Sunday, July 09, 2006

Marathon volunteer experience (long post!)

What a fantastic experience! Before I tell you about it, just let me say that I think anyone who gets it in their head to go out and run a marathon would benefit from volunteering at one first. Here’s why:

Friday – Stuffing it!

I spent
three hours on Friday stuffing race packages. There had been teams there the day before, too and ours was the last shift. We were working on the half-marathon packages.

There were 6-10 of us there at any given time, stuffing bags and replenishing supplies. For the most part, it was quiet work and seemed to vary from being methodical and almost rhythmical to borderline exasperating (“Are we there yet?!"), punctuated by moments of chit chat and questions such as, “Any more flyers for the Maui marathon?”

I’m not sure how many thousand packages there were to stuff in total… at least 6000, I would guess, between the full and half marathons, the 10K race and the kids’ race.

Let me just say that I have a newfound appreciation for any event package I pick up!

I also got to meet Dawn and Karen from the blog-o-sphere. Very cool.

Sunday – Course marshalling

OK, so this was the main event. I learned so much!

I arrived at my designated station at 7:00 a.m. For those of you who know the course, I was positioned at the intersection of Bowness Rd. and Veteran’s Way; or… at the 19 km mark on the way out and the 38 km mark on the way back. I met Gordon, my partner marshal, at that point and we had a good chat as we waited for a glimpse of the leaders. There were other marshals a few hundred metres in either direction… close enough to see, but not close enough to chat with.

I enjoyed watching the runners, observing different people’s form, stride and general appearance. (Interpret that however you want!) Some people hunched over and looked lopsided. Others looked strong and relaxed. A few didn’t seem to be running at all, but rather, gliding.

Some people looked ahead intently, focused on the path. Others chatted and laughed with fellow runners. A few chatted on cell phones. One mom’s son came by on his bike and said, “Way to go, Mom! I believe in you!” I thought that was very special.

The job of course marshalling seemed to involve two tasks: safety first and cheerleading second. There was plenty of time to do both, so that’s what we did. I was both surprised and impressed at how many runners took time to say, “Thank you for volunteering!” I wasn’t sure that it would have occurred to me to be so thoughtful had I been in their shoes.

As the last runners and walkers were passing by, the leaders were coming back on the other side of the road. We migrated to the centre of the road and marshaled on both sides.

Our shift officially ended at 9:30 a.m. I had originally thought that I’d be there all day, and I was having a good time, so I decided to stay, saying good-bye to Gord, who I think was headed for the finish line to meet up with friends.

What a difference to see the runners at 38 km, as opposed to 19 km! Some were strong and relaxed, but many were visibly tired. A few people showed up with lawn chairs and started cheering. (On the way out, the course was quieter than I had expected.)

Then, there were two incidents at the 38 km point that for me, shaped my experience in a unique way.

Incident one – The collapse

I made a point to speak to as many runners as I could, encouraging them with words like, “Looking good!” “Stay strong! You’re on your way home.” and so forth.

One runner pointed to a guy in front of him and said, “This guy is all over the place. You’d better help him.”

The guy was already past me, so I turned and looked at him and indeed, he was staggering, almost knocking into other runners. I ran after him and said, “You O.K.?”

The response was garbled... incoherent. He veered towards me, almost knocking into me.

I realized this was serious.

“We gotta get you some help.” I said. More garbling.

The runner who had pointed him out to me said, “Let’s get him off the road.”

We each took one of his arms and started helping him to the curb. I started to reach for my phone to call for help, when I realized that the runner who was helping me had effectively given up his race for this guy. I looked at him and said, “I’ve got him. Go!”

He said something, but I can’t remember quite what. I said, “You’re here to run. Go! We’ll get him help.”

And from nowhere, help arrived. The runner took off, leaving the collapsed man draped over me. By then, he was just dead weight… not even moving. I looked up and said to the volunteer cyclist who had showed up, “Help me, please! I can’t hold him.” The man was easily at least a foot taller than me, and although he was as skinny as a rail, I couldn’t manage his entire weight and I almost fell myself.

The cyclist took the place of the runner who was back on the road and we got him over to the curb. The biker radioed for help, as we laid the collapsed man on the curbside grass. I took out my water bottle and poured some over the man’s head, and gave him a few dribbles in the mouth.

