I met John Blais at Ironman Kona in 2005. I was working as a volunteer and coaching some of my athletes to awesome performances in Kona. If you haven't worked at a triathlon, and especially an Ironman (let alone Kona), I strongly encourage you to volunteer. I found the experience very rewarding and inspiring.
I volunteered for the Pier (Pre-race), T1 and T2 (bike catcher). After working T2, I was invited back to work the finish line which was one of the most exciting things I have been around. Sounds funny to say that but it is true.
Pre-Race: Up at 3:45 AM local time - Kona coffee (black) and an apricot Clif BarI was helping the pro ladies get their bikes ready- specifically, Nicole Leder, Natasha Badmann, Yasuko Miyazaki and Katya Meyers (all of whom are really nice by the way). I also helped some of the age group folks who were having last minute mechanical problems. I finished changing a tire for one gal just as the cannon went off. I was so nervous it would go flat again. I kept double checking that I did a perfect job to fix her bike. I told her not to worry about the tire when she was swimming and when she got out of the water it would be ready to go. The bike was perfect. I checked that bike about eight times before she got back from her swim.
T1: I was absolutely dying! I wanted to race so badly. The sun was up and blazing. A quick bite to eat and back to work.
T2: The transition area director asked the group of volunteers for folks who had done a triathlon and then an Ironman. Six or seven folks volunteered (not knowing what he was asking for). We narrowed the group to five and then he said, "You guys are going to catch the first five bikes in. Why don't you guys figure out the order and then we'll discuss the procedure." We five decided that the honor of catching the first bike should go to the Ironman Hawaii finishers in our volunteer group. There were two of us. The other guy graciously said to me, "Why don't you take the first bike?" I responded, "Hey, let's decide this way. When did you do Kona? I did it in 2000. How about most recent guy takes the first bike?" He did the race in 2004. He gets the first bike. Not wanting to be a "show boat" I volunteered to be the fifth bike catcher. Turns out I got Cam Widoff, the first American off the bike. I got some face time on NBC and a compliment from Cam that it was his "smoothest bike handoff in Kona yet".
After catching bikes for about 2 hrs in the blasting sun, I moved up the road to slow racers down as they came into transition. You'll notice I had my Notre Dame hat on if you watch the TV coverage closely. Well, that race was on USC vs. Notre Dame football day. You know, that amazing game with last minute USC heroics! Well, the USC folks were giving me a real rough time (when USC was winning) and after the game as well. "You can work the finish line if you want Bob. However, you have to take off that Notre Dame hat." One voice came out of the crowd, it was Bob Blais, "Hey, leave that guy alone! He's doing a great job and Notre Dame is a great school!" We struck up a conversation and I found out that Bob had "a son in the race". I asked him how he was doing. "So far so good." When Jon Blais came in I learned a little more about him - he has ALS.
The Finish line: All my athletes came in feeling great. Great for doing 140.6 of some of the hardest but greatest miles you'll ever experience. Then came Sarah Reinertsen a few hours later. I had spoken to her brother and dad. Seemed like very nice people. I was glad she finished. I cheer for any person who has been told they "can't". I like to see those underdogs stick it in the face of those negative people. When Sarah finished the crowd was intensely loud, probably around 130 db. It was intense! Then my friend Bob McKeague came in. 81 years old and he looked fine. Thank God! As soon as Bob finished his interview with Mike Reilly and the NBC folks I was behind the jumbotron and gave Bob and Maryann (Bob's wife) a big hug. I was so happy. I wanted him to finish. I train with Bob on Thursday nights (bike intervals) so I felt a connection with Bob. He is so positive and full of energy! Then Blazeman finishes. Dude, that is courage. The Aussies at the finish were awesome. They are such a fun group!
Post-Race: I met some great local Kona folks who I will always be friends with. I hope to see them again soon...except I want to be wearing a race number. I was helping with some folks in the medical tent. They were fine or going to the hospital so my work was done. Local time now about 1:30 AM; 22+ hr day of running around and not really eating much. I did drink a serious amount of Gatorade and water though and thank God for Clif Bars!
I saw Bob, Maryann and Jon Blais with Dr. Bob Laird in the medical tent. I spent the next two hours talking to them about ALS and the effort to get a treatment and eventually a cure for ALS. I took Jon's card and told him I'd like to help, but honestly, I didn't know how I could at the time.
On the flight home, I couldn't sleep. Weird huh? I was trying to figure out a way to help Jon. The following week, I was running with my friend Jon Wolski at the "Home Economist" run in Barrington, IL - a hilly, nasty run which is a staple for us. I told John Wolski about Kona (he had just missed qualifying at Ironman Wisconsin in 2005). We talked about Jon Blais and that "there has to be a way" to help. I threw out the idea of a spin-a-thon because some folks in Hoffman Estates did a spin-a-thon a few years back for a severely injured triathlete and it seemed like a good idea. What amazed me is how much money we triatletes spend to get to Kona and on our equipment (coaches, bike, etc.). If we could just get everyone to donate one day's worth of coffee money we could get a cure in a few years. John Wolski and I then started e-mailing everyone we knew (and sorta knew) to try and get their participation. The event grew! First year we raised $7,800. This year $54,895.
Fast forward two years, Jon is in a bad place right now. ALS is winning as it always does. Please keep him and his family in your thoughts thru these dark times and remember the courage he showed in Kona. Ironman Hawaii is brutal with a fully functioning body; I can't even imagine the stress of trying to do that race fighting something else as well.
That is courage.
I can't believe that God put us on this earth to be ordinary. -- Lou Holtz