Sunday, March 21, 2010

Since I'm in the habit of quoting Ghandi:

I thought I'd share a gem:

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.

Now I won't for a second lead you into thinking that my morning was inspired by the Oh Great and Powerful Indian One. It really did start out simply as a way to log my volunteer credit for the New York RoadRunners. But if you'll allow me to get all Hallmark-commercial-y on you for a moment: it turned into something much more meaningful by the end of my day.

For those of you in the know, the NYRR is a super cool organization that holds most of the races in New York City. It also holds the granddaddy ... the NY Marathon. And if you're lucky enough to live in the city and become a member, they reward you handsomely with guaranteed entry into the NYM. All you have to do is complete 9 races and volunteer for 1 in a calendar year and you get entry the following year. In other words, I'm on track for 2011.

The races are a no-brainer. We've already knocked out several this year (me and my posse, natch) and when this do-gooder organization threw together a run for Haiti relief, they upped the reg fee and made it worth 2 credits toward the 9. Long story short, I'm almost there and it's only March. So Babs and I thought it would be fun to get our volunteering out of the way early at a big, fun race: the NYC Half-Marathon.

This is another marquee race in the city - big money purse so there are famous runners and everything. Oh, and you're only in through a lottery since it's super-competitive to get in. 14,000 runners from all over the world. For a half! How cool is that?

Not so cool was having to be at the NYRR offices at 5:30am to get our assignments. Babs and were course marshals, which meant we made sure no one was entering the course before the race began. Once the race started, our job was to watch for any runners who needed medical attention, as well as clear the path from clothing and gel packs runners left behind. Our main duty, however, was to scream like mad for everyone and give them tons of encouragement. We were on the east side of CP, so we saw the runners twice - once after the start and then again as they looped the park before hitting the halfway mark and heading downtown to the finish.

To make it all official, we were given really attractive orange vests:

Babs said I looked like a crossing guard. But maybe that's because she took my picture in A CROSSWALK. Anyway, I thought I looked pretty authoritative, which always helps when you're wearing anything on a lanyard.

Of course, we get Babs by an ambulance. Hoping to meet a cute EMT, I'm sure.

Right after the start, I picked up a ton of throwaway clothes. I learned about this at my marathon. If it's cold before a race, some runners wear cheap long-sleeved shirts to keep warm in the corrals. Once they start running, they strip them off and literally just throw them to the side.

I collected them at my appointed cone, where I was to stand and make sure the runners stayed within. And then, 14,000 of them came at me like a furious wave.

I was having a ton of fun. I saw a lot of running friends along the way who looked really strong and happy. It was so easy to cheer everyone one and I got a rush whenever someone acknowledged my totally dorky comments ("Okay elite athletes, you're done with Harlem Hill, so smile now!") with a thank you or a nod. I know that feeling - when you're dragging a little, maybe starting to feel a bit of pain. Just a tiny encouragement can sometimes mean the difference between slowing down in exhaustion or finding a surge of energy to push through to the next mile. I loved the ones who stuck their hands out as they passed so I could smack a low-five their way. Much adrenaline flowing at this point, however, and one guy almost took my hand off, he smacked it so hard.

I know there have been times in races when the volunteers are cheering you on and I've rolled by with a 'thank you.' But I was totally floored the first time someone actually said "thank you for volunteering." Really? Me? You're the one conquering 13.1 miles and you're thanking me? All I've done is pick up a few nasty sweatshirts and made sure everyone stayed within the orange cones!

(Okay, now is the time when you all roll your eyes and go, "Omigod, is everything in the world about Cindy?" Aside from the fact that it's my blog and ... yeah, it kinda is ... there really was a point to the story that had nothing to do with my ego.)

These races go off without much of a hitch because the running community in NYC is so tightly-knit and happy to help each other out when in need. As in last week where I experienced a kinship with another runner in LA (oh yes, the runner's wave), I feel like this was one more step in making me a more well-rounded member of the community. I get it now!

We were only required to stay as long as the last few runners passed our cone but I stayed there for a while, even as some of the other orange vests passed by with a wave to head out of the park. But I couldn't fathom leaving the last few stragglers. The people at the back of the pack were incredibly grateful. Not only did I have an opportunity to make eye contact with pretty much every single person, many of them had something really funny or inspirational to say. They had worked so hard just to get to that halfway point. Imagine when they had really slowed around mile 12 and there was simply no one left to cheer them to the last few steps.

Toward the end when there were so few runners left that it would be a minute or two before anyone passed my cone, a really cute elderly couple came closer. It was unclear if one was slower and the other was pacing with him/her, or if they both had simply slowed with age and the pace they found was what they both could handle. Either way, as they passed, I clapped as loudly as my chaffed palms could handle and yelled to them that they looked great.

They both flashed huge smiles and the elderly man held up a hand to wave and said, "Okay, thanks" and kind of chuckled. I'm not sure if I can properly characterize in writing what was behind his gesture but its meaning was clear: "thanks so much for yelling and waving, even though we probably don't look that great and we're bringing up the rear of 14,000 people." It was a humble sign of gratitude, almost apologetic to me for having to stick around because they moved slower than so many others. Yet to me, they deserved my applause more than anyone else had that morning. You can see them in the distance here.

I watched them shuffle away, even as bikes started entering the lane behind them and the park went back to a semblance of Sunday normalcy. For them, the race was still on and they had another 7 miles to cover, even as the crowds diminished and park workers started to pick up trash. I thought about them for the rest of the day and hope they reveled in their accomplishment for hours after crossing the finish line.

In the end, I picked up my pile of throwaway clothes and threw them in a big trash bag, assured by one of the NYRR staffers that they would be washed and donated. I picked up a dozen or so Gu packets that had been left behind by refueling runners and a couple of water cups scattering the path. Barb and I walked back to the NYRR office to hand in our orange vests (bummer! I totally had an outfit worked out around it!) and check out.

And then we surprised ourselves: we both told the staffers we'd be back. Even though we already got our credit for the year.

I'm sure there are tons of runners who just want to get their volunteer race out of the way and frankly, I was one of them this morning when I rolled out of bed at an ungodly hour. But the feeling that I might have contributed to someone's experience, even in the smallest way, was enough that I'd sign on again in a heartbeat.

Next time, however, I'm totally coordinating my outfit for the orange vest.


  1. Who knew you were such a do-gooder Cin? :P

    Just kidding, I always knew you had it in you. Great post! This makes me a lot more excited about doing some volunteering. After all, if I can't run I might as well encourage those who can.

  2. haha ... seriously, i had no idea i'd love it!

    hope to see you out there pounding the pavement again soon, jo ... but yes, lots of fun volunteer opps with NYRR in the meantime. lemme know if you sign up, i'll join you!

  3. This was a wonderful post. I envy you the orange vest :-). Have a fabulous day. Blessings...Mary