Winter marathons: Tough on both volunteers and runners

If you think running a marathon in February would be hard, try being a volunteer at one.
Runners in the 40th Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club Winter Marathon at the University at Albany on Sunday, February 17, 2013.
Runners in the 40th Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club Winter Marathon at the University at Albany on Sunday, February 17, 2013.

If you think running a marathon in February would be hard, try being a volunteer at one.

Temperatures hovered around 20 degrees Sunday morning at the start of the 40th annual running of the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club Winter Marathon. The relentless wind made it feel much colder.

But that didn’t stop 119 marathon runners from showing up at the starting line on the University at Albany’s campus, along with 61 relay teams competing in the companion three-person relay race.

As they hopped up and down in layers of fleece and spandex, waiting for the 10 a.m. race start, about 100 volunteers were reporting to their posts.

“Those are the people that deserve any sort of credit. They stand there. We’re out there running. You start to get warm after a half-mile, a mile, but anybody that’s standing there for five hours, those people, they’re never going to get warm,” said runner Mike O’Connell, 34, of Delmar, who was competing in the relay race with his wife, Sandy, and friend, Jen Bannigan.

Cheering Bannigan on as she began the first leg of the relay, Mike O’Connell yelled to her, “I’m here for you kid! You’re running. I’m out here!”

But as the runners took off, the wind racing along with them, the O’Connells made plans to take shelter indoors until it was their turn to run.

Mother and daughter Joan Celentano of Schenectady and Amanda Backowski of Virginia Beach, Va., didn’t have that luxury. Dressed in four layers, they were headed for a water station along the route, which they would staff for 21⁄2 hours.

“They really needed help today. It’s hard getting volunteers for winter races,” said Celentano, who has been a member of the runners’ club for 22 years.

There’s a trick to staffing a water station when the temperatures dip below freezing, said race co-director Dana Peterson.

“They don’t want to pour it too soon because it’ll blow over, it’ll freeze,” she said.

Before race time Sunday, the wind was already wreaking havoc.

“Our signs are blowing over even with the sandbags holding them down. We’re hoping our finish line doesn’t blow over,” Peterson said.

Worse years

But Sunday’s weather wasn’t the worst the race has seen, she noted. “We’ve had windy and sleet, we’ve had rain, we’ve had snow, ice, so this year is better,” she said. “Our main concern is our volunteers. They’re standing out there, it’s a five-hour-long race and we work them in 21⁄2-hour shifts, but it gets pretty cold.”

Neal Sergott of Clifton Park, a volunteer photographer for the event, was hoping the cold wouldn’t sap his camera battery too quickly, since he had no backup.

Bundled so that every square inch of him was covered except for his face, he said he had practiced taking pictures with mittens and gloves on, so he wouldn’t have to expose his hands to the elements.

“I’ve got a Thermos of hot water, so if they get cold, I can just pour some water over them, dry it off and put the mitts back on and I’m good to go,” he said.

Liz Milo of Guilderland had the prime volunteering position — serving drinks, snacks and soup inside the physical education building at the college. But she’s been an outdoor volunteer for many winter races past.

“They were horrible,” she recalled, reminiscing about unchecked wind and handing out cups of water in the cold. “Runners are going by, they grab it, so your hands get sopping wet. It can be very nasty,” she said.

A dedicated group of volunteers was dispatched Sunday to deliver hot chocolate and coffee to co-workers staffing outdoor positions along the race route, which circled through the UAlbany and State Office campuses.

Despite the less-than-perfect working conditions, volunteers insisted they enjoy giving back to the club, no matter what the weather.

“Our volunteers, every year, make this race. They’re so enthusiastic, they’re always willing to help,” Peterson said.

The runners, some of whom came from as far away as Florida, Alabama, Missouri and Quebec, said they appreciate the opportunity to compete on a winter day.

“When you cross that finish line, it’s an unexplainable feeling. You wish you could bottle it up,” said Lisa DiCocco, 38, of Menands, who was running the marathon with her husband, Ryan Nix. “There is such a sense of accomplishment. I feel like I’m sounding cliche, but there really is, knowing that you did that — you pushed your body 26.2 miles.”

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