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Volunteering can count as a workout, too

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The night before the Nike Women’s Half Marathon, I laid out critical supplies for the next day: moisture-wicking clothes, sneakers and a couple of granola bars to scarf down on my way out the door. When I woke up, I was ready to race — over to a volunteer aid station at the tip of Hains Point.

I’ve still never run 13.1 miles. But on the morning of April 27, I helped 15,000 other people do it. And I discovered that volunteering can count as a workout, too.Rick Amernick, president of the D.C. Capital Striders, invited me to join about 140 members of his running group who would be pitching in at several spots. (The event had more than 1,500 volunteers). I’d already agreed before he mentioned the 5:30 a.m. start time.

“My alarm went off awfully early,” commiserated Gisele Renly, 46, whom I spotted on my bike ride from Capitol Hill. We were pretty much the only folks out in the chilly darkness, so I guessed — correctly — that she was a fellow volunteer. And we were headed to the same station, just beyond Mile 9.

As we rode up, I found Amernick strategizing with Lindsay Marsh, our aid station captain, over heaps of Luna bars. The first arrivals had already set up a row of tables and were moving boxes around. Where did they want me?

“Just find someone that needs help,” Marsh pleaded before picking up her cellphone to give directions to a lost volunteer while simultaneously assisting Amernick, who was struggling with setting up a pole that would fly the race banner. (“I’ll have more fun when the race is over,” he joked.)

Dawn Tarter, 29, and Jeff Buck, 27, looked as though they could use a hand readying some water tables, so I walked over to them. The process was straightforward: Line up paper cups, and fill them using skinny hoses connected to giant tanks called “Water Monsters.” Both of my partners had volunteered at previous events but never at a race this massive.

Those hoses really speed up the process, Tarter explained. Normally, we would just make do with jugs. By the time Katey McCarthy, 29, arrived to join us, we’d covered every inch of space on the tables and it was time to test our balance: Buck grabbed a thin piece of cardboard to put across the top and we started filling a second layer of cups. And then, a third.

Our only reason to pause? The costume change. McCarthy, a race volunteer newbie like me, looked inside her assigned bag to pull out her T-shirt, and saw that she’d also scored another three tops, some shampoo and a beer bottle opener. Not a bad haul, noted McCarthy, especially because she wasn’t expecting anything other than some gratitude. “I’ve always appreciated the people who are out there when I run, and I thought I needed to be on the other side,” she said.

The whole Mile 9 team of volunteers — which had grown to about 40 people — soon huddled to discuss our game plan. Some people would be the cleanup crew, others would be in charge of passing out sips of an electrolyte drink. (“It’s Nuun. Do not call it Gatorade,” Marsh lectured.) The majority of us would be on water duty, handing off cups and filling new ones as quickly as possible.

Marsh, who’s a liquor distributor, compared the whole experience to working at a beer festival: “Everyone is looking for something to drink.” Only she gets more buzzed being at an event like this.

“I’m going to cry,” she warned me. “It’s 15,000 women of so many shapes and sizes doing what I love.”

Amernick had a different kind of prediction.

“The storm is coming,” he said. “There are only 10 runners in those first 15 minutes. Then it’s another 15 minutes until you see anybody else.” After that, expect chaos, which is why Amernick thinks it’s important for members of the Capital Striders to be there. “We know how hard these runners are working, and we want to give, not just take,” he added.

As promised, the beginning wasn’t so demanding. With our pristine tables ready to go, dozens of us got into a chorus-line formation with one arm extended and fingers pinching the side of a cup. Most of the speedsters dashed on by without grabbing anything. And when one of them did, the group of us cheered as loudly as we had for the woman leading the pack.

All I remember next is a blur. For at least two hours, I felt like I didn’t have enough hands. As quickly as I could grab water from our Jenga-esque display, runners were knocking the cups back or dumping them over their heads. We needed to dodge the folks who cut a path too close to the tables, and jump to avoid the splashes when cups were inadvertently chucked straight at us.

What I couldn’t miss, however, were the thank-yous. So many of the athletes — who were nine miles into a race! — took the time to give the volunteers compliments. One woman, as I refilled her water bottle, proclaimed, “You’re literally my lifesaver.” So we were still pumped up as the crowd began thinning, and we channeled that energy into cheering on the stragglers.

There was hollering and jumping. And then, as soon as the last person passed on by, there was cleaning. Volunteers armed with rakes had kept the path passable. Now we scooped the flattened cups into trash bags, dumped the extra water and collapsed the tables.

By 10:30 a.m., we’d reached our finish line.

It was an educational experience, said McCarthy, who developed some strategies for the next time she runs a race. She now knows to make a beeline for the last water table at a station (the first one got utterly mobbed), and to forget about trying to get her cup in a trash can. (That cuts people off and doesn’t do much good.)

Marsh said we’d all be learning something else the following day: “Your arms are going to be sore from holding those cups out.” And our throats would be hoarse from the yelling, she added prophetically.

“I used to say volunteering at a marathon is as hard as running one. Now that I’ve run one, I don’t feel that way any more. But it’s close,” said Marsh as she did a final check of the station.

There was only one thing left to do: Go home and take a nap. We’d earned it.

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