In the fall of 2012 I was new to running and races when I received an email that the Detroit Marathon was looking for volunteers. Handing out medals at the finish line sounded super fun so I signed up on a lark. Little did I know that the day utterly would blow my mind and change my life. I wish you could have seen my face as I was driving home… eyes wide, mouth open, just numb with shock.
As it turned out, they had enough volunteers for the coveted job of medal bestower so they put me on heat sheet and water duty a little further down the line. That was fortunate because by the time that the marathoners made it down to me their shock was wearing off and their emotions were coming out.
My first clue that this was no ordinary small town 5K is that the volunteer tent had coffee and donuts waiting for us. Sweet! Our first task was to unfold the warming sheets. I always thought that these were insulated blankets but they are just sheets of silver mylar. By the end of the day my hands had turned a glittery silver. I looked like the Tin Man.
It was so thrilling to watch each wave of racers go by. There were the young stallions up in front, eyes focused straight ahead while trying to reign in their desire for speed. I thought, “Hey, they’re running too fast. I thought that you were supposed to start out slow for a marathon?”. Then I realized that they were… it’s just that their slow pace is my sprint pace.
Some racers were crazy enthusiastic as they began. They would hoot and holler as they ran by and slap hands with the volunteers lining the course. Others had looks of dread or determination on their faces but when they’d catch our eyes and see us cheering for them, they’d smile. Here are a few highlights of what I witnessed as I handed out water and heat sheets…
* Soon after the marathoners began finishing a man in the crowd grabbed my arm and said, “Someone over by that building needs medical assistance!”. I ran across the street to summon the medics, who grabbed a stretcher, attended to the person, and called an ambulance.
* We had given a woman her medal, some Gatorade, and a heat sheet. She was walking down the block weaving from side to side, like she had had too much to drink. I ran and put my arm around her and led her to the medical tent.
* A man was crouched over a garbage can vomiting. We covered him in several heat sheets and then led him to the medical tent. (I was so glad that the medical tent was right across from me! This was no little first aid stand. It looked like a MASH unit!)
* I assisted many runners whose legs were cramping up. They could not walk one more step. But I know that if the finish line was 50 yards further down, they still would have finished by the sheer force of their will. It was terrible to see these folks in crippling pain and not be able to fix it right then. All I could do was… wait for it… run to the medical tent and the medics would come with a wheelchair.
* It was a privilege to be right there wrapping a blanket around a runner who was just realizing what she had done. She did it. She ran a marathon. By the time she got down to where I was, the tears had started. I lost track of the number of times I tied a blanket around a runner and said, “Please tell me that these are happy tears? Yes? Good, because you are a rock star! You did it! This pain is temporary but the pride will last forever. No one will ever be able to take this from you.”
* One woman was standing alone in the street and beginning to cry. I brought her a blanket and gave her my same speech. She said, “I’ve lost 220 pounds to run this race. Five years ago I had bariatric surgery and I told myself that my goal was someday to run the Detroit marathon.”. Well. I began crying right along with her! We hugged and I gushed about how AMAZING she is because… damn!
* There were a few funnier moments. Sometimes runners had their hands full with Gatorade cups so we would wrap the blankets around them and then tie them in front. A few guys seemed to enjoy having a woman get so close and would grin and say in a sultry voice, “Why, thank you, Jennifer.”. Or maybe those were just their voices from being exhausted.
* After seven hours the course officials began to take down the tables and stuff. But I didn’t want to leave while there were still racers coming in needing water and heat sheets! Two of the very last ones to finish were a married couple smiling and holding hands. She was joking that they were last and I said, “Yeah, you know what we call folks who finish last? Finishers!”. The wife had a blister on her foot that had been causing terrible pain for miles so all she could do was hobble along. But not only did she not give up, she was still smiling! They said that they wanted to do this to show the young people in their city that they can accomplish healthy goals.
In re-reading this, it doesn’t even begin to describe all that I saw and all of the emotions evoked. It affected me deeply. The next morning I went out to run my town’s 5K course… the course that I half walked back in August. I told myself, “Think of this as your DQ. You hear of folks who BQ (Boston qualify). Well, Boston is never in your future but Detroit could be… maybe. You’ve been training for four months, though, and if you can’t run the entire 5K by now, give up any idea of ever doing a marathon.”
But why would I even want to run a marathon?? I always thought that it was crazy. Until that day, I would always swear up and down that a marathon was not in my future. A Half, maybe. But I was changed that day. I was a different person by nightfall.
I saw such depth of human experience and emotion. These runners… many who looked just like ordinary me… took on an enormous challenge, worked for it and accomplished it. I wanted to BE one of those people. I wanted that sort of pride that can never be taken away.
As I ran the 5K course I thought of the woman who had lost 220 pounds. I thought of the many racers who broke down in tears in my arms. I thought of the strong couple at the very end. And I ran that entire blasted course, even the hill that used to scare me. I ran the entire way and I felt like I could have kept running.
So I’m in. Detroit Free Press Marathon… October 20, 2013.
Spoiler: I did not run a marathon in 2013.