Volunteering for the WDW Marathon

DH did the Goofy at WDW Marathon Weekend for the first time this year. He had decided to do his half marathon at his usual pace but to take his time on the marathon course. (We had a good friend, too, who was doing her first Goofy–and her first marathon! Because of various issues, she was going to be at a pace just ahead of the sweepers. DH decided to stay with her on the course, which made it an “easy” finish for him but also ensured that she had someone helping her along.) Anyways, because he was going to be out on the marathon course for so long and because I’d be awake anyways, I decided to offer myself up as a volunteer. Before volunteering, I admit that I found very little in the way of first person accounts from other volunteers, so I wanted to describe my experience, end to end, to help out anyone who might be thinking of volunteering with runDisney.

BEFORE MARATHON WEEKEND:

The volunteer sign-up opens later than the race sign-up, and it isn’t as heavily publicized (except to prior volunteers). runDisney gives any volunteer who does at least 8 hours a 1-day 1-park ticket for WDW, so it’s somewhat popular as a volunteering option. I also learned later that, because of Florida’s lottery scholarship service requirements, lots of high school groups jump at that as a volunteer opportunity. So, volunteering actually does tend to fill up, particularly for the “more desirable” positions like expo volunteers. Fortunately for me, I was volunteering for one of the less desirable options, the marathon, so sign-ups were still available in October. The sign-up form is the exact same active.com form that racers fill out, except with volunteer events listed instead of races.

After that, I didn’t hear anything for awhile. In mid-December, I got an envelope in the mail with my volunteer assignment. The letter showed that I had been assigned the “17.2 water stop” on the marathon course. It stated I would need to be at the volunteer check-in by 4:15am and would be working until 12:30pm. It also included a temporary badge, with the note that the temporary badge was good for volunteers for the 5K or Expo, but that everyone else would exchange it for a real credential at the Expo.

The letter was also the first notice that I saw which stated clearly that I was responsible for my own transportation. This was news to me. Buses and monorails for runners start at 3am on marathon day, so I had thought that volunteers would get on those shuttles as well. I didn’t worry about it though; a cab isn’t that expensive, and I was excited to be a volunteer. I also (perhaps foolishly) figured that there might be something on-site that I’d learn about to make transportation easier, like a cab pooling arrangement or somewhere I’d be able to get to using the shuttles that I could then walk to. So, I set that aside as a potential concern and prepared to get excited about volunteering.

I posted in the Facebook group for marathon weekend that I would be volunteering and where. This was pretty awesome, because a lot of those folks chimed in that they were thankful for volunteers and quite a few said they’d make sure to look for me at that stop. I also crafted myself some jingle bell bracelets out of Stretch Magic and bells that I could use for cheering in case my voice went out.

AT THE EXPO:

When we arrived at the Expo, we had a lot of errands to do. DH had to pick up his Goofy stuff. We both needed to pick up 5K stuff. I had a Dooney pre-order to pick up. And, of course, I needed to pick up my volunteer credentials and instructions for Sunday. The letter I’d received said the volunteer credential pick-up would be at the Expo, but it wasn’t specific as to where. (The Expo is in multiple buildings and floors.) Fortunately, for obvious reasons, every volunteer on the floor knows where it is, so I asked around until I found it. It was basically a conference room. For people checking in to volunteer at the Expo or 5K, they had t-shirts there to pick up. For Half-Marathon and Marathon volunteers, you just picked up a packet.

I asked some of the folks there if there was anything I should plan for or any advice they would give to a first-timer, and this is what they said:

  • Wear comfortable shoes.
  • Wear sunblock.
  • You will get wet, so plan accordingly.
  • Don’t carry or bring too much with you. You won’t have time to do very much anyways.

I also asked more about transportation, and they confirmed that a taxi was my best bet to get there, but that the Disney transportation buses would be running when I left. The check-in location was at Downtown Disney, which was a $20 cab ride from the Polynesian.

The packet I received at the event included my volunteer badge, which had my bus number, assigned station, name, and a barcode printed on it. It also had another sheet of instructions, which detailed how to get to the check-in location (entrance 5 to Downtown Disney, which is the end near Cirque du Soleil, and then parking lots O, P, and Q). It also noted to bring a photo ID with you but to otherwise keep belongings to a minimum. (I’ll talk a bit more about what to bring and not bring in the next section.) If you have a car to drive to the check-in point, you can park there. Your volunteer badge will allow you admittance into parking.

