Marathon morning 4:30 a.m. -- my bedside alarm goes off. I groan, drag myself out of bed, shower, get dressed and drive downtown to my assigned spot.
No, I'm not running, I'm working with other volunteers to set up and operate the Chicago Marathon Mile 18 aid station on Taylor Street along the marathon route, one of twenty such stations. This station, (commonly called a "water stop" by runners) has been organized and managed by the Oak Park Runners Club for 25 years.
A number of us "key volunteers" are to be there by 5:30, with the rest of the troops scheduled to arrive an hour later. It's still dark as we unload supplies from a semi-trailer, parked there the previous day by the Chicago Marathon organizers.
Our job is to set up 50 tables spaced along both sides of the street so other volunteers can fill and stack thousands of cups of Gatorade and water for the approximately 40,000 runners who will begin to appear before 9:00 a.m. Supplies include pallets of bottled water, jugs of Gatorade concentrate, mixing buckets, cups and cardboard sheets so cups can be stacked several layers high.
Also rakes, shovels and garbage bags for the thousands of cups that will be discarded by runners. We not only set the table and serve refreshments, we clear the dirty dishes, too.
The crowd of over 200 volunteers checks in, receiving marathon jackets and hats (blue again – we're mighty tired of that color). And this year the weather is just about perfect, cool but not too chilly. This means most runners won't be dumping water over their heads so we won't have to worry about re-filling our water tables.
Volunteers include members of our runners club, friends, family and several high school cross-country teams. Bob Maxson of River Forest coaches the West Chicago High School girls' team, and his kids are regulars. We also have teams from Andrew High School in Tinley Park, and Leyden Township High School. These kids do a fine job, and are enthusiastic about being part of such a huge event.
Fluids are efficiently poured and stacked, so there's a period of idle time. Suddenly the lead pack of wheelchair athletes comes zipping past our station. About 20 guys in a close formation are really cranking. I've never seen so many in such a tight pack. Then another time interval, marked only by the passage of a few wheelchairs.
But down the street we see flashing lights. Several motorcycle cops pass, followed by the leading truck, and right behind are the lead runners – a pack of about 10 guys, mostly from Kenya and Ethiopia, whose feet seem to barely touch the ground. They get a big cheer.
Then the parade of runners gradually grows from the faster sub-3 hour runners to a steady torrent of passing humanity that goes on for hours. Our volunteers continually hand out liquids. Finally by about 1:00 p.m. the crowd dwindles and the City of Chicago re-opens the street, forcing stragglers onto the sidewalk.
We rake up the cups and trash, fold and stack the tables, gather up the supplies, and we're done for another year.
*Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club
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