I’m not certain what year I first took the Green Line train downtown to just watch the Chicago Marathon. I’m guessing it was the late-2000s, way before I ever imagined running the thing myself. At that time, I knew just a couple of people who were running it, and whom I might see from the sidelines (Ha! So naïve).

As I joined the million or so spectators, I didn’t know the best vantage point for viewing, and I wasn’t concerned with seeing the race leaders. I just wanted to witness it, and to get a sense of this massive human experience. So I found a spot on State Street looking north, and I was treated to the sight of an endless, colorful, undulating river of humans, bobbing and descending into downtown. Only when I shifted my focus to those immediately in range could I make out faces, expressions and the charity dedications on their singlets.

I bring up spectating rather than running because watching that day absolutely floored me. I mean, it brought up a well of emotion that I never expected. Certainly, this was in part because it made me think of my dad, who ran this race in 1977 when the event was in its infancy, and I wasn’t there to cheer him on. I was in school, though I feel no less wistful for missing it, but equally because I knew in the moment that I was witnessing an extraordinary expression of will, guts, passion and pain. Now I want to share that feeling with you, reader, and here’s my suggestion: Volunteer.

There are many, many ways to help out. It quite literally takes thousands of souls to make race day run smoothly. But I have loved working Aid Station #14 with the Oak Park Runners Club — this equates to mile 18 on Taylor Street. Now for the runner, mile 18 of a marathon is often a tough threshold. Not even yet at mile 20, the runner is already needing to dig deep to stay on track with their race plan. We water people get to witness the race leaders, the elites, the near-elites, the strong and the struggling. We get to cheer and encourage, lift up and make laugh. It feels like a little thing, what we offer. But I can attest, the runners soooo appreciate it. It’s some of the best of humanity on display, stranger-to-stranger.

We start early, but the labor is fun — we don’t stand around much. There are 40,000 thirsty people coming our way. We stay busy — pour, pour, pour. We perfect our handoffs, and try out creative new words of encouragement. We are human cowbells.

So if this sounds like something you would enjoy, here are the deets (specific to Aid Station 14 with OPRC): Race day is Oct. 13. We need 277 total volunteers. You must be age 16 or older. OPRC hosts a post-race party for all volunteers! To register, go here: www.chicagomarathon.com/aidstationvolunteers, select Station #14, and select “signup.” Registration deadline is Oct. 4 @ 11:59 p.m. 

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