steer and cheer

Last weekend I volunteered at the Hospital Hill Half Marathon here in Kansas City. It was my second year as a volunteer. (I’m pretty sure I keep volunteering as a way to avoid actually running the thing. Note the second word in the run’s name.)

Once again, I was a course monitor, which means I stood at an intersection and made sure none of the runners accidentally turned up the street I was blocking (the “steering” part). I was also supposed to cheer the runners as they passed, but I personally hate it when people on the sidelines cheer me; it’s too easy since they have no idea what it’s like out there on the road. I get more benefit from fellow sufferers runners who goad and encourage and cajole and cheer me. So my cheering was minimal.

My station was at around mile 10.5, about one-millionth of the way up a mile-long hill. Just down the street from me was an intersection with a traffic light and two police officers to steer the runners and control the cars that desperately wanted to cross the course at that point. (These drivers were in a tight spot since the course was a circle, and anyone inside it was stuck — at least until there was a break in the pack of runners so the officers could let a car or two squeak through.) I had an uneventful point on the course, but that intersection down the block saw a lot of action.

I arrived at my station at the assigned time of 6:15 and reported in. Several other monitors were nearby at their stations, and there were two homeless people asleep not far away. The race wasn’t to start until 7:00, and even the fastest runners were unlikely to get to mile 10.5 for about an hour. So I was pretty much in place two hours before I was needed. Further, that far along the course meant that I would be there for a long time after the first runners passed since the slowest runners (and walkers) could take up to three hours from their start (in the last wave) to reach me.

I listened to the birds. Tried to stand in the sun creeping over the hill behind me. Watched as one of the homeless men rose and walked off in a huff. Used the portable toilet that was set up not far from my station. (It reeked already!) Listened to the birds some more. Looked at my phone repeatedly. Not long after 7:00 the police down the block began to set up their cones. They would let the traffic flow as long as they could but were ready for when it was time to shut down that stretch of road.

As I expected, the first runner came by at about 8:00. He was escorted by a police motor cycle, and he looked as fresh as if he were still in his first mile rather than his tenth, going uphill. I really do admire these people with such natural talent and the drive to develop it. (That will never be me, of course.) And then there was a break in the action. Probably fifteen minutes passed before the next runners came along. This is often the case. One runner stands out and is far ahead, then the other elite runners come rushing along, still far ahead of everyone else. One of these elites is a young man I see at nearly all of the races. Only this time, he was doing something different. He was pushing a baby stroller, apparently with an occupant. I’d never seen him do that before, and perhaps he simply couldn’t get out of his parenting duties that morning, so he brought the baby along. In any case, I think he was one of the top five runners!

My job was not only to keep the runners on course — and this is a real concern since mental acuity can be left at about mile five for many people; I even got off course briefly at the St. Louis Marathon (though I think I was at about mile 18 when that happened and the course monitor had abandoned his post — the jerk!). But I was also responsible for keeping cars off the course. So I had to tell any drivers coming down my connecting street that they had to turn around and find another way. Early on, I let a few by since they claimed they were “late for work” and there really weren’t any runners on the street yet. But after that, I got draconian and stood my ground. (They were all compliant without complaint.)

The course had nearly three miles left after my station. A fast runner could do that in 15 minutes, despite the hill. I was not at all surprised, therefore, when that runner with the baby stroller passed again, going the other direction! My guess is that he had crossed the finish and then decided to run the course backward, or perhaps run to the tony shopping and dining district at the bottom of the hill where he might meet friends and family for breakfast. Still, pushing a stroller!

Sometime around then, the homeless man across the street awoke and scooted across the course to use the portable toilet that was there. I don’t know if it was in place when he rested his head on his stone pillow the night before, but he certainly seemed glad to have it that morning. (Note: I only saw one runner use the toilet while I was there.)

As time passed, the frequency of runners grinding up the hill increased. I could see them coming a couple of blocks below me, and they were mostly concentrating on the physical demand of it, so I didn’t want to disturb their focus. Plus, these fleet and fit runners didn’t need encouragement from some schlubby guy on the sidelines. They were born to the job.

As the numbers increased, I watched for faces I knew. Several friends had said they were running Hospital Hill (one for the last time since she was moving to another city), and if I spotted them, I wanted to shout something to them. With one exception, I missed all of them. At this point, all of the people were running up the hill. I know how hard that is, how important it is to stay on task. I didn’t want to interfere with that, though farther up the hill, where there was a water station, I heard regular cheering as runners passed. (Also, cowbells. I hate those things!)

