Lauren Mathis and 14 of her fellow parishioners at Champaign’s New Foundation Missionary Baptist Church stood at intersections along the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon course all over town two years ago, directing runners and cheering them on. In the pouring rain.

The Champaign woman ran the half-marathon last year while 25 parishioners volunteered, again making sure Mathis and the other runners didn’t take a wrong turn along the course and cheering them on. In the pouring rain.

Undeterred by two years of less than ideal weather, Mathis will be running the half-marathon again this year, as well as coordinating her church’s group of volunteers.

“I would love to just be in the sun,” Mathis said.

“From volunteering my first year in the rain, and running my second year in the rain, I think it’s harder for volunteers,” she said. “They have to stand there for a certain amount of time, and it gets cold. The volunteers are definitely some strong and dedicated people.”

Blog PhotoJason Harden of Urbana has volunteered every year of the Illinois Marathon races. His wife is a runner, and he started volunteering at her races because it was better than sitting at the finish line waiting for her, he said.

“If she’s running for several hours, it’s an opportunity for me to do something,” he said.

The first year of the Illinois Marathon, Harden drove a sag wagon. Now he’s the sag wagon coordinator, overseeing the volunteer drivers who pick up any runners who are unable to finish their races and are not having a medical emergency.

“It could be a wheelchair (racer) that has a flat tire and needs a ride back. Last year, we had a bike volunteer that had a flat tire. It could be (a volunteer) needs supplies and we’ll go pick them up,” Harden said.

They’re busiest during cold, wet weather, particularly last year, he said. “People are really cramping up. Some of it is people who wanted to do the full and couldn’t make it,” Harden said.

His team drives the course before the race starts to ensure all the volunteers along the course — at intersections and at water stops — are in place. If a volunteer has failed to show up or more help is needed at a certain spot, the sag wagon team will drop off reserve volunteers to fill in.

Once the races start, the sag wagon crews position themselves throughout the race course. If they aren’t needed to respond to a runner in trouble, they cheer on the runners or help other volunteers.

Harden also works with Scott Friedlein of Reynolds Towing and a retired Champaign police officer on establishing emergency shelters for the race.

“I really like the job, being out there if someone needs help,” Harden said. “It’s an opportunity to give back to the community as well.”

The course intersection jobs that the New Foundation Missionary Baptist Church parishioners handle — manning intersections throughout the race course to direct runners and watch for any traffic problems — are some of the hardest to fill, along with helping with parking for the expo and on race day. Many people want to volunteer for course jobs only if they are assigned to their neighborhood, said Kim Scott, the volunteer coordinator for the races.

About 3,000 volunteers are needed to cover all the events, Scott said. In addition to the course team positions, volunteer jobs include helping set up the race expo, handing out bib numbers and T-shirts, selling tickets to the pasta feed, greeting runners and spectators flying into Willard Airport, hanging up the medals on racks in preparation for the Saturday races, crowd control and stadium cleanup.

Some of the jobs are covered by groups, including employees of sponsors.

For example, Busey sponsors the Youth Run and provides employees to help with it. Human Kinetics employees do most of the race packet stuffing. The Kiwanis Club fills most of the parking team positions. University High School students, parents and staff do course cleanup after the race. Most of the water stops are manned by community organizations that can guarantee a certain number of volunteers. And Christie Clinic employees have first dibs for the coveted volunteer spots on the stadium floor, handing out medals and water to race finishers.

If sponsors or other organizations can’t fill all those jobs, though, they are opened to the public, Scott said. And there are plenty of other positions for community members to fill.

Most volunteer shifts are four to six hours. Some course intersection jobs will have two shifts of volunteers because runners will be passing some intersections for a good part of the day, Scott said.

“I enjoyed encouraging people to continue to do their best,” Mathis said of her volunteer experience as a course guard.

“The crazy part about it was, the runners were saying, ‘Thank you so much for being out here. We really appreciate it.’ It was such a positive environment and a positive experience."


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line.


Volunteer info

The Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon race weekend is April 20-22. Go to http://illinoismarathon.com/get-involved/volunteer-2/ for information about volunteering and to sign up for open spots. Volunteers for course team positions and some other positions need to attend training prior to race weekend. The webpage includes a volunteer FAQ.

Email volunteer@illinoismarathon.com if your organization wants to volunteer.

Marathon officials hope to fill all volunteer spots by April 1.


Photo: Urbana resident Jason Harden pops his Illinois Marathon T-shirt on Friday near Crystal Lake Park in Urbana. Harden is the sag wagon coordinator for the marathon, overseeing the volunteer drivers who pick up any runners who are unable to finish their races and are not having a medical emergency. Photo by John Dixon/The News-Gazette


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