The guy was completely incoherent and his eyes kept rolling back into his head. He didn’t know his name and couldn’t speak. We said, “Stay with us! Help is on the way.” I tried to get him to tell us his name, but he was too out of it. The irony was that the guy made a few feeble attempts to get back up and keep going, but there was no way.

Within a few minutes, more volunteer medics showed up. I didn’t realize until then that they were actually ski patrol doing summer duty. I thought that was pretty cool. A race official van showed up and they got him into the van, but not before he vomited as the medical volunteers were breaking open cold packs like crazy.

By then, the guy knew his name, but not where he was. The thought he was still in Bowness Park, which was a few kilometres back. Ski patrol said later he got abusive and combative when he realized he was in the van, but he was in no shape to be anywhere else. An ambulance came and took him to the nearby Foothills Hospital.

I am the type of person who is generally OK in a crisis. I don’t freak out and seem to keep my head about me. Having said that, my own lack of first aid training left me feeling ashamed. I think I’d like to remedy this at some point in the near future. (Funny how having a guy collapse in your arms can make you feel that way, eh?)

I went back to marshalling, with a heightened awareness of the well-being of the runners in their last two miles of the race.

I was happy to see Karen again. She was looking happy and strong. I jogged with her for a few metres and cheered her on, glad for the chance to focus on being positive. She didn’t need much cheering though! She was thrilled to know that she was going to finish her first marathon.

Episode two – Giving up

A while after I saw Karen, the pack started to thin out. There were more people walking and more runners who looked strained and in pain. I kept my eye out, not wanting a repeat of the collapse.

One runner, a young guy about 21 or 22 years old, just… gave up. He went and sat in the shade on the grass at the side of the road. I went over and sat down next time, being careful not to touch him.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“I’ve been better,” he said.

“Oh? What’s up?” I asked, cautious, but glad at least, that he could have a coherent conversation.

He looked at me as if to say, “Stupid cow. It’s a marathon. Duh!” But he didn’t. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m tired and sore.”

“Do you need medical attention?” I asked.


Clearly, he was angry. His responses were more like daggers than words. I knew he wasn’t angry at me and I didn’t take it personally. I did want to figure out where he was at and what he needed most.

“First marathon?”


“How long you been running?”

“Couple years.”

“Do you train alone or with a group.”


“Done any other races?”

“Yeah. A few 10K’s.”

“That’s a big jump, from a 10K to a marathon.”


I realized that my suspicion was correct. His spirit was broken. He had expectations that he had not met and just wanted it all to be over. I let him sit there quietly for a few seconds and then he said, “My lower back hurts. I’m just sore.”

I said, “I understand. I would really like to have a number on my chest today, but I’m injured. It just wouldn’t make sense… not if I want to run at any point in the near future.”

His attitude changed a bit… He wasn’t quite so angry.

I said, “Your whole body is going to seize up if you keep sitting here. You gotta keep moving.”

“I know,” he said, pushing himself off the ground.

He started walking and I called after him, “You’ve only got about 4 K left. You can do this. You’re gonna be OK. Just keep moving.” By then it was clear that what he needed most was inside him and he just had to find it.

About a half an hour after that, an official race van drove by and collected the yellow and orange safety vest I was wearing, as there were only a few people left on the course and they were accompanied by the volunteer ski patrol medics on bicycles.

I knew there was a post-race party at one of the bars downtown, but by then I wanted to re-charge my batteries, so I just headed home. Overall, it was a fantastic experience and I learned a lot. Most of all, it hammered home that training is everything. I have said to my trainer, “I want to run. But I’ll do it strong or not at all.” Now I am more convinced than ever that “doing it strong” is the only way to go.

And if I don’t feel strong enough to run, I’d volunteer again in a heartbeat...


Ginger Breadman said...

Wow - it was a long post but went by fast as I was reading. I've course marshalled before, and got way more than I expected out of it. But you had some really cool episodes out there to really put running in perspective. Imagine for those two people, if you hadn't been out there . .
I liked your comment about the surprise of people thanking you. It changes how you think the next time you're the one out there. Thanks for the post, I really enjoyed it.

angie's pink fuzzy said...

wow, that was an amazing day. what a journey.

volunteering at a race is just one of the most fanstastic things a person can do. you deserve the thanks.

