AFTER spending the last four years in a sport that has allowed me to fulfill my dreams, improve my overall well-being, share and grow my knowledge, and foster new relationships, giving back is not only the sensible thing to do — it’s the least I can do.
And when the opportunity came along, I took it. I volunteered as a race marshal in a sprint triathlon.
I’ve made it my business to volunteer for various efforts, causes, or activities ever since I can remember. From donating blood and tutoring public school students to assisting in relief efforts and building housing for the less fortunate, volunteerism has always provided me genuine satisfaction and personal fulfillment. Marshaling would be no different, and would fit right into this eclectic list of volunteer work.
Being a race marshal isn’t a sexy job, period. But any race marshal will tell you that obscurity is one of the hallmarks of the position. Just do your job and stay out of the way. For once, I wouldn’t have to worry about having missed packing a pair of socks, a visor, or water bottle, that would eventually have ticked me off come race morning while preparing my stuff at the transition area. Triathlon racing, unlike most other sports, involves maintaining and completing a checklist of To Do’s and To Brings that rival a tactical invasion of a small country. Over time, you develop a mental file in your head of the essentials needed for any multi-sport race, but once in a while, one or two of those items still get left behind.
Fortunately, as a first time race marshal, the only things needed for the day were a megaphone, hydration, and a pleasant disposition. Presence of mind is a given.
On race morning, my assignment is simple: shepherd each age group of athletes to the front of the pool where they would start the first of three race legs, the swim. A group of five marshals from my triathlon team (me, Steph, Yna, Alisa, and Mayi) were in charge of the swim leg, and we worked together to ensure smooth conduct of the swim start, which if done correctly/incorrectly, would have a domino effect on the rest of the succeeding legs of the race.
First order of business is to check that all participants are in the correct holding pens, have their timing chips and wrist tags, and have been properly body-marked. We also have to make sure to do an attendance check to find out who’s missing from the start list so we can validate this with race central later. Keeping non-participants out of the restricted areas is par for the course, but did not pose any serious problems. Some people simply turn illiterate and/or deaf on race day and still break the simplest of rules. What part of ‘Off Limits’ did you not understand, lady? Of course, diplomacy is primary in the good race marshal rulebook, so we all keep our cool and inform the offenders in the nicest way to get the hell out of the area.
Aside from being the killjoys and event police, we get to swap pleasantries with the participants (a good number being newbies and first-timers) and engage them in light banter that helps calm their frayed nerves before their respective starts. There’s also time to reminisce about our own virgin race, and feel melancholic about the first time we got kicked in the face, kneed in the ribs, or struggled past the flailing limbs on the first few swim laps. Watching the participants wrestle past each other, gasp for precious breaths of air in between strokes or at the end of each lap, and hastily alight from the pool on the way to the transition area provides us with a sense of fraternity and familiarity. The excitement and fervor each participant is feeling is not lost on any of us; and there is a little tug inside each of the swim marshals, and a little voice whispering, ‘I wanna race, too.’
But today, we are here to serve, and serve we do. After the last wave of racers (elites and youngest male age groupers combined) is released, we are able to sit back and enjoy the show. An impressive display of swimming prowess by the elites combined with the youthful exuberance of the youngest male age-groupers are a fitting end to the swim leg portion of this contest. Later, we make our way to the finish line to watch the participants wrap up their races as each one crosses the finish line in his/her own manner of celebration.
One of the more thankless marshaling duties has to be what I call the medal hanger. She’s (it’s usually a female) the one who has the unenviable task of putting the medals (okay, hanging then) on each race finisher who is more likely to be drenched in sweat, sports drink, and/or snot. And the medal hanger has to do this for ALL the finishers so imagine what she feels or smells like by the end of the race. Steph, my teammate who has done her share of medal-hanging duties in past races, says the best part about the job is the after-race bath.
Manning the aid stations of the bike and run legs are also stressful undertakings. Having to ensure that all the plastic/paper cups are filled with water or sports drink can be unnerving, especially when the cups run out. Race participants can be an ornery lot, especially when hydration-deprived. They’ll unmindfully make a grab for the water pitcher, scream at the volunteer, or inadvertently throw half-empty cups in all directions except the waste receptacle as they stream past the hydration/aid station. Some are courteous enough to toss a ‘Thank You’ in the direction of the volunteers, which I believe is a basic courtesy that is lost among many race participants.
Good service is hard to come by, and I’ll be one of the first to raise a holler if I wasn’t happy with how my food was served or with the behavior of a store clerk towards me. And one shouldn’t be in the service industry (or be a volunteer) if he/she wasn’t prepared to consistently deliver satisfaction to every customer or participant. But good service should also be acknowledged. So the next time that race volunteer hands you a cup of water, or points you to where the portalets are located, a simple ‘Thank You’ and a smile would be fair change and would make all their efforts worth it.
And if it’s not on your bucket list yet, put it in as a priority: Volunteer.
“There is no better exercise for your heart, than reaching down and helping to lift someone up.”