The October sun glows behind a blur of runners streaming past outstretched Gatorade cups whilst a cool breeze carries them through our water stop. It doesn’t matter that we slept for two hours, carpooled at 3:00 am or waited in anticipation for the event to begin. At this moment when the 40,400 runners and wheelchair athletes charge our station, they look like superstars heroically conquering their 26.2 miles at the 39th annual Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
Volunteering for the Chicago marathon doesn’t even feel like work. We were lucky enough to be returning volunteers from last year’s marathon. Our friend, Doug, has volunteered for the race for over 25 years with his Valparaiso running club, the Calumet Region Striders, and invited us to join him again. Every volunteer signs up online prior to the event for credentials, jackets, and hats. Since the Boston marathon bombing, safety procedures at major events follow strict guidelines for all volunteers. We were informed that helicopters, FBI, and police dogs would be securing the area and to report any unclaimed bags or lingering spectators to security immediately. Nevertheless, our water stop was manned by over 200 volunteers who worked together to set up tables, mix gallons of Gatorade and pour four-tier towers of cups for each table. Everyone worked with enthusiasm and stepped up to help others wherever they could so the work was completed quickly and efficiently. We even had enough time before the race started at 7:00 am for a walk to a local Starbucks in this beautiful neighborhood.
Left: Group photo of our Two Rivers Running Club members from Elkhart, Indiana. Great group of friends to spend the day with! (Derek, Ashley, Doug, Paula, Mark, Tina, and Alta)
Our water station was the 3rd stop on the marathon course at mile 5 just outside the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was equipped with a First Aid tent, Gatorade tables, followed by the water tables. Derek and I picked out the second Gatorade table from the front so we could heavily participate with oncoming runners. Mark and Tina stepped up to announce “Gatorade then Water!” and cheer on runners as they approached our station.
Derek demonstrates the proper water cup technique with one foot on the curb and an extended arm.
The DJ pumped up the tunes and volunteers started dancing the Cha-Cha Slide in the street. Pre-game T minus 30 minutes until the wheelchair and handcycle start:
This year I was eagerly looking forward to spotting Tatyana McFadden after we watched a biographical documentary leading up to the Rio Olympics. She is an amazing human being who has won the Chicago Marathon for the past five consecutive years, Olympic gold medals, set the world record in every track event, and is the fastest female wheelchair racer of all time. To read more about Tatyana, please click this link About Tatyana McFadden to her website. Besides being a tremendous athlete, she was influential in advocating equal rights for handicapped athletes in the U.S. while still in high school when as a decorated Olympic medalist, she simply wanted to participate on her high school track team non-compete with her friends. I did get to see Tatyana pass us and she ended up winning the marathon again by just one second this year.
Photo credit: Bank of America Chicago Marathon
The wheelchair athletes are inspiring and it was a privilege to be on the front lines to see them off. Racing a marathon is on my bucket list but I can’t imagine the tenacity it takes to power 26.2 miles by arm strength. Photo credit: Bank of America Chicago Marathon
Following the wheelchair start was the elite runner start. The elites have their own water stations so we were free to watch as the super-humans flew by. Below: At mile 5, this media photographer truck displays a time of 26:58 minutes, a pace per-mile of 5:23.
Not the best photo captured on my iPhone, but still captures this stunning group of women. The female winner, Florence Kiplagat, ran a time of 2:21:32.
The male winner, Abel Kirui came through the homestretch at 2:11:23. Above Photo Credit: Bank of America Chicago Marathon
The next race start were the masses corralled in groups A-F. These are still not your recreational runners because there were pace groups starting at 3:00:00, which at a 6:51 pace per-mile, I would still consider an elite level of running a marathon. Here is where things really started to get exciting and I no longer thought about the passage of time or watched dogs running through the park with their owners.
