The Kindness of Strangers

About a year after I started running, I wanted to start moving toward longer distances and maybe one day complete one of those scary “marathon” things. I joined a half marathon-training program because I knew with 100% confidence that I wouldn’t get out for those double-digit runs on my own. It’s been a few years since that experience, and yet I can still feel the knotted butterflies in my stomach from that first session when I tried to not be outed among all these real runners. I learned about runner fashion from those fellow aspiring athletes: Don’t be too matchy-matchy and full-length pants are rare unless it is really truly cold. The group experience also got me up and out on a lot of Saturday mornings that otherwise would have just been sleep. After a few months I left the group. The people in my pace group didn’t seem to visit much or be into new friends like I was. And driving all over the metro to be running in my headphones was simply not fun.

Plan B.

I sent out an email to a group of friends, wondering if any of them were interested in regular Saturday morning runs. Two women were interested and we began connecting every Saturday morning, 8am at Hawthorne Bridge in downtown Portland. That ritual continued for years with two laps together around the waterfront. Usually by the end Patricia was the only one able to talk while Beth and I focused on one foot in front of the other. Patricia later moved to California; a fact I only forgive because of the guest room she always has available for me. Meanwhile Beth and I still spend an hour or two together almost every Saturday morning of the year. Only work or travel requirements keep us away. We’ve run in a snow storm, mall-walked when it was too icy, shifted times for work needs, and even taken our running onto the trails during a camping trip. And when Patricia is in town, she joins us like no time has passed.

These are just a few of the people I’ve met while running around in circles, and some of those who have taught me that runners are some of the nicest people. A lesson that had me spending my free Saturday (one that happened to be 90-degrees) with a bunch of running strangers.

While Beth was off braving some rapids (apparently its “fun”), I needed something to do other than sleep (because…I’m not sure), so I signed up to volunteer at a Brewery Series 5K. The race was held at Glixsen Brewery and part of a yearlong series that invites runners to visit breweries throughout the Portland Metro. Each runner receives a locally brewed pint after his or her 3.1 miles, along with other swag items from the location that week. Those who volunteer are also able to get a drink after their shift. Personally I was excited about the cute free tank top for my three-hours: “Life is Brewtiful.”

After a brief volunteer orientation, the volunteers were all assigned “a corner to work,” which of course led to some adolescent giggles around the room. I took my red arrow sign to my spot on Hawthorne where I would be responsible to cheer on runners and walked during a long stretch about a mile from the finish line. My spot would be over two-thirds into their event but still several blocks and turns from that elusive finish line. When a pedestrian asked if passing runners were almost done, I responded that “almost done” only counts when you can see the finish line or when it’s just around the next corner. I would not be making such false promises to the passing sweaty athletes.

I’ve volunteered at a few running events now for two main reasons. The first is a bit of a golden rule action: Volunteer onto others as you wish they would volunteer to you. Until this past year, my running pace was solid back of the pack. Increased training this year, along with some decreased pants sizes, has happily shifted me to more middle of the crowd. Those slower miles have meant experiencing a lot of Volunteer Fails. For example, just because someone passing you is currently walking does not mean they are a Walker. They might be someone who has been running with all of their might all of the previous blocks or miles and just need a minute to breathe. Calling them a Walker in that moment might add to the self-doubt already poking in. Oh, and some runners view Jogger as an insult so that one is missing from the cheering vocabulary too. Therefore as a Volunteer, I call everyone either a Runner or an Athlete. Perhaps someone at the back of the pack does not see the great athletic work they are doing so someone needs to help them.

Another suggestion for you current or prospective race volunteers is to share the same energy and love for the first runner, the last runner, and everyone in between. I have literally been the final runner in a race before (after a port-a-potty line had me late to the start) and was catching up from behind for the first three miles of a half-marathon. Passing by volunteers who were staring at their phones, chatting with backs to the road, or already fully packed up shouted echoes of the fears already whispering inside that I did not belong there. As a running podcast I enjoy often quotes: “First, last, same medal.” These athletes paid the same entry fee and are journeying the same number of miles. That is impressive no matter the speed. So my red arrow sign was held high and waved wildly for each of them.

I could offer more thoughts for volunteers, but want to shift to my other reason that volunteering at races is such a worthwhile experience. And simply put, it’s the runners. In general, athletes completing a race event are the nicest people. They are authentically grateful that you are there, will offer the biggest smiles their weary bodies can, and hope that everyone out there will get to the finish line. Those runners who are hoping to finish first are typically pretty focused and silent, which I totally understand and just stay out of their way. Go runner go! The rest of the field is aiming for their own personal goals, which might be just the motto of my last Hood to Coast team: “Just Finish! Don’t Die!” So those folks are often more open to a little chat, and appreciative of a kind word about their strength in being there, some adorable racing gear, or just our collective crazy in doing this thing.

If you’re not a runner, that is completely and totally fine. You do you, Boo. I would still encourage you to consider volunteering at a race (and specifically one of these Brewery 5Ks if you want the top pictured above). You get to be a hero to strangers and I promise that you will walk away from your shift with a smile on your face from all of these genuinely nice people. In the midst of political, economic, and nuclear WTF, it’s essential to be part of something good.

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