Thin Air

“There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.”  Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In January, I made a list of my 2015 running goals.  One of them was to be a race volunteer.  I’ve always been impressed with all the people who wake up at 5 am to go and stand for hours at a race just to hand water to runners by, continuously cheering and shouting affirmations like “you got this.”

When I decided to put volunteering at a race on my 2015 list, I knew that I’d have to go back to the Malibu Half-Marathon to do it.  I did my first half there on November 11th, 2012…registering to cross that finish line started the journey towards finding myself.  Actually, when I decided to take up running, I wasn’t even aware that I was lost….that I needed to find me…that I was doing a furious doggy paddle to stay afloat rather than calmly floating….that I was going through life breathing at high altitude despite living at sea level…. 

I looked up the race date for this year and registered as a volunteer a full 9 months in advance, marking the date as booked on my iPhone calendar.  On November 15th, 2015, almost 3 years to the day after crossing my first finish line, I stood on the other side of it with a few other volunteers, the race co-director Alberto Perusset, and a thousand shiny medals that we took turns placing around finishers’ necks.

Here are some of the faces of the people who I saw cross the finish line:

Of course, I witnessed the #1,2, and 3 male finishers…. the #1,2, and 3 female finishers…  I saw the #5-10 male and female finishers who were happy to place in the top 10… I saw the #4 and #11 finishers who were un-arguably fast but then disappointed upon discovering that they didn’t make the top 3 and top 10 respectively.  But much more moving than seeing the people at the top, I saw everyone else.

I saw a group of over 20 women in their matching shirts from their local cross fit running club, each running their own race at their own pace, but all waiting and cheering together at the finish line until every last one of them had crossed it.

I saw the young man who ran while wearing a purple shirt with a picture of his father that said, “My dad, my hero, was taken by pancreatic cancer.”


I saw the oldest participant, an 82 year-old Asian male.  A large group of his family members ran as well and crossed the finish line well before him, each at their own pace, and then they ran back and all re-ran a good part of the race with him in order to cross the finish line with him…. holding up his arms and cheering him on, having a moving family celebration.


I saw many disappointed runners who unexpectedly injured themselves along the course, yet hobbled across the finish line; ending with a much longer time than what they had hoped for, but finishing none the less.

I saw 2 little kids who asked me if they could each have a medal to put around their mom and grandmother’s necks.  I watched them squeal and jump up and down as their loved ones crossed, putting the medals around their necks and getting drowned in kisses.

I saw the dozen women who traveled from Texas and ran in matching “Jo Jo’s Brave Girls” shirts in honor of their late friend Jo Anne Franzenburg.  Jo ran the Malibu half in 2012 and 2013, and passed from cancer this past July.  They were simultaneously happy and sad as they ran their collective miles for her, celebrating her life.  The women from Texas challenged Jo’s 73 year-old mom to walk the 13.1 miles, and she did, crossing the finish line in four and a half hours.


I saw the triumph in the faces of the runners who were happy to finish in just under the 2 hour mark… the disappointment in the faces of the ones who were going for the sub-2 and were just over that by 1-2 minutes.

I saw the father who did the whole race while pushing his daughter in a jogging stroller, and asked that I put the medal around her neck instead.

I saw the slow and steady determined older women who crossed the 13.1 mile finish line in 3 hours and 35 minutes, and then grabbed on to the handsome Alberto, the race co-director as he put the medal around her neck and said, “I’ve never been so happy to see anyone.  Please hold me and don’t let me fall down.”

I saw the person who ran across the line and then stumbled into the crowd dry-heaving, while multiple people came to her rescue….For every struggling stumbling finisher, I saw many more who ran across with exhilaration, throwing their hands up in the air in a gesture that said, “Yes…I can!”

I saw those last few walkers, who despite sudden onset of gusts of wind causing a mini sand-storm requiring an earlier than anticipated take down of some of the race set up, continued on their journey against the elements.  The co-race director Alberto Perusset, a barefoot running legend who has done over 100 marathons himself, patiently waiting for them with medals around his arm leaned over to me and said, “I admire these people more than the elite runners…what they are doing is very difficult and the real accomplishment.”


Alberto Perusset

I saw tears…. tears of triumph, pain, grief, relief, gratitude, and joy.

In order to stick to my commitment to volunteer at this race, I missed a few other running opportunities for myself.  In this weekend when I missed out on running myself, I gained a perspective from the other side that made me fall in love with running again and again.  I saw the faces of a thousand runners, each on their own running and life journey, who have discovered that breathing at sea level is much easier than breathing in thin air.

**Other than passing out medals, I also helped direct parking traffic in the morning, set up water and snacks at the finish line tables, and helped with packing up after the race.  A recap of the race in the Malibu Times:  Forever Runners Hosts Malibu International Half Marathon.  A little report on Alberto completing his 100th marathon, barefoot no less:  “Barefoot Alberto” Completes 100th Marathon.


Me….holding up the medals and waiting for finishers to come in.


The 3rd place man approaching the finish line… the first medal that I got to give out.


I’m not gonna lie….I appreciate shiny bling.

About Paria

Runner, mother, pediatrician, blogger

12 comments on “Thin Air

  1. I love this so much!!! I’m ashamed to admit that I have never volunteered at a race. I think this has to be the year!!!! Thank you for inspiring me with this.

    • Well, if I just inspired the amazing triathlete Allie who is writing articles all over the place and I can’t even keep up with her despite my experience at being a stalker, then I have gotten a massive compliment!!! Thank you!!!!!

  2. When I was injured last year and had to pull out of a few races, I volunteered instead so I could support my friends. It was so moving to be on the other side of the water table for a change. I truly always appreciate those who get up to help us runners out. So much work goes into putting on a big race.

    • So much work does go into putting on a race…. and I know that you give back to running in many ways…I admire that and hope to do more of it in the future.

  3. Isn’t it fun seeing all the runners? I didn’t volunteer but I spectated a race I was supposed to run–I was in the boot with a stress fracture. I loved seeing the difference between the elites and the BOTPers at the start. And I loved seeing the runners come in at the finish. Gave me a whole new perspective on racing.

  4. Wow, I love reading your post. I like the part especially about the son who wear the shirt in honor of his dad. I still have tears in my eyes. I lost my mom to ovarian cancer, but I do not think i could have the strength to wear such a shirt. I think it would be to hard for me. Thanks for sharing

    • So sorry about your mom….The hospital where I work has a big Ovarian Cancer fundraiser every November… a 5K called Run For Her that I participated in last year. It is both difficult and healing to run with someone you’ve lost.

  5. I love this post and all that you witnessed – thank you for sharing all of those moments. What an amazing perspective. I’ve never volunteered for a race but now I think I have to!

    • I definitely think you should….especially as you are easy back into running due to injury, it will still let you be a big part of a race without actually running.

  6. For me, this post is the most moving and touching that you’ve written. If you re-counted 1 more runner’s story, I would have a couple of tears streaming down my face. Instead, I got a little welled up.

    We all have a story to tell. It’s something I realized this year as I boxed up my story for many years. And we can share our story, learning something (or some things) from it to grow, and hopefully, help someone with theirs.

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