This story was actually written by my husband Mike on his experience at the marathon on Sunday. Enjoy!
This past weekend was the Half Moon Bay International Marathon event, which boasted 4 different races including a 5K (3.1 miles), a 10K (6.2 miles), a half Marathon (13.1 miles), and the full Marathon (26.2 miles). It really was a fantastic event and represented the Coastside well with its organization and energy.
But I didn't race. And this story isn't about who won or didn't win.
Instead, this story is offered to you as a view of the event from an Aid Station worker's perspective. I helped to host the Empowered Fitness Aid Station in El Granada at the corner of Coronado and Hwy 1, and this is my story. It's a bit of a longer one, and I apologize for that, but I hope you'll find it worth your while.
We arrived to set up the tent and surrounding area at 5:20am on Sunday morning. It was pitch black, freezing cold, and the fog was as thick as I've seen it in a long while. I actually had to slow down a bit on highway 1 on my way in to the rendezvous point because I was losing sight of the road. As we were unloading, putting up the canopy, and stacking crates and crates of water in the light of two dim lanterns, I was having a hard time visualizing the actual race happening and started wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into!
We set up cups of water or Clif Electrolyte replenishment drink to hand out to the runners as they ran by. We had Clif Gel Shots, Clif Shot Bloks, jellybeans (yes, really) and assorted other candies to offer runners as needed. Our Aid Station captain, Kristin Steadman (who was absolutely AWESOME!), was posting signs on the trail for the runners to read as they went by and cranking a rockin' set of music on the huge amp she'd brought to keep the atmosphere fun and festive. I'd never done anything like this and so I listened and helped as best I could while Kristin directed the essential activities and gave us a heads-up about what to expect.
Kristin explained that at the beginning the runners are all excited and happy to be there. The adrenalin is pumping still and all is good in the world. However, on the back half of the races, it's a different story. I listen with some trepidation. I'm not what you'd call a particularly adept care-person. I don't know how I'll react if I see someone really struggling, but I resolve to do my best.
Let The Races Begin!
The first race starts. It's the half marathon and a stream of determined and excited runners come through our station in the first 1/2 mile. You can see the energy and happiness on their faces as they settle in for their 13.1 mile journey. Many have colorful outfits (one older gentleman was wearing a polka-dotted skirt!). All is good in the world. Then fifteen minutes later the 10K starts and again a stream of excited and happy people come through. The 5K starts fifteen minutes after that and we see another stream come through, including kids with their parents, enjoying the time together. We all whoop and holler, encouraging them on, handing out an occasional water or Clif drink, while laughing and enjoying the happy energy that everyone is running with. This is pretty fun!, I think to myself as we cheer on another group.
Almost as quickly as they go through, the 5K racers are starting back through our station again on their way to the finish line, soon also joined by the 10K runners. The first ones come quickly, running deceptively fast as they pass through us on the last 1/2 mile of their race. I can see they are tired, but no more tired than I would be after a long, hard, 1 hour workout.
A little while later, the 1/2 marathoners start to return. They have just traveled almost 11 miles and reach us in different stages of fatigue. Most looked tired, dirty, and sweaty. You can tell it's been a struggle for them, but as they come through the station to our group of 25+ people shouting encouragement, ringing cow bells, and blasting music, their faces light up in smiles and the fatigue melts away just a bit, hopefully enough to carry them through to the finish. We had been cheering and shouting for about 3 hours by this time but seeing those weary people literally perk up, smile, and roll through the raucous reception they get at our station with a new spring in their step makes us all the more committed to give our all.
The Essence of a Marathoner
Then the first of the marathoners start to come through. They are at mile 11.5 of their 26.2 mile journey when they reach us, so they've been running for about an hour+ already. And the atmosphere immediately changes.
This is a different breed of runner. The first racers through are clearly experts at this distance. The leaders are all long and lean with comfortable strides and water bottles and food strapped to their bodies like combat gear. And they are courteous but deadly serious as they come through. We hand out more water, Clif drink, and Gel Shots but I can feel the intensity of the Aid Station volunteers grow as this group starts through.