The other thing that the on-site materials said was that they wanted you to check in 30-45 minutes before your assigned shift time. Ouch! That meant I needed to be there between 3:30 and 3:45, meaning I’d need to leave my hotel between 3 and 3:15am! I will say that I decided to ignore this a bit, largely based on prior experience with runDisney running events wherein they are really bad about erring on the side of extreme caution when it comes to what time they tell you to arrive. I decided to have my taxi pick me up at 3:30am, which meant I arrived at about 3:50am, but we’ll talk more about that in a bit.

SATURDAY NIGHT (VOLUNTEERING ON SUNDAY):

Because we were doing (and/or spectating) all the races during the weekend, we were, thankfully, already on a sleep schedule oriented for those early mornings. We were tucked into bed by 9pm on Saturday night. Before going to bed, I decided to wear a quick drying tee (one of my running shirts), and a pair of running shorts (also quick drying). I would be wearing my running shoes and quick dry socks. I also packed a mini-backpack with other gear I planned to take along. I want to provide here a recommended “what to bring” list. Some of these things I brought and some I didn’t. Keep in mind that my experience is based on working a water/powerade/sponge stop, so if you’re doing something else, your list might vary.

WHAT TO BRING:

  • A mini-backpack or a mesh/nylon cinch sak – You WILL want this to carry your snack and any other random items, so make sure it’s large enough to hold the stuff you’re bringing PLUS a water bottle and snack box. Also, make sure it’s a backpack, because the safest place for it will be on your back. It needs to be one that you don’t care about very much, because it may get dirty and wet.
  • A cap with a brim to help shade you from the sun
  • Sunscreen – granted, you may be too busy to apply it, but cover yourself liberally when you can
  • A baggie big enough to hold your cellphone (or a waterproof case if you have one), if you intend to bring your cellphone
  • Another baggie or waterproof pouch with your photo ID and any purchasing stuff you need. I took my room key, my photo ID, a credit card, and $40 to cover the taxi and anything else I ran into.
  • Spare socks and/or shoes that you can change into after your shift, ideally something lightweight like flip flops or just spare socks. If you bring spare socks, you’ll want to baggie those, too.
  • Caffeine for in the morning, if you’re so inclined. runDisney gives you a bottle of water, but they don’t have anything caffinated provided to you.
  • OPTIONAL: A sharpie, for marking your windbreaker as yours and also maybe making signs or notes on-site.
  • OPTIONAL: Your refillable resort soda mug, if you have room in your sack. It’s a handy way to drink water from a fountain or other source, plus you can use it for soda before you leave and when you get back.

WHAT NOT TO BRING:

  • A camera, unless it’s waterproof and very small. You’ll barely have time to take pictures anyways. If you’re bringing a cellphone with a good camera, just use that.
  • If the starting temperature is at least fifty degrees, don’t worry about bringing a jacket or sweatshirt. The sun rises fast, and your bus is heated. runDisney will provide a windbreaker that is a good source of light warmth and is also a little waterproof.
  • Any clothing or items that you will be upset about getting dirt-stained or soaked with water. You will get dirty and wet.
  • Food or snacks. runDisney gives you a snack box and there’s usually extra snacks afterward, too.
  • A purse (beyond the backpack I mentioned above). Keep your “wallet” to the few items I mention above and just baggie them. Then, when you get your runDisney windbreaker, put your baggie wallet (and baggie phone, if applicable) in the zippered pouch of that and guard your windbreaker with your life! Everyone’s windbreaker looks the same! (See earlier comment about bringing a sharpie.)
  • Unless you can wear it, don’t bother bringing stuff for cheering, like signs or cowbells. You won’t have time to use it, and if you can’t wear it on you, it won’t do any good. I had my wrist bells, and those worked great, but a sign or anything I had to hold would have been useless.

