Friends, fun, and f**kery: volunteering at the Austin Marathon

My Vivofit said I walked 23,855 steps Sunday, but I think half of those came from shaking my cowbell at the bottom of the hill just before the mile 26 mark.

I don’t know who came up with this course change, but wow, putting a steep hill at the end of the marathon was just mean.

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Next to the traffic light at the top of the hill was a sign for .25 to go

The rest of that step count came from volunteering at the half-marathon finish line.

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So, now that I’ve gotten the pictures out of the way, let’s talk about volunteering.

I love volunteering at races, whether it’s filling cups at a water station, giving out bibs and shirts at packet pickup, or handing out medals. It’s fun to be able to participate in a race I’m not running, so when I got an email from the 3M/Austin organizers inviting me to apply to be a race ambassador (perk: free race entry if I worked two shifts at the expos), I jumped at it. My friend got a response, but when I didn’t hear anything I figured I wasn’t selected. No biggie. But then maybe a week before 3M I got an email asking if I was still able to participate. So yay! I made sure I was scheduled for the same expo shifts as my friend, and we worked the 3M expo together, mostly sitting at the Austin Marathon booth answering questions about the race and signing up a few people.

But when we got to the Palmer Events Center for the Austin expo, we were assigned to the picture-taking station, where runners and families could stand in front of an Austin Marathon backdrop and have their pictures taken with their own phones. It was a lot more work than sitting at a booth talking up the race! Most people were really nice, and if they were alone, had cute kids, or it was their first race I took several pics from different angles. The big families who wanted pictures with every person’s phone (pro tip: take one and text it around) or who required multiple retakes so they could jump in the air just right… well, that was less fun.

Three observations: one, I am surprised at how many people don’t have cases on their phones. I was terrified I’d drop one of those slippery suckers. Two, a high number of people waited in line for 10 or 15 minutes, only digging around in their backpacks to retrieve phones and crumpled bibs when it was finally their turn. And three, cluelessness abounds. A bunch of folks wandered in front of cameras as we were taking pictures. Others came up from the side and asked us to take their pictures, completely oblivious to the line. And one guy asked me whether we were emailing pictures or how did that work?

After several hours of standing on concrete and leaning this way and that to take pictures, my back was sore! We also never saw the guy who checked us in at the 3M expo and told us he’d have information for us after we completed the second shift at this one, so I hope we’re still good for that free race entry. Especially considering traffic on Barton Springs was a nightmare, parking was chaotic, and I ended up parking about half a mile away just to avoid most of it.

Which brings us to the morning of the race. We left my house just after 6am and made the drive downtown–we had to check in at 7. We parked at a free garage and walked however many blocks to the volunteer tent at 8th and Congress. We signed in and picked up shirts, then were asked to leave our belongings (think small string backpacks) behind before heading to the finish line area to organize the medals. It would have been handy if they had mentioned “no bags” in the (otherwise informative) email we received a couple of days before, but alas they did not. They did give us a claim ticket, basically like bag check, so it wasn’t total anarchy.

When we got to the finisher area, about half the volunteers carried bags and string backpacks, so clearly that request was inconsistently enforced. Anyway, we had about eleventy-thousand medals to unpack, so there wasn’t a lot of time to dwell on it.

The medals came in boxes of sixty: six bricks wrapped in bubble wrap and sealed with packing tape. Each box had to be sliced open, then the tape had to come off each brick. Inside? A stapled bag of ten medals. Each medal was individually wrapped with plastic stapled shut. It was not a fast process, and plastic packaging collected at our feet like snowfall.

Race organizers had provided us with three or four metal medal racks (say that three times fast) probably six feet high with three rows of arms. Each rack had wide metal feet to keep it steady. After we’d unpacked about half of the medals, the area captain told us to stop hanging medals on the racks–so they wouldn’t be too heavy or fall over–and just pile them on the tables (which were your basic wooden folding tables). After one of the tables began to bow in the middle, volunteers started draping the medals over the boxes from which they’d come. It was a rather inefficient and ridiculous system, especially considering those racks were probably built to hold a lot of weight–more than they held, for sure–while the tables were not.

About this time, the first half-marathon finishers came through (I think the winner’s time was 1:04 and some change–yowza). As finisher traffic picked up, a group of us took armloads of medals to hand to runners as they finished. Other volunteers brought more medals out to us so only a few people were running back and forth to the racks and tables. This was helpful during that huge pack of finishers running between 1:45 and 2:30.

