I like to get things done early. So when I submitted my name to the 2019 United Airlines NYC Half lottery and wasn’t accepted (and my best recent half marathon is 9:34 short of guaranteeing me entry as a time qualifier), I decided the next best thing would be to volunteer at the race! This would get my 9+1 volunteer credit done for 2019, inching me that much closer to guaranteed entry for the 2020 NYC Marathon.
So that’s what I did.
The NYC Half is actually my only DNF of my life. This happened back in 2007, when the race was held in August and called the NYC Half-Marathon Presented by Nike. I was sort-of-kind-of running at the time. Meaning, maybe 3-4 miles a day a few days a week. No speed work, no tempo runs, no training plan of any kind. Just a bit of jogging here and there. For some reason I thought it would be a wise idea to sign up for a half freaking marathon, even though I had not at all properly trained for one. At the time, the race course went from Central Park down to Battery Park. After one 6 mile loop of Central Park (a nothing run for me now), that was all I could handle. My knees were shot. I stopped running right before I was to exit the park. I hobbled to the nearest subway, went home, and didn’t attempt another half marathon until I ran Fred Lebow 10.5 years later in January 2018.
I do remember getting a nice gray t-shirt with orange lettering from the 2007 race, and I am sorry I got rid of it at some point. I think holding onto it gave me bad memories.
Anyway, that’s my history with the NYC Half.
The race course now runs from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to Central Park, finishing right where the NYC Marathon does. I chose to volunteer at the finish. This is because it’s relatively close to where I live, and why go to Brooklyn when I don’t have to?
When I signed up to volunteer, there were a few options for finish line duties: put heat sheets around runners, hand out post-race goodie bags to runners, or clean up discarded heat sheets. I opted for cleaning up heat sheets because I’d rather move around than stand still for several hours. I also have this weird fear that I will put a heat sheet on a runner “wrong” and get complaints. Dealing with garbage felt safer.
My shift was scheduled from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm. I had done my long run the day before so I didn’t have to worry about running that day. There’s no way I would want to do a long run in the afternoon to begin with, let alone after being on my feet all morning.
I arrived at the volunteer tent a little before 8 and there were already a lot of people in their volunteer vests and hats. I think these were mostly “heat sheet crew” who probably had to arrive a little earlier. NYRR provided coffee, tea, hot chocolate, water, Gatorade, and granola bars. One small nitpicky thing: the email had said there would be “pastries” as well as granola bars. There were no pastries. This is a small thing to bitch about, but damn it, if you tell me there will be pastries, then I am going to want a pastry. At least I had already eaten breakfast.
After grabbing some coffee and stuffing two granola bars into my pockets to make up for the lack of pastries, I followed the “green team” down the path to where the heat sheets were being taken off rolls and placed into fences for easy access later.
It was a little haphazard in terms of knowing what to do, so I offered to help carry rolls of heat sheets from one spot to another. I did this about 5 or 6 times. They were heavy and I figured this would count as part of my upper body workout for the day.
Then the green team were given large plastic bags that we would use to collect discarded heat sheets. No garbage, just heat sheets for recycling.
I had pictured the morning going a little differently. I thought I’d be walking around grassy areas at the finish, picking up tons of heat sheets strewn all over the ground. This wasn’t exactly how it went.
I struck up a conversation with a nice woman who wound up being my buddy for the day. I feel terrible for not remembering this for certain but I think her name was Alicia. I know it started with an A. I’m sorry I don’t remember, Maybe Alicia! She was super sweet and it was nice to have someone to keep checking in with about how cold our hands were.
Since no runners were coming through the finish yet, the two of us walked back up to the tent for more coffee. We were mostly trying to stay warm, as temps were in the mid 30s. Lo and behold, now there were Pop Tarts mixed in with the granola bars. I guess these were the pastries. I don’t really like cold Pop Tarts (especially strawberry, which these turned out to be), but I took a package anyway because they were free, and I find it impossible to refuse free food. Is this a mental condition? If so, I am pretty sure I have it.
After we walked back down to our station situated a few hundred feet beyond the finish line, the “Corral A” runners (the fastest runners behind the elites) were already crossing the finish. We stood around with our plastic bags and Maybe Alicia and I took pictures of each other.
Aw look, they probably all called each other to plan which shoes to wear! 😉
(Please know that I would do anything to be good enough to be in Corral A and I am insanely jealous of all of them.)
After a few minutes of standing around, we decided it was not a good place to stand around because nobody was dropping their heat sheets at this point. It was too cold. We realized that if anyone would be dropping a heat sheet it would be by baggage check, where runners could change into street clothes. So we moved around the corner to baggage, and that’s where we stayed for the remainder of the shift.
I think it was about 9:00 at this point. For the next three hours, I paced up and down the baggage area, holding onto my big plastic bag. Maybe two runners handed me their heat sheets. I picked up another five or six from the ground. I’d say 99% of runners kept theirs on. To help pass time, I picked up trash and placed it in garbage bags tied to the railings.
