November 9, 2013 | Review Period

This Year’s Marathon: For Me, a Bit of a Bust

Sort of fun, but also a little demoralizing.

I volunteered for two different events as part of this year’s New York City Marathon, held last weekend. I have done this kind of thing a few times now, largely because I enjoy the language practice that this annual deluge of running-obsessed foreigners brings.

I was supposed to volunteer in 2012, too, but the entire event was canceled last-minute after Hurricane Sandy.

Expo Entrance, 2013 New York City Marathon!

Expo Entrance, 2013 New York City Marathon!

My first volunteer gig last week was at the marathon expo, held at the airport-like Jacob Javits Center on the far west side of Manhattan. I was expecting to be at an information center, where I figured there would be a lot of talking in foreign languages, but instead got dropped off by the volunteer organizer right at the expo entrance.

I guess she could see I was not overjoyed, because she said, “You know what? I think you’d be really good at directing people here!”

The primary task of people standing in that spot was to point runners who had just had their IDs checked (a task I was involved in last time) to the right place in the cavernous expo hall to pick up their bibs. 

“Bib” is a funny word, is it not? In case you are unfamiliar with the use of it in a running context, a bib is the race number that runners attach to themselves and wear throughout an event. 

Since there were over 50,000 runners, there were lots of bibs—and this year there were two long, long corridors full of dozens of number-dispensing volunteers. Where I directed runners in the corridors depended on how big their numbers were. (Smaller numbers tend to go to speedier runners.)

When mobs of people are coming at you fast, there is not much time for conversation. In traffic-directing positions, one’s hand movements tend to be more important than one’s mouth movements. Still, in the course of five hours there, I did get to speak all five languages I had sought to speak that day: Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, and Italian. 

Each year Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands are especially well represented among New York City marathoners. You can sometimes make a reasonable guess about which country people might be from just by looking at them, but you can’t know for sure without a passport check, so my default greeting was in English.

Where English failed, the most useful language for me by far was French. I noticed that when I greeted French runners in English, I would with fair regularity get a totally blank look. Sometimes it would be accompanied by some sort of nod implying comprehension that obviously had not occurred, since I was not asking them a yes-no question.

When I switched to French, they were often glad for the help. So there I was, repeatedly directing people à la droite and à la gauche—until a friendly French marathoner informed me I was doing it wrong. He said it should be à droite and à gauche.

Darnit. I removed some articles from my speech and carried on.

At one point, I said something terribly amusing in French. I would like to tell you what it was, but I can’t, because I don’t know what it was. All I know is, I was talking to three French men, and I said something about tous les trois (“all three” is what I was going for) in the context of telling them where to find their bibs, which all happened to be more or less in the same place.

They burst out laughing and gave me a look that made it clear I had inadvertently said something salacious. I blushed. I now had a red face atop an orange shirt. My favorite look!

What did I say? I will never know.

Me, Looking a Little Slovenly I See, Waiting to Help Lost Souls at the Expo Entrance

Me, Looking a Little Slovenly I See, Waiting to Help Lost Souls at the Expo Entrance

Over the course of my expo shift, there were a few language emergencies! Where I had to go help someone stranded by international communication problems! 

One emergency involved a French husband who had lost his French wife somewhere in the bowels of the expo.

Another involved an urgent shopping question in Spanish: would the runner be able to return to the expo tomorrow and buy stuff?

I also tackled one emergency apiece in Portuguese and Italian, but by now, a full week later, I’ve forgotten what they were. The Portuguese one was the one I liked best, because I am not pleased with the current state of my speaking skills and yet I functioned well enough to understand the Portuguese-speaking person enmeshed in a running emergency and to be understood in return. He walked away happy. 

“Gracias,” said the security guard who had brought me over to help him.

Overall, my five hours there made clear to me that from an oral communication standpoint, my study activities of recent weeks have been too grammar-book-heavy and not talking-heavy enough. I need more practice. I will work on that, but I am kind of obsessed with reviewing language-learning products right now, and I still have a lot to get through!

