So this is what 10,000 thirsty people look like: Volunteering at the SF Marathon

Over 6,000 people finished the SF Marathon this past Sunday.  I don’t know how many people started (and didn’t finish) and how many people ran the first half of the marathon as part of SFM’s first half/second half marathon option, but they all came at me and my 29 other volunteers with the fury of a wild stampede and nearly bulldozed us to the ground for four long hours.  I’m not exaggerating when I say this was probably the roughest volunteer experience I’ve ever had and the only one that I will probably never do again.  That’s not to say that there weren’t great moments and positive take-aways from this experience, but just like how I feel about Tough Mudder, I’m glad I did it, I’m glad it’s over, and I’m glad I won’t have to do it again.

I’ve run the first half of the SF Marathon twice and the full once.  I have nothing bad to say about my experience as a runner.  But my experience on the other side of the water table went a little bit differently.  The BayBirds and SFRC Racing Team were sponsoring the Vista Point Aid Station, which is the water/gu stop on the Marin side of the Golden Gate Bridge before the first half runners and the full marathoners turn around, head back over the bridge towards the city and make their way to Golden Gate Park.  As a runner I remember the welcoming cool breeze and light mist that hits your face as you cross the bridge.  I remember giving and receiving high fives as we crossed paths with the elites headed back on the bridge as I was heading out.  I remember I was still feeling good, only 7 miles in, each year I ran it.  And I remember that aid station, just a blip on the radar, I forget if I even stopped or just ran around the traffic circle and headed back into the city (repeating the mantra, only a 10k to go, in the years I was doing the half).

The very first obstacle I faced happened weeks before the race.  I somehow got roped into captaining that aid station and recruiting volunteers.  I was told I would need at least 25.  That sounded like a lot, given that my only volunteer experiences have come from ultras where the race numbers are a lot smaller, and the tasks, while more complex, are also more manageable.  But I knew we had PLENTY of people on the racing team, and I felt, truly felt, that people would feel the same way I did about giving back to the community and sacrificing their Saturday morning for this task.  I was so remarkably wrong.  I had trouble even getting 10 people to commit at first.  Eventually that number got to 15 and plateaued.  Many of the team was actually racing, so they get a pass.  As for the rest, I assume it was the early start time (4:30am) that deterred most people.  It was a huge bummer because many of those people who didn’t even bother responding to my plea for help have run the SF Marathon before, and are regular road races and I almost never see them at the other end of the water table, getting splashed with half empty cups of electrolyte.  Many only seem to appear at races when they have a bib on.  It’s just not how I was brought up, as a runner.  And so I had assumed that they would consider volunteering and supporting members of their racing team to be more important than sleeping in.  I was wrong.  I made another plea, and another, even asked people to bring loved ones with them.  I asked people outside of the racing team, my own friends.  And I actually got a really good response.  We were up to about 25 people and I felt confident that everyone would show.  At least we hit the minimum, everything else was going to be gravy.  This happened two days before the marathon, so I was a little bit stressed at that point.

My second obstacle was basically having an extremely stressful and busy week coincide with the marathon.  My week wasn’t going well (and got worse after the marathon with a flat tire/towing situation).  My mother was retiring out here from Maryland and was on her way, driving that weekend.  I had been spending all my free time looking up housing for her and helping her with the transition here in the Bay Area since she couldn’t do a lot of things remotely.  It was like watching a hurricane cross the Atlantic.  She was making slow progress but sure enough, going to make landfall just a couple days after the marathon weekend.  I know she doesn’t look like much making that passage, but I knew she would land and be a powerful force to deal with once she got here.  Also, this week/weekend is one of the busiest at work.  San Francisco Running Company is the hub of trail running in the Bay Area, but most of us also occasionally road race and SFM is our hometown marathon and we love to be a part of it.  This required us to be spread thin with some employees at the expo on Friday and Saturday and some of us at the store.  It turns out, this wasn’t as stressful as it felt last year, but it definitely guaranteed some long days.  I also work at a ski shop over the winters, handling their marketing and events.  We just had a long (5 hour) meeting about planning for the year, which added more to my already packed calendar for the week.  Additionally, my boyfriend was out of town in Bend that weekend, so any additional emotional support was about 500 miles away.  I was still sort of recovering from the 100K I ran a couple weeks prior so I was Ms. GrumpyPants since I wasn’t back into training/running mode.  I’m sure I was a pleasure to be around that week and the next.

My third obstacle happened the day before the race.  I took a look at the instructions and it said we needed 40 people to be at the aid station.  I started freaking out and asking people to keep recruiting.  I’m glad I did, and I’m glad my friend Chris was in town from DC to also lend a hand.  Little did I know at the time, but 40 would have been a good minimum number for what we were about to deal with and every single helping hand was a saving grace.  During this time, I also started to field logistical questions from the volunteers (seriously about 20 texts all related to how to get to the aid station, whether they would be able to run across since the bridge isn’t open, drive and park, ride their bike, leave early, come late….).  I know that each question was easy to answer, but getting them all within a 15 hour period of time was a little hectic.  I should have anticipated it and prepared more for it, but with everything going on that week, there just wasn’t time.

