Friday, October 17, 2014

The 2014 Ten for Texas: A Story of Teamwork (and Redemption)

Here it is: my first race report since saying goodbye to running in late July.

This past weekend, I participated in the 10 for Texas. It’s a 10-mile race in The Woodlands, Texas, and it’s one of my favorites. I’ve run it twice before—until this weekend, my 2011 experience was the most memorable. Now, it’s a tossup.

Here’s my swag from this year:

On Friday, I reported to the packet pickup site at 2:00 p.m. Another volunteer demonstrated how to stuff race bags with shirts, hats, and coupons. However, I didn’t get much opportunity to put the lesson into practice—my bag-stuffing partner was an absolute whiz at it, and the bag-stuffing rate decreased whenever I stuck my clumsy paws in to help. So, while she stuffed bags like mad, I went to work greeting the runners. As each runner arrived, I pulled the correct (hopefully) race bib out of a numerically organized accordion file, and grabbed a race bag stuffed with the appropriate-sized shirt. I handed the bib to the sleep-deprived race organizer, who checked it in on the computer. It didn’t take long to learn my lines. “Do you know your bib number?” “You can look up your bib number on the wall outside the store entrance.” “Don’t forget the safety pins; they’re at the end of the table.”

(For my non-running or non-racing readers: Race bibs are different from baby bibs, though both are worn on the front of the shirt. Race bibs are just squares of coated paper that display the runner’s race number. In this case, they are also embedded with a timing chip, used to record the runner’s official time as he or she crosses the start and finish lines.)

Soon another volunteer arrived, making my job easier. Now I didn’t even need to grab the bags—I just told Lauren, my new partner, the shirt size, and she found the bag and gave it to the runner. Pretty soon, I had to learn another line: “We’re so sorry, we’ve run out of Small shirts. You can choose a Medium or an Extra Small.” Lauren knew the drill—as soon as she spotted a bib that said “Small,” she grabbed two model shirts, tossed one to me and held up the other. “I’m holding a Medium shirt, and Lauren is holding an Extra Small. Which one would you like?” The runners were amazingly good sports about it, with very few showing any disappointment or annoyance. Runners are an easygoing bunch, I think. Hmm, I wonder why…is it possible that running could have positive effects on one’s mindset?

I had a blast at packet pickup—the time flew. Lauren and I stayed until our host, the Luke’s Locker running store, locked its doors at 7:00 p.m. My surgically sliced abs performed well, and didn’t start barking at me until the fifth and final hour of my shift. I left the stored tired but happy. The tiredness was partly from being on my feet for 5 hours, but mostly from knowing I had to report to Hydration Station #3 at 6:30 a.m.

It was dark, with hardly any traffic, when I parked my car on the grass verge of Lake Woodlands Drive. Our hydration station was in the median, at a crossover. It was an out-and-back course, so we would see the runners twice, about Miles 3.5 and 7. Maybe a dozen volunteers (I didn’t count) were assigned to the station. Most of us didn’t know each other, so we set to work making new friends.

The race organizers clearly knew what they were doing, and had supplied us with everything we needed. There were eight tables, four or five Gatorade-filled coolers, and a big blue reservoir called a Water Monster. We had lots of cups, extra trash bags, rakes (to pick up the discarded cups), and three water pitchers (which would have been enough, if we had figured out our efficient water-pouring system at the beginning instead of the end). A plastic bin held bug spray, ponchos, band-aids, and other sundries. It also contained our bright yellow volunteer T-shirts, individually labeled with our names. After a quick shirt switcheroo (under cover of darkness, behind a fellow volunteer’s SUV), we were ready to work.

Before long, all the tables were covered with cups of Gatorade and water. We watched and waited, and finally saw our first runner! He was speeding along, and didn’t need anything from us. Others soon followed, until we had more than enough customers. We shouted “Gatorade! Water up ahead!” and “Water! Water!” At first, all went well. The cup-fillers were keeping up nicely with the cup-distributors. But then we got slammed—the runners were slurping the drinks faster than we could replenish them. I started out filling Gatorade cups, but soon switched to water, our more desperate need.