Two days later, at the marathon itself, I was posted at an information center at Central Park West and 61st Street. Here, as in my expo gig, I attached stickers to myself indicating what languages I spoke. Once again I looked up country flags on my iPhone to make sure I had all the stickers pointing in the right direction. (Two years ago I think both my French and my Italian flag stickers were upside down; flags are not my specialty.)

I was there most of the day, and I don’t remember speaking German once. Or Portuguese. It was mostly Spanish and French (and English, of course). Plus a little Italian. 

The thing about this gig was, it was sometimes depressing, because a lot of bedraggled runners showed up in response to a large sign apparently posted blocks north indicating that they could get runner T-shirts in our vicinity. I don’t know exactly what the sign said, but runners took it to mean that there were free finisher shirts to be had.

Runners often like their loot, and their proof of having run 26.2 miles, so some of them walked quite a ways in the cold and on blistered feet just for the dream of the shirt.

There were not, however, any finisher T-shirts for them. Or if there were, it was a secret that remained hidden from everyone working the marathon in my immediate area.

What I think the sign must have been referring to was a merchandise booth I could see in the distance, where one could spend money on New York Road Runners Club apparel.

Who wants to go shopping for T-shirts after running a marathon?!

Having to break the news that there were no finisher T-shirts to exhausted foil-wrapped international runners made me feel very bad. People looked sad about it in multiple languages.

The other thing I ended up apologizing for a lot was that the computers had all gone down. We had a row of laptops at our booth, and one of our chief responsibilities was to use them to look up the status of runners for their families and friends.

By entering a runner’s name or bib number, we could find out where they were in the race (if they were still running) or see their finish time. Or check whether they were in a medical tent or hospital if they were not materializing at the family reunion area in a timely manner. In other words, potentially important stuff!

People Roaming Around the Upper West Side, with Marathon Still in Progress

People Roaming Around the Upper West Side, with Marathon Still in Progress

Unfortunately, the computers crapped out.

Instead I ended up looking up a lot of runners on my iPhone, on which I had previously installed a marathon app that was far inferior to the computer system but not totally useless. I told numerous waiting family members and already-finished runners in various languages—including English, of course!—where in the race other runners were or might be. The app updated only every five kilometers, though, so it was not very useful in pinpointing runner location.

Another challenge: even when runners had finished, it often took them an hour to make their way to the family reunion area. This race is so clogged these days that in the time needed to get out of Central Park (where the finish line is) and reunite with loved ones, you could actually run another 10K. I personally think that is too clogged. It bothers me, as a runner and as a volunteer. Waiting people and runners alike get upset. And cold.

In the end, my profuse apologizing ability improved in at least a couple of languages, but this is not the way I want to be refining my skills. Maybe next year Brandt and I can just film on the subways or streets in the days leading up to the marathon. New York is packed with runners at that time, and you can catch them in giddy pre-marathon moods, often involving shopping binges that happen to help support the local economy. (For which New York is grateful.)

My primary memory from this marathon is going to be of the calm but concerned French marathoner, probably about 45 years old, who could not find his wife, a fellow marathoner, long after she had supposedly finished. We volunteers couldn’t locate her in the medical system, and someone finally called his hotel for him and learned that she was not there either.

After a long wait at our information center, and as it started to get dark, the marathoner decided to go back to the hotel and wait for her in their room. He was appreciative and thanked us, but his eyes were a little sad.

I watched him walk away, alone, in his foil wrapper.

Comments (2)

Jared • Posted on Mon, November 11, 2013 - 4:48 pm EST

Applause for the French guy who corrected you. Most people are too afraid to, or just let it slide.


Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, November 11, 2013 - 4:58 pm EST

Well, people are often concerned about causing offense. I much prefer to be corrected, but they don’t know that. I don’t generally correct people myself - unless they are sitting in a grammar class that I am teaching!

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