From The Other Side

John Turner

I have had the new experience a couple of times in the last year, of acting as a volunteer at two race events. One is the Jane Tomlinson Leeds 10k in July; the other the British Heart Foundation half-marathon at Harewood House in February.


For the Leeds 10k the school where I work (Co-op Academy Priesthorpe in Pudsey) has manned the 4km water station by the Vue cinema park after the railway viaduct for a few years now, and we take a team of around 15 staff, family and friends.


For Harewood, I ran the Half in its first two years but couldn’t this year due to injury: it’s a great event, local, and I was keen to support BHF so rather than miss it I volunteered and was deployed as a route marshall at the 11-mile point.


Having run for many years and completing many organised events, it is a fascinating and rewarding – and in some ways moving – experience to see the race and runners from the other side of the process, and to appreciate some elements of the organisation which you might not normally even be aware of.


Firstly, there is the process. As a runner, you have your pre-race rituals, of changing, drinking, warming up, and the pause as you line up and have to wait for the start. As part of the crew, a parallel process is taking place.


Despite being local I contrived to arrive late for Harewood so I missed a briefing for stewards; instead I was driven out to the point by part of the estate staff and heard the radio exchanges about parking, medics and staffing. I found I was stationed with a guy called Steve who was part of the Raynet radio network (all volunteers again) and listened as control ran through a call-&-response through each of the radio stations.


Steve was better-organised than me: instead of a flask or water-bottle he had a camping stove on the back of his pickup to make fresh coffee… which he kindly shared with me in a spare mug which he had brought “just in case”.


On the water station, the hour before the start is frantic: those bottles don’t line up, pre-opened by magic! The polythene trays have to be opened, the individual 6-packs have to be broken, the top on the bottle has to be opened – and with sports-bottles the cap has to be popped up – before they can be laid out onto the tressle tables. Believe me, by the time you have done dozens of bottles your hands seriously ache – runners aren’t the only ones who collect blisters on race-day!


There is then a strange, quiet lull before the race-car comes into view and the lead runners fly past… and then looking back down the road you can make out what seems like a tidal wave of humanity about to engulf you…!


And once fully under way, you can observe the many trials and emotions amongst the runners which you have experienced yourself. At the 11-mile point in the BHF Harewood Half-marathon, the runners are flagging. This is a long largely straight and slightly undulating wooded stretch running parallel to the A61, and they have battled some demanding hills prior to this point, the end is still some way off, and for some their energy and spirits are beginning to fade at this point.


Working the water station is different: some pass by but most runners will try to take a drink, and what you most notice is the urgency with which they do so. Some are desperate, anxious and panic if they have to break stride – fumbling towards the bottle – or miss their first grab and have to reach again a few yards on.


Others are relaxed, have time to smile and say ‘thank you’ as they take their bottle, even slow to a stroll as they do so. Either way, it all takes place through a forest of outstretched arms, swooping hands, clashing arms; and as you try to keep up, you have an extended workout of stretching, bending, dipping, squatting and reaching as you spin back and forth between the tables. You grab-reach-turn-stretch and repeat as each bottle is snatched from your outstretched arm in an intense and swirling sea of faces, feet and hands.


As the 10k runners reach Kirkstall and turn back to the city we move across the road and offer the remaining drinks at what is now the 7.5k point: the process and emotions are all still there, but the action slower.


Sometimes you catch someone’s eye, or exchange a word of encouragement or praise; some are too spaced-out to respond, some say “thank you marshall, great work!”; others just nod or smile and you know you have done something for them, and that moment between strangers is profound – over the years, I have been all of those runners.


But they may not all be strangers. There may be colleagues from work, other friends and runners, even social-media contacts you have never actually met but clearly recognise: some you know are running and you can look out for all of those, others appear in the field and you recognise each other in different roles – or, in the intensity of your work in the water-station, you have a momentary surprise as they spot you and call out.


And afterwards, when you have collected up all the litter and packaging and discarded bottles, you walk back to head home, passing runners going the other way in their finishers t-shirts, admiring their medals, and swapping stories of their day. And you know you have done something good.


So: a fantastic, eye-opening and rewarding experience, and one I would definitely recommend – especially if there is an event that is important to you but injury prevents you doing it.


One final tip: at a water station don’t panic to hit the very first point as that causes a logjam, the servers can’t keep up and you may have to stop – run on beyond that point and there is much more space… and those volunteers will feel wanted! Catch their eye, point or nod so they know which bottle you are going for and if you miss don’t worry, there is another volunteer just behind.


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