Sarah said...

It's already been said, but Wow! What an experience! I hope both of those guys know how lucky they were to have you out there. Thanks for volunteering! : ) Your time will come.

Downhillnut said...

I think I made more noise than a lot of the spectators in that last 10 km. Yelling WooHOO every now and then cheered me up. Every km marker was a miracle to me.

It was VERY COOL seeing you out on that course when the distance was becoming quite a challenge. Thanks for jogging along with me, Sarah, and THANKS AGAIN AND AGAIN for volunteering. It is not easy to get folks to wake up early and stand outside by a road for thousands of folks they don't know.

Time to work on my race report, eh?

backofpack said...

Sarah, volunteering at a race is a blast! Good for you for doing it! I always try to thank the volunteers (if I have enough breath) and organizers. One of my friends, who has been running for many more years than me, started me on that habit. It was great reading your report - those two guys needed you just where you were yesterday.

Robb said...

I was very moved by the part where you sat down beside the angry young runner...and eventually got him going again. "By then it was clear that what he needed most was inside him and he just had to find it." I have learned that marshalling along the course is so many things. We should all do it. Thanks for the inspiration.

Dawn - Pink Chick said...

It was wonderful to meet you this weekend and awesome that you volunteered. I must say however that your picture does not do you justice.

Sound like you had an amazing and moving time as a marshal. Volunteering no matter the position is very rewarding. This was my 4th yr on the committee and while it can be hard work at times and I've often thought of quitting I don't think I can. The reward of seeing the runners finish and hearing how everyone did can't be replaced.

Yes there will be stories like those of the runner that collapsed but hearing the success stories and seeing the smiles, however painfull of those that finish is a reward that is priceless.

Thanks eversomuch for volunteering and hopefully we will meet up again someday. Perhaps even at the start/finish of a race.

Janice said...


Aw, I loved the son that said “Way to go, Mom! I believe in you!” Wonderful!

That guy your helped sounded to me like he was really dehydrated--Don't feel bad you did the right thing.

Way to go with the young man who sat down! I think you got through to him.

Great post!


jeff said...

wow, sarah. that was an amazing account. what an inspiration you are!

robtherunner said...

Sounds like a great experience Sarah. Definitely a must to get out there and volunteer at races. I stuffed about 200 packets for a local 5K and thought that was bad enough.

Dori said...

What an incredible experience, Sarah. I just posted that I'm volunteering for the LTF Triathlon this Saturday but I should have read your post first. I stuffed packages last year for the Twin Cities Marathon and I was also struck by how much work is involved in putting on a race. I try to thank as many volunteers as possible when I'm racing, because I know they're getting up early and giving up their time and that the race wouldn't be possible without them. I never realized what an incredible responsibility it is to be a course marshal. You showed such sensitivity in dealing with the disappointed runner. And quick thinking in dealing with the man requiring medical attention. I don't know first aid either, and wonder what would happen to someone who had to rely on me to help them. Anyway, good job!

megz_mum said...

Nicely written post - I enjoyed that you shared your experiences!

D said...

How cool Sarah - what an experience! I will say this: I always yell thank you to the volunteers and police officers because I know we could not run marathons without them. I'm sure you boosted so many spirits!

Turtle Guy said...

-About Stuffing It
Every event needs its worker ants, right? Your newly found appreciation for all the behind-the-scenes stuff will probably translate to paying a lot more attention to the little things the next time you watch a race! I get that way at concerts and big-production events. The average concert-goer hears the music, dances, parties and thinks "hey, that's great!" I, however, tend to examine the technical side of everything, and R. does the same with films.

-About Course Marshalling
Sounds like your observations of people's running styles was much like mine of the dancers at the Latin club!
Sounds like you had a full-blown experience in both "safety first (the collapse) and cheerleading second (giving up)" Your "teacher's gift" of compassion certainly shone bright!

Any event you would willingly give your precious time to and come away excited and willing to "volunteer again in a heartbeat" is DEFINITELY a life-enhancing moment. It's so good to see you in that happy space!