Alyssa Boler, who ran track in college, would love to be running this year’s St. Jude Memphis Marathon. Instead, she’ll play another role on race day — making sure the race finishers are rewarded with pizza.
Yes, pizza. About 2,600 pies, for the finishers in the marathon, half-marathon and other races that make up the largest annual single-day fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“It means just as much as running, if not more,” says Boler, a member of the Memphis Runners Track Club, which has provided the behind-the-scenes expertise — the foot soldiers, if you will — since the first St. Jude Memphis Marathon in 2002. There were 2,500 runners that year. This year there will be some 26,000, including about 3,500 marathoners and 11,000-plus half marathoners.
Boler and hundreds of her running mates work closely with ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, to help marshall some 4,000 volunteers on race day and in the weeks leading up to it. Together, they'll execute an epic show of St. Jude devotion and civic spirit.
As one of two food and beverage directors for the race, Boler says the event is “inspiring” and “humbling.”
“I always end up getting teary-eyed multiple times during the day. Because it’s just amazing to see the support the families and the patients get through this event.”
Volunteers from the MRTC are involved in everything from course design to working with the city on permits and street cleaning. They connect with neighborhoods to let residents know how they’ll be affected on race day and what time to expect to see runners. They recruit other volunteers. They help organize cheer stations, where supporters are provided with pompons and cowbells, and spirit stations, where bands and other entertainment spur on the runners.
And if it’s Monday of race week, they’re putting up “no parking” signs all around downtown Memphis.
Phillip Branch is in charge of hydration stations, which are located at every mile of the marathon and are manned with about 1,200 volunteers — a necessary number when you consider those 26,000 runners will go through some 310,000 cups.
Branch says “a part of me kind of misses lacing up the race shoes,” but he talks about volunteering for the race as “a calling.”
“To see the same people that I work with every year at these hydration stations, and to hear that dollar amount at the end of the week,” he says, “it’s an emotional thing.
“Man, it’s moving — the way this city, and this community, even people from outside of the city, come and participate. I have a group that comes every year from Kansas. They load up buses of kids from a college up in Kansas, and they head out two days prior to the race.”
Those students, from Kansas City Kansas Community College, handle two hydration stations. Another volunteer group comes from Washington D.C., led by a former Memphian now living there.
Branch and Boler both ran the St. Jude Memphis Marathon, before they began volunteering. Both are serious runners, but they’re more serious about the cause.
“We need to fix this problem yesterday, so children can live the life they want to,” Branch says, “and not to have to worry about hospital visits, and leukemia or whatever they’re battling.
“I felt moved to do something and get involved.”
Boler recalls her first year as a volunteer in food and beverage, as a group of kids passed out the snack bags that runners receive right after they finish. One of the kids passing out those bags of cookies and crackers was a St. Jude patient.
“She was thanking everybody who came by,” Boler says. “She was so happy.
“I remember thinking, at that moment, 'OK, I’m going to do this until I can’t anymore. This is what I’m supposed to be doing right now.'”
Then there’s Wain Rubenstein, race director for the entire history of the St. Jude Memphis Marathon, and a Memphis Runners Track Club member for about 30 years. He can’t guess how many hours he’s spent working on this year’s marathon, much less how much time he’s spent over nearly two decades.
“But I’ll tell you, about a month, three weeks out, I’m so excited,” says Rubenstein, who unlike his fellow club members will happily work — rather than run — on race day.
“I’ve never run a marathon, period.” He laughs. “Maybe I’m one of the few marathon directors in the world who’s never run a marathon.”
But the St. Jude Memphis Marathon isn’t just a day of races. It’s a day of devotion to a cause like no other — to achieve the day St. Jude founder Danny Thomas dreamed of, when no child dies in the dawn of life.
That’s why Rubenstein is so proud of feedback runners tend to give the SJMM.
“We’ve done surveys of ‘What’s your favorite part of the race?’” he says. “Overwhelmingly, it’s running through campus.”
He hears the same thing when he’s attending out-of-town running expos. People talk about the moment when runners wind through the grounds of St. Jude, cheered on by patients and families, caregivers and supporters.
“So many people come up and say, ‘You know, I was running through the campus and I had to stop and compose myself,’ Rubenstein says. “(They say,) ‘I started crying.’ This is men and women. They said it was just so awesome with those patients out there.
“They say you realize why you’re out here running, what it’s all about.”
Running and St. Jude fundraising have become synonymous — not just with the SJMM but in marathons from Nashville to Seattle, and in St. Jude Walk/Run events around the country during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month every September.
Why is the sport so in step with St. Jude? Rubenstein seems to have a theory.
“The thing I love about running in general is, I just think it’s the most egalitarian sport in the world,” he says.
The thought hit him during a race some years ago, a 10-miler in Washington D.C. A world record was set that day.
“Not by me, certainly,” he says with a laugh. “Those guys were on the plane going home by the time I finished.
“But I thought, how great is that? I’m a slug. I’m a back-of-the-pack guy. But I can participate in an event with a world-class athlete. All I have to do is pay my entry fee, lace up my shoes and get out there.”
You don’t have to look like a runner, or even run like one. The sport welcomes everyone, the fleet of foot and the plodding. And some days, like St. Jude Memphis Marathon day, the sport unites them all in a single purpose.