Once the leaders have come and gone, the main body of the marathoners come through in fits and starts. And I start seeing the true diversity of people (and motivations) in the marathon. There are literally all ages, sizes, races, and body types represented in the people who are coming through.
The majority of marathon runners end up being surprisingly older men and women. Several older gentlemen come through with pictures of their deceased wives on their shirts. You know that this is no ordinary race for them. More than a few women have memorial messages on their shirts, honoring their loved one's lost struggle with cancer by going through their own long, arduous struggle. But while there is a vast array of different people participating, there is one thing in common....the determined look in their eyes. They are determined in a gritty "I-know-it's-gonna-hurt-but-I'm-doin-it-anyway" kind of way. They still smile when they see our encouraging faces, and they seem relatively fresh given how far they've run, but it's a different, more serious vibe for sure.
For the next hour the marathoners come through our station in a steadily dwindling stream as they start the long trek to the Ritz before turning around and making their way back. Eventually we see the soon-to-be co-winners of the marathon in the distance quickly making their way past the remaining half marathon racers still struggling to get home. They are a young man and woman who look like something straight out of the Olympics. Both strong and tall and running swiftly and absolutely effortlessly. There was no hint that they had just run 25 1/2 miles straight. It was one of the most impressive sights I saw that day.
For the next 30 minutes or so, the stronger runners make their way back through our station towards the finish line. Again, some very impressive times by older women and men who looked remarkably spry after such a long race. But then the real story for me begins. Now is when those racers who had reached the end of their energy began stumbling their way back through.
By this time, most of us at the Aid Station had been there standing and cheering for 6 straight hours. Our voices were hoarse, our legs were stiff, and we were exhausted from the emotional roller-coaster we'd been on so far. But as these brave souls continued to press on even when it was obvious that they were running on fumes, any discomfort or fatigue we felt was swept away by the overwhelming desire to SUPPORT these people. They NEED someone to just give them a little bit of strength as theirs has failed. I see one older man literally stumbling on his feet to stay upright. He continues through our station as though we weren't even there and he wasn't even sure where HE was, but continued on knowing he had a job to finish today. A young, slender woman listing violently to her right side and limping to stay upright comes through. She stops for a second to gulp down some Clif drink, thanking us. The medics check her right after our station, but find her to be well enough to finish and she continues on.
Countless people came through who so obviously were in physical and mental pain. But almost without fail, as they came within earshot of the cowbells, cheering, and blaring music, they smiled and picked up their pace ever so slightly. There were expressions of heartfelt thanks, tears of gratitude, smiles, and hopefully just enough of a lift to get them through that last 1/2 mile. I continued shouting and cheering the rest of the runners on until I felt something give in my throat and tasted blood (yes, that freaked me out a little bit). After that I just rang my cowbell and smiled at the runners as they came through.
Then she arrived at our station.
I don't know her name. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about this young woman's appearance. Just another runner at the end of her rope. She was trudging down the coastal trail, looking down at the ground and oblivious to us, pain etched in her face. When she was about 10 feet away from our station, she looked up as if startled, just realizing we were there. It took her a moment before she realized that this huge group of people cheering for her and offering her strength and support truly were there for HER. The look on her face as the pain and suffering melted away into sheer gratitude, hope, renewed strength, and a beautiful smile touched me beyond anything else that day. I couldn't take my eyes off of her as she came through. She weakly said "Thank you all so much" and then was gone, continuing towards the finish line. I had to just stand there and look away from the station up the trail, not talking and wiping tears from my eyes as I absorbed what a powerful moment that was.
I've never run farther than 7 miles at a time in my life. But at that moment I felt as though I was a real part of that 26.2 mile marathon race. Not for myself, but for the hundreds of others who raced in my stead. It is amazing, the strength of the human will to overrule what our bodies and even our minds must be howling at us towards the end of that race. It makes you realize that we are all capable of so much more than we think possible. And it makes you really appreciate the power and impact that our love and support can have on others. I wasn't sure what to expect when I signed up to work at that aid station....but it was an experience that I'll never forget.