“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” - Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
When Suzanne & I visit New Orleans for race events, we try to get up very early at least one morning during the trip. One of the reasons we get up before the crack of dawn is to run & socialize with our 5:20 Club friends, up along the Lakeshore. The other reason we get up early is to put on our walking or running shoes & stroll the length of the French Quarter, usually along Bourbon Street.
It's a completely different world at seven in the morning on a Saturday or Sunday. The visual effect & soundscape as we stroll from Canal to Esplanade & back is, for lack of a more eloquent term, night & day when compared to the night before. What New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Chris Rose described in his work, "One Dead In Attic," as 'oyster-stink,' is mellowed somewhat by the scent of detergent laid down by various & sundry restaurateurs, shopkeepers & a few really hard working persons in the employ of Sidney Torres.
You can almost hear yourself think clearly, it's that calm.
"I've been lazy most all my life, writing songs and sleeping late; any manual labor I've done purely by mistake. If street sweepers can smile then I've no right to be upset..." - "It's My Job" (McAnally/Corbi)
Unlike Mac McAnally Jr., (Jimmy Buffett's songwriting partner-in-crime), I have no need to sit on the curb feeling sorry for myself at seven in the morning. I have a need for a hot cup of coffee. Self-pity is not on the agenda. But the calm after the storm of the night before makes me marvel at the folks who get up early every morning, not because they need to get their workout in before the morning commute to the cubicle farm, where most people's dreams go to die. They do it because, as McAnally wrote & Buffett sang, it "makes the day" for them.
And on a day like today, when federal workers (like me - please, no 'contradiction-in-terms' jokes) are off because of the hard work & sacrifice of unsung civil rights workers like Dr. King, I couldn't help but feel just a little bit guilty.
As an athlete, a coach & a race director, I definitely know the merit of hard, unseen toil, especially in areas where the spotlight rarely ever shines. In most cases, while the race participants, volunteers & family members are putting their efforts into making another keg of beer float I'm ten miles down the beach, throwing folding tables & ice chests in my little black Scion xB, or hanging out in a small boat & learning how to make my first jellyfish stings hurt less while pulling up buoys.
But athletes expect a sort of Disney World-like quality from race directors; everything they need is there when they need it, always to their satisfaction. I've had long discussions with seasoned race volunteers, & we nearly all agree the vast majority of race participants would freak out at the level of work which goes into even the smallest of races. A participant at a race director seminar last year launched into a litany of things he felt race directors should have available for race participants. I sat with my friend George over a beer that afternoon, wondering if the race director in question could or would be able to pull off what he wanted to see at other races in his own. It's too soon to tell; I haven't seen a flyer for any of his events.
As an athlete, I love highly-motivated aid station workers, course marshals & finish line staffers. Certain run courses can leave you traveling in and out of those (to borrow from Douglas Adams) 'dark-tea-time-of-the-soul' moments; a cheerful aid station captained by a racer & manned by her high-school students has the ability to provide enough adrenaline surpassing the benefit of the two half-filled cups of cool water you might otherwise take there.
The flip side of the coin followed not long after mile 12 of this last weekend's beach half-marathon...I knew it was not going to be the best of days on the warm-up. By mile 12, I was in a world of discomfort, due to an achilles' tendon which doesn't like heavily-crowned road surfaces. After ten miles, you remember why running injured can be a painful, sometimes depressing affair. I approached the third-to-last turn on the course, just a block before turning back onto the main drag. The course worker at that corner was a teenage girl, huddled up in a folding beach chair. She appeared to barely have the strength to call out encouragement as I painfully ambled by. It reminded me of mile two of last years' Jackson Day race - those girls received a mulligan because it was 20 degrees - this young maiden had about 30 degrees to the good side of those conditions. It took a great deal of restraint to not turn back to her & say, 'could you spare the sliver of energy it would take to give just a little more encouragement?'
It was then that I heard the duck call. A couple dressed as the Mad Hatter & Donald Duck (I think they did the previous weekend's Disney events) were cheering & guiding runners back toward the finish...I remembered the duck call on the trip out & could not help but laugh to myself at the sheer (apparent) silliness of the whole thing. But, with aching heel & achilles, running low on motivation & glycogen, it was the last real good kick in the back-side I was going to need before the finish line.
Suzanne finished about 45 minutes later, & marveled at the couple's fortitude as well. In fact, she took the time to introduce herself afterward & might have rounded up either another two volunteers for somewhere on the Rock n' Roll/Mardi Gras course, or two more participants to join the party.
It doesn't take much to thank a volunteer; it could take the form of a smile & a nod as you pass by, it could take the form of a handshake & a compliment to a race director, or an e-mail to the club which puts the event on...even if there's something which can be improved, they usually like to know their efforts are appreciated.
It's what makes the day for them.