Of(f) Course, You Are

in the knowOf all the volunteer duties that accompany a road race, one of the toughest has to be course marshal. These are the people who keep runners heading in the right direction and prevent short cuts. They also keep cars and cyclists from colliding with race participants and alert an aid station if someone needs help. I can tell you from experience, it can be a fun but tough assignment.

Just ask the folks in Cleveland who in May had to figure out what to do with hundreds of runners sent in the wrong direction after the course was blocked by a police cruiser. It turned the Rite Aid 10k, part of a marathon weekend, into almost a 15k and threw results into chaos.

I’ve heard similar stories of misguidance over the years: misplaced course cones; sabotaged signage; and people just not paying close attention. One popular New England fall marathon ended up with the third and fourth place finishers taking first and second after a seasoned course marshal failed to immediately notice the first two runners strayed off course around the Mile 23 mark. The race director let the official results stand, despite protests.

Dennis recently related an ethical dilemma he weighed when a frontrunner momentarily went the wrong way. I’ve never led a race, but I have been far enough behind to witness a course marshal asking irritated motorists to wait until I pass. On a recent rural course, a police officer just happened to approach a busy intersection same time as me and stopped traffic. That didn’t prevent a truck from turning right into my path anyway.

It isn’t any easier if it’s an off-road, cross country course. During one volunteer stint, I yelled hopelessly as runner upon runner shortcut the course in fast-moving packs. Even standing in their way with my arms waving to move over didn’t help. They just shifted around me, onto the path of least resistance. At a 4-miler in a major city park, as a course marshal I had to handle a homeless woman heckling runners and kindly ask another guy if he wouldn’t mind chain-smoking in a different spot. All while making sure racers carefully negotiated a key turn.

It’s even harder if it’s cold and rainy. Runners eventually warm up; the course volunteers usually don’t. In addition, course marshalling is not for the shy. You’ve got to be forceful when people are doing their own thing, which means shouting and using physical gestures when people are in their own little world. You’ve got to be forceful with motorists. You’ve also got to be enthusiastic to the very end, maybe especially at the very end, when the last runners could use a morale boost.

So, be sure to thank those men and women who stick it out—sometimes for hours—somewhere on the course to make sure you make it to the end. Then, of course, make it to the end. For them and for you.

2 thoughts on “Of(f) Course, You Are”

  1. Times like those, I wish I were a lot taller because even with my hands waving furiously — and wearing a blaze orange vest! — I lost to the fast-moving crowds. So, your image wasn’t far off. The Balboa Park heckler is one of my favorite race tales, too. Nothing like yelling “Way to go!” while someone’s shouting over you, “You’re all a bunch of losers!”

    Thanks, Jon. Have a great summer on the run.

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