Down the hill, where the police were, I saw some action. One runner actually did turn the wrong way there. (There was no turn at that point; the course went straight.) The officer nearest barked in the way that only beefy men of unquestioned authority can, and the runner was quickly back on course. Similarly, a few cars tried to turn onto the course (rather than take the opportunity to cross it), and similar barking fixed the problem. In several of the long races I’ve done, drivers somehow have gotten onto the course and driven among the runners, either oblivious to what was happening or else feeling privileged enuf to be an exception. The struggle is real.

I learned later than just beyond this traffic light, a runner had collapsed. Collapsed or sat himself down. Apparently he was suffering from vertigo. The emergency team was dispatched. And then an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital one block away. (Whose insurance pays for this? The runner’s? The run’s?)

Hundreds of runners passed me as I stood at my station. I saw people doggedly grinding their way up the hill. Others blissfully untroubled and carrying on conversations with their fellow runners. Most were drenched in sweat. Many people looked as though this race was their last earthly act. One young couple may have been at the end of their relationship. He was struggling, wanting to walk up the hill while she was “cheering” him in a most adamant way. (“GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF THAT SPACE!”) Maybe tough love was needed at that point. It didn’t look like it was working.

Eventually, most of the people passing me were walking. Among runners, this is an honorable way to manage hills. And this was at mile 10.5, so these people had already done a lot of hard work. Most of them looked spent, though they had nearly three more miles to go, one of which was the hill before them. Soon, everyone who passed was a walker. A few thanked me for volunteering (my brightly colored volunteer shirt probably gave it away), but I told them they were the ones doing the hard work. I was merely out there getting a nice tan.

One fit-looking man came walking by at that point. But he didn’t look altogether fine, and I asked him if he needed help. It turns out this was the man the ambulance had taken (one block) to the hospital . He’d had an IV to rehydrate him, and then he was determined to finish the race. That filled me with warm fuzzies (though I am sure the doctors at the emergency room didn’t like it).

I kept watching the faces for people I knew, though most of them were surely long past since they were all good runners. I did, however, see my running friend Renee. She had chosen to walk part of the hill, which allowed me the time to recognize her. I called out to her, and she steered her weary body my way. We shared a sweaty hug and then she trudged on. (I later learned that she did, indeed, finish the half, her tenth. I’ve only done eight.)

The walkers were a more diverse bunch than most of the runners who had passed earlier. All sorts of ages and body types passed me then. All of them looked spent. Most of them looked daunted by the hill before them. These walkers (who were by my unofficial estimate, half of the participants of the race) were more chatty than the runners. Many of them thanked me for volunteering, and I once again told them that they were doing the hard work. (I couldn’t say they looked “good” or “strong” or such, a lie I’ve heard many times. But I think they appreciated my assessment of their effort.)

Having been among the last to come in on some of my early races, I knew how important it was to stay at my post until the last person passed. Whoever that was, as well the hundred or so before him or her, had paid as much as the fastest runner and invested as much in self esteem as anyone. These people deserved the full race experience and support, and by staying at my station, I was doing my little part to give them that. The sweeper car would be directly behind this person, a walker of course, and he or she would be given as much respect as every other participant. (Except for the first 10K I ran when the sweeper car wished me well and drove on past.) About five hours after my shift began, I saw the sweeper car creeping up the hill, a pair of walkers before it. The last participant was gamely still on the course, and one of the race officials was matching him step for step.

When this man and his escort passed me, he still had nearly three miles to go, but my duties had officially ended. I was welcomed to show up at a pancake breakfast, a privilege I had earned as a volunteer, but I don’t think I can eat pancakes unless I have run a full or a half marathon, so I skipped that opportunity (it was at the start/finish area, which would have been a madhouse with no parking), and headed home.

I feel good about “giving back” to the running community since I have benefited from so many races. Will I volunteer for Hospital Hill again next year? Probably. Or maybe I’ll run the damned thing. I’ve decided that I’m going to limit myself to full marathons in the fall only. That will leave the spring open for “less” challenging runs. Maybe I’ll have the cajones to try this one in 2017.

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2 Comments on “steer and cheer”

  1. Sherri Odell Says:

    Thank you for volunteering…Hospital Hill was my 14th half-marathon overall (in the past 2 years), but the first time I’ve ran this particular race. OMG. It was truly the hardest half-marathon I’ve ever done – between the heat, the hills and the humidity, I was one of those walkers grinding up that hill. I probably thanked you, as I try to acknowledge all of the volunteers, police officers, and cheerleaders along the course. Your smiles and words of encouragement go far. 🙂 You HAVE to do this sometime, if only to check it off as completing KC’s hardest race. 🙂


  2. I agree with Sherri. Probably my hardest half marathon to date. Thank you for volunteering, and for the smile and hug!


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