Every year thousands of people run in our region's many road races, but I wonder how many have helped organize a race, or volunteered at one. A pretty small number I'd guess.
Those who have organized a race or helped on race day have an appreciation of just how much work and preparation is involved. And everything is done by volunteers, many of whom only show up on race day and have to make things work — T-shirts stacked by size, race numbers sorted for quick distribution, water poured and ready, toilet facilities open, adequate parking — the list is long.
In the actual race, is the course accurate, are runners protected from street traffic, is water available on the course, and is the finish line set to record runners' times and age-group placing? For such a seemingly simple thing as a road race — running from Point A to Point B — countless things can go wrong. And often do.
But I recently heard a new one. Eileen Skisak, a member of the Oak Park Runners Club, ran a 5K at Loyola Medical Center where she finished third woman overall — pretty darn good, particularly since she's over 50. At the awards ceremony the first and second place winners didn't come forward for their awards, and Eileen didn't recognize their names. A day later she got a call from the race director telling her that, oops, in fact she was first woman overall! What happened?
It seems that a couple of ladies signed up for the 5K walk. They knew they'd be slow and didn't want their finish times recorded, so they handed their electronic shoe "chips" to their husbands. After the race started, the husbands ambled over to the finish area to watch the top runners cross the line. And you guessed it — they got too close to the finish line sensor mats and the chips in their pockets were recorded.
All too often there are errors when a runner gives his or her race number to another runner, creating age-group results havoc. For example, Jane Doe, age 56, is sick and can't run, giving her number to her niece, age 16, who's a high school cross-country runner. Jane Doe's name, of course, appears in the results with an outstanding time. Other runners in the 55-59 age group wonder who the heck Jane Doe is, since she's never before appeared atop their age group standings.
And at a recent race in LaGrange, two girls were assigned as course marshals at a critical turn. Instead of directing traffic they just sat on the curb to watch, and the leading runners missed the turn. When the pack was finally sent in the right direction, most of the faster runners had gone an extra half mile, completely messing up the results, and leaving the race director in tears. Like I said, stuff happens.
So if you regularly enter road races, don't be so quick to complain if something goes wrong, don't give your race number to anybody else, and volunteer to help once in a while.
Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.