|This weekend was a big one for running in this town. The NYC Marathon was run on Sunday. Over 35,000 people ran the course as it wound its way through all five boroughs of the city.
I have been a spectator at the race for years - since the 1970s when it was only a few thousand people. My dad used to take me to watch the race. We'd catch the lead runners as they passed through Queens and then take the subway into Manhattan to see them finish in Central Park. A friend of my father's used to run every year, so we'd usually try and find him at the end.
This year I decided that I wanted to participate. No, I'm not at the point where I was going to run in it. I'm happy with 5k races with the goal of graduating to 10k races next year. What I did is volunteer. 12,000 volunteers make this race work the way it does and I thought it would be a different way to experience the race.
The volunteer application available on the website stated that they really needed marshalls at the expo. The Expo is, basically, the location where the runners pick up their numbers and goody bags for the race. Every runner has to come to Jacob Javits Convention Center some time in the three days preceding the race. In addition to the check-in area there is a free expo where tons of running related freebies are available. The marathon store is also there, where you can pick up souveniers and meet elite runners and other personalities from the world of running. I decided to get to the Expo a little early so I would get an opportunity to look around before I was put to work. I managed to put together a bag of stuff in only a half an hour.
The volunteer coordinator asked me if I minded working outside. The weather was unusually mild, so I said I'd be happy to spend my time outdoors. I was assigned to direct runners approaching the Convention Center to the correct entrance to pick up their race packet. This was not as easy as it sounds. The frontage of the center is about a city block long and the people were pouring off buses and out of cabs. Often with a cell phone attached to their ear and/or not having English as their primary language. So my duties began to resemble those of an air traffic controller. This was to stand me in good stead for the race the next day.
For the marathon itself, I had volunteered to work one of the Queens aid stations. This would involve handing out water and other liquid to the runners. During the week before the race, however, I got an e-mail from volunteer coordination telling me that a whole bunch of boy scouts were manning those stations and, therefore, they were full. I was given the option of doing race marshall at the Queensborough bridge, instead. This sounded like a unique opportunity, so I jumped at it.
Sunday morning, when I showed up for my assignment the coordinator explained that our primary duty was going to be toward the wheelchair athletes. The organizers of the race have determined that it would be better not to have the wheelchairs amongst the runners when they cross the bridge. So, instead, the wheelchairs are detoured onto the pedestrian crossing. Sounds crazy to me, but that was our job. In the last half mile before the bridge, which is the 15 mile mark of the race, a number of us were stationed at intervals with the assignment of trying to get the attention of these athletes and 'push' them over to the left so that they were set up for the approach of the detour. On a number of occasions this involved me having to weave my way into the race to get alongside the chair and yell at the athlete. Sometimes they had earphones, sometimes they didn't understand English and sometimes they were just so 'zoned' they weren't paying any mind to their surroundings. It helped that I remembered the word for 'left' in Spanish. It also helped that I had developed some signalling from the day before. It was a blast!
My memories of the race are mostly of these athletes - there were the men and women in racing chairs, flying through in front of the race. Then there were the ones in hand cranked chairs, the ones in standard chairs and there was even one man on what was basically a skateboard. I barely noticed the elite runners when they came through except that their entourage of cars and motorcycles made it difficult for us to help the wheelchairs. I didn't find out who won until I got home after the race.
I can't wait to do it again next year.