In general, the atmosphere at a marathon or half marathon is lively and full of fun. At the start, there is music playing and runners giddy with excitement and anticipation. I remember crossing the start line in Birmingham a couple of weeks ago, dancing and running to “Uptown Funk”. It isn’t easy to dance and run at the same time but I couldn’t help myself – it is a fun song and I was happy to be there.
With any race there are time limits. The police can only keep roads closed so long before people along the course get angry. They have to put their activities on hold while the roads around them are closed off to traffic. To enforce the time limits, races usually have a person indicating the end of a race, called the Balloon Lady. For runners who are on the bubble between making time or not making time, the Balloon Lady is the most feared person on the course.
In the race day instructions for the Mercedes Marathon, they mentioned that the “Balloon Lady” would be walking at a 6-hour pace (the course limit). If a marathon runner fell behind her before the course split at Mile 13, they would be diverted to the half marathon finish. If they fell behind her after the course split, they would be picked up by the Birmingham Police. The instructions were clear; there would be no exceptions.
All of the Disney races have Balloon Ladies. It can be difficult to keep up the minimum pace when you are in the back of the pack at a Disney race. The Disney races are exciting because you are running through the theme parks. Disney has all the characters out along the course – Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Cinderella, Aladdin, Captain Jack Sparrow, Snow White to name just a few. You can stop and get your pictures taken with the characters. For some of the characters, the lines can be long. The lines to get your picture taken in front of the Castle are usually the worst. If you stop too much, time runs out before you know it. In the back of the pack, you have to keep looking over your shoulder to see if the Balloon Ladies are catching up to you.
A friend of mine told me about her experience with the Balloon Ladies at a Disney half marathon race. Her training had not gone as planned. Race day was going to be a struggle. She was doing her best trying to stay ahead of the Balloon Ladies. A guy on a bike came up behind her and warned her that she had to keep moving. He told her as long as she stayed ahead of the Balloon Ladies, she could keep going. She was with a group of other walkers. They all picked up their pace, while casting fearful glances over their shoulder, looking for the balloons. Unfortunately for her, she had to stop to go to the bathroom. That stop sealed her fate. The Balloon Ladies passed her. She ended up on the sag wagon, the bus that returns the stragglers to the finish. She said everyone on the bus was crying because they missed their goal of completing a half marathon. She was offered a medal when she got off the bus but she declined it. She said she couldn’t take a medal that she hadn’t really earned.
In a way, it is kind of sad. The runners and walkers on the bus might not have been in the best shape before they signed up for the race. However, they trained and were willing to take on something that was bigger than anything they had ever done before. (Remember Mike Hall’s definition of adventure from “Inspired to Ride”?) I think they deserved a medal just for getting out and trying.
While runners and walkers may fear her, the Balloon Lady ends up seeing the saddest part of a race – the people who tried but didn’t make it. I don’t think I could be the Balloon Lady. I would hate being the one who put an end to someone’s dream.
Here is a link to an article I found about the Mercedes Marathon Balloon Lady. It is interesting to see a race from her perspective.