Peek behind the scenes as a Rock ‘n’ Roll staff member provides an insider’s look at what it takes to orchestrate race-day festivities in the Big Easy.
Written by: Megan Bitsoff
3:09 AM: “Good morning! This is your wake-up call! It is 3:10 AM,” the hotel operator trills. I snarl at her enthusiasm – she is one minute early and clearly a liar. I close my eyes and allow myself that extra minute of sleep.
3:20 AM: I open one eye and see, to my horror, that my mental alarm clock failed me! I spring across the room toward a pile of clothes, strategically stacked the night before in the order that I would put them on.
3:32 AM: In the elevator, I make sure that I have all the essentials for race day: staff badge, charged staff phone and cell phone, backpack filled with staff packet, maps, parking and shuttle fliers, final information brochures, zip ties, box cutters, clippers, hotel key and three coats for layering. Checks all around!
3:35 AM: I press my forehead against the closed Starbucks door in the hotel lobby, cursing the manager/Starbucks executives/baristas and anyone else who may have decided not to open at this hour.
3:36 AM: I woefully surrender to caffeine withdrawal and jump in the rental car with my coworkers.
3:44 AM: Our carpool arrives one minute before our call time. It’s a crisp 39º outside, pitch black aside from the light of the moon and quiet aside from the operations crew testing the speakers. “Test 1, test, test. Test 2, test, test…” Ah, the calm before the storm.
3:57 AM: I retrieve my work radio at the Volunteer Check-In tent and stroll down Tchoupitoulas Street to my assigned area – the VIP tent – to ready it for sponsors and elite athletes. I realize in just three hours, over 15,000 runners will stand shoulder-to-shoulder in this location, nervously awaiting the release of their corral. The countdown is on! The machine that is the event team is already in motion though. In front of me, I see 10 staff and volunteers zip tying sponsor banners onto the fences. Behind me, Gear Check workers are taping alphabet signs onto the appropriate trucks, and in the Start Line Village, the Refreshment Lead is opening the cases of water bottles and placing thousands of bagels and bananas on the tables.
3:59 AM: My moment of reflection is shattered as I dodge a speeding golf cart, full of information tent supplies. I glance at my left foot, happy to still have it attached to my body. My heart pounds as if I had actually drunk that cup of Joe.
4:36 AM: Riding the adrenaline surge, I carry several cases of Cytomax sports drink and water into the pitch-black elite athlete tents, precariously balance myself on a folding chair to zip-tie signs to the tent posts designating the VIP/Elite Athlete area, toss the tablecloths over the rental tables and light the heat lamps (the biggest perk of working the VIP area at the start line). Overall, the VIP area is in good shape for the 5:30 am open time.
5:11 AM: I flip the channel on my radio from the start line to the finish line and hear the calm calls for volunteers who will unwrap 15,000 individually packaged medals, mylar volunteers who will pull 10,000 aluminum sheets and stack them in bike racks and refreshment volunteers who will slice thousands of bagels and fruits.
5:28 AM: I am suddenly blinded by the flashing blue lights from a police motorcade. Behind 10 police escorts, a Mardi Gras float sails toward the VIP entrance. Some familiar sponsor faces come into view and I realize that the VIP shuttle has arrived. VIP officially opens.
6:17 AM: “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas pulses throughout the start line village. Participants begin arriving in droves. They scurry to drop off their bags at gear check and get in line for the port-o-potties. The line at the information tent starts to wind around the corner as our registration staff skillfully field all the last-minute questions.
6:20 AM: I guard the door of VIP, trying my best to emulate a bouncer. I check everyone for VIP badges and elite athlete race numbers. My precarious position near the start line is becoming a makeshift information tent for panicked runners. “Where is the start line?” I point up and to the right at the imposing start line structure. “Where is gear check?” I point to my left. The cycle repeats about 300 more times. I become aware of my uncanny likeness to a Bee Gees backup dancer.
6:26 AM: The sun rises. Non-VIPs are slipping by me as I frantically try to keep up with the questions coming my way. I throw on my puffy winter coat to look more menacing.
6:43 AM: My puffy coat proves to be futile. Groupthink rears its lovely head as a human Niagra Falls starts to pour over the four-foot fences surrounding VIP to access the port-o-potties intended for elite athletes and sponsors. Hundreds of participants with wild looks in their eyes race toward the VIP port-o-potties. I abandon my position at the door to herd the masses out into the corrals, pointing out to the ejected participants the port-o-potties that align the corrals.
6:50 AM: The spry elite athletes jog to the start with unwavering focus and the VIP area empties. My fellow VIP co-worker, Stacey and I haul heavy gear check bags onto the shuttle headed for the finish line. I inappropriately embrace the shuttle driver when he volunteers to help us and happily toss him one of my 50-pound bags.
6:59 AM: The press truck and lead vehicle engines roar to life. The shutterbugs capture the elites toeing the start line and our company vice president pops his head out of the sunroof of a lead vehicle, readying himself for a front row view of the elite athlete race.
7:01 AM: The race begins!
7:10 AM: The shuttle headed for the finish line departs so that the elite athlete gear bags will be available to them immediately after the race.
7:24 AM: Cleanup time! We pack the refreshments, take down the signs, pull the tablecloths, turn off the heat lamps and head to the finish.
