Let’s Give A Round Of Applause To Race Day Volunteers
The most admirable performances at the TCS New York City Marathon aren’t only delivered by its competitors.
An estimated 12,000 volunteers across the city will work tirelessly in every aspect of the event to help the 50,000 participants reach their marathon goals on November 5.
Some of those volunteers are so dedicated they have pitched in every November for decades.
“They are so critical to our success,” says Erika Amaya, senior manager for volunteer operations at New York Road Runners, the marathon’s organizer. “Besides having this amazing institutional knowledge, they are there because they want to be there. It gives them joy, and they share that with the new volunteers and inspire them to come back the next year.”
Women’s Running recently chatted with several longtime NYC Marathon volunteers to talk about what they do and why they always return.
Volunteer years: 16
Aurora Sandoval’s dedication to the marathoners is not just visible on race day.
At the pre-marathon expo, Sandoval, who is originally from Mexico, helps Spanish-speaking runners with questions about the marathon and New York City in general.
“The majority of them are from out of New York,” says Sandoval, 50, a Queens resident and marathon volunteer since 2001. “You sort of become an ambassador for the city.”
On marathon day, it’s still dark outside when Sandoval gets to work at the starting area on Staten Island, managing other volunteers and making sure runners are in the correct corrals based on their bib numbers.
“I love the start because you have all the runners together in one place,” she says. “It’s cold. Sometimes it’s raining. They all try to make the best of it. The volunteers and runners are helping each other. It’s a beautiful atmosphere.”
Sandoval says her most memorable marathon experience was the year it didn’t happen. In late October of 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit the New York area, devastating coastal neighborhoods and knocking out power to thousands of people. Just two days before the marathon, city officials announced that it was canceled so the city could focus on recovery efforts.
But by then, some 1,500 volunteers affiliated with Sandoval’s church were already on their way to New York from Massachusetts. Instead of volunteering at the marathon, they went to Far Rockaway, Queens, one of the hardest hit areas, to help clean up people’s homes.
“I felt very proud,” Sandoval says. “They turned the tragedy into an opportunity to help New York City.”
Mines and Charlotte Jackson
Volunteer years: 36
Mines and Charlotte Jackson have been New York City Marathon volunteers for so long, they can remember the days before the race had bottled water and electrolyte-infused drinks.
When the couple first managed the Mile 7 water stop, race volunteers would hook hoses to nearby fire hydrants and fill unused garbage cans with water. Then they would scoop cups of water from the cans to give runners. “Depending on the weather that early in the morning, you would freeze to death and get wet,” recalls Charlotte Jackson, 50.
She has been helping her husband at Mile 7 in Park Slope, Brooklyn since 1989, but Mines, 56, has been a loyal volunteer even longer. The TCS NYC Marathon on November 5 will mark his 36th year as captain of the Mile 7 water stop, now known as a “fluid station.”
“As long as they have the marathon, I will be there,” says Mines, a labor foreman.
Despite the harsh weather over the years—rain, cold, wind—and the exhausting schedule—they wake up in the middle of the night on marathon Sunday—the Brooklyn couple remains as enthusiastic as ever.
“Every year I can’t wait until the day comes,” says Charlotte, who works for New York City’s Human Resources Administration. “To see the whole neighborhood come out–it’s an adrenaline rush.”
The Jacksons arrive at the set-up area by 5 a.m., well before the crowds and excitement. They quickly get to work, moving tables into place and unloading trucks filled with thousands of cups and hundreds of gallons of drinks.
The days of hydrant hook-ups are long gone—Poland Spring and Gatorade are now staples at the stations. Even so, distributing drinks to runners is not as simple as it looks. Volunteers must know how much water to add to the bottles of Gatorade to make it less concentrated. They also have to know how much liquid to pour into each cup—a little more than halfway—so runners can easily snatch it as they pass. In addition to sharing these tips, the Jacksons also instruct dozens of station volunteers to spread out along both sides of the street and stay close to curbs to avoid interfering with runners.
After the huge waves of runners pass, the Jacksons and other volunteers rake up thousands of discarded paper cups on the street and put them in recycling bags. They finally leave the site around 3:30 p.m.
Although he’s been at the helm of Mile 7 for more than three decades, Mines has no plans to “retire” from the station. “I feel good, and I’m in good shape,” he says. “I’m not stopping.”
Volunteer years: 30
Emmett Washington was lying in bed one morning several decades ago when he heard a radio commercial calling for volunteers to work at a running event.
“They said the first hundred people that came would receive a Mickey Mouse watch,” recalls the 81-year-old retired plumber who lives in Brooklyn. “I went down, and they assigned me to the clock. It was a Sunday. It was a long race—they started down at the UN, and they finished in Central Park.”
Washington got his watch and has been a regular New York Road Runners volunteer ever since. From collecting bib numbers to catching collapsing runners at the finish, Washington has worked at countless NYRR races over the years, including the marathon. For the past 30 years, he has been the marathon’s food bag captain, passing out bags of refreshments to marathoners after they cross the finish line.
More importantly, Washington explains, he is watching for runners who seem ill or injured.
He learned to develop a careful eye from the legendary Fred Lebow, the NYC Marathon’s co-founder and longtime NYRR president who died in 1994. “My main concern when I’m working the marathon is the runners and to make sure they are okay,” he says. “[Lebow] schooled me on that.”
He also makes sure the runners keep moving away from the finish line so that it doesn’t get backed up.
Sometimes runners will snap at him when he tells them to keep walking, but, “you can’t let that get to you,” he says. “You understand the frustration. They come in and they are exhausted.”
Still, most of his encounters with runners are happy ones, which is why he keeps coming back as a volunteer–even after his wife died a few years ago, and he considered quitting.
“I get a lot of joy from being out there and seeing the runners come in,” he says. “I give them a high five, and they give me a hug and say, ‘Thank you for being here.’ You get a high from that.”