STWM: Giving Back

pc: C. Bedley

I am always impressed by anyone who can run a half-marathon in 1:15.  But if you can do it in a banana suit, you have earned a whole new level of respect.  On Sunday, at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, American Melvin Nyain did just that.

I spent the morning marshalling at the marathon and was stationed at the 13K point. As expected, the first groups of runners came through about 40 minutes after the start.  There were two groups of competitive men were followed by a third group of men pacing elite women, who were being chased by the second group of elite women, followed by a banana.  Yes, the fastest marathon women in the world were being chased by Melvin Nyain who was dressed in a banana costume.  When he crossed the finish line, Nyain broke the world record for running a half-marathon dressed as a fruit (1:15:35).   This is one of the many things that made me smile last Sunday morning.

As a runner, I am grateful to the many volunteers who drag themselves out in the early morning to help at races.  It’s quite simple; without them, races simply wouldn’t happen.  So it’s important that I give back when I can.  My running club always helps at the Canada Running Series races and the STWM is one of my favourite events to work.  This year’s races attracted  25 000 runners which included a field of elite runners (and several Canadians vying for a spot in the 2020 Olympics), costumed runners like Nyain who were trying to break world records, and thousands more hoping to BQ, achieve a personal goal, target the finish line, or check off a life goal.  Whatever their reason, the runners made the day a fun one for volunteers.

Aside from cheering on friends and strangers, there were many highlights to my morning:

  1. Seeing the first group of elite men come into sight. Fluid and graceful, they left me feeling wowed.
  2. Watching the elite Canadian women run. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of national pride as they raced towards their ticket to next year’s Olympics.
  3. Cheering on the banana man.  “Go, Banana!” And, yes, I actually did yell this.
  4. An end of the pack runner who ran up to me and quietly asked, “Can I give this to you?”  I looked at her hands, expecting to see a card asking for money or giving me some information on some charitable organization.  But she was holding an empty gel pack; she didn’t want to leave it on the road.   “Sure!” I smiled.  How could I say no?
  5. Cheering on my friends as they passed me.  It was such a sea of runners that I felt bug-eyed looking for them a few called my name before I spotted them.  I absolutely loved cheering for them, getting high fives and sweaty hugs.
  6. Seeing the costumed runners, especially this one from “Game of Thrones.”
  7. Seeing the very last of the runners and walkers come through, emphasizing that the marathon is truly a race of commitment and perseverance.  For them, it isn’t about how fast or slow you are; it’s about getting the job done.  It’s about finishing what you started.

The best part of the day, though, was hanging out with my high school friend, Anya, whom I have kept in touch with but haven’t seen in  over 30 years.  When I heard she was in Toronto, I sent her a message to see if she wanted to marshall with me on Sunday morning and she jumped at the chance.   This shows how strong the running community is; we encourage and support each other, whether we’re friends or strangers.    We’ve all been on a race course and benefitted from the virtue of strangers so it is important that we take the opportunity to give back.  And if you can do it on a day when you see a man in a banana suit chasing a group of elite women, you’ve had an extra special day.

The Boomerang Effect: In the day of a marshall

Last Sunday, I marshalled at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Quite honestly, volunteering at the event was about the last thing that I wanted to do, especially after the Chicago fiasco, but my club (Toronto Olympic Club) always helps Canada Running Series (CRS) with its races.  I had made this commitment to help weeks ago and wasn’t about to bail, especially with the prediction of colder weather, which always leads to volunteers not showing up.  Besides, it is always good to give back.

I was up at 5:30 to walk Zeda before heading into the city and I arrived in High Park at 7:45.   A short walk to my station turned into a long detour due to construction next to the park but I made it to the south side of Parkside and Lakeshore, the 13k point, with time to spare.

As the name implies, Lakeshore is along Lake Ontario and, sure enough, it was cold.  I was already bundled up but pulled out my son’s jacket, which I grabbed at the last minute, and added a final layer which left me unrecognizable.   I was warm and ready to have some fun.

I ended up marshalling before the runners even got to me.  One marshall didn’t show so I was moved to the north side of Lakeshore, which was about 300 metres away from the construction zone, that same construction zone that I was not allowed to walk through.   Shortly after I had received an update that the lead runners were about 5k away, a burly construction worker started to move pylons out of his way.

“Um….where do you think you’re going?” I asked.

“Over there,” he said, pointing towards the water station along Lakeshore.

“No, you’re not.”

“I’m not?”

Looking into the construction zone.

“No, you’re not.  There is a race going on along here.”  Imagine saying this while the road is closed and there is not a runner in sight.  After getting a perplexed look from this poor guy who probably just finished the night shift, just wanted to go home and couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t, I continued.  “So you are going to have to turn your truck around, drive back up to Bloor Street and go home from there.”

“Okay,” he sheepishly replied.  Then he put the pylon back, turned around and barely two minutes later, the lead runners came through.

The next real marshalling test came approximately at the same time as the 5 hour marathoners.  I looked east and wondered if I was seeing a fire truck. “Is that seriously a fire truck?”  Within seconds, I was directing hundreds of runners to left side of the road so that the truck could get by.  Then, it turned at the round-about between north and south Lakeshore so that it could go east.  The runners were great and cooperated, as I expected they would, and the truck got to its location – about 500 metres east of me.

