Sunday, November 22, 2009

Volunteering at the Flying Monkey Marathon - 11/22/09

Since 2004 on the 3rd Saturday in November, I have been running the JFK 50 Miler in Boonsboro, MD. When the Flying Monkey Marathon began in 2006 in Nashville, TN, my heart took a dive. Both races were on the same weekend. Being a Marathon Maniac, the first thought was to run JFK on Saturday and make it back in time to run the Flying Monkey on Sunday. This never happened. Because it always took me 12:30-13:30 to finish JFK, I could never get a late flight out of Baltimore to make it back by Sunday. Every time I saw Trent (the race director for the Monkey) at a race, I would threaten to run or volunteer at his event, but my luck was not that good.

Last year, the JFK increased the entry fee to an amount that I did not want to pay. I run a lot of races during the year, and it takes some serious budgeting to get to all of these races. With the flight, rental car, and 2 nights stay in a hotel the night before the race and the night right after the race, the increase pushed me over the limit for one race out of many. Besides, as much as I love that race, I was not willing to cut out another race or two from my schedule to make ends meet. Therefore, I made a promise to myself. I would run the JFK one more year to give me 5 finishes there, and if the entry fee increased for 2009, I would not run it. For 2009, the entry fee increased again to $145, leaving the 3rd weekend in November free for me to run another race.

For years now, I had been looking at the Dizzy Fifties (50K, 40 Mile, and 50 Mile) Trail Runs in Huntsville, AL. This race is on the same day as JFK. It was cheap to enter ($24), and it was only a 2-hour drive for me, which meant that I could sleep in my own bed. I signed up before it became full. Here was my chance to run Dizzy and then run the Monkey. With a 10 hour cut-off, the only distance I could pull off would be the 50K at Dizzy, so a double looked doable. The only problem was that the Monkey had already reached its 200 runner limit.

I have run a lot of races, but I'm ashamed to say that I have never volunteered. This sport has given me so much, and it was time for me to start giving back to it. I hear from race directors all of the time about how hard it is to find enough volunteers for their events. Here was my chance to be a part of the solution. I sent Trent an e-mail, asking him if I could volunteer. Trent, being the super nice guy that he is, asked me if I wanted to run it instead. I told him that I couldn't run it because it was already full. Again, he gave me the opportunity to run it by jokingly saying that he knew the race director and he could get me in. I loved the fact that he would let me in, but I really wanted to volunteer. I wanted to be on the other side of that start/finish line.

Early Sunday morning, I drove over to Percy Warner Park to check in for my 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. shift. I had been assigned to packet pick-up. I would be working with Sharon, who would check off each runner's name on the entry list. In turn, I would pull the runner's packet. Diana, the volunteer coordinator, and Trent, were buzzing around getting everything set up and putting the volunteers to work. All of the volunteers had been asked to bring a food item to share for the party afterwards. I had never seen so much food set up for a post-race party. There were three tables full of all kinds of desserts, sandwiches, fruits, vegetables, side dishes, and coffee. My stomach growled as I watched more and more food being dropped off at the tables by the volunteers as they checked in for their shifts.

Several of my running buddies were in town to run the Monkey: Andy (FL), Phil (AL), Graham (AL), Dave (CO), Larry (TX), and Mike (ME). Locals like Diane (TN) and Lisa (TN) were also running today. As they checked in or just came by our table to say hello, I wished them all well and told them to have fun. I promised to come out onto the course to see them after my shift was over.

Check-in started slowly, with 1 or 2 runners every few minutes, and then we got a steady stream for a while before it eased back to 1 or 2 runners every few minutes. Sharon and I worked well together. We only had one problem. A couple checked in. Her packet was available, but there wasn't a packet for her husband. Sharon and I desperately checked and rechecked the boxes, but we never found the runner's packet. We called Trent over. The runner's packet had to have been given out to someone else. We thought we had been thoroughly checking the numbers against the names. Could I have handed out the wrong packet? I didn't want to think that it was possible.

In our defense, a number of packets were picked up on Saturday evening. Another runner came up and told us that she had been given an incorrect packet on Saturday and had to go back and exchange it. Each packet had a bib number, goodie bag, and a race t-shirt with the runner's name on it. Surely, if someone had this particular runner's packet, he would have noticed that his t-shirt had the wrong name on it. The runner and his wife looked concerned. Trent was calm and told the runner that he would still be able to participate. If I was the race director, I would have been a nervous wreck. Our line of runners waiting to check in was growing. Sharon and I had to continue our job. Before the race started, Trent made an announcement to try and recover the missing packet. I didn't hear anyone owning up to having the wrong packet. Bummer!