It was less helpful when the area captain told volunteers to stop unpacking medals (dozens of unopened boxes remained) since “there’s only an hour left,” as if the medals wouldn’t be needed. Then scrambling to get more unpacked because, oddly, those of us handing out medals needed more to, you know, give to finishers. This happened multiple times. Efficiency also would have improved had the medal racks been placed near the area they wanted us to stand and hand out medals rather than requiring volunteers to dart in front of the runners to collect more medals as others frantically unpacked them.

The fun part was handing medals to a bunch of Rogue friends (at least one of whom PR’d), the mom of one of my students, and so many others. I loved congratulating people on their accomplishments. Smiles, tears, exhaustion, all of it. One runner identified my friend as the person who had taken her picture at the expo. “You told me I could do it, and during the race I thought about you and that you said I could do it.” My arms were tired from holding so many heavy medals, but these things made it worthwhile.

Can we talk a little about finisher medals?

YOU ONLY GET ONE.

You do not get one for your spouse. And you sure don’t get yours PLUS FOUR more for each of your children. 

And if you registered for the full but dropped down to the half, it’s really crappy of you to cross over to the marathon side of the chute and collect a full marathon medal. 

Our shift ended at 11:00, but a few finishers were still trickling in so we stayed a while longer to make sure they had someone to congratulate them too. In a lot of ways, it takes more to finish a half in four hours than it does in 90 minutes, you know?

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When we couldn’t see anyone else coming down that last half-marathon stretch, we decided it was okay to leave. We walked a few blocks to the aforementioned hill at Red River and 11th Street where we found some more Rogues, including our coaches.

Our friend who had PR’d the half earlier held a neon pink sign that said “F**k Yeah!” and we shook cowbells, yelling and cheering for the next hour and a half. I admit I started to get grumpy though–I hadn’t eaten anything except a package of Oreo Thins (really, thins? The icing is the best part!) since the protein bar I had for breakfast. But eventually the stream of runners dropped to a trickle, and we walked up the hill with one last guy.

The finish line was between us and the car, so on the way back we stopped by the race’s gear store. The guy said he’d give us the VIP discount so he’d have less to pack up, and I helped him out. I’m nice like that. 😉

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And then it was time for Mexican food. I mean, 23,855 steps race volunteering with friends totally deserves Mexican food.

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“I promise to be careful.”

That’s how Coach Bill starts Vern’s No-Frills 5K the third Saturday of every month. The first time I ran this race, I expected more to the pledge, but no, that’s it. I laugh every time.

I left my house wearing short sleeves and capris, but before the race started I got rained on twice, the wind picked up, and the temperature dropped into the mid-40s. I changed into a long-sleeved shirt and dug my gloves out of my bag a few minutes before paying my dollar and making the above-mentioned pledge to safety.

I ran the first half-mile with my friend who was taking it easy, recovering from shin splints. Yeah, her “easy” pace was close to my race pace. But after we weaved and dodged around a bunch of folks, I sped up to pass someone else on the narrow sidewalk and this time she didn’t follow.

When my watch ticked off my first mile at a respectable but not anywhere near my best pace, I realized that I probably wouldn’t get a 40-degree race morning again anytime soon and I should take advantage of it. So I sped up.

After I made the first turnaround I could see another friend up ahead of me. By the time my watch informed me that I’d run my second mile :23 faster, I knew I was closing the gap on him. I picked it up again, and a half-mile or so later, just after the second turnaround, I passed him.

Adjusting to Tuesday-Thursday workouts has left me with some leg fatigue the last few weeks, but this time I felt like I was running strong the whole way. I started to think that maybe I had a chance at a PR, so I cranked up my music and pushed pretty hard down the last stretch. I hit three miles (:18 faster than mile two) and made the turnoff to the finish, the final .1 on a crushed granite path.

I crossed the finish line (literally a line drawn in the dirt) pretty pleased with my effort. But here’s the funny part: I couldn’t remember what my PR actually was. In my defense, I ran it back in 2016, at the Shiner 5K which is downhill the whole second half. So I opened up my Garmin app to search for it, but it turns out that wasn’t necessary. Garmin asked me if I wanted to accept today’s time as my new PR, so that answered that. Still, I was curious about how close it was and whether the official time would hold up as a PR. See, Vern’s is timed, but everyone starts with the gun time and they hand-time the finish. It’s a small race and I didn’t think I was more than a second or three behind the gun time, but I wasn’t sure.

