This past weekend, my husband and I volunteered at a 100-mile endurance run. It’s the one my husband ran last year, and it always brings out amazing runners and volunteers alike.
As a runner, I am always reminded during this race of some of what I love about running. Because I am not an ultra runner (someone who has run more than a marathon distance), I also have a chance to feel like a slacker when it comes to running. Humility is a good thing, right? (I ask rhetorically and with a smile.)
It happens every year: the volunteers make small talk with one another in between filling water bottles, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, doling out soup and even (shudder) popping blisters. Invariably, the question comes up: Do you run?
And that’s where I start to feel like a bit of a slacker. “Yes,” I say, “but not crazy distances like this.” I’ve run one marathon, and on these two days every year, I feel like an under-achiever. Those of us volunteers who run shorter distances joke with one another about the dose of humility we get here and the warped perspective of being in a place where a marathon is a warm-up and there are volunteers who pace the runners for longer distances than that.
At least we’re able to laugh at ourselves. Some of us eventually will fall down the slippery slope toward running a 100-mile race ourselves. I don’t really have a desire to run a 50-miler or a 100-miler, but I do catch myself thinking: “Well, I’ve run a marathon, and so a 50K wouldn’t be that much more. Then what’s another lap and a half at this race to run a 50-miler. And then everyone says if you can run a 50-miler, you can run a 100-miler.” Plus, as a longtime volunteer at this race, I have plenty of clothes with the logo on it. I feel like a slacker when people ask if I’ve run the race, and I say that I’ve only volunteered for it. See? Slippery slope.
I have ultra running friends who are more convinced than I am that I will run this race someday. For now, I’m satisfied to feel like a slacker two days each year and stick with “shorter” distances. Maybe someday I’ll even get around to running that second marathon.
A beautiful camaraderie
Volunteering at this race also drives home what a fantastic community we runners create with one another. I hear from ultra runners that it’s especially true in these longer races. There’s less pressure in ultras to run as fast as possible and pass as many other runners as possible. For most participants, this sort of running is all about the glory of simply finishing.
I see this camaraderie in runners cheering each other on, cracking jokes and even walking with each other through tough spots. I see this camaraderie with each “thank you” from a runner leaving the aid station with a salted potato and a full bottle of Gatorade. I see this camaraderie in the stories we volunteers tell and the concerns we mention when a runner hasn’t made it back around to our aid station for too long. Did he drop out? Did she stop at race headquarters for a nap? Can you tell anything from the online tracking?
By the time I arrived Saturday morning, the runners had been out on the course for two hours already. The volunteers who arrived earlier were all abuzz: one of the runners had gotten hit by a deer. Yes, a deer. The injured runner came in to the aid station in decent spirits, but no one remembers seeing him come around for a second lap. Together, we bemoaned the fate of training for the big race only to have it come to a crashing halt on the first lap by a freak encounter with nature (as if it would have somehow been better had it happened in a later lap).
Runners and volunteers alike get a little loopy in the wee hours of the morning. And that, too, brings a special kind of camaraderie. I may not be out on the course running with you, but I’m going to make darn sure you don’t leave the aid station at 4:30 a.m. without everything you need to keep you going to the next one. If you tell me you’re afraid to sit down because you might not get back up, I’m going to tell you I understand – because I do understand. I’ll encourage you to keep going, even when all I want to do is find a warm, quiet place where I can curl up and go to sleep myself.
Re-entering the “real” world
My husband was at the race for the entire weekend, plus some additional days beforehand helping prepare and set up the aid station. I volunteered more than usual this year, too.
I asked him yesterday if coming back to the “real” world felt surreal to him. Because that’s how it has felt to me. I drove away Sunday morning, and the rest of the world was going about its business as usual: church, picnics, soccer games, birthday parties, homework, shopping trips and other errands.
I’m slowly slipping back into the usual rhythm of life, too, and yet I wonder how all these people can drive around without even guessing at the incredible accomplishments that happened over the weekend, without experiencing the new bonds we forged, runners and volunteers alike.