It’s autumn again, so naturally many runners are preparing for the big one – the Irish Dublin Marathon in just a few weeks on 30 October.
They’ll have mapped out their plans and done the training through heatwaves, rain, wind and personal ups and downs.
On the day, they’ll turn up ready to concentrate on nothing but their run. They can do so thanks to an army of organisers, co-ordinators and volunteers, some of whom have been preparing for this for even longer than the marathoners, and who turn up and give their all for the full day of the event.
Delivering a safe, enjoyable event for more than 20,000 runners over 26.2 miles of city streets thronged with spectators is no joke!
It’s a huge task for Jim Aughney and his team at Dublin Marathon, which they rise to with efficiency, good humour and skill.
There are many cogs in their well-oiled machine; from the volunteers at the water tables and bag drop, to the marshals, St John’s ambulance crew, Dublin City Council and the Gardaí, to the pacers who guide runners to their hoped-for finish time.
As runners make their way around the course, they’ll see a huge team of marshals manning the barriers and street corners, helping the Gardaí keep the roads clear of pedestrians and cars – plus cheering on the runners and offering encouragement.
It’s a very rewarding role as you get to see every runner from first to last and cheer them on until you’re hoarse. But getting this number of volunteers out on the roads takes planning.
About four months before the big day, feelers go out for volunteers to steward.
Martin Kearney of Dublin Marathon, who has the overall responsibility for stewarding, reaches out to clubs, residents’ associations and other groups. Dick Hooper of Raheny Shamrocks AC – and three-time winner of the Dublin Marathon himself – is one of many who answers the call and commits to providing a large number of volunteers from his club each year.
Raheny Shamrocks tend to get two shifts, one in the early miles and one toward the end of the race. Marshalling the final miles means being in position until the very last runner has passed and “is a long shift and a particularly generous piece of volunteerism,” according to Dick.
Well in advance of October – before the runners are even at the taper stage of their training – Dick and the other team leaders from athletic clubs are gathering names, allocating club members to various places around the course, liaising with Martin Kearney and handling all the other admin involved with manning their sections of the 26.2-mile course safely and efficiently.
"Prior to the event I’ll attend a leaders meeting and a training session with the gardaí and the Dublin Marathon Committee. I'll probably do a First Aid refresher course too," Dick explains.
He’ll also take delivery of the race day gear so the marshals are readily identifiable in their official jackets and hats, and distribute it to his team.
On the big day, while runners are still eating their porridge or putting on their numbers and Vaseline, most of the volunteers are already out on the course getting the water tables ready, manning the baggage area and taking their places around the marathon route.
Dick Hooper always gathers his team well in advance of the race start, briefs them on their areas of responsibility, and makes sure they know exactly where to be. They often get questions from the public about the timing and direction of the race, road closures and so on – and at times need to access St John’s Ambulance.
Having briefed the team, Dick always cycles around the early miles to make sure everyone is in place, and all is well. He’ll watch some of the race from his bike, but says: "I always ensure I am in place at my own spot before any of the athletes arrive."
Dick’s own marshalling position is always on the later miles – many a flagging athlete over the years has been encouraged at mile 24 by cries of, “Pick it up, Dick Hooper’s on the next corner!”
Another group who are extremely prominent on the day are the pacers. Dublin marathon have three pacers for each finish time, covering every 10 minutes from three hours to five hours.
"We are incredibly easy to find in the start area," says veteran pacer Olwyn Dunne, "with our giant, coloured balloons with the time on them."
Like the marshals, the pacers need to prepare well in advance. In their case, they need to make sure they're capable of running very comfortably within their allotted time, so they have to get in training.
The marathon organisers will confirm their suitability for their pacing slot with a recent half or full marathon race result.
It’s a big enough commitment getting ready to pace, Olwyn says. "Training is pretty much the same as if I were racing, with the emphasis being on the long run every weekend."
On the day, they need to be on their game as they are dealing with large numbers of marathoners; over the past number of years there has been a big increase in the number of runners following the pacers with some of the pacing groups comprising hundreds of runners.
Pacers are primarily there to help runners achieve time goals, but Olwyn feels it’s just as important to encourage and reassure them.
"A lot of participants can be very nervous on the morning and one of the most enjoyable parts of my role as pacer is to help them relax."
This side of pacing is what originally got Olwyn involved, as she explains: "I started running in 2008 and I always found pacers to be hugely helpful and encouraging. I’m passionate about the physical and mental benefits of running so I was keen to try pacing.
"I began to pace a few half marathons to see if it suited me. My first Dublin pacing was in 2012 and I have had the honour of pacing every year since then."
On the day, the pacers aim to finish in the allotted chip time, (e.g. 3:59: XX for the four-hour group), and in Dublin they run more or less even splits – "although most of us try to save a few extra seconds for heartbreak hill," says Olwyn.
The pacers also try to make the marathon an enjoyable and happy day for the runners in their group. They don’t just run the pace, they also warn runners about busy junctions where the chances of tripping are higher, grab extra water bottles for them and so on – some even tell jokes to pass the time away.
When you cross the finish line, you’ll meet another group who’ve had a long day – the bag-drop volunteers.
Like the marshals, these are often drawn from clubs and community groups. Parkrun, which embodies the spirit of volunteerism, always supplies many hands at the baggage area.
There are usually well over a hundred baggage volunteers working in shifts, come rain or shine, tirelessly sorting through 15,000-20,000 bags and doing their best to get them back to tired runners as fast as possible.
They’ll wave you off with a smile when you drop off your bag and welcome you back at the end.
Though it’s a long and often tiring day, the volunteers seem to get so much out of their roles.
Olwyn explained: “It's like Christmas as the day approaches. The most special part is meeting new people; crossing that finish line with lots of happy runners is so rewarding.
"Over the years I have met many runners who told me that the pacers helped them achieve their running goal. It's an incredible honour to line up with the big red balloon on the start line and I plan to do so for many more years."
For Dick Hooper, getting word at the end of a long shift that the day is done and has gone off successfully, leaves him with the satisfaction of a job well done.
He revealed: "The Raheny stewards retire to a coffee shop and trade stories of the day."
Dublin Marathon day is a special one for the city, for the runners, the supporters and for the volunteers too.
So give them a wave when you pass – and best of luck to all involved.