Monday, May 30, 2016

Race Report: Volunteering with the Extra Mile Crew during the Ottawa Marathon

This weekend I did something amazing that ranks very close to the top of my list of fantastic running experiences.  I had the pleasure to volunteer during the Ottawa Marathon with the Extra Mile Crew.  There have been pace bunnies in ORW for many years and they do an absolutely fantastic job, but this is the first year that ORW featured the Extra Mile Crew, a new kind of help for competitors.  The pace bunnies are indispensable in getting runners to the finish by their goal times, but runners pick up the bunny who works best for them and they run with the bunny.  The Extra Mile Crew does the reverse.  We are on the course to pick up runners who need a little company, encouragement, assistance, etc. and run with them.  By the tone of feedback all of us received during and after the event, I believe that the Extra Mile Crew is here to stay.

For me 32km-37km is the darkest part of the marathon both psychologically and physically.  I'm glad I was stationed where I was, which was on Beechwood Avenue in New Edinburgh at the 35km to go mark.  Our "zone" was roughly 35km to 37km, although I only made it back to my original starting point twice, with the agreement that we would all run in with the last finishers.  Our crew was very motivated and very capable; there were no running rookies in this gang.  All of us were experienced runners, which I found out later was by design.  Because we were the furthest from the finish line, the 35km crew had to be prepared to do the most running.  Speaking personally, I logged over 25km between 10:30AM and 2:00PM.  All but 6km of that was running back and forth in our zone, picking up runners and getting them to and through the 36km water station, where all of the volunteers happened to be wearing red dresses (both men and women). A truly amazing group, they were.

The Crew (I'm in the back with the black cap, no tutu)
There were plenty of runners who needed a little boost.  With the humidity, the temperature had a "feels like" rating of 33C-35C, and out on the course, under a cloudless sky and no shade on asphalt at the hottest part of the day, it "felt like" much, much warmer.  The organizers did the right thing chopping off 10km of the course for the folks who were finishing in over 5 hours.  I cannot imagine what is would have felt like for us and the competitors if we had to be out there for another hour and a half.

There are so many good memories that I will take away from this that I could share, but I will limit it to just a few.  I have to say, first off, that I was really nervous before I started.  I had no idea what to do or how I would be received, but I figured that I would just watch faces and hop on to the course when someone made eye contact and looked like they could use a friend.  It didn't take long, and I didn't stop moving until I reached the finish line 3.5 hours later.  The key was to your eyes out at all times, to ask lots of questions and stay really upbeat.

Michele from Montreal
I saw this fellow running and asked if he wanted some company and he said, "Sure!", so I ran with him for about 100m when a young woman looked over to me and waved me over.  I broke off with the fellow and met Michelle from Montreal.  In her face I could see that she was struggling.  She seemed to be on the verge of tears and said "Thank you for being here" every minute or so.  I chatted with her, asking her if it was her first marathon (it was) and asking her if she was starting to cramp up (her knee was sore) and talking about her training.  I asked her what she was going to do after the race.  I believe that ice cream was in the mix, but I can't remember that clearly.  I ran with her for about 500m beyond the water stop and then told her that I had to go back.  She thanked me with grateful tears in her eyes.  She finished the race and I hope she went for ice cream.  Felicitations, Michele!

Ming from Hong Kong
I could tell that Ming was having a hard time and also that he was not going to ask anyone for help.  The first clue I had that he was hurting was the fact that he was wearing black ball cap, black tights, black shorts (over the tights) and a black long-sleeved shirt.  Did I mention that it was hot?  And he was also carrying a GoPro camera on a selfie stick.  (I wonder if I will end up on YouTube.)  His English was limited, but I found out that it was his first marathon.  He was sweating profusely and I managed to convince him walk through the water stop to get a cup of Nuun down and two glasses of water.  Because of the camera, I offered to handle the cups.  About 200m after the water stop, he started to look like he was coming around and I instructed him to keep to the shady side of the street.  I checked later; he finished.  Bravo, Ming!

There were many others: the ultrarunner who dislocated her toe a week ago while training for a 50km race, the lady who was in the process of completing her 70th marathon, the group of women running together who were helping one in their group who had drank too much water that was sloshing around in her stomach (amazing teamwork), a bunch of individual francophones who politely endured me practicing my French, and the list goes on, but it ends with...

Kim from Fredericton
Lara, our crew leader, came back to me and Chris, another crew member, and pointed to the ambulance and police that were following the last runner.  Chris and I picked him up and we walked/ran together for another km or so.  I then spotted a woman running by herself just ahead of us and I let Chris know that I would go ahead to run with her.  We were now on the hottest part of the course - no shade and the temperature was hitting the daytime high.  Kim had injured her knee, but was determined to finish.  We had around 5km to go, and we alternated between running and walking, with Kim calling the shots.  We picked up Erin, another Extra Mile Crew member (sporting a tutu and magic wand), with about 3km to go and the three of us kept on chatting about Harry Potter, ComicCon, Gotham, etc. (nerds, we're everywhere) and got our photos taken together by the race photographer at 2km to go.  I could tell that she did not want to finish last.  Hats off to her, she soldiered on and started passing a few other runners. 
She finished (not last).  Way to go, Kim!

Things that went well:
  1. Carrying a frozen hydration pack.  We had to be self-sufficient, which meant monitoring and carrying our own nutrition and hydration.  I elected to carry a Reebok hydration pack with a 2l bladder.  I filled the bladder the night before and put it in the freezer.  This not only kept the water cold, but it cooled me off.  Others in my crew knew this trick, too.  It worked brilliantly, and I ended up drinking 1.5l on the course and on the way home. 
  2. Bringing the right extra stuff. I applied spray sunscreen at home before I left and then again just before we got on the course.  After that the can went in the pack.  I applied it again just ahead of our final push to the line and was able to loan the can to another crew member.  I'm glad I kept it with me, or else I (and perhaps my colleague) would have looked like a cooked lobster.  I also had a chocolate protein bar that didn't melt because of the frozen water bladder.  I ended up eating it on the way home.  My keys, wallet and phone went with me in the pack, too.  Unbeknownst to me, Google Fit on my phone tracked my activity for the day.
  3. Staying in the designated zone.  I heard that there were a couple of approaches being discussed as to how long a crew member should run with a competitor.  There were those who felt we should stay with a runner for as long at the runner wants, even if that means going all the way to the finish.  Others believed that we should stay in the zone and relay a runner who needs some prolonged company to crew members in the next zone.  We employed the latter approach and I believe it worked out very well.  I think we helped many more competitors that way.
Things I would do differently:
  1. Eat.  We met at 10:30AM and were on the course shortly after that (and a group photo).  I didn't stop until 2:00PM and then we had to return to our vehicles and head for home.  I packed a protein bar, but didn't have time to eat it because I was pretty much in constant motion, either with a competitor or running back to pick up another.   I didn't bank on running over 25km.  Next time, I will bring a couple of gels or something else that is easy to eat on the go, and re-fuel appropriately.
  2. Test the clothing on a long run.  The maxim that one doesn't use anything on race day that hasn't been tested on a long run applied here, too.  Because I underestimated how much running I would be doing, I didn't wear the shirt beforehand (I wore it right out the packaging)and I hadn't used the shorts I wore for a long run (many shorter runs, yes, but not a long one).  Because of the heat and the occasional drenching from residents' homes, I was severely chafed.  Other crew members were cutting the sleeves off  of their shirts.  At the very least I should have washed the shirt and applied some Body Glide strategically.  (Perhaps TMI, but I know that it may help someone.)