of Wisconsin campus. Downtown State Street is lined with bar and restaurant patios—a perfect place to eat, drink, relax, and cheer your athlete. Almost the entire course is very spectator friendly, which creates a great energy for all of 26.2 miles. Again, let your athlete know where you plan to be, and ask for a picture of what they plan to wear. It’s common in the full Ironman for age group athletes to change outfits between the bike and the run, and many run with a hat or visor.

Manage your time if you plan to make it to the finish line. The chute area is packed, and the course doesn’t allow much time to “beat” your athlete to the finish if you don’t get a head start during their final lap. And I definitely recommend that finish line experience.

Note that the sun sets around 8pm for this race. If you expect to be on the course cheering past this time, glow sticks are nice to have.


Also note that you are not able to offer assistance, food, drink, etc to your athlete. A top age group athlete was given a disqualification at a race last year when his wife threw chapstick on the ground, with the intention for him to pick it up and use it. Understand that your athletes have prepared themselves and that your support is assistance enough!


Have fun and enjoy the positive, uplifting experience that is the spirit of the Ironman!

Additional Reading

Lisa Luttenegger is a Chainlink ambassador and triathlete with Chicago Endurance Sports/Precision Multisport—racing any distance from Divvy SuperSprint to the Ironman—and a marketing agency project coordinator. She learned to ride a bike on a dirt mound in the back yard and hopes to someday return to these cyclocross roots and remedy her bike-race envy. Lisa shares a condo with her tuxedo Maine Coon, Joe Meower, and their bicycles: Freddie Mercury, MC Scat Cat, Batman, and Benji. 

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Comment by Tom A.K. on September 7, 2017 at 10:23am
Very interesting and informative blog post. I've always liked watching Ironman competitions. Good luck Lisa!


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