Things I Learned From Volunteering at the Chicago Marathon

This past Sunday, I volunteered at Aid Station 8 of the Chicago Marathon. I’ve volunteered for races before, but never one as big and exciting as the Chicago Marathon, and never at an aid station.

The experience was awesome, and I definitely learned a few things.

I thought I would share my lessons with you all.

1. Passing out water is exhausting!
I know I shouldn’t complain. All I did was stand there with my arm out, while everyone out on the course was actually running 26 miles. I know what running 26 miles feels like, and it’s not exactly easy. But I was surprised at just how exhausted I was at the end of the day. My arm was tired, my lower back ached. I needed to do some leg stretches from being on my feet for 7 hours. And I was frozen to the bone.

I’m not by any means trying to say that volunteering is harder than running a marathon. But I think if I were to compare my tired/achy factor to running a race, I’d say I felt pretty similar to how I feel after running a half marathon. But with a sore arm.

2. Passing out water is not as easy as it looks!
Many marathoners walk through the water stations, but the majority of them don’t. At least not while they’re grabbing the water from the volunteers.

When the elite runners ran by, they didn’t need our water, since they had special water of their own. But the front of the rest of the pack was pretty speedy and many of them didn’t stop or even slow down as they grabbed their cups. In fact, the very first water I tried to distribute actually ended up flying out of my hand and right onto the ground.

Marathon Fail.

3. Pointing at the volunteer whose water you want is the most helpful thing ever!
Despite all the races I’ve run, this has never occurred to me.

You know how sometimes you go for a water, but someone else gets there first, or you just change your mind about which cup to grab? Well, doing that really psychs out the volunteers and messes with their minds. I can’t tell you the number of times I thought someone was going for my cup, but ended up grabbing the one next to me. Or worse, I thought they were going for someone else’s and then “whoosh!” they grabbed mine, often resulting in another water cup casualty like the one mentioned in Lesson #2.

However, many runners (you’d be surprised how many, actually), will point at the volunteer they want to grab from, letting them know they’re going for yours. You have NO IDEA how helpful this is.

I’ve never done this before in a race, but I am definitely going to try it out next time I run.

4. It’s easier for runners to spot volunteers than it is for volunteers to spot certain runners.
I had my eye out for several runners, and didn’t manage to spot any of them. However, everyone I did see spotted me first. I was attacked by hugs from several of my friends out of the blue, and Sara somehow miraculously spotted me from afar and yelled my name as she ran past. That particularly surprised me, because I have developed a certain knack for spotting her, and I think my back was actually turned to grab more water as she ran past.

Maybe it was the awesome cat ears that helped. :)

5. I’m a big, emotional baby.
This is not a new lesson. I cry at everything. Romantic comedies. Hallmark commercials. Marathons.

I am notorious for being the one to get choked up at just about everything. I tend to cry DURING races whenever people cheer for me. I also learned I cry when people thank me for volunteering. (Which, by the way, all you runners should do! Volunteers often get up and out in the cold even earlier than you!)

I cried at the wheelchair athletes, the back of the pack runners, and several times when runners said kind things to the volunteers. I’m sure there were more times, but I lost track.

I am a baby.

6. Despite all my protests and my swearing up and down that I have no desire to run another marathon, it’s probably only a matter of time.
I still don’t want to. And I still swear I’m cutting back on running in 2013. I still say marathons are stupid, too hard on the body, and not worth the time commitment.

That said, the Chicago Marathon is an entirely different experience than Disney, and it’s an experience a little part of me wants to have. Chicago is my city. I want to run my city. I want to train in my city, with other runners, without having to train alone in the dead of winter.

Yeah. I’ll probably run Chicago some day.

10 thoughts on “Things I Learned From Volunteering at the Chicago Marathon

  1. I’ll definitely take the water stop thing into account next time I run….point and grab, right? Makes sense!
    I volunteered at the Minneapolis Marathon in June – it was hot! I stood outside, no shade, as the heat steadily rose to around 85 degrees but was grateful for the fact that I wasn’t running! Volunteering is a great learning experience!

  2. Thank you for volunteering! I never realized what it was like on the other end for the folks handing out water, so this is really helpful to know for future reference.

    Ah, the Disney Marathon. I think I am in the exact opposite situation as you, where I’ve run Chicago and I’m saying that someday I want to run Disney. =)

  3. It was totally the cat ears! I told Aaron he had to look for cat ears at that water stop, but he apparently didn’t know the difference between a cat and a panda, so we had a lot of false alarms! I actually saw a friend at mile 8, and then thought, ok, three more miles until Cary, and it really made the time fly! Thanks so much for volunteering!!

  4. Reblogged this on Striding Through and commented:
    While I work on my race report from Chicago 2012, I am reflagging this from a race volunteer…just my little way of thanking the volunteers at Chicago, who like their city, were awesome.

  5. You are awesome for volunteering! Maybe next year you’ll be running the marathon instead ;)

    I am such an emotional baby too! I briefly stopped by mile 24 to watch the lead male and female runners pass by and it brought tears to my eyes!

    I love that tip about pointing to the water cup you want to grab! I’ve definitely run into confusion (no pun intended) when the volunteer had no idea who to give the cup to.

  6. The Chicago Marathon was an amazing experience, and I think every runner who lives in or near Chicago should run it at least once. It was 5 hours of awesomeness from start to finish (and then some) for me. Also, thank you for volunteering!! I think volunteering at an aid station is hard! I’ve only volunteered at the SF10, so I wasn’t on my feet as long as you were, but I definitely think volunteering is a different kind of hard.

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