Today, as I get ready to celebrate the one year anniversary of my own running of the Chicago Marathon, I spent the first half of my day volunteering at an aid station. My sister-in-law Lucy works for PepsiCo and they always have a crew of volunteers work aid station 10, which is at the halfway point of the race, at the 13.2 mile mark. I asked her if this year, my husband Jim and I could work the aid station with her PepsiCo crew handing out Gatorade Endurance Chews.
I have worked the start line in the past, and it was really cool. But after running this race last year, I developed a soft spot in my heart for the aid stations. They were awesome, and I think that’s part of the reason why it impacted me so significantly when I lost my course support last year — I lost an energy source, both physical and mental. So I really wanted to help runners this year by being part of an aid station.
Some of my most memorable moments:
- The wheelchair/handcycle athletes are total beasts! Being able to see them up close in action is jaw-dropping!
- The elites are so fast! It’s a thrill to be momentarily in the presence of these super-human athletes whose bodies clearly don’t operate like the rest of us mere mortals!
- The front of the pack runners are WAY intense — the back of the pack runners are more laid back. When the front of the pack runners come through, I know they are uber-amazing athletes who are driven by goals, BIG goals, and it shows. They take their running seriously, and when they want those chews, they want them BAD! They don’t stop or slow down. The grab those chews from your hand at top speed and with force. I’m actually surprised I don;t have any cuts or bruises on my hand! The back of the pack runners might still be running or they might slow down to a walk, but they aren’t anywhere near as forceful with grabbing the chews. Some of them want more than one pack for later in the race (no problem — take as many packs as you can carry!). Some of them grab one flavor and want a different one (the front of the packers aren’t as picky about the flavor). Many of the back of the pack runners say, “Thank you,” or, “Thanks for volunteering,” as they come through the station. It’s so nice of them to say that because I expect no thanks at all. I wanted very much to be there for those runners today. It was truly my pleasure. And I’m not implying anything negative about the other runners at all. I expect all the runners to use their energy for the race, not for thanking me.
- There is guilt involved with doing this job. I felt guilty every time someone tried to reach for a package of chews and I missed their hand — happens a lot! I knew that they only had one or two more people behind me with the energy chews and I didn’t want anyone to miss out on a fueling opportunity. I also felt guilty for not being as much help to some of the runners as I wanted to be. I used the Gatorade Endurance Energy Chews last year, and I liked them a lot. But the one big flaw is with the packaging. They are hard to open up, even when you use your teeth, which is the easiest way to do it (grab the perforated end and rip or bite the package under the first chew). Some of the runners would get chews from us then ask for help opening them. The runners were tired and/or cold and/or wearing gloves and/or their hands were wet. The problem was my hands were cold and wet, and the packages were wet, too, so I felt terrible wasting these runners’ precious time trying to help them open their packages of chews. And then the guilt of leaving while there are still runners on the course. I had my own horror story of coming through an aid station and watching as an entire table of Gatorade was dumped onto the street to be cleaned up. It was demoralizing to have people who had helped me at other aid stations now “turning their backs” on me. It was the final nail in my mental coffin last year. I ended up relying heavily on my family, friends, and Team in Training coaches to get me to the finish line. I didn’t want to abandon any runner while I was out there today. But when it’s time to clean up and go, I have to. I stayed as long as I could. I’m sorry, runners who I left behind. I really am.
- There are some things that leave me shaking my head. Like the runners who had a choice to make: either run today’s race in sopping wet shoes and socks and risk horrible blisters or run barefoot while carrying their wet shoes and socks. And I saw enough of the latter to leave me slack-jawed. I have to think that had I been faced with that choice, I would have chosen to quit. I don;t think I have the guts to bear the blisters or to go any part of that race barefoot. I also had to wonder about people who asked what the chews were and seemed perplexed. I can’t imagine a long distance runner not knowing what those energy chews are — even if they don;t use them or don’t like them. And then there are some people who don’t seem to really be serious about the race. I saw these people at the end of the shift, maybe around noon or so at the halfway point. Some people just strolling and talking and laughing while on their phone. Another couple just walking and holding hands and talking the whole time. It seems like they had no idea they were on a marathon course. I wanted to ask, “Did you actually pay the three digit entry fee to stroll through this race like it was a 5K and likely not finish it?” But who am I to judge, I suppose. But it left me scratching my head.
- I was so cold and wet and my back hurt, but I was not going to voice that out there at the aid station knowing full well that my pain and discomfort was noting compared to the other 40,000 people who passed by me all morning! And a quick shout out to KFit Boxing in Minooka, my boxing gym — if it weren’t for “Small Weight Wednesdays” and all the milk the cows and small arm circles, I would not have been able to keep my arm extended to runners for hours on end like I did today! Thanks, Anne!
- I remembered how much the encouragement and the energy of those aid stations helped my, so I vowed to to give that to all the runners I saw today. I shouted support and cheers to everyone the whole time I was there. My horribly raw throat is a testament to how dedicated I was to passing that energy on to the runners!
If you’ve ever thought about volunteering at the marathon, In highly recommend working an aid station. If you’re not afraid to work hard for a long time and transfer all your energy to the runners you encounter, then you will find it a highly rewarding experience, guaranteed.
As for the inevitable question, “Are you going to work the aid station again next year?” The answer is
Not if I decide to run the race again myself!