The Other Side of the Water Station: An Adventure in Volunteering

July 31,2012

Maybe as an athlete it’s easy to take some things for granted: a well-marked course, one million small paper cups filled with cold refreshment, an excess of smiling cheering faces.

Who makes that all happen? Volunteers are huge players.

On Saturday, July 28th, members of Team PHenomenal Hope and some special friends got a chance to “give back” in a new way to the Pittsburgh community by volunteering at the GNC Pittsburgh Triathlon and Adventure Race, hosted by Friends of the Riverfront.

The icing on the cake– each volunteer earned their charity of choice $25 in the bank. Team PHenomenal Hope had Kate, Stacie, Anne-Marie and myself, along with my (extremely generous, amazing) friends from Duquesne: Erika Allen, Darlene Monlish and Jess Posimo.

The weather report for the “short-course” Saturday did not look promising. I pulled up my app and saw each hour marked by a good chance of T-storms. The sounds of thunder claps and golf-ball sized rain when I went to bed Friday night was more than slightly concerning.

The alarm went off at 3:35 am. So early. I continued to chant “good cause, good cause, good cause” as I trudged to the bathroom to at least brush my teeth before heading out the door. Unfortunately, I didn’t leave enough time to eat a proper breakfast. Soon my stomach was making the same rumblings as the sky the night before.

The volunteer crew first met up with our coordinator who assigned us to body markings and then Aid Station 1. We got paired up and I was with a woman named Chrissy. She held up our giant number post while another volunteer directed athletes our way. I was in charge of transcribing the athletes’ race numbers on their arms and legs, as well as their race age on their calves. Some were more willing to share that number than others! The funny thing was how many people almost had their brains explode when I had to ask how old they’d be on the last day of this year (it was around 5 am, after all).

Yellow shirts to match our sunny disposition.

Body marking is kind of an intimate assignment. I got a good, close look at a lot of these athletes. It was truly astonishing to see the variety of body types and ages represented. Unlike the competition going on Sunday, which was double the distances of each of the swimming/kayaking, bicycling and running, no doubt filled with lean athletes and carbon time-trial bikes, the Saturday crew sported anything from mountain bikes to commuter bikes with racks to top-of-the-line road bikes. Their attire was more cotton and less “space age” fabric in European race cuts. This group wasn’t racing for medals or glory, they were racing for themselves, for the love of sport, for the chance to prove to themselves what they were capable of doing. Their excitement was so tangible I felt like I could stick it in a Mason jar and pull it out on my next “down” day when I take it all too seriously. It’s not to say that “elite” competition is bad, just that seeing these particular racers brought back the purity of the sport–doing it just to do it, doing it for the adventure in it.

After body-marking, the 7 of us gals made our way to the aid station. We were located right between the end of the swim/kayak and the bike transition area. Because of the course set-up, we were also the station that supplied water in the bike-run transition zone. There was a giant cardboard box filled with little paper cups and we set to work filling them all up with water or Gatorade, then we lined up along the course and yelled out our offerings while cheering them on (with great enthusiasm, of course!). My greatest fear in all this was that an unsuspecting racer would take a Gatorade, believing it was water, and throw it on their face to cool down. My fear intensified when one older gentleman grabbed a water from me and before I could verify the cups contents he already had it running down his jersey. We all got lucky, though, no eyes were stuck shut from a lemon lime bath (as far as I knew).

The kayaks in the adventure race started after all of the swimmers had already exited the river (which was pretty gross and stinky after all the storms. I recalled how much of Lake Arthur I swallowed in my 1st triathlon and I felt sick for the racers. Egh. Anyway, I digress…) As the kayakers began to come up the walkway to the bike transition zone the first of the runners started coming through the other side of our water station. In some ways, I felt like I was doing some speed drills running back and forth to the water table to get filled cups and race back to my spot to hand them off. The other ladies did an amazing job handling the filling of new cups (lots and lots and lots of new cups) and getting water to the runners. In fact, I think we’d all agree that the hardest job was… handling the SPECTATORS.

Spectator (Definition): a person viewing anything; onlooker; observer.

The dictionary lies! Some of these so-called spectators weren’t watching anything, it seemed!! In fact, on more than several occasions I would observe these “observers” cheering for athlete X, then moments later, start walking diagonally across the course with their backs to the oncoming racers. I would yell “racer back!!!” and they would look at me like I just said the Potato Patch stopped selling fries. Why the confusion? If Team PH made an extra dollar for every life we saved yelling at spectators, well, I suppose we could immediately suspend fundraising efforts. Yes, it was that bad. No, I don’t believe the offenders were up at 3:30 am, so why was I the alert one? I didn’t even have my coffee!

At the end of the day, this was really an amazing experience. I will be the first to admit that I was happy to help with the “other side of the water station” but was NOT looking forward to the early morning start and “losing” half a Saturday. However, cheering for these athletes, seeing them smile back at me–either with excitement about what they were accomplishing or in the gratefulness for the cool drink… it really did make it all worth it. If anyone deserves the extra special treatment, it’s these athletes who are working out of their comfort zone, trying something that is usually advertized to people with 1% body fat who train in wind tunnels, yet having the time of their life doing it. To that, I raise my paper cup.


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