3 am is a god awful time to wake up in the morning especially if you are not running.
I arrived in Downtown Denver a little after 4:15. As I pulled to the side of the road adjacent to the lot I parked last year (just north of the Capital), I checked my phone for the directions I received as a volunteer. The bluish glow of the screen must have acted as a beacon of confusion to the woman passing by. She tapped my window, I rolled it down. “Are you looking for media parking?” she asked. I replied without hesitation, “Yes, I am, but I forgot to print out the email”. She then produced a nice yellow sign from her bag as she mentioned that she had an extra and added with a kind smile, “You looked like a confused media person” (is it that obvious?). I thanked her then proceeded around the block to park in the lot.
Off to a pretty good start.
The volunteer check in was located behind a giant row of port-o-lets on the south west corner of Civic Center park next to the Stadium. Medium shirt, check, name tag, check. Stand around and wait to get picked like a kid for kickball, check. I just happened to be standing near 2 other lost souls looking for a chance to help when the lead coordinator Michelle pointed at the three of us and assigned us to the VIP area. Excellent!
At first we helped with putting out the drinks for the VIPs and some general set up, but by 5:30 myself and Katie were positioned at the entrance “tagging and bagging” as we called it: handing out wrist bands placing special dots on bibs, so that all Media, Staff and Elites could come and exit as they wished.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll group has this dialed. Heaters, lots of catered food, a bag check, a place for kids to hang out and get all sugared up. I think the only thing that would have made it cooler was a “live” feed of the finish. Lame I know, hey, they do it at the ball parks! But seriously, the VIP was just across a sidewalk and with the multitudes lining the finishing shoot, it was hard to get a glimpse of some of the finishers as they came blazing in.
I recognized a fair amount of the small elite field as some were “regulars” like Mike Aish, Andrew Letherby, and a few others. I joked with Frank Shorter as he came through and asked if he was running and he retorted that with his new hip, the Dr. hasn’t released him to run that far just yet. I recognized one man as he came through but couldn’t quite put a name to the face. He was tall and obviously athletic. Turns out it was the Bachelorette’s Ryan Sutter, for all you star craving fans.
Our shift was relieved around 7:30 and I took the opportunity t
o grab a small bite and some drink before heading out for a jog to see if I could find any friends on the course. As I moved through the crowd, I saw fellow team mate GZ sprint by with a gallant finish and ran over to congratulate him. After a few words of congrats and sharing a few stories, he headed out to the course as he was looking for a friend to pace in.
A few moments later I recognized the bright yellow jersey of Geoff in the finishers shoot who ran a smart race by listening to his twinges and paced appropriately.
I took my time jogging along the final stretch to cheer random people on with my ING cowbell, and look for folks I might know. By the time I made it out to the the final turn for both races I believe it was past 2:00 on the clock and figured I better head down the marathon course backwards if I was to catch a glimpse of Michael Aish coming in and watch the lead race unfold.
As I approached the 25mi mark a young cheerleading squad was practicing in anticipation of the runners passing by and just about that time the lead vehicle came through announcing that “Mike” would be there any moment. I waited with the squad to try and capture the moment. When we finally could see the blinking cop lights crest the hill, we knew he was close behind and the girls brought their cheers to a frezied pitch. Although his expression remained focused on the task, I am sure he was smiling inside to hear them cheering him on, running most of the race solo, and knowing the finish was closing in.
I choked out a few words of encouragement as he passed, he did the same for last year’s winner Chris Seimers, although I know he really was just out for a hard training run.
Continuing on along the course, keeping an eye out for the next runner, I recalled some of my memories from this lonely stretch of the course when I ran it last in 2006. The streets were deserted save the volunteers at the water station and the nonchalant police officer at each intersection. It wasn’t for at least a mile until the number two runner came through, then slowly the numbers increased exponentially.
A right turn took me west up and over 8th avenue, a bridge over a rail yard. Tired runners continued to plod towards me as went up, crested and made my way down the other side of the bridge, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Man, this is a tough hill at this point in the race’ looking for the bottom and wondering where the course had come from. Before I knew it, I was at the bottom of the hill where 2 volunteers were stationed outside of the turnaround cones yelling “23.5”. I stopped for a second to chat with them as I couldn’t believe this was a short out and back section to make up a mile on the course. Out and backs are brutal mentally on a marathon course, especially the closer you get to the finish, but to go up and over the bridge… I can only imagine.
I started back up the hill with the runners at this point, figuring this would get me an easy 6 miles for the day. A few moments later, a fellow dropped a plastic gel bottle. I said aloud, as he slowly crouched down to retrieve the distraction “Ouch, That’s not going to be easy for those legs to keep moving after that” I hope it didn’t sound as snarky at the time, but it did open a quick dialog as we continued up and over the hill. He introduced himself as Wade and I returned with mine, then he jokingly put out there, “You should pace me in”. Well I was heading in that direction, so I of course I said ok.
I tried to keep the banter to a minimum while encouraging him to keep the stride smooth, stay focused, to “Let’s go pass that guy in orange, I can see he’s fading”. The next mile seemed tough but relaxed, then as we made the turn just after 25 we focused in on catching a few more. I ran ahead to try and get the cheerleaders to give encouragement and started a Wade chant, then caught back up with him as he flew through there with a huge smile on his face.
Just another mile to go, we could see the crowd building around the turn into the final stretch and we put that in our sights. I don’t think the hill to the turn even phased him, knowing the end was close. He had 3 hours as an initial goal coming into the race, but realized before I met up with him, that was out the window, but as we approached the 26mi clock we could see he was on pace for a sub 3:10. The crowds gathering along the course at this point were tighter and created a bulding corridor of sound leading into the final stretch. As we approached the turn, I repeatedly raised my arms in an attempt to get a few more cheers for him before looking his way and cheered “go get it, this is it, you are there”. I slowed down after the turn and let him take control of his finishing kick. His stride longer, elevated by the finish line in the distance and the growing cheers of the crowd.
I jogged through the finish line to the side and met him again just after he got his medal and had a chance to catch his breath. Shaking hands, he had a well earned ear-to-ear grin on his face, after putting together a solid Boston Qualifying race: 3:08 and change. I encouraged him to get a hug from the hug ladies and we snapped a picture at the end to capture the moment. Wishing him well and another congratulations, I made my way through the finish line crowds looking for others I might recognize.
Back out on the course I followed it in reverse again looking for familiar faces. The last band on the course marked the start of the hill that climbed about 800 meters back up 26mi and the final turn. The hill proved to be arduous and brought a few, who were already questioning their task at hand to a walk. That was my cue. I would just slowly jog up to them, give em a big smile and say something to the effect of: ‘lets go, the finish is right there’, ‘you can do it’ or ‘I know it’s hard, but you are almost done’. Most times this would result in a smile back and a reluctant return to running again. Each time we got to the top, I would do my hand raising routine and pull a few more cheers from the crowd. Just before the turn, I would give them one last ‘You’ve got this, enjoy it’ before peeling off into the crowd and returning back down the hill to pick up the next one.
With my personal time allocation quickly slipping away, I knew I had to head back home. But before I could do so I stood at the top of that hill and high-fived as many runners as I could. We’ve all been there, the end of a race that seemed like it would never end, then just before the final sprint you realize you have made it and how much you have accomplished. It was amazing to be on the other end of that and to see that look in peoples faces and form, elated, broken, exhausted, and thrilled.
I can’t tell if I am more inspired to go out and run another marathon, or volunteer again. I know which is easier at the moment.
Totals for the day: 12mi run, paced ~15 people up the hill, and high fived at least 100 people. It was a good day.
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