If you are a runner in New York you are doing one of three things on the first Sunday of November: running the NYCM, spectating at the NYCM, or volunteering at the NYCM. Since I ran Portland less than a month ago and I feel more useful as a volunteer than a spectator, we did the third of these things this past weekend.
Since we live in a part of the city untouched by the Marathon course we didn't really experience the race until we showed up on Central Park West and 72 Street. It was a brisk and beautiful autumn day--pretty nice for a race actually (although I'm sure the runners would have appreciated some kind of cloud coverage)--and Central Park West was shutdown. In place of parked cars there were barricades and swarms of volunteers.
The only other time I've been through this finish chute I wanted to get out as fast as possible. But now I could take in how well organized the area is--and exactly how massive it was. We had entered the park just before the area where the UPS trucks park and headed toward the finish line passing the food station (this year smartly putting the food into individual backpacks), water station, heat sheet station, and photo station.
When we got to the medal racks we were less than 100 meters from the finish line bleachers, so at first I thought the noise were people in the bleachers who had brought sleigh bells. I quickly realized it was actually the clanking of medals and that we were some of the last people to show up because the racks were all loaded up already.
One of the other volunteers snapped a picture with my phone before the onslaught of runners:
We were briefed on our job, which boiled down to two things. First, distribute medals to everyone with a bib number and be prepared for cheers, tears, hugs, kisses, vomit, sweat, Vaseline, etc.. Second, kindly turn down people who ask for a second medal and defend the medals from people trying to snatch an extra one. The second aspect of the job blew my mind. Who would want more than one medal? It's not like you ran the race twice; or that the extra medal would make the accomplishment any more special. In all my races it's something that has never ever crossed my mind.
The first runners to come in were the wheelchair runners. Actually, they came in a little faster than expected because they were still briefing us when they started to roll in. Negotiating the medal around their helmets was difficult, so I left the bulk of it to--I kid you not--the beauty queen. Miss Galaxy International and Miss New York had both come out to volunteer at medal distribution and Miss Galaxy happened to be in our line.
After the elite men finished the masses started rolling in. There were a few at first, but within a few minutes we had a steady stream of runners coming down the chute. At one point I looked up to take in the guys coming in and it was a scene out of a zombie horror movie. About two or three dozen guys staggering, mouths hanging open, staring blankly, and headed right for us in the medal racks.
Within about half an hour the volunteer organizers instructed us to stop placing medals over the runners and to start handing them out. While this might seem impersonal and a small slight to the runners, it was becoming apparent that if we placed a medal over each runner a backlog would form pretty soon. And I think a back up at the finish line is far worse than having to put on your own medal.
And so the hours rolled on by. We clapped and cheered and called out names and countries from shirts and singlets. We rotated who was at the front of the line (taking the brunt of the runners) and who was in the back loading up on medals and catching people who skipped the front of the line. If I was toward the back, I would place the medal on the runners and give them a shake. There were people bubbling with energy, there were people hobbling on their last legs, there were people with tears, there were people who screamed, there were people who kneeled, there were people who hugged, there were people who were in a fog, there were people who could not find words, there were people who took pictures, there were people who kissed their medal, and there were people (way more than I thought) who kissed us. Wifey was a particular favorite for the kissers, especially the European ones that kiss twice.
In all this there were three moments that stood out most. First was spotting our friend S. I heard Wifey shout out his name and I turned around. He was in a bit of a fog and had trouble walking. He didn't recognize Wifey because she had on her big sunglasses, but he recognized me and lurched in my direction. We hugged each other and I helped him through the medal area, with the bulk of his weight resting on me. I found out later that he finished with a pace of 7:10, blistering fast and 5 seconds faster than his previous best.
Second was spotting our friend J. Wifey somehow spotted him in the middle of the masses and shouted out his name. I got out of line and went to meet him. J was all tears and sweat and could barely stand, but he was so happy to see us. I noticed as he walked on that he finished way under 3:30. Turns out he ran a 3:15 race and qualified for Boston (after trying to do so for many years).
Third had nothing to do with a friend, actually, it involved complete strangers from The Netherlands. Sometime around 3pm Wifey had separated from me for a bit--as was often happening while we rotated places in line and restocked the racks. When she reappeared at my side she total me that a couple from The Netherlands came up to her and the other medal volunteer standing next to her. In some form of English they said: since you are giving us a present (the medals), we are giving you a present; then the Dutch couple each took out a key chain that had a pair of white Delft porcelain clogs dangling from it and gave them to Wifey and the other volunteer. These runners had bought these key chains in The Netherlands, brought them to New York, and then stashed them on their bodies for 26.2 miles--all to give them away to perfect strangers.
This third story is easily one of my favorite running stories of all time. It just speaks volumes about running and how it connects people. And it's now something that I'd like to carry on with my future races (let's see if I remember!).
At about 5pm we started to get the itch to leave, partly because it had already turned dark and partly because there were still about a dozen medal volunteers but just a tiny trickle of runners. At 5:30pm we headed out as they closed down the full medal operation and moved medal distribution to a table closer to the finish line. By 6:15pm we had found a restaurant to have dinner and recounted the great day we'd had--although in the excitement we had completely skipped lunch, so this was only our second meal of the day.