It was crazy. We filled water cups furiously, but still couldn’t keep up. “Why did they only give us three pitchers?” Fill cups until pitcher runs out. Sprint to Water Monster. Wait impatiently for pitcher to fill. Tell Water Monster to hurry up. Get mad at Water Monster for obeying the laws of physics. Meanwhile, some unfilled cups are temporarily abandoned, risking that the cup-distributors mistakenly grab the empties and offer them to the runners. (It happened, I’m sure.) The cups were generally laid out by a separate person, so the pitcher-wielder could concentrate on pouring and refilling. But sometimes the cup-arranger had to stop and shove the full cups toward the street side of the table, so the cup-distributors wouldn’t grab the empties. Then the cup-arranging would fall behind.

Eventually, we started to get traction. Our efforts were just as frenzied but not as futile. We were catching up. The improvement was mostly due to the slower runners being more spread out, but partly due to improvements in our processes. For example, I learned that I had been pouring all wrong. I had been tilting the pitcher down for each cup, then back up, then back down for the next cup. This wastes a ton of time. Instead, I needed to make sure all the cups were touching, then pour a whole line of them in one continuous motion, without lifting the pitcher. Who cares if the table gets wet? I wish I could take credit for figuring this out, but I learned it from another volunteer. I think she had worked water stops before, but maybe she was just a whole lot smarter than me. Yea, three college degrees, including one in engineering, and I can’t figure out the optimal way to pour water. Embarrassing.

We didn’t get to breathe for long. We had survived the westbound rush, but now the eastbound rush was beginning. (It was an out-and-back course… the runners u-turned a couple miles down Lake Woodlands Drive.) This meant a do-over opportunity, and we hoped to redeem ourselves. The well-stocked tables on the eastbound side had been robbed during the earlier chaos, so we were starting from scratch. That was just fine, because we were improving by the minute. Our previous disorganization had gradually been replaced by efficient teamwork. One person “cupped,” covering the table with long straight rows of cups. Two of us poured continuous lines of cups, working from opposite sides of the table to avoid collisions. One guy did nothing but fill water pitchers. As soon as my pitcher emptied, he handed me a full one. Water Monster still obeyed the laws of physics, but moved faster, thanks to someone discovering that the hose-tap released a larger stream of water than the thumb-press spigots. (Easier on the thumbs, too.) Through proactive communication, we avoided the full/empty mixups: “Pull from Table 2!” Then the cup-distributors used Table 2 and left us alone. When Table 1 was 100% covered in filled cups, we shouted “Pull from Table 1,” and got to work on Table 2. It worked beautifully.

After a while, we were well ahead and I finally had time to watch the race. I handed out a few cups of water and Gatorade, just to experience another aspect of volunteerhood. I am definitely not cut out to be a full-time cup-distributor. The task requires far more coordination than I possess—you have to hold a cup in your outstretched hand, and let it go at exactly the right time, without either dropping the drink or getting your hand tangled with the runner’s hand. Even trickier, you need to get in and out of position without tripping the runners or yourself. I managed okay with the slower runners, but when the leaders come through, I’d better stick to pouring water or cupping tables.

The best cup-distributor in our crew was also the youngest. Well, she may not have been the most efficient, but she brought a smile to the most runners’ faces. She was a beautiful young lady, about eight or ten years old, and she distributed three cups at a time—one in each hand, and one balanced on her head. If she stood very still and the runner was coordinated and not too fast, it worked well. I hope she didn’t try it with the leaders.

By this time, nearly all the work was done. The westbound (first) side of Hydration Station #3 had already been broken down, and the equipment was neatly stacked in the median. I didn’t even see it happen. One young man had raked cups for several blocks, all the way to the stop lights on either side of our crossover. He searched the bushes and pulled out every stray cup. The trash bags were filled, tied, and stacked. We cheered for the remaining runners, with an especially loud cheer for the last runner. With all of us helping, it took almost no time to clean up the eastbound side, rake the cups, stack the equipment, and empty the Water Monster.

As an extra-special bonus on a special day, I got to say hello to my friend Fred, as he grabbed some water on his way to the finish line. Three years ago, I had the honor of running the first couple miles of the 10 for Texas with him. At that time, he was 83 and the oldest runner in the race. He’s still at it.

What a marvelous morning. I was sad to see it end, and sad to say goodbye to my crewmates. Before the race started, I was determined to run the 10 for Texas next year. Now, I’d almost rather volunteer again, especially if it meant reuniting with my Hydration Station #3 team. Next year, we’ll know all the tricks from the get-go, and we’ll get it right the first time.