About an hour before the starting gun went off at the starting line on Water Street in Woods Hole, Milton Kelley had a big smile on his face.
The roughly 40 volunteers helping set up the fifth and final official water station of the New Balance Falmouth Road Race, which is about a mile from the finish line at Grand Avenue, were busy scurrying around the front yard of the Falmouth Baptist Church. Some were filling colorful bouquets of balloons with helium. Others were setting up chairs for spectators, while a few serenade the morning crew with the soothing, subtle soundtrack of Christian soft rock.
But the brunt of the volunteers were split up into small groups huddled around eight six-foot-long folding tables. A few were tasked with laying out the plastic-dipped disposable cups over the table while others promptly followed with filling them up from a jug of Poland Springs water.
Kelley, on the deacon board of the church, had the unofficial title of rover during the 8 AM hour, lending a hand with the tables or folding up cardboard boxes while providing moral support. After 20 years of being the last official stop on the course—and plenty more as an unofficial stop—Kelley had this set-up down to a science. And he’s passed that knowledge down to his volunteers.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” Kelley said. “They all move pretty good.”
Luke Ely, a teenage volunteer, agreed, adding, “We’ve done this for so many years we have a system down for it.”
Kelley arrived to the church grounds at 5:30 AM—nearly three hours before the race starts six miles on another side of town. The rest of the volunteers, ranging in age from 17 to 70, arrived to help right around sunrise. As members of the church, they see the water stop as a way to help live out their cause while being a Good Samaritan.
“People need to drink water and stay hydrated,” one volunteer said. “But we also want people to know about Jesus. We are a church; that’s what we’re about. We’re in a great space here, too, so there’s a greater opportunity to make an impact.”
And there’s plenty of people who felt their impact. With upward of 10,000 participants in the annual road race, the crew knows they’ll be slammed. In preparation for that, the road race committee provided 270 gallons per official water station. Delivered in three tidy pallets, stacked five boxes high and three deep, each station has 45 Poland Spring packs holding six one-gallon jugs. The volunteers unwrapped them as needed and dispersed them in enough disposable cups to make the table top disappear. After every inch of surface is covered in cups, posterboard is placed on top and a new row is started. They repeated this until four or five levels of water sat on all eight tables aligned along the left side of Falmouth Heights Road.
As a humid haze hung over the harbor, volunteers anticipated a busy mid-morning despite the early overcast elements.
“It’s really hot and muggy, so we’ll get slammed by the recreational runners. The elite runners, they barely have their feet touch the ground and fly right by us,” Kelley said.
Family, Food & Fun
About a half-mile up the road, on the other side of the harbor, Tim Souza and his crew of roughly 60 volunteers were also scurrying in preparation for the eventual influx of feet passing by. In Bigelow Marine Park with the Music and Arts Pavilion off in the distance, the second-to-last official water station is an annual family reunion 33 years in the making.
“Everyone here is family and friends,” said Souza, the captain of the stop and kindergarten teacher at the Kenneth C. Coombs School in Mashpee. “We keep doing it to get everyone together and it’s a memorial for my parents.”
Souza’s parents, Doug and Karen, started the tradition in the 1980s and after their passing he carried on the tradition. He hasn’t missed a road race since he was 9 years old. And on this day he kept a watchful eye on his young daughters while overseeing the rest of his crew, comprising cousins, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, co-workers, friends and grandparents.
If the fourth water stop is filled with family, Souza promises they will be filled up with food and fun. Volunteers fueled up on coffee and doughnuts, provided by Dunkin’ Donuts, for breakfast while Souza’s aunt prepared a buffet-style lunch—a taco bar—from their RV.
“We’re having tacos?!” Souza’s daughter asked with an inquisitive excitement.
“It’s a good time. This stand is fun because we have the music,” Souza said, pointing back toward the pavilion. “When the runners come by, they’re dancing and singing along. It’s really a fun water spot.”
The volunteers at the fourth water stop weren’t yet finished setting up all their stands when Daniel Romachuk, the preeminent wheelchair athlete in the country, came speeding in from the distance.
Larry Deem, uncle of Tim, urged his daughter to get a cup ready in the chance that Romanchuk, who finished three minutes ahead of the second-place finisher, would pull over at the hydration station. With both of her feet edged to the farthest reaches of the sidewalk, she bent her back out toward the road, her right arm extended with the cup sitting atop her flattened palm.
“That’s how you want to do it. Let the runners come to you,” Deem explained. “The runner comes to the hand. The hand doesn’t come to the runner.”
It’s the sort of nuanced knowledge that comes with three decades’ worth of experience. And Deem has a wealth of it. Even referring to Falmouth High School as the “new school,” he recalled the early days when setting up the water station consisted of lining garbage barrels with clear plastic lining, filling that up with water and ladling cups in and out.
“I’m not sure that would be up to code today,” Deem joked.
Now decked out with latex gloves, Falmouth Road Race volunteer T-shirts and an abundance of Poland Springs, the volunteer groups have come a long way. Kelley even remembered filling cups up with a water hose before the road race committee helped button up their site. Those days are long gone.
Over at the fifth and final stop the technique isn’t so much with the hand-off as it is the hand. Standing along the left side of the road running south, volunteers are forced to use their left hands—the less-dominant hand to most—to get their job done.
“Everyone has to be a lefty here,” Chris Botelho said.
But injuries and inefficiencies be damned when the general field is ushered through.
“We hold it until they take it,” Kai Blanton said. “You might end up with a sore shoulder at the end of it.”
Shining At Showtime
If elite runners trading hydration for seconds is the calm, the general field looking for one last break is the storm—on hot and muggy days especially.
“The recreational runners really jam us up,” Ely said. “We just try to get out as many waters as possible.”
Each oncoming wave was announced farther down the road by the cheers of spectators and the clanging of cowbells. Volunteers are urged to stay off the course, unless they want a reenactment of the wildebeest stampede from “The Lion King.’” Despite the resemblance to a mob mentality, manners typically prevail as multiple volunteers insisted they’ve never seen a table knocked over or emotions spill out—even on the hottest of days.
“I don’t feel pressure,” Linda Miller, a volunteer at the baptist church, said. “I’ve been doing this since 1999.”
It was right around noon when the last few water cups went out. But the volunteers’ job isn’t over quite yet. At the fifth stop, they broke out the snow shovel and began removing the colony of cups that overtook the course like cicadas in the spring. They’ll start the removal process while the race is still going on, because the plastic-dipped cups can be slippery when wet.
Volunteers didn’t leave until mid-afternoon, long after the runners had cleared Falmouth Heights and began their post-race celebrations or the inevitable bumper-to-bumper trip home. It may be viewed as a thankless job to some, but at the Souza stop, they’re just thankful to have a part in the race.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 9 or 10 years old,” Souza said. “Now I’m a stop captain. I can’t thank the road race committee enough for letting me.”
Much as the race itself brings people together during the tail end of summer, so, too, do the water stops. It’s more than a hydration station, it’s a watering hole. It’s a family reunion. It’s a place of rejuvenation.
“It’s a labor of love,” Miller said.