Finally, if you’re staying at a WDW resort, call the concierge desk the night before and arrange for your cab. That will ensure you get a yellow cab (Mears) and thus get a fair rate. Independent cabs on Disney property overcharge regularly. For example, last year, when I took a cab to the relay point during Chip and Dale, my “found right then” cab charged me almost $20 just to take me from Wilderness Lodge to the TTC parking lot! (It’s less than 2 miles. I could have walked it, except that I was about to do a half marathon and didn’t want to walk more than I had to. Also, it was dark on non-pedestrian roads. But, I digress…)

SUNDAY (VOLUNTEERING DAY!):

I got out of bed at 3am. Getting ready was fast, so I was out of the room by 3:15. I stopped by Captain Cook’s (the quick service at the Poly) for a refill of my soda mug. My taxi was there five minutes early, so we got an earlier start than expected. My taxi driver had already dropped off two other volunteers that morning, so at least I wasn’t alone in being a taxi-mode volunteer!

At the time I arrived, around 3:50am, it was an easy drop-off. Later, when our bus headed out at around 5am, the road into that parking lot was jam packed and not moving very fast at all. So, if your arrival time is 4:30 or 5, planning to arrive early is a good idea. If your arrival time is 4:15am, though, you really don’t need to get there much earlier than that, especially if you’re working a stop that is toward the end of the course.

Volunteer HQ was a tent. Your first stop was a station where they scanned your tag to check you in. Then, you went through a couple of queues to pick up your snack box, your water, and your windbreaker. After exiting the tent, volunteers pointed you toward the bus line. There were around 60-70 buses queued up, at least, maybe even eighty. Each line had ten or twelve buses in it, and there were five or six lines. The toughest part of check-in was finding your bus. My bus was number 34, but the buses weren’t in numerical order. It went bus 12, then bus 56, then bus 25, etc. So, you had to walk up and down the line until you found one with your number on it. When I got on my bus, there were two other volunteers on board, and we started chatting and taking pictures of each other.

WDW Marathon Weekend 2013

While we were chatting, we started wondering when the bus would leave, given that it felt pretty empty. (A few more people had come onboard, but we still had less than ten on the bus.) The bus driver said we were supposed to have 30 people on board, and that the bus wasn’t leaving until 5am. All of us were agape at that point, because we had been told to get there so much earlier than needed. It was almost like they padded our arrival time twice, once for 4:15 and then again by telling us to arrive in advance of 4:15. So, we had some time to kill. Some people went to the back of the bus to nap or got off the bus to go use the restroom. Most of us stayed onboard and chatted. But, our bus never got any fuller. Eventually a team leader (designated by a white windbreaker with TEAM LEADER on it) got onboard. He did a quick count and said, “well, we’re missing a lot of people here,” and then got off again. We eventually learned that a group of 20 that was supposed to be at our station had bailed (or were running very late). So, we got a few more volunteers from the contingency pool and before long, we were off! Our water station was being covered by two buses, ours and the one behind us, with a total of 50 people (was supposed to be 60ish).

Our bus got to drive on the closed Disney roads, even going the wrong way up roads for awhile. We saw the start line at EPCOT being prepped as we drove by. Then, we arrived at the drop-off point, which was at the corner of a field at WWoS between miles 19 and 20 on the marathon course. From there, we walked across the course and the intervening areas to get to our water stop. Though it was marked on our badges as mile 17.2, it was closer to mile 17.5, just before the course entered the WWoS complex.

Image courtesy of runDisney. All rights belong to runDisney.
Image courtesy of runDisney. All rights belong to runDisney.

When we got to our location, there were 8-9 palettes of stuff, wrapped in plastic, waiting to be unpacked. Our first order of business was tearing the plastic wrap off and sorting out what was what. Most of our water stop was being worked by two school groups, each with its own set of group leaders, with some random adults (like me) also present. The team leader had some additional instructions (though not much, it would turn out) and was generally directing things. After stuff was unpacked, we set up tables (a hand truck was provided to help wheel the tables and the water bottles and crates into place). We had disinfectant wipes to wipe down the tables. (Strangely, no work gloves were provided. It was really easy to get splinters while wiping down the tables.) Then, the team leader assigned one school group (the smaller one) to start mixing up Powerade. The Powerade came in a powdered form and had to be hand mixed (using stainless steel stirrers) with water in some provided jugs. The second school group was designated to finish dragging stuff into place and set up tables. Eventually, they were also designated to start setting up stacks of water cups along with the powerade crew.

