Helping the setup crew, picking up trash, manning aid stations, working the finish line, Jen Szabo has done a little bit of everything as a volunteer for numerous Ironman races and other events in Boulder.
It's her passion. Well, it fits that description when she isn't on the race course herself.
Szabo will be one of more than 3,000 volunteers this week helping Ironman produce the largest race in its history anywhere in the world. More than 3,000 athletes are scheduled to participate in the 140.6-mile race Sunday that starts at Boulder Reservoir at 7 a.m. and doesn't officially end until midnight in downtown Boulder.
It's nearly one volunteer for every participant, and Lindsay Christen, volunteer director for the Boulder Tri Series, says the race quite simply couldn't happen without Szabo and her fellow volunteers.
"They are absolutely essential," Christen said. "The race literally could not go on and could not be successful without volunteers. It is the backbone of the Ironman race, especially in Boulder. We rely on them very heavily. The captains are the next step down from our staff. We trust them with a lot of responsibility and they do a great job. They are irreplaceable."
Somebody has to set up the 15,000 feet of fencing and 2,500 cones after all. And who is going to hand those 400,000 cups of water and Perform electrolyte drink to the competitors? Five truckloads of water, 27 tons of ice and 300 portable toilets have to be positioned around the course to best serve the athletes.
And that is really just a snapshot of the logistics here.
Christen said there are hundreds of different jobs assigned to volunteers from the Wednesday before the race to the Monday after. Volunteers work aid stations, gear bag stations, green team, finish line teams for medical, security and medals, information tents, setup and takedown crews, check-in crews for athletes, packing goody bags for athletes and jobs at the expo area of Ironman Village.
Each volunteer receives a T-shirt and a meal on race day. They are also invited to an appreciation party Ironman throws in their honor the night after the race.
Szabo is scheduled to start her race day helping athletes successfully navigate the transition between the swim leg and the bike leg. She will likely complete dozens of other jobs throughout the day as racing progresses.
"We like to have a good time," Szabo said. "We like to dress in fun, bright colors and kind of be a sight of happiness for the athletes when they're at a really hard intensity or struggling. It just depends on the day and the person and what that gives them. If we can be a bit of aid and cheer and hand out water and wipe a few tears and give many, many hugs, that's what we do."
Her favorite part of volunteering at a full Ironman event doesn't come until the sun has gone down and only a small percentage of competitors remain on the course. This isn't really a job the race asks her to do. It's one she assigns herself.
Szabo understands what it's like to be one of those final competitors struggling through the marathon run following the 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike ride. She was in that position in 2010 when she failed to finish the Canada Ironman in Penticton, British Columbia. She only made it 130.6 miles that day, but she described them now as some of the best miles of her life.
"I know what it's like to be the last one and I know what it's like to be on the fence of possibly not finishing an Ironman," Szabo said. "I like to be there at the end of the night showing that person that they're a success even before the race started that morning."
Szabo isn't just helping athletes finish a race, albeit an amazing, inspiring race. She is part of an organization called Fast Forward Sports and earns grants for volunteering. Szabo and the 70 volunteers she will oversee as a captain Sunday have received a small grant and they are donating every penny of it to Community Foundation of Boulder in support of flood relief.
"This sport, this community and this town have given me so much," Szabo said. "This is just one of the many ways that I give back."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Kyle Ringo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @kyleringo.