Ok, this brings us to the race.  Everything went smoothly that morning.  I couldn’t fall asleep the night before, so I only got about 2 hours of sleep, but luckily, my body is OK with that on those rare occasions so I got up with no problem and left on time.  I remembered everything from cowbells to my iPad so we could easily look at the instruction pamphlet, and a list of the volunteers names.  I even stopped at Whole Foods the day before and picked up snacks for the crew.  Everything was going great.  I parked and everything was easy to find.  Then it started. I arrived around 4:15 and walked over to where the aid station would be.  The truck with the supplies was just pulling in and nothing was unloaded yet.  It was so dark, I could barely see who I was talking to, but these two guys were near the truck so I introduced myself and asked them if they were here to unload.  They said they would get to it.  I decided that I couldn’t do much until they brought the supplies out, so I waited and welcomed each of the volunteers that came and told them to sit tight for a second. It was now 4:45 and some of the tables were getting unloaded.  We quickly set them up and then had to wait another 15 minutes for them to unload more of the heavy stuff.  We knew we had to mix Nuun and wanted to get a jump on it so we would have it ready when the first runners came through.  We were told however that the water was in the back of the truck and would be the last to get unloaded.

Creeping up to  the 5am mark, I started getting nervous as the pallets of water were still not unloaded and unpackaged.  The wind was picking up and we quickly found out that we couldn’t even set up the paper cups until we had water to weigh them down. Meanwhile over on the other end of the aid station was the GU set up.  This was unfortunate.  They had boxes of GU Chomps, not actual Gu Gels.  We had to start tearing them open for runners ahead of time and quickly realized we probably needed more than just 5 people over on that side, but I really couldn’t spare any from the water side, so I told the GU peeps to just do the best they can.

Over on the water side, at 5:30, we were finally pouring water and mixing Nuun.  The runners were already on course and they were saying it was going to be 6:07 for the first runner.  We poured cups until the tables were full.  We then had the option to use the suggested method of stacking cups using cardboard separators.  We tried this once and the wind lifted the separator from the bottom causing every cup on the top layer and many on the bottom layer to spill over and blow away.  So much for that.  Looks like we would just have to stay on top of it.

The first runners came through just a few minutes behind schedule and were welcomed with cowbells and cheers from our crew.  My coworker and friend Jorge Maravilla was leading the pack, sporting his trademark smile as he ran through.  The first three sped through, followed by another pack of five or six, then another pack of three.  They were all just seconds apart at this point in the race.  Then it started.  Not a pack, but a STREAM of sub-elites and elite women came through.  Then a flood of speedsters, all extremely diligent to grab hydration.  We were cautiously optimistic that this wouldn’t be so bad.  Then the middle pack started coming through and it was like getting hit with a freight train.  The Nuun table was so overloaded with runners, sometimes grabbing three or four at a time, we were unable to keep up with the sea of racers.  We quickly had to mix more Nuun on the spot since the marathon only gave us three of those big containers to use, which shorthanded us on the pouring end.  The water table was only slightly better just because they had more people and more cups laid out to begin with.

Over on the GU end, they were dealing with another sort of problem–people wanted gels, duh.  And no one could open the Chomps.  So as a result, we got packets of unopened chomps thrown back at us and littering the entire aid station.  Many needed us at the water stop to open them for them, taking time away from pouring and mixing.  I can’t even describe the overwhelming feeling I felt for the entire four hours.  Many of the runners were rude, or completely out of it and not able to hear us when we were answering their questions because they had earphones in.  Some thanked us, many more did not, it was probably a 1:50 ratio of thank you’s to not.  And even worse, many just barked orders at us or otherwise acted disrespectful to the volunteers and other runners.  The entire experience made me lose faith in the race itself and in road racers in general.

We were told that there was a soft closing time of 8:30.  Runners were still constantly coming through around that time, so we stayed operational even though many of the volunteers had to leave.  The last runners came through after 9, leaving us with half the volunteers and a massive break-down and cleanup operation.  We made quick work of it though.  Since many of us are trail runners and nature lovers, we took care to pick up even bits of wrappers and cups from bushes far away from the aid station, where the wind had blown them.  I’m pretty sure Vista Point looked better after the race than before. I was exhausted and disheartened by the experience.  My hands were completely raw from pouring salty electrolyte drink all day.  I had cuts on my fingers from tearing open Gu Chomp packets.  My legs were sore and I was permanently frozen from standing out at the point for over 5 hours.  My volunteers were all troopers though.  Some of them even said that they had fun.  I don’t think any of them were at the Nuun table with me.  I’m pretty sure we were all traumatized by the experience.  I was jumping back and forth between stations and it was clear the electrolyte table got hit the hardest during the race and a special thanks goes out to all my fellow Nuun pourers, including two completely random people who stopped to pitch in once they saw how over our heads we were, and one random dude who I signed a volunteer hour sheet for but have no idea who he was.  Really, thank you to everyone though.  Those few of you who stayed late to help with trash and label the recycling bags and repackage the water jugs into crates, you all saved the day.