Our stop included materials for a sponge stop, and we were the only sponge stop on the course. Our team leader had no idea what a sponge stop was or how to set it up. Apparently, he hadn’t gotten any instruction on that. I at least knew the basics of how to set it up from when I’d seen stops on races, so I kind of took over the setup and management of the sponge stop. (Manager in the hizzouse, y’all!) So, most of what I can talk about is the sponge stop. While I saw the water and powerade being set up, I had almost nothing to do with that. Instead, I worked on getting the sponges set up. The materials included wading pools, so we started getting those onto tables and filling them with the jugs of water. However, we quickly found that 4-5 of the pools were leaking. We were later told that runDisney typically doubles up the pools to help stymie the leaks, so, as the leaky pools emptied, we doubled them up. We also put as many sponges into the leaky pools as we could, to use what water we had while we had it.

WDW Marathon Weekend 2013

There were WDW maintenance staff on hand to help manage the mess as it happened. At first, they were just gathering up the empty bottles and trash we generated. Later, they’d be sweeping and collecting behind and around us during the race. Without them, we’d have been buried in trash pretty fast.

It’s worth noting that the instructions for the team leader had to have been pretty vague. He didn’t seem to know things like that the tables needed to be at least a few feet off of the road surface (because the runners need the whole road). I ended up passing that advice along. About a half hour before the first wheelchair, a rep from runDisney did a walkthrough of our stop with the team leader and made comments on things we needed to tweak or change. By then, we were really on final setup. That was when I found out about doubling up the leaky pools, and that’s when a lot of sad people that didn’t listen to me earlier had to move tables loaded with water cups back 1-2 feet off of the road. 😉

About the only “dead time” we had was 15 minutes before the first wheelchair racer, and maybe about a half hour after the wheelchairs before the first runners came through. From that point forward, it was go-go-go. Below is a picture of us craning to see the first non-wheelchair runner coming around the bend.

WDW Marathon Weekend 2013

And, I quite literally didn’t take a break or sit down from the point I got off the bus until we started shutting down our stop at 11am. While they provided a snack and water, I never had time to use it. Part of that was because our stop was understaffed. Part of it was because I was a lone adult (vs. being with a group that could trade off tasks). A good bit of it was because I was actively managing the sponge station, checking on it, trying to gauge when we’d need more or less staffing (we started with just one of us on each side but eventually went to 3 on each side, plus re-fillers behind the tables), etc. Mostly, I didn’t even notice the time until we started getting direction to shut things down.

So, what do you do all day? Most of the time, you spend yelling, “Sponges! Sponges! Sponges! We have sponges! Nice cold sponges! Stay cool, runners! Sponges here! Need a sponge? Sponges!” Every now and then, you get to yell, “Go WDW Radio! Go Marathon Maniac! Ohayoo gozaimasu, Tobiyashi! Yay WISH runner! Go Team!” Sometimes, you’d say, “You’re doing great, Ken! Way to go, Jeannie! Keep it up, Tina! Love those wings, Tinkerbell!” You grab sponges out of the water and hold them with the tips of your fingers so runners can easily grab them from you. You hand them out as fast as you can to anyone that wants them. Sometimes, you start hurriedly filling the pools up with water again or tossing in more sponges. (The sponges start out about the size of a wet nap and grow out to kitchen-size sponges.) You check on the people at the other stop and regret that you chose to be on the sunny side of the road instead of the shady side of the road. 😉 Stuff like that. And then, at some point, you realize that the runners are becoming less and less, and slower and slower.

Really, there’s three phases to the race. The front group are people who are trying to get a competitive time. They’re focused. They may not even stop for water or a sponge. All they’re doing is running as hard and fast as they can. The back group are people who are struggling. They’re injured, they’re tired, they’re sore, or some combination thereof. All they’re focused on is putting one foot in front of the other and staying on pace. In the middle, though, you get the people having fun. They know they’re going to finish. They’re there to enjoy the experience. They’re not exhausted. They’re just happy. And that’s when you get things like marriage proposals (even a guy going down on one knee) because you are handing a person a sponge. You get people joking about being spongeworthy, apologizing for their stink (which you don’t notice anyways), or offering to give you a sweaty hug.

