Volunteers Act on Their Love of Running
By Gabrielle Russon
Chris Ballesteros knows the power of running. The ultra runner who is the ultimate running enthusiast is eagerly volunteering for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Marathon, which will take place in her hometown of Orlando, Florida on February 3, 2024.
For DeLand resident Ernie Paterson, volunteering is a way to see the world. He’s volunteered at some of the most prestigious global events. Of course, he won’t miss the Trials in his own backyard in downtown Orlando.
Danny Pazyra credits his running coach with turning him into a faster, smarter marathoner. Pazyra will pay her back. This time he will be the one cheering for her when she chases her dream of becoming an Olympian and he serves as a volunteer in the race that might take her there.
Ballesteros, Peterson and Pazyra are part of the more than 1,000-person force of volunteers who will be working behind the scenes when the City of Orlando, Orange County, Greater Orlando Sports Commission and Track Shack host the Trials this winter. An estimated 375 runners will compete in downtown Orlando in hopes of winning a spot to represent the United States in the Paris 2024 Olympics.
Even before the race begins, the volunteers will be at work. Some will be deployed to the Orlando International Airport to greet and welcome runners when they first arrive while others will staff the hotel to give information and make sure athletes are fed. If athletes have questions from where to eat a good vegan pre-race meal, go for a shakeout run or have fun after the race, the athletes can contact a “concierge” – their assigned volunteer who knows all the answers.
“Without volunteers, there's no way we could produce any of our events. They are essential,” said Betsy Hughes, who owns Track Shack with her husband, Jon.
The majority of volunteers – more than 500 – are assigned to work the water stops, which are each almost half a mile of tables.
Track Shack hired Caryn Lamphier, the youth events manager at Atlanta Track Club who knows the science of running giant water stops. At the 2020 Trials in Atlanta, Lamphier, an engineer by trade, developed a plan to deliver personal hydration to more than 700 runners – the largest field in event history. Lamphier plays every single scenario in her head for race day. What can go wrong? And how can she fix it? A mix-up, a mistake, an unexpected problem could be costly on a warm day in Orlando, and Lamphier knows what’s at stake.
The elite runners are chasing Olympic medals and the chance to represent the United States. Other runners are long shots to make it to the Olympics, but Lamphier says they aren’t overlooked.
For all the runners, “We want to also give them a world class, first-class experience because they've given so much of themselves to get there on that day,” Lamphier said. “We want to honor all of those athletes and make sure that they have a perfect experience from a hydration perspective.”
In-person training with volunteers is set for January, although for months Lamphier has been coordinating with volunteer leaders who are assembling their teams and analyzing course maps and table placements during regular calls. On a quiet Sunday morning in early December, Lamphier watched a group of runners – which included American half marathon record holder Keira D'Amato, among the favorites to make the team – practice one eight-mile loop of the course in downtown Orlando.
“I'm a planner, I love diving into details,” Lamphier said. “Like what if it's hot and humid? What if it's freezing cold? What if it's windy? What if it's literally freezing, what do we do when the fluid starts to freeze? If it's really windy, how are we going to handle keeping those bottles on the table?”
She even has gone as far as to taste a sponge in case athletes squeeze them over their faces if it’s hot.
One of the biggest concerns is Orlando’s heat and humidity, so the race will have an estimated 15,000 Powerade and water bottles on race day. Athletes who prefer their own “secret sauce” hydration drinks are allowed to bring up to six personalized water bottles, and volunteers will set those bottles up in the correct position on the numbered tables for athletes to grab them.
To keep athletes cool, the water and Powerade bottles will be refrigerated beforehand and icy cold sponges will be available. Hydration stops are every 1.5 miles, giving runners plenty of opportunity to drink up.
“Of course we can't predict everything, but I take it as a challenge to work on that with the crew leads beforehand,” Lamphier said. “We don't sweat it. We are talking about every single scenario that could come up, and how can we be ready for it?”
Hundreds from the Central Florida running community are volunteering at the Trials to be close to some of the fastest long-distance runners in the country and witness U.S. Olympic history. The outpouring of support has been so strong, the waitlist to volunteer is 800 people.
“Who wouldn't want to be there?” said Ballesteros, one of the volunteer crew leaders at the hydrating stations. “It’s special.”
Ballesteros knows all too well the pain of a long-distance run.
With more than 50 marathons under her belt, Ballesteros’ longest run was a 24-hour race in 2018. She ran 102 miles on painful feet, feeling lonely after most of the other runners went home. She didn’t quit. Can she ever top that? She plots what’s next. Maybe 200 miles someday?
“That's why I love running because there are always challenges,” said Ballesteros, now 53, who discovered running later in life after she ran her first 5K at age 41 on her weight-loss journey. Two years later, she ran her first 50K.
In between her own running, the Orlando resident is an experienced volunteer used to waking up hours before the sun to lead volunteer groups at runDisney races.
At the Trials, Ballesteros will be working with other fellow volunteers from the runDisney, her ultra marathon friends and other Central Florida runners.
The anticipation of Feb. 3 feels like Christmas morning, Ballesteros said.
Track Shack employee Danny Pazyra wanted to beat his cousin’s half marathon. For bragging rights, Pazyra ran twice as far. That’s how he fell in love with marathon running in the first place.
Pazyra connected with Neely Spence Gracey, a professional runner from Colorado who was the top American in the 2016 Boston Marathon, has a 2:30 personal best in the marathon, and made headlines for setting the world record in the mile while pushing a jog stroller earlier this year.
Gracey was the perfect coach to help him beat his 5:30 first marathon time. She wrote training plans and called him every month to talk tactics. She was the voice in his ear, reminding him to take those slow runs easy.
Her insight paid off.
Pazyra, of Celebration, knocked nearly two hours off his time when he ran his PR of 3:41 in 2022.
After years of working together, Gracey’s and Pazyra’s roles are reversed. This time, Gracey is the athlete running in Orlando, and Pazyra is the cheerleader.
“I'm so excited for it. I can't put it into words,” said Pazyra, who signed up as a volunteer.
For Gracey, seeing Pazyra and her family in the crowd helps her dig deep late in the race.
“I find that having people supporting me on the course keeps me focused and allows me to continue to push even if I am feeling fatigue build up,” Gracey said.
Ernie Peterson is almost like a professional volunteer. You can tell right away when you walk into his home office in DeLand where his framed memorabilia from working at two Super Bowls, the World Cup, five Olympics and other big college games adorn the wall.
Peterson, 72, who is retired from a 35-year career at the Volusia County’s Property Appraiser’s Office, is full of stories, like that time he was a few feet away from snowboarder Shaun White and skier Lindsey Vonn. Staying with host families, Peterson has made friends all over the world.
Back at home in Central Florida, Peterson is in the chain gang, moving the down markers during DeLand High football games on Friday nights as well as running the clock at Stetson University men’s basketball games.
In volunteering, “I couldn’t ask for a better seat in the house,” said Peterson, a sports fan who remembered being mesmerized watching the 1960 Olympics on a black-and-white TV. “It gets you out of the house to do things.”
At the Trials, Peterson is signed up to volunteer in Orlando on his journey to volunteering under the Eiffel Tower at the 2024 Olympics.
He figured Paris will probably be his last Olympics, until he eyes the calendar for the Milano-Cortina 2026 Games. Wouldn't Italy be a beautiful place to visit? What a trip!
“It is very addictive because once you do one, then you want to do another,” Peterson said.