Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Marathon cleanup

In big, bold type nearly an inch high, the newspaper headline the day before the Philadelphia Marathon read “26.2 Miles of Security.” The Friday weekend section had called it “A Run of Fun.”

My headline for the race: “Pure Garbage.” Or, to be more precise, make that garbage, recycling, and compostable materials.

My running club has staged the water stop at the intersection of Kelly Drive and Fountain Green for years. The runners pass us twice: at about mile 14 on the way out, and at about mile 25 on the way back.

This year, there were more than 14,000 marathoners taking two passes at our water stop. That meant about 28,000 cups of water and Gatorade were filled, handed out, and picked up. With the race partnering with the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability on Green Initiatives, and ambitious goals for waste diversion from landfills, my day was pretty much spent in the gutter.

It’s amazing how quickly refuse piles up as runners zip by trying to sip water and rid themselves of their cups without breaking stride.I barely got to see any faces, so focused was I on raking throwaways out of the path of oncoming runners. (Wet cups and pavement make for a slippery surface, which we wanted to avoid.)

The winner crossed the finish line in 2 hours, 39 minutes, and 3.74 seconds. At that point, there were still thousands of runners and walkers who had yet to make it to our water station for their first pass.

The day seemed to drag on forever. So did the trash. I worked with a small subset of volunteers who stomped and separated plastic water jugs (blue trash bags), flattened the cardboard boxes that housed the water jugs (stacked separately), collected the waxy cups (yellow compostable bags), and scraped up sticky GU energy-gel packets and other trash off the road (clear garbage bags).

We called it quits at 2 pm – seven hours after the race started. There were still people, walkers mostly, out on the course. They would have to move to the sidewalks to reach the finish, because the city was going to open the streets to traffic.

Did I feel bad leaving them unsupported for that final mile or so? Not at all. My marathon day had been a full eight hours long, if you count setup time at oh dark thirty.

I would hope they had trained for the distance for weeks and months beforehand. Me? There is no training for trash...except to just keep cleaning up.

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