The Olympic Trials: A volunteer experience
At 8:15am Saturday, February 29, we all gathered at the corner of Peachtree St and Peachtree place, dressed in the same blue, white, and grey jacket and black pants. Most of us had the hood of the jacket pulled up and tightly drawn around our faces to shield from the wind. It was a chilly 40 degrees at the time, with projected highs for the day only 10 or so degrees higher. I knew many of my fellow volunteers, but it was hard to recognize them under all the layers.
After nearly two years of waiting, the day was here: the day Atlanta hosts the Olympic Team Trials Marathon. The amount of organization, planning, and preparation for this day was clearly evident, as measured by the number of emails, trainings, and the polite intensity of the volunteer crew chiefs. All eyes were on us, and we were ready. There was a buzz throughout the city; large groups of runners covered the sidewalks in anticipation. Still others took advantage of the road closures to run parts of the course. It was a running holiday.You could just tell something special was about to happen.
The trucks arrived with our tables around 9:30, followed shortly by boxes of carefully packed personal hydration bottles. The tables were placed along the center of the road, exactly 10 feet apart. Each table received a large numbered sign and the correlated box of hydration. Only certain people were to handle the boxes, as dropping or tipping them could be very costly.
My table partner and I settled on the 21st table of the women’s section, and unpacked our box. We placed a tight-fitting red table cloth over the table and angled our “21” sign such that the runners could easily spot it as they flew down Peachtree. We triple checked the list and made sure that all of the bottles were present, and that gels were attached on the proper bottle. The bottles were arranged in 9 packs of six, labeled with each athlete’s name, bib number, and color-coded by which lap it was to be used for.
Next, we placed numbered stickers on the table cloth, indicating bottle position. The first 8 tables only had 6 bottles per table, as those were the tables likely servicing the future Olympians. Our table had 12 bottle positions, staggered in 2 rows of 6. The athlete was told their table and bottle position numbers, however I’m assuming that many of them only looked for their special bottle decorations. Many athletes used pipe cleaners or ribbons to fashion a handle that would be easier to grab at high speeds. They were covered in stickers, glitter, and motivational mantras. There was a variety of bottle strategies, ranging from kid-soccer 8oz bottles to standard 16oz sports bottles.
We finished setting up around 10:30, and it was the calm before the storm. We all took turns holding down the table and boxes from the wind to go get breakfast or to warm up. Our section was still in the shade and the wind seemed to be picking up as the day went on. Several tables got knocked over by the gusts before the race started, and the stanchions marking the course were refusing to stay upright. Eventually the cops gave up and left them lying on their side until it got closer to start time.
A little before noon, we were given the “okay” to set up our bottles. We had placed double sided sticky tape to each bottle position, with specific instructions to only set the edge of the bottle on the tape. It was surprisingly sticky and too much tape could potentially make it too hard to grasp as the runners were blazing through at 6:00/mile pace or faster. At 12:08, we got word through our crew chief that the men’s race started, and would be seeing them soon. Sure enough, about 10 minutes later, a stampede of singlets and carbon plated shoes came rolling down Peachtree. I felt the excitement swell in my chest, almost as if I were racing too. I wanted to jump up and down and cheer, but I was quite preoccupied with carefully watching the bottles and protecting them from the wind.
The women started 10 minutes later, and with that our personal hydration duties began. By now the men had made the turnaround on Peachtree and the lead pack headed the opposite way toward downtown. I craned my neck and yelled generic cheers while holding on to the topple-prone bottles.
I was really excited when I saw the women coming our way. They all were my heroes. Not only the ones I follow on Instagram or race for the elite running teams, but every single woman who toed the start line. In that pack were women who had full-time jobs, multiple kids, busy lives, and at least 3 were currently pregnant. Some had just squeaked into the race within the past two months, but surely worked for years for this windy moment in the Atlanta sun. I felt my eyes water and nose tingle, and not because the wind was blowing into my eyes. Five-hundred and eleven women qualified for this race, indicating the surging state of American women’s distance running and making it the largest field ever.
We diligently watched our bottles, no longer holding onto them, yet hands at the ready. All of the runners were running the tangents of the course, meaning that they were only a couple feet away as they passed by our table. Every time an athlete successfully got their bottle, my partner and I cheered and high-fived. The first lap ended with 2 bottles still on our table. It was incredibly difficult to watch an athlete unsuccessfully grasp their bottle. We were told not to help them under any circumstances, with disqualification from the race as the consequence.
Shortly after we saw the women pass the other direction, we were given the all clear to put up the second lap bottles. We were also given strict instruction to hold on to the table and keep a foot on the box containing the remaining hydration, as a box at one of the first tables got blown into the race course during the first lap. Much to our relief, we ended with an empty table for the next 2 laps. We had a great location to watch the race unfold, as we saw the runners 6 times. The difficulty of the course became very evident, especially in the second and third laps. The south bound portion of the course on Peachtree was a long, grinding uphill, and we witnessed the fatigue of the runners as measured by grimaces and breakdown in running form.
The men’s race appeared to be already decided at mile 23, as Galen Rupp had a substantial lead and looked nowhere near slowing down. However, the battle for second and third was very much alive, with a pack of 5 men following Galen’s lead toward Centennial Olympic Park.
The women’s race still appeared to be anyone’s for the taking, with a large pack of 6-8 women still running together and vying for their olympic dreams. They all looked strong, with Aliphine Tuliamuk and Molly Seidel leading and foreshadowing their eventual triumphs.
After the last of the women passed us, we were given the green light to pack everything up. We helped to load the tables, boxes, and excess trash into trucks. We all were still buzzing from the experience and traded stories. It was an incredible day for running, the city of Atlanta, and Atlanta Track Club. The effort put into the weekend was well worth it; all of the interviews and podcasts I’ve listened to regarding the race have framed Atlanta and the organization positively.
My biggest takeaways from the stories of the trials are as follows: age is just a number, injuries can be overcome, body type doesn’t determine running success, and running is a team sport, even on the biggest stage.
Dr. Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT