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.