All the Preparation… For Just One Gulp of Water

By David Wright

It is mile 10 of a challenging marathon and you reach for that welcome cup of water. One grateful gulp on a warm morning and it’s gone. Toss the cup aside without a second thought. What could be less complicated? I had done it myself hundreds of times in races over the years.

So I got an eye-opening lesson when I volunteered to help man one of the water stations along the route of the Palm Beach Marathon. To my astonishment it turns out that almost as much planning and preparation goes into that humble gulp-on-the run as it takes to map out the course! In this race, on December 6, 2009, it even involved cutthroat competition between the 16 designated “Wacky Water Stations” along the 26.2 mile route.

Our team represented Friends of the Lantana Nature Preserve, a group dedicated to preserving a pristine wilderness section of Old Florida, and was situated at 10.3 miles into the race, half a mile before an oceanfront turnaround. Team captain Ilona Balfour—married to Malcolm Balfour, who still owns the now defunct 6-mile track running record at Mississippi State University—decreed that we were to be “The Mexicans.” Somehow she recruited 22 mostly non-runner volunteers, and weeks before the event, there was a packed planning meeting at the Chamber of Commerce in West Palm Beach. We were sent on our way with the stern admonition, “On the morning of the race, arrive early and be bored… rather than be late and frantic.” Days before the marathon we got together for a full scale dress rehearsal—and I do mean dress rehearsal: sombreros, stick-on black moustaches, bandanas and assorted Mexican clothing were required. We even practiced holding out the water cups in the precise way recommended by the race organizers—balanced on upturned palms, please, no sticky fingers sullying the rims.

The runners left downtown West Palm Beach at 6:30 a.m. Almost an hour before the distant gun sounded we were at our posts, stumbling in the darkness. I’d wondered why we’d been told to bring duct tape, screwdrivers and hammers. I soon found out as we put together our tent and water stand, decorating even the Port-o-lets with palm fronds and a Latin motif. It became clear that the simple act of handing out water involved a prior major construction job. Then we set up the mariachi music, unloaded three tables, tablecloths and chests of ice.

Only then did we get down to what it was all about—the water. We unpacked about 30 one-gallon sealed jugs of water provided by the race organizers and half-filled more than a thousand plastic cups. The Gatorade crew mixed several gallons of the green drink. Our orders were for the first two tables to be full of water, while the third was devoted to Gatorade. Water was poured at “room temperature,” the Gatorade came with ice. And I suddenly realized that it took three people—one to fill the cup, another to hand it on, and a third to actually hand it to a runner—to satisfy a single thirst!

© Vince Denchy
© Vince Denchy

When the first runner—eventual 2:24 winner Ronnie Holassie—reached us he already had a half mile lead. Dismayingly after all our preparation, he swept smoothly past us—obviously so wrapped up in his winning strategy that he didn’t hear our cries of “Agua” and “Gatorade” or see the cups expertly balanced on outstretched hands. Happily the 584 marathoners who followed him made up for Ronnie’s focus. In fact they were a joy. You could see heads go up and smiles spread as the runners approached close enough to hear our mariachi music and our encouraging cries of “Arriba!” They responded with thank-you’s as we cheered them on and handed out the cups. They joked that they were disappointed that they didn’t contain tequila. Incredibly, some even made a detour to politely dump their used cups in our plastic trash bags. The last runner went past us at 9:15 a.m.—on track for a seven-hour finish—and we gave him a loud and lingering Mexican send-off before we picked up nearly a thousand discarded cups and began packing up. The tables, chests and unused water jugs went into a locked box to be picked up later by marathon volunteers. The hammers and screwdrivers came out again to dismantle our station, and finally we brushed the street and sidewalk down.

Oh… about that cutthroat competition I mentioned earlier. The marathon organizers had offered a prize for the Wackiest Water Station. Despite our best efforts we lost out to the South End Neighborhood Association at mile 16.6 who boasted a live band, high school cheerleaders, and male hula-skirt dancers; and the Clerk & Comptroller’s Office at mile 4.1 whose star was a lady wearing the wedding dress that she almost got married in ten years ago!

I have to say, it was a whole lot of fun. And next time I grab a cup of water during a race… believe me, I’ll remember all the work that went into it and cherish every drop. I promise I’ll even drop the empty cup in the garbage!