At 8:00 a.m., we watched as the runners took off and the large digital clock began keeping time. As all of the runners climbed the hill on the cross-country portion of the course, they quickly began to spread out in a neat line. I felt like I had just pushed my kids out into the big world. Will they all make it back home safe and sound?

I love running in Percy Warner Park. There's a 5.8 mile loop and an 11.2 mile loop on the roads. Both were rolling hills the entire loop. I'm in relatively good shape when I can run the 5.8 in less than an hour and the 11.2 in less than 2 hours. It has been years since I was able to do that, but I still come out here every now and then to test myself. The race course pretty much followed the 11.2 mile loop twice with some additional routes to get the full 26.2 miles.

There are also some wonderful trails in the park that I love to run. Like the road loops, the trails are rolling hills with just enough roots and rocks to make it interesting. There are also plenty of deer to keep you company on the trails.

With all of the runners out for their adventure, the volunteers were left to fend for ourselves. A few of us grabbed something from the food table, drank coffee, and stood around talking. I talked with 2 volunteers for the next couple of hours. Andrew (AL) is a young ultramarathoner studying to become a physical therapist. Forrest (TN) had walked 65 miles in August to celebrate his birthday. Andrew and I were so impressed with his story. He had started out at 300 pounds several years ago and began walking and running to lose weight. He had lost his son to diabetes. While reading Pam Reed's book, he became inspired to run his age in miles for his birthday on a 10K loop that he created in Hendersonville, TN. The local news media did a story on him, and a helicopter hovered above him as he walked. Several people came out to walk with him. It took him 18 hours to finish. Wow! I wonder if Forrest knows that he has a 100 miler in him. And yes, we did joke about people saying "run, Forrest, run".

Two and a half hours after the runners started, Peter (the president of the Nashville Striders Running Club) announced that our first place winner would be coming across the cross-country field. Like moths to a flame, we all migrated to the finish line. Family, friends, and volunteers watched and waited. Volunteers lined up at the finish line to give out the Monkey finisher's medal and to tear off the runner's tag from their bibs. Several false alarms came when locals enjoying the park on the cloudy and cool Sunday morning came across the hill. And then we saw him, and he was flying. Was it Josh (TN)? Was it Chuck (OH)? My bet was on either one of them.

The winner looked good when he came through. You would not have thought that he had just run 26.2 miles on a tough course. We were all in amazement. We clapped, shouted, and congratulated him. And then we looked over the hill. No one was chasing him. I instantly felt sorry for him. Wasn't he lonely running all of those miles by himself?

And then we saw another. It had to be Josh or Chuck. They were so fast and had won so many races between the two of them. But it was not. It was another runner that I did not know. The crowd burst into claps, shouts, and hardy congratulations to him. And then we watched the hill. Waiting. Anticipating. I loved this!

I saw him. There were rumblings up ahead amongst the anxious crowd. Someone noticed his stride. His strong legs were pushing forward. He would finish 3rd. It was Josh. I yelled, and I was probably louder than I should have been, because he saw me waiting near the end of the finish chute. He had worked hard on those hills, chasing those two runners in front of him. He had to be tired. He had to be happy to finish and to finish so well. But he stopped, and he gave me a hug. I was surprised. I could feel the crowd watching our exchange. I wanted to jump up and down and tell everybody, "that's MY running buddy". I can't even run half of a marathon these days in the time that it took him to run the entire marathon, but we share the same love for this sport. That's what makes this so special to me.

Volunteers pulled his tag from his bid and gave him a Monkey medal. He went over to congratulate the two runners who finished before him, just as champions do. And the crowd watched the hill. They came one by one.

One runner had run so hard that he laid in the grass at the end of the finish chute. The medics came over to give him oxygen. I have never pushed my body that hard. I don't know what that feels like, but I wanted him to be okay. I wanted him to be able to run another day.

I stayed until the first female came through the finish chute. Friends ran with her, encouraging her, and then pulled off at the last few seconds so that she could have her well-deserved moment in the spotlight. She looked young and strong. I can't even imagine what went through her head, leading all of the women, and gaining on the men in front of her. It must have been a wonderful feeling. It must have been worth it all.

I said good-bye to Forrest and his wife, Judy. Judy had also volunteered this morning and helped organize all of the food that kept coming in for the party afterwards. I was ready to go out onto the course and back track. I wanted to run some of those familiar hills. I wanted to see my other running buddies.

