Back of the Pack

The Caveboy and I volunteered at the start corrals on Sunday for the New York Marathon.  I have always been impressed with the organization, attention to detail, and general panache of NYRR’s events.  Having glimpsed the world’s largest marathon from behind the scenes, I am blown away.  I also feel like I got to see another side of New York, from the camaraderie of the runners and volunteers to cheering crowds along the route.  It really was a great experience and as much as I would have liked to have been running (30 mph winds aside), I’m glad I got to see it from the other side first.

Our day started at 3:45 and we were on a bus from Brooklyn to Staten Island by 5 AM.  Once there, we checked in, got our jackets, credentials, and coffee, and met our corral teams and leaders.  The corral system for the marathon works slightly differently than for other races, with a color, gate, and wave number assignment to sort runners into their appropriate pace and start groups.  At first I found this somewhat odd, as runners used to the normal system were confused about why their bib number was higher or lower than their slower/faster friend/family member.  Once things got going, though, I realized that dealing with a single color, letter, and number was MUCH simpler for the international crowd present.

Our job was primarily to ensure our runners were in the right corral, keep them entertained while we held them there for half an hour, and then release the waves to the starting line at the appropriate time.  In the brief periods between waves we tried to clean up the piles of clothing cast off and get it into the Goodwill bins and make sure that there was no trash or clothing on the roadway that might trip up the next group.  The high winds made the latter nearly impossible, but we did manage to keep things running fairly smoothly throughout.  I was again reminded of what nice people runners generally are.  I typically try to avoid small talk with strangers at all costs, but I had a great time chatting about race experiences, shoes, Garmins, and of course the bone-chilling wind.  When I saw someone who looked particularly nervous or grim I did my best to get a smile out of them.

We released the final wave around 11 and we then walked up to the start to cheer the last group off.  Aside from being fun, it was also part of Operation Run Back to Brooklyn.  Due to the bridge closure for the race, the only transportation available back to the city was to the finish line.  The marathon course came within a mile of our apartment, though, so we had worn running clothes in the event that we were able to get home in a more efficient manner.  Credentials out, we followed that last runners onto the bridge, picking up more cast-off clothing along the way, and once we were well past the starting officials, we started jogging.  We were able to blend in with the pack after a few hundred yards and ran the first 7 miles of the course back to Prospect Heights.  The spectators were amazing and I actually felt guilty when people would high five me as I ran by.  The thing that really got me was that we were in the very back of the pack, and people were still lining the course to cheer everyone on like they were the lead group.  Also, New Yorkers know how to do this well.  Right around mile 6 three Brooklynites were handing out tissues to many red-nosed, wind-burned faces.  Everyone was hugely encouraging, and no one inappropriately yelled “You’re almost there!” which is a first in any  race I’ve run longer than a 5K.  I can only imagine what things were like at the finish line.

Running with the back of the pack was really enlightening.  I noticed in the corrals was that the slower the waves got, the more fun they were.  Obviously I understand that the more competitive runners are going to be more focused and serious at the start.  Still, everyone is there to run their best race, and I appreciated the generally increased spirit of fun that Waves 3 and 4 seemed to bring to it.  I honestly can’t fathom what it feels like to start a 26.2 mile race knowing that it will be 7 or 8 hours until you finish.  That so many people do it with such enthusiasm and laughter really is inspirational.

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