You can’t truly comprehend the vastness of the New York City Marathon by simply looking at the numbers. Those pictures of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge clogged with thousands of runners going from Staten Island to Brooklyn also won’t do it, and neither will the shots from the TV cameras.
The best way to get a sense of the race is to take the worm’s-eye view, one from the ground level where marathoners stream past, hundreds every minute, a horde that never seems to end. And their legacy, besides athletic achievement and muscle cramps, is an extraordinary amount of crushed paper cups.
That’s why I ended up standing at the corner of 77th Street and First Avenue—somewhere between mile 17 and mile 18—on Sunday morning holding a metal rake in my hands. As runners pass water stations, many grab cups handed out by eager volunteers, often several at a time. Some drink the water, some add it to an energy gel or powder and others simply splash it in their face or over their head to cool down. Then, they toss the cups at their feet. It doesn’t take long until the road becomes a mat of slippery, discarded cups, and that’s where the rake proves useful.
I had decided to get an up-close look at the marathon by volunteering at one of the dozens of stations that litter the course. These stops usually offer water, Gatorade, first aid and sometimes wet sponges for cooling purposes. None of it would be possible without thousands of volunteers, who often show up just to be part of the big day.
“I’ve volunteered on two other occasions, either at the start or the finish line,” said Victor de Leon, who was in charge of the water table where I was working. “I just wanted to be part of the marathon experience. If you can’t run, it’s the next best thing. Because I volunteered a couple of times, I got to cheer for the runners and see the excitement. After that, running the marathon became one of my big goals.”
De Leon accomplished that goal last year, and one of his biggest thrills was getting to see his friends volunteer in support of his run. On Sunday, he was leading a group of about 15 from the Philippine-New York Junior Chamber (the Jaycees), an organization that supports leadership training and has been sending volunteers to the marathon for about 10 years.
The last time I volunteered at the marathon was 1999, and there have been plenty of advances during the intervening years. When I arrived at 9 a.m. on Sunday, for example, almost everything was already set up. I imagined that I would spend time dragging tables into place and hauling trash barrels and boxes of cups around, but the New York Road Runners staff and some very committed volunteers had already taken care of that during the pre-dawn hours.
Metal barricades and sawhorses sealed off the course, and a DJ was just about to start playing some pump-up music. Nine years ago, there were no sponges, and the water came from a nearby hydrant. These days, Poland Spring provides the water. There’s no way to escape the company’s presence, thanks to a 20-foot-tall water bottle and enough flags and banners to carpet all 26.2 miles. We were even instructed to make sure the cups were placed on the table so that the Poland Spring logo faced forward.
Sonya, a Road Runners staff member with a contagious sense of excitement, soon had me filling cups with water. Alongside several others, I poured and poured until I covered a table with several hundred carefully arranged cups. Then we covered them with a piece of cardboard and started all over again. Eventually, we had three layers of cups waiting for the runners.
And when those runners finally arrived, coming up First Avenue behind a convoy of police motorcycles and TV vans with helicopters overhead, the sense of growing excitement was electrifying. The male and female leaders blazed past in tight packs with a sense of professional focus, but the wheelchair and handcycle competitors lingered at times. Overwhelmed by the cheers cascading through the urban canyon, they beamed and often waved back.
There are always plenty of people to hand out water, so once the trickle of runners became an unending human wave, I mostly busied myself by filling up more cups and raking some of the discarded ones off the road. The clean-up work can be even more onerous than setting everything up. I spent about an hour flattening cardboard boxes and stomping on plastic water jugs to make them easier to haul away.
Why would anyone want to do this type of work?
“It’s a chance to be part of something huge in the community,” Florina Monroy-Sullivan, another Jaycee representative, said of volunteering. “It can be an amazing experience, seeing these handicapped or senior citizen runners go by running mile after mile. It makes you believe you can do anything.”
Kim Dittrich, who was handing out water with her daughter, Kristina, felt similarly inspired. Like de Leon, she also felt motivated to run the marathon after volunteering several times.
“It was kind of a no-brainer. After seeing all kinds of people—blind, handicapped, old young—run the marathon, it made me want to run it,” she said. “I had a torn meniscus. It was tough. I wanted to quit so many times, but I ended up doing the 2006 marathon in four hours, 10 seconds at 44 years old. I was high-fiving everyone with a huge smile on my face. You let the energy of the crowd carry you.”
And the energy and hard work of the volunteers, too.
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