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The Globe and Mail

Marathon volunteers help propel runners across the finish line

Kathryn Garrett, 44, has volunteered at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon and many other races put on by the Canadian Running Series for the past several years.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and

After finishing her first half-marathon in 2003, Kathryn Garrett decided her follow-up goal wasn't to improve her time or complete the full 42-kilometre distance. Instead, the 44-year-old from Toronto wanted to help other runners reach the finish line.

Volunteering at races was a way to do the work for runners that other volunteers had done for her.

"With [water]stations and other things along the way, life is simpler," she says.

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For runners, completing a marathon can feel like a Herculean task. But it pales in comparison to the logistical challenges of organizing such an event.

Without volunteers handing out race kits, setting up water stations or keeping the course clear, the races simply could not happen. Some volunteers are runners looking for a chance to give back, while others are friends and family members of people running the races. And while a lot of the tasks may seem mundane, it is often the encouragement from volunteers that helps runners reach the finish line.

"I think about [volunteers]every time I look at the 12 medals I have," says Ken O'Brien, who lives in Kingston, Ont.

Mr. O'Brien, 58, says that at every race he's run he has always gone out of his way to thank volunteers, from the marshals along the route to the people handing him drinks. The young girl who presented him with his first marathon medal got a big sweaty hug, he says. He's also volunteered at several races over the years.

Most races rely on hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers. The Ottawa Race Weekend, held earlier this year, relied on about 2,000, says general manager Jim Robinson.

"There's tons of things we use them for and we couldn't do it without them," he says. Many volunteers come back year after year.

"It gives them the ability to sort of be first-hand to watch the runners and cheer the runners on and volunteer all at the same time," he says. "They feel part of the event, part of the city of Ottawa supporting the event."

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Manzur Khan has volunteered at the Ottawa race for the past 15 years for exactly that reason.

"I thought I should go and do something for my community," he recalls. "I felt proud because all the runners are always cheering to say, 'You did a good job, you guys are great.' "

Of course, the cheering runs both ways. Whatever the position, whether it is helping to set up barricades, ensuring that the course is clear or giving out food at the finish line, volunteers are also expected to cheer runners on or congratulate them when they have finished.

It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of race day. Mr. Khan says the feeling is so infectious that he now runs a water station with about 75 people, including his eight-year-old daughter and 77-year-old mother.

Joe Arbour and his water-station team decided to go the extra mile to boost runners' spirits at the Ottawa Race Weekend this year.

"We all wore red dresses," the 72-year-old says. As a runner himself, volunteering is a way to have some fun and give back, Mr. Arbour says.

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The Intact Insurance Canadian Derby Edmonton Marathon, being held this weekend, will rely on 650 volunteer positions, says volunteer manager Arthur Warman.

"We consider our volunteers a rare and precious commodity," he says. "Sometimes they'll bring music or those plastic clappers and cheer the people on. We want it to be fun for them."

The 3,000 volunteers at this year's Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon will also double as a cheering section, especially the 500 marshals, says volunteer manager Charlotte Brookes.

"Our main focus in having them out there is to also encourage the runners and keep them motivated," she says.

As she has every year she's volunteered at the event, Ms. Garrett will be loudly cheering the runners who pass by her water station.

"We're close to the last water station before the end of the race, and so it's one of those things where you're actually encouraging them that it's not that far, but you're also trying not to give them the false sense that it's just around the corner, but that it's doable," she says. "You feel very satisfied. You feel like it's a job well done."

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