Despite my best efforts to tell our team members to conserve sponges and avoid waste, we ran out of sponges well before the end of the runners, which made me feel terrible. After all, the folks toward the end, in some ways, need those sponges the most. They’re in the hottest weather, and they’re likely people who are overheating or otherwise having trouble. I’m sure runDisney monitors and will order more sponges in the future when the weather is hot, but it is the most horrible feeling to not have a sponge to give to a runner that clearly needs one. 🙁 Heck, most of the reason I never felt my sore feet or aching arms until later was that all I could think about was those runners and how they needed us to be on top of our game. So, if you’re volunteering, let me tell you that is the best and the worst part. It is incredibly inspiring to be there helping runners through a whole race. It is also heartbreaking, especially when the sweeper pacers come through (the dreaded ladies with smiley balloons), followed by a group of limping stragglers that know they’re about be swept…or when you see a husband who has a foot of height and at least fifty pounds on his wife being supported and practically dragged by his wife along the course while he pants and struggles. Meanwhile, she darts over to bring him water and sponges while getting none for herself. I don’t think I’ve ever screamed louder or yelled harder with encouragement than I did that day. My voice held out right up until I was on the bus, at which point, I had no voice left to say much at all.

WHEN YOUR STOP CLOSES:

After the runners are done, you have clean-up duties. What the runners leave behind is a kind of wartorn zone.

WDW Marathon Weekend 2013

So, you dump out any water that was poured but not used. You gather anything recyclable and put it into the specially designated bags (things like water bottles, for example). Cups get raked to the center of the road where a (literal) sweeper truck will suck them up later. Bottle lids go in the bags. Tables get broken down and hauled back to a central pile. A moving van pulls up eventually and you start loading things into the van. Pretty soon after that, a runDisney employee gives your team leader the “all clear” that you can head back to your bus, which is waiting right where you got dropped off.

WDW Marathon Weekend 2013

For us, our bus had to wait a bit before we could leave. I don’t know exactly why, but we had to wait around a half hour before leaving. I’m guessing that part of our route back wasn’t cleared yet. During that half hour, I cheered for more runners. Our bus was on the right side of the road just before the last turn before mile 20, so we got to see some last-ish people coming in. I cheered as hard as I could. 🙂

When the bus was ready, I climbed aboard, and we were shuttled back to Downtown Disney. After getting off, we went in and had our badges scanned again to “check out”. They gave us some of the leftover snack stuff, and the park pass we had earned. Then, we were free to go. I started the walk back to Downtown Disney to catch a bus back to the Poly. (Yes, I could have headed to the finish line to see DH and our friend finish, but there was no guarantee I’d get there fast enough, plus I was thirsty and dead tired. My socks were soaked, and I had not brought spare shoes or socks with me.) It wasn’t until I was on the bus to the Poly that my feet started hurting and aching, and I realized how much I’d been on my feet without thinking about it.

OTHER NOTES AND FUN STUFF:

  • I got to hand a sponge to Joey Fatone. He was the only celebrity I saw. He was very nice and said, “thank you.”
  • As noted earlier, I got quite a few marriage proposals and even more expressions of love. It’s nice to be the sponge stop.
  • I did use my wrist bells, but moreso for cheering after the stop than for cheering during.
  • DH and I were limping at about the same pace the next day, so there’s that. I had quite a few blisters because my feet had been so wet throughout the day.
  • Lots of people from the Facebook group said hello to me, so that was cool. Thanks, Facebookers!
  • I really liked the snack box, even though I didn’t eat it until later. We got cookies, a granola bar, dried fruit, and peanut butter crackers.
  • Neither DH nor I knew exactly what the sweepers looked like. I thought they were vans or bikes. It turns out that they’re two walkers with happy face balloons tied to their wrists. They move at the 16 minute pace. If you get to a mile marker and they’re ahead of you, you get swept at that mile marker. Because I didn’t know this, there was a point where I was cheering people on at the water stop after those balloons had passed. That is, I was cheering for people who knew they were about to get swept. 🙁 I hope they know or knew that I wasn’t trying to be mean. I had no idea or else I would have been more like, “You are awesome no matter what!” and less like “You’ve got this! Keep it up!”

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