Today, at the Chicago Marathon, my wife and I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Chicago Marathon. This was the first time that either one of us had volunteered at a race so large. I believe there were around 45,000 runners registered for the race. For one aid station, it takes over 200 volunteers for a race this size.
Tina and I left Elkhart at about 3:30 AM Eastern Time and arrived at aid station number 3, which is at mile 5 at Lincoln Park Zoo at around 4:15 local time. This was the smoothest trip to Chicago I had ever experienced. Parking was real easy as they were handing out parking vouchers to the first 80 cars that entered the zoo parking lot.
Not going to lie, there is one nice perk to volunteering for such a large race. You get some nice swag. Every volunteer received a Nike jacket and hat. These items were required to be worn at all times while volunteering. Not to bad to wear during the early morning hours, but as the morning went on, the temperatures got warmer and it became slightly uncomfortable. But really, for just standing and handing out water, it wasn’t too bad.
As soon as we got our gear and credentials, we got to work. First up, mixing up the Gatorade and pouring out the cups. We were quickly told, if given the option, try to get one of the water tables during the race to avoide getting sticky for the rest of the day. Tina and I were fine with whatever we did as we were prepared for possibly being asked to do Gatorade. After our table was stacked with 5 rows of Cubs, we went down to assist with the water tables.
This is where being a runner and being in the running community is awesome. We approached a table that has not quiet begun pouring out water yet, and asked if we could help out. Our assistance was gladly accepted. Tina and I started talking to a woman named Annie. She was from the Northwest Indiana Region as most of the volunteers at this aid station were from. We started talking about past races and future races. She had mentioned that she ran at the Monumental Marathon last year in Indy and would be running the half this year. This is Tina’s first half marathon and so they started talking about goal times for the race. As it turns out, they are aiming to run roughly the same time. So during the time of pouring and stacking cups, Tina andAnnie worked it out that they would get together in Indy and run the Monumental together. Needless to say, we also found ourselves a water table to work at for the race.
Before the race, final instructions were given. The main thing to remember, keep one foot on the curb. They said we would be told this constantly, but I never heard it. Basically, if you get too far off the curb, it will be difficult to get back with all the runners coming at you. I didn’t experience that but I believe it.
Volunteering at a race, rather than actually racing, is very foreign to me. But man, was it worth it. When people say they are inspired by runners, I believe it, because I was today. We saw amputee runners, runners who were blind aided by a guide, and of course, the push rim athletes. Man, you don’t realize how fast the push rim athletes are moving until you actually see them in person.
And then, the runners came. At first, it was the men elite runners. Followed but a few other male runners and then the female elite runners mixed it. Of course we were told to offer the elite runners water but not to be surprised if they didn’t take any because they just had their own personal aid station right before the 5 mile mark. It spoke volumes to how warm of a day the elite runners felt it would be as they started taking water from the aid station.
And then the masses came and they came and they came. It was never ending for the next hour and a half. Runners just kept appearing in large groups. It was amazing. I was trying to spot some runners I knew during the race but as the crowds jets growing and the runners needing more and more water, I knew that was next to impossible. Runners of every shape in size from the fit veterans to the first timers, which some runners proudly wore shirts stating it was their first marathon. Runners wearing shirts of charities that they were running for and many with their names written on their shirts.
I always thought it was odd for runners to put their names a crossed their chest for races, but as a volunteer, it was fun to look for those names and shout out words of encouragement to them personally as they ran by. If they didn’t have a name on their shirt, then I looked for other ways to identify them such as a guy running in a Macho Man Randy Savage shirt (giving him my best impression as he ran by), or a select few who ran in costumes (Mario, a slice of pizza, a banana etc.). The truly inspirational runners were the first timers and back of the pack runners. Running may not be something that they are the best at, but they are still passionate about it.
The amazing thing was how many runners were thanking the volunteers who were out there. I usually try to thank the police officers who are blocking traffic or the person who I do receive water from, but rarely do I go down the line thanking each one as I go by. At the pace I try to run, I am not sure I can say thanks to everyone, but maybe just a thumbs up as I run by would get my thanks across.
Following the last runners, you got a good idea of what kind of mess is left behind following a major marathon
After cleaning all the cups, it amazed me that their were still runners coming by, even after the trail vehicles went by. I remember seeing one woman who was obviously off the pace required to keep going officially (there is a 6:30:00 finishing time limit), but she seemed determined to get it done. I will never know if she finished, if she finished in time, or if she got a finishers medal, but I have a feeling the time and medal didn’t mean anything to her, she just wanted to run and finish the race. And I hope she did.
If you are a runner, and have never volunteered at a race, please consider giving back to the running community. It doesn’t have to be a large race like the Chicago Marathon. It can be a small local race. But remember, the thing that makes road racing possible is the volunteers that take time out from their weekends to come out and support you. So give back. It’s a lot more rewarding than you may think. I plan on running in the 2016 Chicago Marathon so I won’t be able to volunteer, but hope to return in the future to foot again.