Volunteering

More than just working for free.

I was a human traffic cone.

August 22, 2016

Yesterday was the Edmonton Marathon. A beautiful, sun-filled day on the streets of our city populated with 4500 runners and over 500 volunteers, all of them striving to ensure the thousands of klicks and millions of footsteps were fun, safe, and rewarding efforts of athletic achievement.

I didn’t run.

I stood on the side of the road for over seven hours. I wore my Tilley hat and sandels. I nursed a couple bottles of water and tracked over ten thousand steps in an area the size of a traffic intersection. Literally: it was a intersection. I was a human traffic cone.

Step back.

I’ve been asked a hundred times why I didn’t run. Not that I need an excuse to avoid any race. There are hundreds, thousands of races that I don’t run. But the signature event in our city? So, here’s the best explanation that I can give you cobbled together from a dozen less coherent excuses that I’ve told people over the last few months:

Training is a qualitative thing. But races are quantitative acts. They are measured, pressured, unpredictable events that are meant to guage performance and lift energy through group participation. No, they are not incompatible with a training program, but they do introduce a measure of uncertainty that can either be net-positive or net-negative in the calculation one makes when striving for a training goal that is different than the actual race itself. You just don’t know what will happen between a start line and finish line. I’ve had awesome races and terrible ones. But you recall, guess, strategize, plan, focus, then run… or not. I’m currently training for what could be the most amazing race of my life: a full marathon through the streets of New York a few days before my fortieth birthday. I decided, simply, that I was not screwing that up by adding unnecessary uncertainty if I could have avoided it. Which I could. So I didn’t run.

Instead I decided to marshal.

I stood on the side of the road in a reflective safety vest and guarded a section of very busy course from the onslaught of some of the worst people in the world: impatient and entitled drivers who forgot a major race was running in-between them and their destination.

Delay is temporary. The insults and verbal abuse you slung at me and my fellow volunteers yesterday is now immortalized on this blog. Runners are generally awesome. Some of the people I met through a rolled down car window yesterday are the opposite of that. You know who you are. Or not. Part of me thinks you’re not that clever, aware or empathetic to the universe as a whole to understand that you suck so bad.

I’ve run a lot of races, but marshaling was a different beast. Despite the previous couple paragraphs I am very glad I played that small but important role.

We runners fly past the hundreds of people on the curbs, cheering or whatever, acting like traffic cones or whatever, handing out water or whatever, and we thank them or wave to them… or whatever. I didn’t expect much. I was there to be a cog in the big race machine, and at the end of the day it was a good thing for the thousands of racers.

But it was also important for some personal perspective. Forty-two klicks of guarded roadway, a safe space for thousands of varied athletes to play for a few hours, to race. I’ve now been that human traffic cone, holding back the reality of stupid and angry non-runners. But I’ve also been that athlete. I will be that athlete again, soon. And next time I’ll be a little more vigilant about throwing a much-needed smile of appreciation in their direction as I pass to those folks who stand there no less part of the race, even if they never run a single step.