Monday, January 28, 2013

What It's Like on the Other Side

I've been running races for over 10 years, everything from 5K races to full marathons.  In those years I've been the beneficiary of friendly and encouraging volunteers who hand out water and Gatorade, cheer me on along the course, call out my splits at the mile markers, and hang finishers' medals around my neck.  In some of the more memorable moments, they've given me that last little bit of motivation to keep me running to the finish line.

But while I've benefited from the unselfish commitment of all of those volunteers, I've only given back once, several years ago, at the Clear Lake Fitness running club's annual event, the Lucky Trails Marathon in Seabrook.  That was so long ago, I'd forgotten how rewarding it is.  I knew that USAFit has been staging their own marathon/half marathon for several years.   They aim it toward those who either did not make it into the Houston Marathon lottery or who need more than the 6 hour time limit to complete a 26.2 mile run.   It's also a good race for those runners who want a more intimate race experience.    The Houston marathon is huge and impersonal with its 30,000 runners and elite runner atmosphere.

So I found the USAFit marathon webpage, found the "volunteer" button, and signed up to help out on race day.  I signed up to do two different tasks:  be a course marshal, helping the 5K runners navigate a U-turn at mile 1.5, while also directing the marathon runners as they headed out and then returned on the first of their two 13 mile loops.  And after that shift, to work at the finish line in some capacity.

I set the alarm for 4:20 AM and was on the road by 4:45, heading first to McDonalds to pick up a large latte and a sausage egg McMuffin.  Then with goodies filling the car with their tantalizing aroma, I continued to Sugar Land and to the U of Houston-Sugar Land campus where the race is being held.  I went directly to the Sugar Land Memorial Park on University Blvd, 1.5 miles south of the U of H campus.  This is where the 5K runners will be making their turn at the halfway mark.  It's also where Katy Fit (USAFit chapter) will be setting up their water station, and where the marathon and half marathon runners will be passing through at their mile 6 on the outbound leg (mile 11 on the inbound leg)....two loops for the marathoners, one time around the loop for the half marathoners.  So it was a busy junction of runners, volunteers, and police officers.

I got to my assigned spot plenty early...I was concerned about parking, but those concerns were unfounded.  There was plenty of parking and most runners chose to park at the U of H campus.  My co-worker for this assignment was Jorge and he arrived about 15 minutes later.  I ate my McMuffin while sitting in the car, and then brought my latte out to the road where Jorge was getting the cones set up. 

We had an hour to wait, but the time flew by quickly.  A fellow named Ian joined us and chatted with me.  His 18 year old son is running his first marathon.  It would be a good vantage point for him to see his son go by, since the marathon runners would be passing that spot 4 times.  Chatting with Ian and Jorge made the time go by quickly as we waited for the start of the race and then for the runners to show up. 

The 5:00 AM early starters - those who are not fast enough to finish the marathon in under 6 hours - showed up first, then the 5K runners, and then the lead pack of runners who started at the regulation time of 7:00 AM.  We got the 5K runners turned around and headed back to the finish line. Soon after that, the early starters and the fastest of the regulation time runners showed up on their return leg of their first loop. 

I stayed at my position at this mile marker, directing the runners and helping the policemen direct traffic in and out of the memorial park parking lot, until 9:00 AM and then moved down to the start/finish line area.  Ian decided to come with me and stand closer to the finish line, where he could still catch his son as he ran by on his second loop. 

I checked in at the volunteer table in the post-race staging area and then reported for duty at the finish line, relieving some of the first-shift volunteers.   I took over as a "chip retriever."  

Before race technology caught up with the digital age, runners' times were determined by a stopwatch, and their finish position by the order of their bib tear-off on the spindle at the finish line. 
Then the timing chip was invented, a small device attached to the runner's shoe that, when it passes over a sensor mat, is read and the runner's time collected. 

The concept of "chip time" vs. clock time was then possible.  Prior to this invention, there was no way to account for the inevitable delay in getting across the start line, a delay sometimes as long as 20 minutes for really large races such as Houston, or Boston, or Chicago, for example.  With this invention, runners' times between the start line and the finish line can be accurately captured and recorded. 

The next great invention was the incorporation of the chip into the runners' bibs.  This was a major advance in chip technology.  It eliminates the need to collect the runners' chips at the end of each race.  But it's more expensive for the race organizers, as it adds to the cost of the bibs and requires use of different timing mat technology.

The Greater Houston USAFit chapters own their own reusable chips and mats and have no incentive to go with the current disposable chip technology.  So this means that volunteers need to stand at the finish line and get those chips off the runners' shoes.  A chip that goes home on a runner's shoe costs the organization about $30.

Now... I'm here to tell you that after running 26 miles - even after 13 miles - the last thing you want to do is bend over or kneel down to remove a chip that you've tied to your shoelaces. There were at times two or three of us collecting those chips from the runners' shoes.  It meant spending most of my time crouching down, scissors in hand, snipping the twist-ties to free the chip, then standing back up.  Some runners threaded their shoelaces through the holes on the chip instead of using the provided twist-ties, which meant unlacing the runner's shoe, sometimes all the way to the top of the tongue, in order to free the chip.   Sometimes the runner apologized for the extra work it entailed, but I made sure I let them know that it was part of my job.  It was all good.

When my shift was over at 12:30 PM, I walked the more than 1.5 miles back to my car at the Sugar Land Memorial Park parking lot.  Along the way I passed many runners heading in the other direction, toward the finish line.  As each of them ran past me, I cheered and clapped and encouraged them to finish strong!

Working as a volunteer at the finish line...watching the winning runners - male and female - come across the finish line, was amazing!  Then watching the mid-pack runners come in, seeing Ian's son cross the finish line for his very first completed marathon.  Seeing the back half of the pack start to come in and see their reactions - laughter filled with relief, shrieks of jubilation, tears of joy - was amazing!

There were whole families running the race together, husbands, wives, moms, kids.  And there were husbands or wives who were escorted across the finish line by their children, running in that exuberant way that only little kids can do.  Only in a smaller race like this with its relatively unstructured finish line can friends and family see and experience all this happiness.

As for me, I was moved and motivated in a way that being on the other side of this, being the one who runs across that finish line, could never have prepared me for.   It was a long day yesterday, all of it spent on my feet, or crouching down and standing back up repeatedly, and now today my quads and glutes are so sore they feel like I'd done a million knee-touch lunges, but it was so worth it!


  1. I have to admit, I have goosebumps reading this post.

    How great to give back and volunteer at the race. Good for you. It gives me warm fuzzies and I bet it did you too.