Since I’d accepted this as my new Garmin PR, I had to do some searching to find that old Shiner time. Eventually I calculated that I’d PR’d by eight seconds, at least according to Garmin. I’d also run a spiffy negative split. My friends urged me to go ring the PR bell, and I figured what the hell. Overall PR or not, it was my fastest Vern’s so ringing it was legit.

After the race, 12 or 15 of us went out to breakfast. Mexican food, of course. And coffee. Later in the day Coach Bill texted me to confirm that my official time held up and I have a new 5K PR. On a day I didn’t expect it, wham.

I know eight seconds for a 3.1-mile race doesn’t sound like a lot. But since that Shiner race I’ve suffered through two injuries and a lot of lost training time. Knowing I’m eight seconds ahead of where I was pre-injury makes me happy, and it reminded me that the hard work I’ve been putting in is worth it.

Catching up

After 3M I took a little bit of downtime for recovery–I felt like I had run my first half-marathon, not my 16th–but was back to more or less normal training runs about ten days post-race. And my toenails are, remarkably, still intact.

This past week, though, I was just so tired. Tuesday’s (5.7 miles) and Thursday’s (7 miles) workouts were tough–hilly and longer than my usual mid-week runs, but I did nothing on Monday or Wednesday. I have no good excuse for Monday–core class is on hiatus so I easily could have come home from work and run a couple of miles before dark. But I didn’t. Wednesday, I still felt a little sore from Tuesday night’s effort and decided to rest knowing Thursday’s workout would be on the same hilly route. It didn’t help much–a seven-mile speed workout on a weeknight turned my legs to jello.

Friday (M’s birthday) was a staff development day at work–no students–and we spent most of the day sitting in meetings. Which was fine because my hip was still sore from the night before. My only exertion came when we walked the dog after birthday dinner Friday night.

I knew Saturday’s 12-miler would not feel good. But the thing is, I have a half-marathon on March 10–five Saturdays away. Which sounds like a lot as far as preparation time, except February 17th we’re doing my coach’s 5K then volunteering at the Austin Marathon expo, and the 24th I’ll be in Washington, D.C. with my 8th-graders. That leaves one more Saturday before the race, and while my shorter-run paces have been pretty good, I feel like my endurance isn’t quite there and I didn’t want to cut it that closely. So that left this weekend.

It was 60* and eleventy-billion percent humidity when we set out on the route we hate the most. Hills, then long, straight stretches of sidewalk? Of course.

Two miles in, my hip was no better but no worse, and my legs ached. Not the best indicator of success with ten miles still to go. Just before four miles we ran down a long hill, and all I could think of was how much it was gonna suck on the way back. To illustrate the difference between me and my BRF: at the same time I was dreading that hill on the return, she said, “Coming back up, I’m going to have to count or some other mental thing to get myself up that hill.” I called it wimping out when I walked half of another hill to take it easy on my hip, while she called it persevering to run half of it. She’s all positive-affirming mantras, and I’m Ugggggh….

We got a short rest crossing through three pedestrian signals, then ran another long stretch of sidewalk past two Mexican restaurants, two fast-food places, Costco, Starbucks, and Whole Foods. At the last water stop, just before turning down another long stretch of sidewalk, we were at 5.25 miles; she cheerfully observed that we just had to go 3/4-mile, not very far, before turning around. But as we made the turn I could see, waaaay off in the distance, the traffic light that marked our turnaround. This did nothing for my “we’re almost there” confidence.

On the way back, my phone made an unauthorized phone call and I had not one but two close calls with cars who would have mowed me over if I hadn’t been paying attention. I ran about 1/3 of the way up that awful hill (BRF ran up it like NBD) before my hip yelled at me, and I played “run to the next fire hydrant” game between miles 8-10. Considering my legs felt fatigued almost from the start, the fact that I ran halfway up the last hill–at mile 11.5–was something of an achievement, albeit minor.

As always, the best part of my run was being finished with it, then having coffee and breakfast with friends.

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Of course a cold front blew in as we sat at the coffee shop, and this morning it’s 30* and windy. Guess I need to get to work on that recovery run. We’re almost at the end of Austin’s “cold-weather” running season, so I guess I should enjoy it while it lasts.