The other Marshall and I had no idea what was going on.  Figuring that there should be some kind of CRS presence there, he followed the truck to where it stopped so that he could direct runners around it and make sure that they were safe.  Meanwhile, I stayed back because I figured there was bound to be one or two other emergency vehicles.  Sure enough, an ambulance came through and I was more prepared for the turn it was about to make.  I am still not sure what happened, but I heard that a runner did leave in an ambulance.

The rest of the time, I was busy cheering on runners and playing route director.   Apart from the typical encouraging words, I found a new set of catch phrases to use, including:

Boxes and boxes of Endurance Tap.

**Water station up ahead.  Endurance tap up ahead.  There is a party going on up there.”

** Porta-potties on the left.
No, don’t use those ones (other, grey porta-potties)! Those are for  the construction workers and they’re gross!

Volunteering is good for everyone.  It directly supports the runners which indirectly helps the charities.  And even though I have volunteered  many times, Sunday’s work was different as it came back to help me.  By the end of my shift, I was not tired, but energized.  I left feeling really good.   I loved watching the runners and walkers, and I felt encouraged by their dedication to the marathon.  They gave me hope that I will be able to toe the line again.  They motivated me to keep chasing my dreams.

Waterfront 10K

Months ago, when the Ontario Masters Association announced that the Toronto 10K was going to be its 10K championship race, I knew that I wanted to do it.  Even if my recovery from Boston was slow, I knew that I could be ready to race a 10K more than 8 weeks later.  However, I waited too long to register; by the time I sat down to enter, the race had sold out – 10,000 runners were all set to go and I wasn’t one of them.   Never did I imagine that the race would sell out so quickly.  But I really wasn’t all that surprised; Lululemon had come on board to sponsor this Canadian Running Series (CRS) race and, when Lululemon is involved with any race, it sells out quickly.

I took this as a sign.  First, maybe I did need more rest (and as time progressed further into the spring, it was obvious that I did) and not getting into the race simply forced me to take more time.  Secondly, it gave me a chance to volunteer with my club, Toronto Olympic Club, which always sends marshals to the CRS events.

One of the lessons that I learned from my father was the importance of volunteerism.  As a teacher, I luckily see it at my school on a regular basis; teachers volunteer their time to coach clubs/teams outside of school hours; parents come into the school to help in the classroom, with lunches, fundraising….But I also see a huge lack of volunteers in other areas of my life and it is often the same people who give their time again and again and again. So when I have the time to give back, I like to do just that.

Honestly, though, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about waking up early on Saturday morning.  Since the race started at 7:30 a.m, I had to be out of the house by 5:45 at the latest.  After many days and late nights of testing kids, marking, and writing reports, waking up before 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday was the last thing that I wanted to do.   But I had committed to helping so I set three alarms before falling asleep.  At 5:30, I was out the door and on my way to meet Monica, who was one of the lucky ones, and her boyfriend so that we could head into Toronto together.

One table of water cups ready to go!

After dropping me off, I walked to my post – about 3.5K into the race and just past the first water station.  On the way there, I realized that my bag of cowbells and noise makers was still at home, sitting by the door so I wouldn’t forget them.  Hmmmm….. Fortunately, I did have my teacher voice with me and was all set to put it to work on its own. By 7:00, the volunteers at the water station were almost finished the task of pre-filling hundreds of cups of water.  It was going to be a hot morning (it was already close to 23C) so the runners were going to need it.

I headed to the intersection where I was stationed with another TOC marshal, Chris.  He was organized enough to bring cowbells and, while I hesitated to borrow one, I found myself ringing a “Bell” bell within 15 minutes of the start of the race.

The Waterfront 10K had a variety of participants.   The wheelchair athletes started at 7:30 and they whizzed by on their machines.  They were followed by 6 waves, beginning with the elite athletes and ending with the walkers.  For Chris and me, there seemed to be a never-ending stream of runners.  We watched the tags on the bibs change from red to green to yellow and so on, each colour representing a different wave.  When we saw the first orange bibs come through, we knew that we were close to the end.

While marshalling, we noticed that all runners, no matter how fast or how slow, were giving their best.  We cheered the typical encouraging phrases such as good job, way to go, and you’ve got this.  But knowing that there were designated cheering sections after us, with groups like the Argos cheerleaders, a Jamaican band and a spin bike club, I decided to turn my cheering up a notch: “Good morning, runners!  Let’s wake up Toronto!” and “Let’s rock this town!”  We were simply the opening act for the entertainment to follow; we had to set the cheer standard.  Of course, our bells were ringing loudly and I was told later that they could be heard two blocks away; I’m surprised that I didn’t go home with a blister on my finger.  Every now and then, someone smiled back at us and we knew that our cheering, while a bit crazy, was appreciated.

When we were done our shift, I walked to the finish line at Ontario Place and was able to catch the spin bikes as they were wrapping up.  Ontario Place was busy – after all, thousands of runners and families were going through there – so we left as soon as I found Monica and Stefan.  She ran a speedy 40ish minutes, making her one of the top finishers in a huge race.

While the early start was a bit of a pain, I loved that we were back on the road by 9:30 and heading home.  Looking towards next year, I’m not sure if I do want to race this event.  There was a lot of positive feedback from those who did, but I think the flat course in downtown Toronto may not be what I want in a 10K.  Maybe I’ll return to volunteer again instead.  I have loads of time to decide – well, at least until they open registration for next year’s event.