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#37 – Volunteering at the Grand Rapids Marathon

2 November 2007

Finishing the Grand Rapids Marathon – Photo by Rudy Malmquist

In 2005 I ran my first ever 26.2 at the Grand Rapids Marathon; in 2006 I ran it again to set a personal best. At 2007’s 4th edition of this fast-growing race, instead of running I decided to volunteer along with Amanda. Believe it or not this was my first time volunteering at a running event, although last year I did volunteer for a GRAAR adventure race.

Despite the Grand Rapids Marathon being a very well organized race, the confusion for Amanda and I began early when I offered to volunteer via their website’s volunteer form. The reply told us to arrive around 7am at the start/finish area and look for a certain woman who I’d never met.

Without daylight savings in effect yet this year it was still pitch dark when we arrived at 7am Sunday morning but the start/finish area was already a bustle of activity. The large parking lot was completely full and Amanda and I had to double-park within the lot (along with dozens of other cars) since we were out of options. The start/finish area is actually a pretty big place – there’s the finish line, yes, but also the post-race food tent, the medical tent, the lock boxes, and of course the infamous porta-johns.

Amanda followed me as we sought out some volunteers, finding them between the finish line and the food tent at some folding tables set up with the finisher medals on them – a team of young women were busy unwrapping each of the almost 3000 medals that would be needed that day. I asked for the name of the woman we were to meet there but nobody knew who she was! I finally found a guy who knew the coordinator and he whipped out his iPhone to give her a call. We were told to go meet her inside the YMCA building at the other end of the parking lot.

Once inside we pushed through the throng of runners waiting to use the heated indoor restrooms (what a luxury compared to port-a-potties!) and I can’t blame them – it was barely above freezing outside! We made our way back to a folding table with a “volunteer registration” sign hanging from it. Why weren’t we directed to show up here? We signed in and were given our neon-green volunteer t-shirts and instructed to head back to the area we’d just come from.

Back at the table with the medals there were about ten folks unpacking medals so Amanda and I were assigned to help two other guys who were preparing the space blankets. The marathon had purchased a dozen industrial-sized rolls of blankets – 200 blankets per roll like a giant roll of paper towel with perforations between the sheets. One at a time I had to pull out a length of blanket, tear at at the perforations, then fold it in half twice before stacking it onto a nearby table.

It took me almost TWO HOURS to get through my first roll! Even worse was that I was the fastest one at the job thanks to my height – each blanket is 6 feet long and I was able to drag the entire length out of the roll’s dispenser slot in just one pull. My wife and others needed two pulls since their arms weren’t long enough. The race had just started and I knew that the first half-marathoners were going to finish in 1:15 or so… we had a long way to go!

I looked around and noticed that all the girls were done unpacking the medals and just standing around. The volunteer coordinator was nowhere in sight. I suppose she couldn’t be everywhere, but nobody was in charge of the dozen or so folks in our area and no one had been given any instructions what to do next. Without really thinking about it, I started giving orders to set up a production line with the space blankets – two people per roll, one pulls and the other folds. Within five minutes everyone was hard at work and the stacks of folded space blankets began to grow quickly.

Sure enough the winner of the half-marathon arrived just before 1:15 on the race clock and we had just polished off our final roll of space blankets. Whew! But now it was time for our next task: hand out those recently unpacked finishers’ medals and recently folded space blankets to each and every runner who crossed the line.

This was the fun part of the day and it would last for hours. Race director Don Kern (who I’d met along with Dean Karnazes over a year ago) seems to have just one job at his marathon on race day – shake hands. He stood at the finish line and personally greeted every single runner as they crossed the finish. It’s a very nice gesture and I’d love to see other race directors do the same. As a volunteer I stood behind him with an armload of medals waiting to be handed out. Amanda was next to me with a pile of space blankets at her feet.

Importantly, behind us were some volunteers wearing neon orange: the medical staff. They kept an eye out for finishers who were in bad shape, and with my running experience I was able to help them identify such folks. If you’ve run a few marathons and/or ultras, you know the difference between “exhausted beyond belief” and “borderline physical shutdown” – the former is OK (you’ll feel better in a few minutes) but the latter can be a risky situation if not handled properly.

The look on a runner’s face can give them away; on some occasions I’d put a medal around somebody’s neck and then walk them straight over to a medical volunteer – if nothing else the medic would prevent them from falling over. One lady finished and I remarked to her that she looked very pale, and she replied “Oh my blood sugar is out of whack; I’m diabetic” like it was no big deal. The eyes of the medical volunteer nearby opened pretty wide when she said that! Needless to say that woman was taken care off without incident.