The corral runners rushed past grabbing the cups as they continued on full speed. Runners dedicated to maintaining their pace would often make eye contact with me and point that they would be grabbing my cup so I could hand it personally to them. I developed a technique of holding out a cup with my left hand while I reached to the table with my other to put the next cup in its place. Not every hand-off was smoothly executed and the occasional splash of Gatorade was just part of the job. I was grateful for my latex gloves and long sleeves to avoid feeling sticky. Time literally flies when the ebb and flow of mass runners roll through.
I was an active observer taking in the atmosphere of the runners from what country they hailed, what charity they supported, what costume they wore, or what unique talents they had. One such example was a marathon juggler, Michal Kapral, who sustained three soft juggling balls in the air while running without a single drop for a 2:55:00 marathon. Read the full story on Runner’s World here: World Record: Chicago Marathon Juggler. He also has a blog where you can read more about this “joggler” at The Bloggling Joggler. Michal stopped at our table for a few seconds for Derek to hand him two cups of Gatorade that he sipped with one hand while the other bounced the juggling balls.
Much of what we experienced in this time frame was a blur and it wasn’t long before our table ran out of the thousands of cups we had prepared. The system is designed for us to close down our table so that runners will go to the next tables behind us as they approach the aid station. To continue the fun of handing out Gatorade cups, Derek and I devised a side-system of pouring extra Gatorade from our preparation table and handing it off to runners as they came out of the port-a-potty lines. We began the clean up process until the final truck with the 6:30:00 time limit passed by and the aid station closed down.
This part of the race can be a little sad as not everyone participating in the marathon will probably finish. At mile 5, some people were really struggling and it was concerning as the weather conditions were perfectly cool. We left the last two water tables open for the noble stragglers who still inspired me that they were overcoming more that what they could handle. Our tables of remaining cups were dumped over and all cups were raked into the street for the city sweepers to scoop them away like the race never even happened.
All recyclables were also thrown into the street and then the volunteers formed an assembly line tossing our materials into recycling and garbage trucks that would compress it down to a crushed non-existence. We stacked materials that could be used next year on pellets for fork-lifts to take away and many gallons of water, Gatorade, and cups were “up for grabs” for our race director friends-Mark, Tina, Paula, and Doug to use for local races back home. Then in a flash our work was done, the event was over, and the city street was once again open for business.
We walked through Lincoln Park near the mile 10 section of the marathon loop to watch the race until Chipotle opened for lunch at 11:00 am.
It was a beautiful day and I took the opportunity to practice photographing the event while we waited. I had the best burrito bowl of my life (or so I thought at the time) that perfectly sustained me after a job well done.
We had an unforgettable experience that made us want to definitely sign on again as volunteers for 2017. This race has grown so much in the past few years that runners either need to qualify for elite status, run for charity, or apply to enter in a lottery. Among those we knew running that day was our friend Kim from the Two Rivers Running Club who rocked a 4:21:24. I didn’t get see her run by in the crowds but we were proud of her accomplishment. Photo Credit: Kim, Facebook
Witnessing this event gives me motivation to set new goals after my next half marathon at the Indianapolis Monumental coming up on November 5th. I’d like to race a marathon one day and tackle a new level of competitiveness in the triathlon and duathlon world. Until then, I’ll keep plugging away at my training with Coach Jake Gillette, pushing each speed workout and long run to new personal records.
I would encourage every runner who participates in races to volunteer for one local event every three races. Volunteers are invaluable to the success of a race and it gives a fresh perspective and greater appreciation of what goes into making a race spectacular for runners. If you’re thinking of volunteering for a local upcoming event in the Michiana area, I am involved with Stone Soup Promotions’ Faith Mission Turkey Stampede in Elkhart, Indiana on Thanksgiving morning. This race is a huge support of the Faith Mission’s programs serving our community every day. Sign up for the Turkey Stampede as volunteer here: Volunteer Sign Up: Faith Mission.
A big shout out goes out to our friend Doug for inviting us to be a part of this experience and networking us to local running and cycling opportunities. We loved being a part of the Chicago marathon and hope to volunteer again next year.