I didn’t sign up to Run Hackney but still wanted to be involved in what I thought would be a great event with the potential to be THE half marathon in London that everyone keeps asking for. I volunteered as a course marshal and thought it might be helpful to blog about my race experience as it ended up being SO different from being a runner. When you run a race it’s usually all about you. You start your Garmin as you cross the start line. You get your breathing and foosteps into that familiar pattern of race pace You look out at the spectators and look around corners for the next water station, and you see the finish line as your personal goal. I’m the first to admit it’s a pretty selfish thing to run a race, even though as runners we’re usually quick to offer help if someone around us needs it, it’s not the reason we came to the race in the first place. When you work or volunteer at a race you get to see it as the sum of all the runners, plus the traffic control team, plus the suppliers, plus the actual earth you are running on. For me, it was fascinating to take a step back and look at what a mass-participation race really is for once.
First things first. As volunteers we had to attend a briefing about 2 weeks before the race. It covered the standard race information and went into the logistics and timings of the event. Hackney Half had over 12,000 runners signed up and they were expecting around 10,000 to run the race. No small race, it would not have been possible without the total buy in of the council. It was actually the Hackney Council’s idea to put on this race which I really liked as rather than just a for-profit event, it involved a lot of the community. On the flip side of this it also impacted a lot of the community with road closures and such. The event organising team made it clear that this wasn’t to be an event that excluded the community and I think made every effort to communicate to and involve local residents.
I arrived at my sector’s meeting spot at 7:45 am on race day morning. Quickly handed my high-vis vest & radio we were again given a quick rundown of timings and a lesson on how to use the radio for this day. As course marshals we were given a location to stand and instructed to direct runners in the right direction, and keep an eye out for any causalities or dangerous situations. The race had hired a traffic control team who were being paid to keep the roads closed and deal with those who were not happy about the roads being closed so we as volunteers were told not engage with them. In practice that wasn’t quite the case as I had to deal with at least a dozen cars who insisted they could drive down the course without hitting a runner (“I’ve never hit anyone before, I promise”). There were also a lot of pedestrians who really wanted to cross the road to get to the off licence at 10am. Because the roads were not barricaded (on purpose because of the whole community theme) we did our best to warn them of the dangers of runners at 6 miles in the heat not being able to avoid you… but most risked it anyway. It was exciting to see the first few runners go by at a blistering pace, and quickly behind them the road started to fill up with speedy club runners and a lot of bare chested men with heart rate monitors. As a course marshall this was pretty easy to control as most of these runners were in the zone and just following the people ahead of them. The masses started arriving at about a 1:30 pace and it kept on business as usual for my duties. Point to the left and give a few motivational cheers to keep them awake. On the race radio there was some chat about a small fire that had started on the race route (quickly dealt with by LFD!) and a missing scout troupe of volunteers and thus a water station empty of volunteers. I was amazed at how quickly everything was sorted, but that’s the way of these things. Don’t bring problems, bring solutions.
One of the best parts of the day was seeing Alex run by and throwing him some Haribo for energy. Another runner saw this and yelled “SHE’S GOT SWEETIES!!!” and I kid you not, a hundred runners suddenly became my best friend and devoured the rest of the bag. Next time I marshal I’m bringing a few extra bags.
There was talk on the radio of water running out as the race went along. As I was stationed just after the second water station a few runners yelled asking me where the next station was because they had now ran 6 miles without water on this 24* day. This is where I think it’s important to have runners/former runners as your marshals, I knew how much it sucks to not get the water you expect. I did my best and offered runners my water bottle until it ran out and then I ducked into the off licence and bought their biggest case of water to hand out to as many runners as possible. By that time the church beside the water stand too had brought their hoses out so we were able to get water to the majority of the rest of the field. It wasn’t ideal that there wasn’t enough water ordered, but I heard other marshals were finding water and people even came out of their houses and stores to give out extra water.
At this point there was a lot of talk on the radio of collapsed runners. The hills and lack of shade in the last 4 miles of the race were too much for a lot of runners. It was scary to hear all of the emergencies but I was very impressed by the initial first aid being given by the marshals and the triage by race control & the paramedics. I don’t know any personal stories from the day but do hope everyone got the best care possible. I would have liked to see the race organisers provide more shower tents and obviously more water, but I think other than that, they did what they could with the conditions they had. Ample warning of the heat was given to all runners.
Back at mile 6 I was getting high-fives and a lot of smiles from the runners. Offering top-ups on their water bottles and encouraging them along their way. When one runner said, “thank you for staying back for us” I almost cried as a) they weren’t that far back in the race and running at a good clip and b) I read the back of the pack experience blog post by Heather Gannone last week and I didn’t want anyone to feel like that because of my actions. As volunteers we were clearly told the the sweep bikes would be coming around at a 3:30 finish pace and we were expected to stay out until then. Some of the clean up was happening before that, but only because the roads had to open at 1pm, a few guys with brooms were all the runners saw as the big rubbish trucks stayed behind the sweep bikes. As the sweep bikes passed me it was over just like that. I (reluctantly) handed in my high-vis vest and radio, finished the last of my ham & cheese sandwich, found Becca and headed off to the closest pub to meet the finished runners.
After watching a race from literally the first to the last runner and seeing almost all the setup and take down on the course I couldn’t believe what a good deal the $40 entry was. In reality I know that’s a lot and I’d think twice about entering a race for that much, but when you see all that goes on to put on the race for 10,000 + people, I felt like it should have cost thousands. I’m not excusing high race prices, just saw a different side of the fees.
I also now believe (even more strongly) that you should be responsible for preparing for your own race and having what you need to get yourself around. On an extra hot day I would not trust the race to provide unlimited water. Sure, you can complain later, but on the day wouldn’t you rather get around safely?
Finally, as runners, get out there and volunteer at your local races! Please! One of the guys working near me on traffic control kept calling it “The London Marathon” to drivers and then asked me how many miles it was. He was great in helping hand out the emergency water, but had no idea how important it was to get the water in the first place. We know! We can spot the problems before they start, we can see a runner wavering and see if they’re OK. We are the ones that need to be out there! This is my rallying cry! On on!