As I ran and walked the course in the opposite direction, I tried to give encouragement to the runners heading to the finish line. I don't know how many times I said, "good job", "nice work", "stay strong", and "keep it going". I received a variety of responses in return: blank stares, grunts, silently hung heads, smiles, and thank you's.

Josh was out on the hills. Was this his cool down? We talked for a minute and then I continued on, greeting runners and looking for familiar faces. I saw Lisa. She wanted to know, "how far"? I had not been paying attention. I did not know. "Less than 2 miles, Lisa. You're doing great." It was a wild guess at best.

I saw Trent next. It is a remarkable feat for any race director to have things so organized that he can relax and run his own race. I admired him for that. As he flew past me on a down hill, giving me a high five, I told him that he had put on a great race. "You need to run this next year," was the last thing that I heard him say before he sped around a bend in the road and out of sight. He is right, of course.

Runner after runner passed. I knew that the next buddy I would see would be either Dave or Phil. They both are fast. It turned out to be Dave. He was walking up a hill. I asked if he wanted me to walk with him, but he said he would be running the next down hill and was on pace to finish in 4:35. I couldn't keep up that kind of pace. I wished him well and continued on. Maybe this was a bad idea.

I saw Phil next. I asked if he would like some company. He said yes. I felt better, and I hoped that he did, too. We talked and ran/walked the rolling hills, but it was short-lived. He was having to slow down to wait on me. I didn't want that to happen. I wanted him to have a good race. I sent him on his way. Going along with Phil, I had become winded. I walked some more, continuing to encourage runners that I came upon and looking for my buddies.

Graham was next. He had finished the Dizzy 50K the day before 2 hours ahead of me, and here he was looking very strong. I asked him the same question that I had asked Phil, and he accepted my offer. We talked and ran/walked the rolling hills. I had not recovered from my time with Phil, so I wasn't much help to Graham. I didn't want to slow him down either. When we got to the aid station, I let him go. He would continue to run strong and to finish well. Some how I thought I would be able to keep up with them at the end of their race, but I was doing a poor pacing job. Would I have to run all of the way back to the start/finish area alone?

There were still buddies on the course. I was now a little over 3 miles from the finish. Mike, Larry, or Andy would be next, but which one would I encounter first. Well . . . I was lucky enough to get all three of them at once. They made me work to keep up with them, but I wanted to stay. It had been a while since I had run with any of them. Larry had also run a marathon the day before, but that's his norm. Every weekend, he runs doubles or triples. He's an incredible man and as humble as he could be. Mike and Andy have run hundreds of marathons and ultramarathons. They all give me so much inspiration, and when I'm with them, I want to soak up their essence, hoping that whatever they have is contagious and that I will get it, too.

We laughed and talked our way along the last 3 miles of the course. Andy took this opportunity to inch his way ahead of us. And when we came over the hill, the crowd was still lively. They clapped and shouted just as vigorously as they had for the lead runners 3 hours ago. I pulled off from the course, and I watched my buddies run through the finish line. They all had wonderful finishes, and I was so happy for them.

Did I miss racing today? No, of course not. Am I glad that I volunteered? Most definitely. It was a great experience.


  1. Thank you for volunteering!! I was out there a good bit with Mike and Larry. Had a blast with those guys. Flying Monkey rocks!!

  2. High praise for volunteering!! It is nice to help and also renew a great perspective on racing:)

  3. Great report on volunteering! Sounds like a good trade to me.

  4. Thanks for your post, Angela, and thanks for telling the Monkey story. Good job. I'm going to have to run that race one of these days. Maybe volunteering, like you did, is a better idea.

  5. Angela,

    I love volunteering because you get the energy of a race without the exertion. Also it ensures one is committed to not run the race. Although you are a running machine, my little leggies need a break now and again or else they protest by making me limp.

    It is also really cool that you ran the course backwards. I know it is always so nice to see a friendly smiling face in the final miles and even better when they will pace you to the finish.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  6. The Monkey is one of my favorite races. I was totally bummed that I had to miss it this year. Good for you to volunteer! And to go back out on the course and encourage your friends :-) I'll see you at Freedom Park on New Year's Eve.

  7. Howdy! Nice write up. Our volunteers are THE BEST! BTW, the fellow with the missing packet? We found it and his personalized shirt, which will go into the mail. It had been mispackaged and another runner ended up with it. He finished the race with a smile :) Next year you need to run!

  8. :) Hey, I'm hoping to do the Dizzy 50 AND the Flying Monkey Marathon back to back this year in 2010! I also need to emulate you and do some volunteering/ good running community building and karma.