We tend to talk a lot about the grueling training and conditioning many runners put themselves through to prepare for Bloomsday. But the fleet-footed aren’t the only ones training for the main event. Think of the humble water station volunteers. Ignored by the masses and often overlooked by the runners themselves, their task is yet a daunting one. It takes weeks to hone the perfect cup thrust. Amassing the lower-body strength necessary to plant the feet amidst wet pavement and wax cups can take up to a year.
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Just ask Bruce Ellwein about his excruciating regimen. “I walk around the block one time extra and open the refrigerator once more per year,” says Ellwein, a certified financial planner who has captained water stations for the last five years.
Ellwein is being modest, of course, for the task of a water volunteer is a complex and multi-faceted one.
First, it takes solid preparation and sharply honed math skills. “You gotta make sure you got enough water out there before they start coming in, or you’ll be doing catch-up,” says Jim Cappello, a five-year volunteer at the finish line station.
As in ballet and ping-pong, precision and elegance are also key, and there are almost as many ways to execute the perfect water delivery as there are cups. “We’ve had discussions about that,” says Thad Frater, who heads the firefighter union’s water station at Broadway and Nettleton, about a mile past Doomsday’s acme. “I tend to hold [the cup] at the top. Other people don’t want to touch the rim of the cup, even though we’re all gloved up, but I don’t know… Many times the runners grab for water and it goes everywhere. Sometimes you got guys coming through grabbing two or three cups.”
Water volunteers have to be sure-footed, too. (Frater notes that those wax cups can turn the pavement into an ice rink.) And patient. “The only thing that’s been kind of an issue,” says Cappello, “is you have the buckets full of water that you’re filling the cups with, and runners will come through and have garbage in their hands, and they throw their garbage into the water! And you look at ’em, and it’s like, ‘Why would you throw garbage in there?!’”
Most of all, water wards have to possess Ironman-like strength and endurance. “We start about 6:30 in the morning,” says Frater. “We [finish] up about 1, 2 in the afternoon. There’s no lunch or anything like that. There’s some fatigue there. I usually go home pretty tired at the end of the day.”
And when these water gods finally do return home from their epic labor, they sleep a heroic sleep the likes of which mere runners shall never taste.