8:09 AM: I flip to the finish line channel and hear that the elite athletes have started to trickle in. Finish line volunteers anxiously wait alongside the medal racks, trash cans filled with bottled water, bike racks lined with Mylar blankets and tables overflowing with refreshments. The staff leads for these areas ready their volunteers for the finishers, patrol their areas for trash and oversee the growing crowd.
8:31 AM: Radio discussions indicate that the experiment of replacing the medal ribbon with beads is not producing favorable results. Beads start breaking off everywhere prompting the medal lead to start building a pallet of broken medals. The pallet will amount to 30 boxes by day’s end. Good thing we over-ordered!
9:07 AM: Road closures force Stacey and me onto the sidestreets of New Orleans, which are laid out less like a grid and more like an undulating fingerprint. We radio our counterpart at the VIP finish line area to inform her of our delay. We follow the Mardi Gras beads, trapped in the trees from Fat Tuesday’s festivities, like Hansel and Gretel followed breadcrumbs. Five miles away and an hour and a half after our departure, we finally arrive at the finish line!
9:18 AM: I flash my staff badge to two hired security guards at the VIP entrance. The finish line VIP area radiates a barnyard chic flair. The night before, our operations crew laid hay on the ground after a torrential downpour flooded the area. I thank them silently, as the life of my staff shoes were extended by their efforts.
9:41 AM: I watch incredulously as a group of finishers and spectators unfolds a portable beer pong table and sets up shop outside of the VIP area. Only in New Orleans!
9:44 AM: The beer pong tournament commences.
10:18 AM: As I bus tables in VIP, I hear our secure zone manager call into the radio, “Catch that woman and her stroller!” I turn the volume up immediately. From the radio exchanges, I gather that a woman used her child and stroller to bust through the mesh fencing to greet her husband into the secure zone. They were escorted to the nearest exit. Staff in the area zip-tie the broken fencing, so that others don’t follow.
10: 21 AM: Other spectators start to follow stroller lady’s lead. Staff members post themselves along the fencing.
10:35 AM: In front of me, an operations golf cart runs out of gas en route to pick up volunteer food. The driver sprints like Forrest Gump to get gas. Volunteer bellies rumble with hunger.
10:51 AM: “Can you make us a cake?” I hear as I look down at the panicked face of a VIP guest. She clearly has mistaken me for a female version of the cake boss. I politely tell her that we are oven-less. After speaking with her for a few minutes, I learn that the cake is needed for two contestants from a popular TV show who are 25 minutes away from finishing. Stacey and I head into the caterer’s tent to see what we can do. I glance nervously at the media converging as the TV stars near the finish line.
11:15 AM: We decide to create a makeshift cake using some beignets that were to be served later in the day. Panicked lady hugs us.
11:37 AM: A VIP finisher forgot her medal, so I head back to the secure zone to fetch another. I work my way against thousands of finishers headed toward me. It is in this zone where I am reminded of my goals at each event: 1.) Avoid being puked on and 2.) Avoid being sweat on. To achieve both would be a PR. I glance toward the sky and the see the sun staring back at me, mocking goal #2.
11:39 AM: A runner is handed a Jell-o shot from the crowd and gulps it proudly after crossing the finish line.
11:48 AM: I retrieve the medal and check in with our staff who are working the frontline of the finish line. Behind us, the fencing has suddenly stooped to a 45-degree angle to the ground from the weight of the spectators. We push it back and educate the masses via bullhorn about the dangers of falling fences.
12:24 PM: Outside the gates of VIP, the beer pong ball falls at my feet. I throw it back to the revelers. They cheer and ask me to take a shot. I respectfully decline.
12:30 PM: I provide the medal to the finisher. She hugs me.
12:59 PM: The TV stars arrive. We sing happy birthday as the beignet “cake” is carried to the finishers. I continue to bus the tables, trying my best to look camera-ready as I cut into the shot. “Hi Mom!” I mouth into the lens. Camera guy gives me a weird look.
1:32 PM: “Staff – we have extra food at volunteer check-in.” I stop bussing immediately and head over to the tent to indulge in my first serving of vegetables in the four days that I have been in New Orleans: potato chips. Yum!
1:45 PM: Major cleanup and consolidation begins as the band Cowboy Mouth provides a live soundtrack to our activity.
2:17 PM: As I schlep discarded Mylar blankets and towels into the trash, I hear over the radio that 99 marathoners remain on the course. Almost home!
3:24 PM: As the secure zone team packs away the extra medals, meets with a food bank who will take the extra refreshments, and recycles the excess supplies, VIP closes its doors. VIP signs are snipped, chairs are folded, heat lamps are extinguished and truck-bound supplies are packed.
4:23 PM: We unload the supplies at the operations compound and exit the park, but not before honking at the beer pong players, who, amazingly, are still going strong.
4:55 PM: We meet at a local restaurant with the relieved-looking race directors and toast to a successful race.
6:09 PM: Back in the hotel room, I close the curtains as tightly as possible to prevent the sunlight from streaming in and fall into a dreamless sleep. Today certainly was a marathon, not a sprint!
Megan Bitsoff works in the Event Division of Competitor Group, Inc.