Posted by: Jen | December 6, 2009

Volunteering at the California International Marathon

I have volunteered at many races in the past, but I have never worked at the finish area of a large marathon, so this was a first for me. I have to say it was a very eye-opening experience!

My friend N and I arrived at the finish area just before 8:00am and checked in. We were supposed to be supervising the medals and space blanket areas but somehow, due to some organizational snafu, we ended up unpacking THOUSANDS of medals to get them ready to distribute. It went like this: open a box, pull out the packages of medals (20 per pack, 8 packs to a box). Unwrap the medals, take the paper off that kept the ribbon rightly wrapped, then hang on the racks. Sounds easy enough, right? Until about the 5th or 6th box, when it started to get REALLY old. There was a whole PALLET of boxes. I think we opened all but three of them, and they were stacked 5-6 high and 4-5 deep. That’s a lot of medals. Each box weighed at least 15 lbs, to boot. So I was humpin’.

We finally got ahead of the curve around the 3:00:00 mark, and had a moment to breathe… until the WAVE of runners started coming in after 3:30:00. Then it was a bumrush to open more boxes, get the medals out, and get them to the volunteers handing them out at the finish. Thankfully they were only about 10-15 feet away! It was exhausting. I did manage to see a couple of people I know, but not everyone.

The crowd started to thin out after the 5-hour mark and this was when the rubber really started to meet the road, so to speak. I have a deep admiration for marathoners in general, but I really admire those who are out there for 5, 6, 7, and 8 hours. That is a level of commitment I have not reached with my running. A half marathon is as far as I’ve gone and I’ve always managed to finish in less than 2:30. So by this point I’m slowing down with the medals so I can watch the finishers. At first, there were two finish chutes – men’s and women’s – and by this point, they were down to one.

Seeing so many first-timers cross the finish line and break down in tears was very moving for me, and I never got tired of watching it. However, the best moment was yet to come, though I didn’t yet know it. During that time, I had an embarrassing moment in which my foot got caught on one of the plastic loops binding the boxes shut and took a header off the pallet, landing smack on my right thigh and both hands. Thankfully I was wearing gloves, or it might have been ugly!

As we got closer to the 6-hour mark, the volunteers we were working with started to get antsy, because our shift technically ended at that point. However, there were still runners coming in. A few minutes later, a friend of mine showed up, waiting for his wife. He hung out with us at the finish area as we stuck around, handing out medals to these brave warriors, having spent 6+ hours on the streets of Folsom, Sacramento, and the towns and neighborhoods in between. He was starting to worry because she had been at mile 25 when he arrived, and it’s going on 30 minutes later with no sign of her. Finally, after much concern, we saw her on the next block, getting ready to make the final lap around the block to where we were.

(Meanwhile, the rest of the race is being dismantled.)

She crosses the finish line at 6:45:xx, getting a hug and a kiss from her husband and a big congratulations hug from me and a medal from N. She set a PR by 15 minutes, which was very exciting! A few minutes later, we see a woman come towards the finish – and she’s with her husband and baby in a stroller. As they crossed the finish line, those of us still left were cheering for her and she was crying tears of joy. It brought tears to my eyes, too! What an amazing moment, watching the three of them cross the finish together.

I’m still not 100% certain I ever want to run a marathon (mostly because I dread the knee pain – a half marathon is hard enough for me), but now I get it. I really do. I have seen it from both sides and I can definitely appreciate all of you out there who have heard the call and answered back. You have my sincerest admiration!

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