The biggest running event in our region is the Chicago Marathon. If you haven’t run it, worked as a volunteer or simply been a spectator, it’s quite a show (and it continues to amaze me that those elite runners run 26 consecutive miles, each at a much faster pace than I have ever been able to run just ONE).

The marathon had a spectacular startup in the late 70s-early 80s. Then its main sponsor abruptly pulled out, and in 1987 there was no marathon at all. New Race Director Carey Pinkowski sought out local running clubs for assistance, something the original marathon never did. He got to know the presidents of each club, asking us to manage marathon water stations. This fostered a good relationship between the marathon staff and the running community as the event grew into one of the world’s three biggest marathons (the others are London and New York City). And thanks to Chicago’s flat topography, it has a reputation as one of the world’s fastest.

From the perspective of the Oak Park Runners Club, about 20 to 30 of our members usually run the marathon while many of the rest of us, along with family, friends, neighbors and community volunteers, run the water station. We’re at Mile 18 in Little Italy, a great way to participate in a major sporting event. Some of us tape the TV broadcast for later viewing so we can see it from start to finish.

Our day starts at about sunrise. Over 200 volunteers check in and receive their marathon jackets and hats (everybody is in uniform). We set up tables for stacking cups of water and Gatorade to be handed out to more than 35,000 passing runners. Marathon organizers pre-deliver supplies and water to each location, but it’s the volunteers who set things up. Tables are spaced at precise intervals, cups are filled and stacked three or four tiers high on each table. Gatorade is mixed, and stacked like the water.

Usually we’re set up well before the first competitors appear, led by police motorcycles with sirens blaring and lights flashing. First come the wheelchair racers (top wheelers are much faster than the runners). They get a big cheer from the volunteers. Then a lull. A few minutes later police vehicles appear in the distance followed by the press truck filled with marathon officials, reporters and TV cameras. Right behind the truck is the lead pack of runners–little skinny guys with such graceful form that their feet seem to barely touch the pavement. It’s pretty exciting, and a huge cheer goes up.

Following the lead pack comes a scattering of runners who have been unable to maintain the pace but who are still far ahead of the main group. Then another motorcycle appears with a TV camera focused back on the leading woman. Another big cheer. The parade of runners then starts to intensify as those of more modest abilities pass by. With heavier crowds the demand for liquids surges. Warmer weather means that runners not only drink the water, they also slosh it on themselves, so more cups are filled. And it’s strange, but every year even though there are tables stacked with water cups along both sides of the street, many runners insist on stopping at the first table, waiting for volunteers to pour more. I don’t get it, but it’s still an annual source of amusement.

As the huge crowd finally dwindles to stragglers we start the cleanup job, raking and bagging piles of cups from the street, taking down tables, signs and leftover supplies. It’s a fun, but tiring day, and an essential part of the marathon. I can’t think of another world-class athletic event where spectators watch for free and where so many people can volunteer to be part of it.

Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.


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