One of my co-workers, Dave Horne, finished the half marathon in very good time and told me that he hadn’t slept in a couple days – all fun-related. 🙂 I also recognized and said hello to Lynn Happel, a veterinarian and the organizer of the Healthy Paws Healthy Cause fun run that I ran this summer with my dogs. She’s quite a runner!

Before long the first marathoners were crossing the line and now us volunteers had to pay attention to bib colors since runners got different medals depending if they’d finished the marathon, half-marathon, or team relay. Both of my arms were now draped in medals and runners were crossing the line in bunches. I recognized a couple marathoners, too: Brian Cunningham is another co-worker and he proudly told me that he ran every step. Last year he cramped up and had to walk the last few miles, but it wasn’t easy for him – when we shook hands I noticed that his hand was as cold as ice! I also saw another veterinarian, Bruce Langlois, who appeared to have paced a friend of his through the race.

Finally the last of the half-marathoners trickled in and now we were waiting for the folks running the full 26.2 miles. After about five hours elapsed race time the crush of finishers really thinned out; in fact some of the volunteers decided to leave as those of us remaining could easily handle the flow.

Many of those clocking times of 3:30-4:30 were either disappointed with their time or had pushed themselves too hard – about 90% of those needing medical attention finished within that time span in my guesstimate. While the vast majority of runners of all speeds were generally cheerful (as chipper as one can be after a marathon, that is), the slower runners proved to be the happiest. These were the runners who had friends and family run alongside them down the final stretch and take their photos; many of these runners were streaming tears upon crossing the line (mostly women, but several men, too) and lots of them bypassed Don’s handshake in favor of a grateful bear hug.

One of these finishers was Princess Runner, a blogger I’d never met until I recognized her outfit (she posted photos on her blog). By this time I had handed my medals off to someone else and was now doling out the space blankets so I offered one to Princess Runner. She was clearly very tired, but seemed quite happy to have earned her space blanket – this her first marathon after being forced to abandon at the Chicago Marathon disaster. We shook hands and like my friend Brian, her hand was ice cold! By this point it was sunny with temperatures in the mid 50s. I figured that this cold hands thing is the body’s response to the stress of a marathon, essentially saying “I know we’re not done yet but it’s time to start shutting down” to start the recovery.

One of the last finishers managed to set a world record.  How?  He walked 26.2 miles on stiltsNeil Sauter was raising money to support those with cerebral palsy and sure enough he finished in under 7.5 hours.  He was giving high fives at the finish and he had to bend over to reach most people; in fact little kids had to jump!  The poor guy, however, had to remain up and walking around on his stilts for another half an hour as everyone wanted him to pose for photos.  His legs must’ve been awfully worn out!

One of the more memorable finishers for me was someone I have no clue about who she is, but she was bawling her eyes out and wailing “I can’t believe I finished my first marathon!” Her husband jogged the final stretch with her and at the finish they hugged for several minutes while she continued sobbing. A volunteer gave her the finisher’s medal and she burst into tears again. Then I put a space blanket around her shoulders and she says to me “Yay, I get to be wrapped in tin foil!” Apparently this is part of the marathon experience. As she staggered over to the food tent I noticed that her husband was chatting to an older couple behind the spectator barrier on the opposite side of the food tent. Deducing that those were her parents, I nudged her shoulder and turned her around – she started crying again and hobbled over to hug them!

That is why marathons can be so inspiring – they mean different things to different people but each one of them had a very good reason.  You can’t just run a marathon on a whim – you have to set the goal and train for it, and whether you’re fast or slow it still comes down to whether or not you can do it.  In fact a TV crew interviewed Don Kern during the race and I overheard him state his belief that one reason to run a marathon is because if you can do that, you can do anything.  Well Don, at least one runner believes you:  one of the finishers yelled out “I ran a marathon, now I can do anything!” as a volunteer placed a medal around her neck.

Running a marathon and volunteering at a marathon are night-and-day different but I have to admit that they’re about equal when it comes to pure enjoyment.  Not only is running addicting, it’s also contagious!

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One comment

  1. As I was reading about the man on the stilts and read down a bit more and read about the young women crying as she finished the race. She is my Daughter and I am so very Proud of her. Thanks so much for you noticing her and putting her in your article.



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