To the marathon: get your act together.  I know so many people now that work for the marathon and are completely competent and dedicated people, I know for sure this was not on them and really on any one person at all.  But seriously.  From the runners perspective, I know of quite a few who were misdirected and got off course.  This should not happen at a major marathon.  Period.  From the volunteers perspective, it was completely unacceptable to require us to be there that early when the trucks didn’t even arrive when they were supposed to so we could actually be of use.  I understand there was some problem getting the trucks over in the morning because of the escort not being available, but that just shifts the blame from the drivers to the race organization itself.  The cones and timing mats were barely set up on time and things seemed super hectic right up until race time.  For the amount of money SFM makes off this race, I would highly recommend them putting more resources into it.  Also, people need gels.  Because I work in the running industry, I know exactly why chomps were given.  GU (the company) recently changed their formulation and packaging on their chomps (now called chews).  Looks like they had a lot of back stock of the old stuff since that’s what was given at the race.  Not sure if that’s on SFM or GU, but it was a cheap move.  Gels should have also been available for runners.

To the runners: Be nice, be thankful and be courteous and respectful.  If you are an elite, we recognize that.  We offer you a cup, but totally understand if you can’t stop to take it or get pissed at us because we barely filled it.  If you are in the middle of the pack, in the sea of runners, we totally understand if you are frustrated that you have to fight through a crowd to get a cup of Nuun.  But also realize that no one paid us to be out there.  We are volunteers, serving you.  And it’s hard on us too.  Weirdly enough, the elite and lead runners, as fast as they were, were the most respectful and kind.  I don’t know how easy it is to say thank you at a 5:15 min/mile pace, but  many of them did.  And many of them were in good spirits even though they were extremely focused and working very hard.  I hate to say it but the bulk of the rudeness came from those marathoners who would finish after 4 hours.  Many of them were going slowly, but came to the aid station in a flurry, pushed others out of the way to get to the cups and ordered us around.  Many of them were walking out of the aid station and would pass by a trash can, walking, and opt to throw the cups on the ground.  It’s behavior that I can’t understand.  To those of you who did say thank you and were respectful to your fellow racers, thank you.  Congrats to Jorge, Coach Mark, TR, Devon, Ashley, Brook, Chris S., Sarah E., Alex H, Josh and anyone from the team that I’m missing that ran and got to enjoy more of this beautiful city we live in.

To my volunteers: wow.  You all did so well given the circumstances and I only wish I could have given you a better experience.  I can’t thank you all enough.  We all would have loved to be on a run ourselves or just gotten a decent night’s sleep but did this instead and you all earned yourself running karma that morning.  Ksenya did bike marshaling for the marathon overnight before volunteering.  Sarah Bin was 9 months pregnant and volunteered, offering to get out on the front lines of handing cups out, getting splashed like front row at Sea World.  Sarah Evans ran the 5k after volunteering.  My friend Chris came all the way form DC for work and to support his friends and ended up working the entire time and not even seeing the people he was there to support.  Stephen and I both went to work after volunteering for a full day at SFRC.  Andrew, Alywin, Masha, Rick, Rachel and Francois stayed super late helping cleaning up and breaking down the aid station with me.  Serious kudos to everyone, too many to mention.  It was a wonderful experience only because I got to support some friends who were racing and because I got to see what a small but powerful community can do when it comes together.  Our racing team should be (and hopefully is) much more than just pinning on a bib.  It’s about supporting each other.


Leaders coming through the mist. Hip hip, Jorge!


My first SF Half Marathon and my first SFM full (and my first official race as a BayBird).


One thought on “So this is what 10,000 thirsty people look like: Volunteering at the SF Marathon

  1. Ugh, this sounds horrible. I’ve volunteered at a lot of trail races but have never wanted to do a road race precisely because of all of the reasons you wrote about. Regardless of whether I’m racing on road or trails, I *always* say thank you. Being a volunteer is often so much harder than racing (and you’re usually out there longer)!

    I’d encourage you to post your feedback to my friends’ website: You can post reviews as a volunteer, and hopefully someone from the SFM organization will read it and make some positive changes. At the very least, prospective runners researching the race will read your review and will hopefully be more grateful the next time they come across an aid station volunteer!


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