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Runner's World South Africa - - CONTENTS - BY PAUL TONKINSON

You Don’t Know What It’s Like Un­til You’ve Worn The Bib

race mar­shals is a good thing. It’s com­mon cour­tesy – they are, af­ter all, vol­un­teers. The prob­lem is, some­times peo­ple not thank­ing the mar­shals feel judged by the peo­ple who do of­fer thanks, or won­der why the run­ners say­ing ‘Thank you, mar­shal!’ so en­er­get­i­cally aren’t fur­ther up the field, see­ing as they’ve got so much en­ergy to spare.

I was do­ing a parkrun re­cently, and on the third lap of not thank­ing the mar­shal; but be­ing very close to a run­ner who did, I stopped and said, “I’m very grate­ful for your help in en­abling me to run this course as quickly as pos­si­ble with­out wor­ry­ing where I’m go­ing, so that I can give all my en­ergy to get­ting round it as quickly as pos­si­ble. There­fore, I con­sider say­ing ‘Thank you, mar­shal’ to be a waste of en­ergy that ul­ti­mately dis­re­spects the ser­vice you pro­vide.” (The sub-20 fin­ish had long gone out the win­dow.)

The is­sue was con­fus­ing me. How would I feel if I was a mar­shal? What must it be like to don the yel­low bib? Would I feel slighted if run­ners didn’t thank me? The an­swer was to be a mar­shal for a day; so that’s what I did.

The event was my lo­cal 10K, a twisty, hilly crea­ture that is ex­ceed­ingly well mar­shalled. By which I mean there were a lot of us con­gre­gat­ing at 8am on race day. I was given point 20, on the out­er­most tip of the loop, im­me­di­ately pre­ced­ing quite a se­vere sec­tion of long hill. I’d stumbled up it many times my­self. My in­struc­tions were to tell run­ners to stay on the pave­ment, a weighty re­spon­si­bil­ity that I in­tended to ful­fil to the best of my abil­ity. So I stood there in my bib and waited.

What kind of mar­shal would I be? I wanted to be fac­tual. That’s the chief role of the mar­shal, surely, to tell the run­ners what to do. Be­yond that, I pon­dered – was there room for im­prov? The first run­ners came through – se­ri­ous, ath­letic types. Good club run­ners. A sim­ple ‘Keep to the left’ suf­ficed, or ‘Stay on the pave­ment!’ I’d clap as well, throw in the odd ‘Look­ing good!’ As the field thick­ened, the phrases got more ran­dom – ‘Come on, Arse­nal’ I’d re­spond to a run­ner in a foot­ball top. ‘Dig in!’ I’d call to a de­ter­mined-look­ing run­ner.

A woman joined me be­fore the race, and we had a chat. She was re­cov­er­ing from a heart at­tack, a gen­tle soul who’d led an ex­tremely healthy life and been blind­sided. She was cheer­ing them on, as well. We were a lit­tle bub­ble of pos­i­tiv­ity at the foot of the hill. My mar­shal’s pat­ter had blended into ‘Good run­ning… look­ing smooth… keep to the left… last lit­tle bit of the hill...’ – with lots of clap­ping. The in­ten­sity of ef­fort from those down the field was mas­sively in­spir­ing. The heads-down, grit­ted­teeth com­mit­ment to run into and through the pain from run­ners of all lev­els was a thrill to wit­ness.

And what was the re­sponse? Well, I got many smiles, some grunts, and 10 for­mal calls of ‘Thank you, mar­shal’, which was lovely. I must say, I wasn’t hanging for them – it was re­ward enough to push, ca­jole and tease peo­ple up that hill. One bloke gave me a high five – that did lift my spir­its – and then one el­derly man con­grat­u­lated me on ‘a bril­liant pod­cast’. With that, I re­ally found my stride. I was on fire now, giddy with self­less joy: “Cr­rrrest­ing the hill! You’re look­ing great on this won­der­ful morn­ing!”

I was a stream of en­thu­si­asm, an em­bod­i­ment of mo­ti­va­tional mar­shalling mirth. And then a bearded, red-faced club run­ner bel­lowed, “SHUT UP!”

Now, that’s out of or­der, surely? Whether or not you want to thank the mar­shal is up to you, but you can­not for­get this one sim­ple rule: re­spect the bib.

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