Now that the calendar has struck November, I'm reminded of a special moment I experienced while volunteering at the JFK 50 Mile run last November in Maryland. Since I had injured my knee earlier in the year and couldn't run, I was happy to return the favor to so many volunteers who have helped me in the races I've run over the years. When I arrived on race day, the Race Director asked me to find a good spot to help direct the runners in the final 2 miles of the course. This area is where the course leaves the safety of the woods/trails and enters the traffic-filled streets of Boonsboro, MD. I walked up from the finishing area and found a perfect spot - at about mile 48.5- where it looked like the runners might need my help. For about 45 minutes I anxiously awaited their arrival...
It was a chilly day (40s) and I was standing out there by myself, but once the runners appeared, my cold and boredom were quickly replaced with excitement and words of encouragement for the runners. It's always fun to tell one runner:
"He's about 200 yards behind you...you've got him!"
...and then tell the guy behind him:
"You're only 150 yards behind...you can catch him, he's looking tired!".
I was certainly enjoying myself out there when I saw a pack of runners wearing Navy t-shirts approach. As I cheered them on, one of them said something to me and motioned to a guy running just behind their pack. I didn't hear what he said, but when I looked back to cheer on that runner, I was startled to see him almost run into me (the course was about 10-feet wide at that spot, marked by orange cones, and I was standing on the *outside* of the cones). I jumped out of the way and heard him say "Where's the course??" as he ran by. I pointed right in front of him down the street which was lined with so many cones it looked like an airport runway. Clearly something was wrong with this guy.
I watched as he made his way down the hill trying to figure out what just happened. Was this guy just tired and confused after 48.5 miles of running? How could he have not seen all these cones and the group of Navy runners just a few yards in front of him? Then, as I watched him weave back and forth inside the cones just a few feet from oncoming traffic, my brain finally deciphered what it was that Navy runner was trying to tell me: This guy couldn't see!
Fearing for his safety (and more importantly, as a fellow runner, fearing for him being pulled off the course by a race official before he finished), I sprinted down the hill to catch up to him. When I pulled up beside him I asked him directly - "Hey buddy, can you see?!"
He proceeded to tell me that his contact lenses had basically fused to his eyes over the first 40+ miles and he could only make out shadows and large images at this point (This was probably a result of the combination of cold, dry weather and dehydration). He was trying to keep up with the Navy guys, but when they pulled away he was left to navigate these last couple miles of dangerous city roads on his own. As we talked I realized the real crime was this guy was actually still running a *great* race (about 40th overall out of 1,000 runners!). Ignoring the pain in my own knee, I knew I needed to do two things to make sure he finished this race: 1) Make sure he didn't get pulled from the race by an official, and 2) Make sure he didn't get pulled from the race by an ambulance after being flatted by an 18-wheeler.
I told him to take my arm as we covered the final sections of the course. I steered him around pot-holes and drains and told him when to let go of my arm as we passed any official-looking race monitors (it's not legal to "aid" another runner like that). In the final stretch I asked him if he wanted to pick up the pace and finish with a semi-sprint (he did!) so we crossed the line in a flash as I counted down the yards for him ("50 yards to go....25 yards...10 yards...and STOP!").
Once we crossed the finish I quickly found the medical people and let them know this poor guy's situation. We shook hands at that point and I made my way back up the course to help direct the rest of the runners (thankfully, there were no more emergencies during the rest of the day).
....Now that I know some of the crazy things they do for runners, I'll surely appreciate every race volunteer even more!