While they help triathletes grind through a grueling 320-mile triathlon on the Big Island, they catch the Ultraman bug.
The support crew members — many of them are triathletes themselves — wind up joining the tight-knit family known as the Ultraman World Championships field.
Honolulu’s Timothy Robert will become a full-fledged family member at this year’s race, which begins Friday and runs through Sunday on the Big Island.
Robert is the only triathlete in the 35-member world championship field competing in his first Ultraman-distance race.
Brazil’s Alexandre Ribeiro, who has won three of the past four Ultraman world titles and five overall, will return to defend his men’s title while Amber Monforte, of Reno, Nev., will shoot for her third consecutive women’s crown.
Robert and Bill Conner were support crew members for Massachusetts triathlete David Wilson last year, with Robert becoming drawn to the camaraderie surrounding the race.
The 47-year-old Robert is a retired Marine who continues to work as a government civilian, while Conner still serves as an active-duty Marine.
“As I watched the race took place, everybody was cheering for each other,’’ Robert said of last year’s Ultraman. “It wasn’t a competition. It was people cheering and helping others get through it. It was something I wanted to be a part of.”
That cheering and encouragement, Robert said, took place on and off the Ultraman course. Competitors often eat together on Friday evenings before embarking on a 171.4-mile bike ride from Volcano to Hawi and on Saturday evenings before taking on a 52.4-mile run from Hawi to the finish line at Kailua-Kona’s Old Kona Airport Park.
“At the end of each day’s events, as the athletes are recovering and eating dinner, everybody’s telling people, ‘Great job,’”Robert said. “It’s not like, ‘I’m in my little corner, and I’m going to win this thing.’”
Robert admitted to being nervous about this weekend’s race, but he also feels prepared.
He has competed in two Ironman-distance races: Ironman France last year and Ironman New Zealand in 2010.
“I’ve never done a race of this distance before where all the other participants have done it, so there’s a little bit of an unknown,’’ he said. “But I’ve done the preparation, and it’s just a matter of executing.”
Two years ago, Waimea’s Wendy Minor was in the same boat: a triathlete competing in her first Ultraman after having served on a support crew the previous year. But the 67-year-old hasn’t strayed from the Ultraman scene.
In fact, she’ll serve as Robert’s water escort during the race’s 6.2-mile swim from Kailua Bay to Keauhou Bay on Friday. Each triathlete can have one support crew member on a kayak or a one-man canoe during the swim.
Robert sees himself following in Minor’s path. He said he has met a handful of people who have flown to the Big Island for the past seven years just to assist triathletes as support crew members.
“I can definitely see myself coming back as a crew for everybody else,’’ Robert said. “It’s that kind of spirit that’s here.”
When reflecting on the bonds athletes have created at Ultraman, Race Director Jane Bockus called the days leading up to this year’s Ultraman World Championships “old home week.’’
“People are coming home,’’ she said.