Unsung Race Volunteers

It takes a lot of volunteers to put on a marathon.  You need people that staff the bib pickup at the Expo and answer pre-race questions. On race day, you need people to direct runners to their corrals at the start, and hand out medals, water and food at the end of the race.  Water stops along the course alone could require as many as 250 people, depending on the number of water stops.  All sorts of people staff a water stop – charity groups, boy scouts, girl scouts, retired people, or people who just like being on their feet for a long time and possibly getting wet. 
I am not sure what volunteers get for their contribution – a t-shirt maybe.  One of the volunteers at Disney World told me that they get a free one-day pass to one of the parks.  If you are a retiree in Florida, that would help with a visit to Disney World with the grandkids.  At pre-race briefings, seminars and in race literature, they always tell you to thank the volunteers because without them there wouldn’t be a race.  Runners thank people along the course but probably not nearly as much as we should.
There is one other group of volunteers that I never hear anyone thank – the people who live along a race course.  No one asks them to support a race.  They hear about it either in the news or when signs go up a few days before race day warning that roads will be closed and street parking will not be allowed during certain hours.  They don’t really get a choice; it just happens.
If you live along a race course, roads get closed off early in the day, usually well before the race start.  Road closures could be 4 or more hours.  That means you either need to evacuate your home before the road closures or just hunker down and wait it out.  I am impressed by the people who choose to become part of the race.  Instead of staying inside their houses to sleep in longer or catch up on the programs they have recorded on their DVRs, they are outside at the curb.  They choose to become involved.
When I ran my first marathon in Nashville, I realized that all these people living along the course were trapped at home on a Saturday morning.  On Saturdays I usually have a long list of errands to run.  Nobody along that route was getting out for any errands for several hours.  There were people standing at the end of their driveways cheering the parade of runners.  I remember apologizing to one woman as I went by for keeping her stuck at home.  She responded that she was glad we were there and invited me back for the next year’s race. 
 I have run races where it seemed like there were more unofficial water stops than official ones.  These unofficial “volunteers” hand out their own water, candy, or fruit (oranges or bananas cut in half).  I was surprised to see someone handing out tequila jello shots once (no, I did not take any).  I love it when someone is handing out Red Vines licorice.  I love red licorice, especially Red Vines, and have made U-turns in several races to grab some.
The unofficial water stop that I will always remember was one in Missoula, Montana.  The race started outside of town and we headed into the center of downtown Missoula for the finish. In front of a trailer park as we came into town was a table and handmade signs “Runner Water.”  A little girl with long brown hair and big brown eyes wearing an oversized flannel shirt was pouring water from a pitcher into little paper cups.  It probably meant the world to her to be part of the action since she put so much effort into her water stop.  I wish I had stopped and hope that some runners did.
In Duluth there were competing unofficial water stops next to each other.  One was staffed by three little girls who were handing out water.  Two doors away was a group of young men handing out beer from a keg.  The little girls tried hard to get the attention of runners – yelling “Have water, not beer!”  Too bad most runners were heading for the beer to the disappointment of the little girls.  Beer was probably more appealing after 22 miles of running. 
Warm weather races bring out other needs.  In Boston during the Heartbreak Hill Half, the temperatures started to creep up.  I came across two women standing on a street corner handing out ice about halfway through the course.  I gratefully took some so I could cool off.  Some people will take their hose out to the curb and turn it on for runners who ask for a spray (there goes the water bill).  I have run through hoses in several races.  Because of my Transverse Myelitis, I have to keep my core body temperature from getting too high. The ice and misting from hoses really helps.
I ran a race recently in Frederick, Maryland and was surprised to see a couple holding a sign that said “Restroom” with an arrow pointing towards their house.  They were directing runners into their home to use the bathroom.  A number of runners ahead of me did just that.  I was amazed at their generosity to open their home to total strangers.  
In Pittsburgh there was a competition among the neighborhoods that we ran through to see which one could show the most runner support during the race.  The competition got people along the course engaged in the event.  Each neighborhood was different and it was reflected in what they did to encourage the runners.  In the post-race surveys, they asked which neighborhood was the best – I think there was a prize (maybe just bragging rights) for the one with the most votes.  I thought this was a terrific idea to keep the race something positive for the people who were otherwise not involved.
I am not sure what the best way is to thank these “volunteers.”  I certainly can thank them when I take their ice or licorice, or when I get misted by their hose.  More importantly I plan to keep my eye out for the young “volunteers” – the little kids that want to be involved in the race with their own water stops.  They deserve a special thank you. Who knows – maybe the kids will join us on the course as runners someday.