A fingernail-clip crescent moon hangs low in the east as I set off pre-dawn to my first assignment as Course Marshall. The "Pike's Peek" 10k race won't begin until 8am, but I need to be at my post by half past six. The mission is a simple one: Keep cars away from runners!

As a first-time volunteer race official I'm a bit nervous. John Sissala (director and founder of the event) gives a group of us a pep talk the previous day. "Drivers may curse at you," he warns good humoredly, "but just keep 'em moving." He reassures us that if we simply give people helpful detour directions and send them down the road, then they will be happy. "They'll also become somebody else's problem!"

John Noble, team captain of the course marshalls, is similarly comforting in his instructions to the novices. "We can't let you have a flag," he apologizes with a grin, "since the State says that you need eight hours of training before you can use one." But we all get bright orange-red vests, along with commemorative t-shirts and detailed map handouts showing our assignments. Free refreshments are a welcome bonus.

A race with thousands of entrants needs a lot of help to execute. Alas, volunteers are always scarce --- so I sign up to cover two posts, one near the start and another half a mile from the finish line. At 6:15am when I get there I find that kind earlybirds have already put the first barriers in place across the side street where the race will begin: white sawhorses with "High Water" painted on them.

I stand nearby, ready to let officials pass if needed. Ed, my partner at Post 2, arrives and takes turns with me as we inform drivers that they can't cut through. We tell each other stories about past races, and joke about police and early morning coffee-and-donut shops as we watch lawmen come and go.

Motorists all seem to be friendly, tolerant, and respectful this morning; a reflective vest can apparently give just about anyone an aura of authority. One county bus driver hasn't gotten the word and insists that she has to drop off her passengers at the usual Metro stop. We direct her to the next corner where she can vector into an alternate entrance.

As the time approaches increasing numbers of nervous erstwhile racers drive up, hoping that they're not too late. We send them to the next corner to park and wish them luck. Other tense runners jog back and forth, aiming to warm up yet not burn off too much soon-to-be-needed energy. Everybody is cheerful. The weather is near-perfect, cool and clear with a slight breeze.

Half an hour before starting time the Cone Truck appears and gives us a few dozen shiny plastic traffic cones, heavy new ones, along with a "Right Turn Only" sign to use across the street. Then the police cars, assigned by law to every intersection with a traffic signal, pull up with their lights flashing. Rule Number One is "Do whatever the police say!" --- so when the cops alter the plan to create a left-turn lane Ed and I comply with alacrity. These officers of the law have been helping at Pike's Peek events for several years in a row, and they have good instincts on how to keep the autos flowing smoothly.

A few hundred yards up the blocked road a peaceful mob begins to assemble at the starting line. We check our watches and, with police permission, array our traffic cones across the highway and move our barriers to make a smooth curve for the contestants to follow as they round the corner onto Rockville Pike.

They're off! First a pod of elite runners, potential winners, blast past. Then comes the next wave, and the next, in staggered starts designed to maximize efficiency and enjoyment for those of varying paces. Electronic chips attached to shoes capture individual timing information as the runners cross sensor mats.

We applaud everyone as they zip by. There are young couples and families clustered together ... team members with matching t-shirts ... a gentleman holding high a big American flag on a bamboo mast ... and on, and on. People laugh and chat with each other as they navigate the right-angle turn from the start onto the main part of the course, a straight-line six mile shot to White Flint Mall.

A few minutes later the flood of humanity thins to a trickle and ends. Ed and I scamper to stack our traffic cones by the roadside. We haul the sawhorses similarly out of the way, and jump into our cars to zoom down the Pike to our next assignments five miles further south.

As I drive along in the lanes parallel to the course I get to view the race in reverse: first the slowest folks, some already taking walk breaks, and only then the faster people. The leaders cruise along at a sub-five-minute-mile pace. What's truly astounding is how smooth their motions are: long, silent, gliding strides --- apparently effortless. A lovely illusion.

Then it's the three mile mark and I'm in front of the race. A police motorcycle squadron idles along the other side of the roadway, ensuring that no rogue driver penetrates the course and perpetrates a disaster. I reach my second post, a minor crossover between two major intersections, and park in front of the adjacent strip mall. I wait for a gap in the traffic, jaywalk into position, unnest the prepositioned traffic cones, and arrange them artfully to preempt any thoughts of U-turns onto the reserved lanes by wayward motorists.

A photographer crouches on the median near me, camera ready to capture images of the runners as they crest the hill to our north. We chat, and I direct a few cars onto alternate routes when they stop to ask for directions around my blockade. The morning is quiet.

Suddenly the speediest racers appear, still cruising along at an incredible pace. I clap as they pass, but they ignore me, totally intent on their work, oblivious to any distraction. Then after a pause come the flying masses, increasingly grateful and talkative in an inverse ratio to their velocity. "You're at White Flint Metro," I shout, " ... almost done! ... half a mile to go! ... downhill after the light! ... looking strong! ... way to go! ... good form! ... Bravo! ... "

All true, and all much appreciated by dazed joggers who are starting to glimpse the finish line in their exhausted imaginations. One exuberant passer-by holds out a hand for me to high-five. Another abandons a water bottle on the roadside; a later dessicated person pauses and takes a drink from it to recharge her batteries for the final sprint.

The crowd of participants is a delight to view in its multifarious variety of ages, sexes, colors, and costumes. One male runner is at this point shirtless, panting, torso glistening with sweat. His stars-and stripes bikini-bottom shows the flag in more ways than one. "Go sergeants!" I cheer chevron-clad members of one training program. "Go Maryland!" greets those who wear UM logos.

"Didn't I see you near the start?" several racers ask me. "Yep," I admit; my long gray beard is somewhat distinctive. I salute the patriot with the big US flag on the pole as he strides past. The slowest racers seem to be the most polite. Many thank me for helping with the race. "Thank you!" I respond.

My hands tingle from nearly-nonstop applause as the last of the pack crawl by. They're nonetheless proud, deservedly so, as they approach the finish line. Then comes the famous Cone Truck with its pickup crew. I help load my traffic barriers, turn in my red vest, and head for home. Being a race volunteer is its own reward, better than a medal.

(see also the Montgomery County Road Runner's Club (MCRRC) at http://www.mcrrc.org and SoggyJog (29 April 2002), a report on last year's Pike's Peek from my back-of-the-pack novice runner's perspective ...)

TopicRunning - TopicPersonalHistory - 2003-05-02

(correlates: Corporate Asset, ByDesign, WayAhead, ...)