I’m good, I am. But no worries. I bundled up and headed downtown. I'd been looking forward to this, and icky weather wasn't going to stop me this year.
It’s the first time I’ve volunteered at an event this big. The Shuffle registers 35,000 runners. They take on thousands and thousands of volunteers for race weekend. It is – by necessity – a somewhat impersonal process. There is little time available for volunteer “training”, and so the quantity of responsibility doled out to each volunteer is minute.
I was assigned as a “Runner Info” volunteer. My assignment was based largely on the fact that I signed up, not as part of a church or community group (which are generally put in larger areas, like aide stations, where they can function as a group), but as an individual. Thus, I was stationed at a mostly solitary outpost near Michigan Avenue with an orange bib to answer runners’ questions as they entered Grant Park.
The training supplied for our job took about 2 minutes. We were given a big laminated map of the staging area and told where the Gear Check Tents were, because that would be our most frequent question. Then they walked us out to Michigan Avenue and scattered us at several spots down the street on the southern end of the park.
Really, though, I thought I had an ideal assignment, ‘cause, hey, I’m a runner, too, and I’ve run more than a dozen events over the last five years that were staged on Columbus Drive in Grant Park. I didn’t really need much volunteer training. I’m full of experience-earned tips on how to get around, where to find things, the best place to look for short lines at the port-a-potties and the easiest way to get into your assigned start corral. Once I’d spotted the precise locations of the various encampments for this particular day, I was good to go.
The reality, though, was far more mundane. I spent three hours manning my little territory, and true enough, 90% of the questions I fielded were about the location of Ye Olde Gear Check Tent.
There was a little variety:
= I started out on the sidewalk right at Michigan Avenue, and drivers kept pulling their cars over to the curb to ask me questions about parking. I did my best with those, but I really am only good with “Runner” info. I rarely drive or park down at Grant Park.
= One of the first runners to come by stopped and asked me if he had his timing chip attached to his shoe correctly. He had taped it around the bow of one of his shoe strings and it was flapping around like a price tag. So the answer was, “No, sir, you do NOT,” and we both had a good chuckle about it, once he realized his mistake. I got him to tuck it into the lacings against the tongue and sent him on his way.
= The official event hotel was across the street from me, and an hour before race time, I saw two dark, lithe men in warm-up suits headed up the sidewalk towards me. I recognized the Kenyan Flag on one of their jackets from 200 feet away. The other, who spoke English well, came right up to me and asked where the Elite Warm-Up Tent would be. They spent a minute with me while I used the map to explain where they were and what corner they should head for. Neither man could have been more polite. I smiled warmly, looked them both in the eye and said, “Good luck.” They grinned back. I didn’t see the man who spoke to me again; he must have been an event guide, or coach. The other gentleman I saw running down Michigan Avenue, four miles into the race, leading the field alone with a 15 to 20 second gap. His name was John Kemboi and he won the race. It’s a good thing for him that I gave him directions and wished him luck, because, clearly, without me, he’d never have had a chance.
= I helped one father and son who were trying to figure out where the dad should stand to see his son run by. I told them they’d be good anywhere on Michigan Avenue, but they should agree what side of the street dad would be on, or the son would never see him. That was my experience at work.
= I also got to dole out sage advice to three different guys who were trying to get into one of the lead corrals. I told them not to go east and walk up Columbus, as that would have them walking up the backs of 20,000 other runners. Instead, I advised them to work their way north up Michigan Ave., along the edges of the park, until they were nearly parallel to the starting gates. Then they could walk straight across to their corrals and avoid a lot of people. Again, the voice of experience.
Unfortunately, most of the excitement came from one of my fellow volunteers. Less than 20 minutes before race time, a woman approached me and asked if I knew were the Medical Tent was. (It was about 250 yards directly east of me.) She said she was asking because one of the other Runner Info Volunteers had fainted and hurt herself badly when she fell. I could see her sitting on a stone bench a block and a half south of me. She was being tended by an older gentleman who had been working near her.
I pointed the way to the medical tent, but after another minute or so, I decided to trot down to where the girl was to see how she was doing. She was pretty shaken up, still a little disoriented, and not a little scared. She had fallen face first, with a fat, bloody lip and a bleeding knee as proof. One of the first things I asked her was if she had ever fainted before, and she said no. (I could tell that had unnerved her as much as anything else.) One of the few things I know that could cause a faint in someone not prone to it, is low blood sugar. I asked if she’d eaten anything this morning, and she indicated yes, but I wasn’t sure if she heard me clearly. I felt like, regardless, it was a good idea to go ahead and get her to a heated tent where she could get some fruit or fruit juice. We helped her stand, I hooked her elbow (“just like we’re going to the prom,” I joked with her), and we walked together to the Medical Tent.
I kept her talking as we went with some friendly chit-chat, because I was hoping to help her calm down and clear her head just a little bit. Best if she not keep thinking about things too much and get more panicky. After she told me her name was Kim, I stuck to Yes or No questions: Yes, she was a runner; Yes, she lived in the city; Yes, she had run the marathon; No, I wasn’t walking too fast for her. I told her I’d fainted once, too, and clanged my head on the bedroom dresser as I went down. I understood how it felt. Her arm felt frail and uncertain in mine.
When I got Kim to the Med Tent, a couple of the EMTs sat her down on a cot and started asking some of their own questions, taking her blood pressure. (They’d gotten word she was out there and sent someone to look, but they must have missed us somehow as we walked in.) I stayed with her for a few minutes, but now that the EMTs and the RNs were at work, I felt extraneous. I told Kim that if she was released, maybe she could swing by where we were on Michigan to let us know she was ok, but that she should stay there at the Med Tent as long as possible. I asked if there was anyone she could call, and she said yes, but then was drawn back into a question from the Medics. I waved goodbye and headed back out to work.
One of the other girls in our Info group had been aquainted with Kim as part of a marathon training team the year before. If I had thought about it at the time, I would have drafted her to come with us, so that Kim would have someone a little familiar to sit with. I was so focused on getting her to Medical, that I just didn't remember it until later. Opportunity missed.
Half an hour later, after the race was well under way, I went back by the Med Tent to see if Kim was okay. One of the guys there told me she’d been released and, yes, was alright. After more questions, she remembered that, in fact, she hadn’t eaten breakfast before coming down to the event. They put some food in her, let her rest a few minutes and then she was good enough to head home. She’ll have a good story to tell when people ask her about her lip for the next week.
And that was it, mostly. There were a lot of volunteers in my group who were also runners. They came out to volunteer wearing their cold weather running gear. The bad news is, that stuff is meant for keeping you warm in 35 degree weather when you are running. It’s not as useful at keeping you warm when you’re standing still for 3 hours. A lot of them spent various amounts of time in the nearby Starbucks drinking coffee and shaking off the shakes. I had on two thermal layers from head to toe, with a waterproof shell and I was still shivering.
Other than the chill, it was a painless morning for me, and I would be glad to go back and work another event like the Shuffle. (Maybe next time, I’ll see if I can work a Key Volunteer position and put more of my experience to work.) But I think I’m looking forward to working a smaller event or an Ultra. If I can stand the cold, I’m liking the idea of spending the weekend in Pekin, IL, next month at the McNaughton Park Ultra. I can work one of the Aid Stations and maybe find one of the 100-mile runners to pace for a loop or two overnight. Then I’ll really be earning my volunteer stripes.