After a few runners asked me where the late-comers’ baggage check was, I decided to start making random announcements, yelling out “Late baggage, make a left on 62nd.” I said this maybe 100 times. Many runners nodded in my general direction, so I guess there were quite a few late baggage people.
I was cold. I had worn a pair of thin leggings under my jeans, and under my pea coat were two warm layers that I would normally wear if I was running in 20 degree temps. I wore thin gloves and the hat they provided, which was very warm. Still, I should have worn my long winter coat and thicker gloves. I often forget that you get colder standing still than walking or running.
After about an hour of announcing where late baggage was, my voice started getting tired, so I stopped. Luckily, the sun had come out and this helped warm me up. I hadn’t put sunblock on. I faced the sun anyway, wishing I could go get another cup of coffee. I probably could have (nobody was monitoring me) but I didn’t feel like walking. I also had to pee, but again, didn’t feel like walking. It could wait.
It finally started dying down around noon. I had picked up every stray piece of garbage in my area. Runners seemed to know where late baggage was. I still had to pee.
At this point, runners started asking me for heat sheets since I was carrying a big bag of them. It seems they had run out of heat sheets at the finish line. When we realized this, Maybe Alicia and I started taking them out one by one, saying “Heat sheets! Heat sheets! Get your heat sheets!” Ten minutes later, we had given out all of them.
I did get one complaint from a runner. It wasn’t directed at me, personally, but to NYRR. She was frustrated because they had run out of heat sheets at the finish and they hadn’t provided a pacer for her wave. After I handed her a sheet, she said, “You don’t treat slow runners well.” I said, “You mean New York Road Runners?” although I knew what she meant; it was an instinctual reaction to briefly feeling like she was accusing me, personally. I realized in that moment that she saw me not as a fellow runner who happened to be volunteering that day, but as a representative of NYRR. Anyway, I sympathized with her and agreed that they should have had more heat sheets. I told her maybe she could email NYRR about the pacer thing, as I have no idea how many pacers they have and how fast they all go. She was nice and thanked me, so in the end I didn’t take it as a personal attack. She was just frustrated and needed to vent.
And on that note, I’m really glad I didn’t volunteer to hand out heat sheets or medals, because I later found out that at one point they had temporarily run out of those, too. I’d hate for any runner to have gotten pissed at a volunteer because of that.
Trust me guys, nobody who makes any big decisions at NYRR is outside in the cold on race day. The volunteers are most likely all runners, some of them dorks like this:
By 12:20, there were no more heat sheets to pick up or hand out. So Maybe Alicia and I figured we were done so we went to check out and were officially released. I grabbed two bottles of Gatorade on the way out because I still felt like they owed me for the lack of pastries. I don’t even like Gatorade.
So here is my advice for anyone looking to volunteer with NYRR for a day. I have now done this twice, so I feel as though I am a certified expert.
NYRR Race Day Volunteering Advice
- Wear sunblock. I have volunteered both in the hot summer and the cold winter, and both days were sunny. This might not always be the case, but don’t assume you’ll be in the shade the whole time. Put on that sunblock, even in the winter!
- Eat a good breakfast. This should be a given on any day, but especially on a day when you’ll be standing around a lot.
- Layer. In winter, dress for colder than it is. Walking in cold weather requires more clothing than running, but standing requires more than walking. Assume it’s about ten degrees colder than it is. You can always stash an extra layer in the volunteer tent.
- Pack light. I didn’t even wear a hat there because I knew we’d be getting one. I wore a fanny pack and that’s it. They say not to bring a bag, but I saw a lot of bags in the volunteer tent so I guess not everyone listened to that rule. And you really don’t need to bring water, coffee, or even snacks unless there is a specific food you absolutely need.
- Learn some basic stuff. Many runners will go to volunteers for information, and I felt bad when I didn’t know the answer to a question. I wish I had been told some of these things beforehand. If I didn’t know something, I directed them to a more senior looking volunteer or staff member. Some examples of questions I was asked:
- Where’s the late baggage area?
- What does the orange dot on my bib mean? (It’s late baggage.)
- Where’s the exit?
- Can I exit that way?
- How about over there?
- Where can I get the 2/3 train?
- Where do I go to get my medal engraved?
- Where’s the family meeting area?
- Don’t take complaints personally. If someone makes a complaint about NYRR or the race, sympathize and offer advice as to how they can contact NYRR directly. Unless it’s something YOU did, like put a heat sheet on “wrong.”
- Meet other volunteers. I showed up not knowing anyone, and now I have a friend whose name I can’t remember for sure!
- Have fun! It’s actually really fun to be on the other side of a race. It’s nice to see how it all works, and makes you appreciate all the work that volunteers do throughout the year.
I’m glad the day went as well as it did. I’m glad it didn’t rain. I’m glad I realized how much I do not like cold strawberry Pop Tarts. If you are in the NYC area and want guaranteed entry into the 2020 NYC Marathon, do 9+1 this year! Or just volunteer because it’s fun. I’m actually considering doing it again, just for the hell of it. Next time, I expect pastries.