Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 4 May 2002 08:37:20 -0400

Now Hear This


In April alone I set two PRs. The first came at the Yakima River Canyon Marathon, where my final time read 8:05. Then a few weeks later at the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon I broke a record that I'll explain later.

I didn't run either race, unless you count running off at the mouth as the announcer. You know, that disembodied, anonymous voice you hear at races, the one that guides you to the start and welcomes you to the finish.

At these two April races, Yakima and Oklahoma City, my voice had lots of exercise. I have no special talent or training for this task other than not suffering from the common affliction of microphobia, a fear of the amplified voice.

I'm happy to arrive early and stay late to talk to a captive audience of runners. My role as announcer is to talk directly to them -- to inform and then recognize them -- and not to whip up excitement from sparse crowds of spectators.

Announcers "run" the starting line. Their voice herds the runners to their proper place at the right time, which gives a sense of power.

Yet the job can also be humbling. Runners assume that the person holding the microphone really is in charge and has all the answers. Either that or they make the announcer a paging service for lost running partners. Or they make him a handy target for complaints.

My favorite question from April: As raceday dawned, I announced that the baggage drop would be on the street east of the starting line.

"Which way is east?" someone asked. Uh, look toward the rising sun.

The longer and more satisfying job comes at the finish line. That's where the announcer reads as many names as possible.

This was both easy and tough at Yakima. Easy because the field of 400 had spread itself thinly at the end. Tough because identifying the runners meant spotting their race numbers and matching them to names on wind-blown sheets of paper.

The last finisher there checked in 8:05 after starting. The least she could expect was a proper welcome home, which is why I set a PR that day for longest time at a marathon's microphone.

Oklahoma City was both tougher and easier than Yakima to announce. Tougher because 10 times as many runners were involved. Easier because data from their Chip popped up on my computer screen as they finished.

Using that system forces the announcer to watch the screen instead of the finishers themselves. It caused me to miss Dick Beardsley, the weekend's featured speaker. Dick anchored the winning two-man relay team (with a 1:17 half-marathon), but only his team's name was called.

I did look up long enough to see who held the tape for the first individual marathoner, Jesse Williams (2:39). Race directors Rick Nealis of Marine Corps and Allan Steinfeld of New York City are linked to each other by what happened in their cities last September 11th, and to what happened in Oklahoma City in April 1995.

Another famous relay pair ran under their own names: Frank Shorter (running 1:45 while recovering from recent shoulder surgery) and Bill Rodgers (1:23 in long, baggy pants).

The big names soon were gone. The local TV crew signed off, packed up and left. My task here had barely begun.

An hour later I greeted Helen Klein (who ran 4:38). She must be the world's fittest 79-year-old, a veteran of some 175 marathons and ultras.

Two hours after Helen, in came Jose Nebrida. The Philippine-born runner from Chicago is on a mission since September 11th to carry the U.S. flag through marathons in all 50 states.

By the seven-hour cutoff time I'd chanted hundreds of names, a PR (thanks to the computer) for the most called in a single race. I didn't miss many, and regret missing any. I know how it feels to cross a finish line unnoticed.

To an uninvolved bystander my voice sounded like it had read nonstop from a phone book. But the runners had heard the most wonderful words in the world, their own name even if it wasn't spoken quite right.

Each one took only seconds to say. But it left a final, lasting memory of the event.

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