Army of marathon volunteers' new mission: Security
Anita Shellenberger is used to picking up laundry.
It's not just because she raised three daughters. Every year, she volunteers to oversee the first relay exchange point in the Pittsburgh Marathon, where some runners leave the race, some enter, and many shed clothes and other items they've tired of carrying for five miles.
“We always had a lot of people who leave items. This time I might be more aware of what it is, and keep an eye on it,” said Shellenberger, 63, a nurse from West Mifflin.
The bombings at the Boston Marathon will bring a greater police presence, new rules for runners and higher awareness among the 3,500 volunteers who organizers say are integral to hosting races that will draw 30,000 runners and up to 100,000 spectators this weekend.
They've always been as eyes and ears for the runners, warning them of potholes or storm clouds ahead. Now the volunteers say they will be the eyes and ears for law enforcement.
“They're even more important now, and I think they feel a stronger mission,” said race director Patrice Matamoros.
The mission changed slightly for the dozen bicyclists from the Murrysville-based Freddie Fu Cycling Team.
They escort the wheelchair athletes, clearing the path of pedestrians for the first racers to cross the finish line. This year, half of them will wear helmet cams during Sunday's marathon that record video “in case someone needs to go back and look at something later,” said team organizer Fred Baldassare, 54, of Murrysville.
“We're going to observe a lot more,” he said. “They told us to look for things, someone who just looks out of place. The guy with a big sweater on and it's 70 degrees. People looking nervous.
“The experts told us even the most experienced criminals will be nervous-looking when they're about to do something,” Baldassare said.
The team expects to log about 80 miles on Sunday because, for the first time, they will circle back after escorting the wheelchair athletes to monitor the course ahead of runners.
Baldassare, Shellenberger and other leaders who have volunteered every year since the race returned in 2009 and helped with the old marathon said the April 15 bombings didn't scare anyone away.
“It was the absolute opposite. I got a flood of calls from volunteers the past two weeks,” said Chris Navadauskas, 53, of Robinson, the leader of the fluid station at mile 9.7 on the South Side who organizes fellow volunteers at Duquesne Light, where she works.
Volunteers like Baldassare return every year because it's inspiring to see people push themselves, he said. Navadauskas brings 50 co-workers “to be part of the support.”
The volunteer captains have met with race officials monthly since December and had an emergency plan in place.
Boston changed some things.
Navadauskas said she won't set up trash cans for the thousands of water cups runners will toss near her station on East Carson Street.
“It's one less place to put something,” she said.
Emily Baum, communications coordinator for the marathon, said organizers kept volunteers updated on security changes with emails and told them to pack lightly and “keep your eyes peeled for anything that looks out of place or personally feels suspicious.”
That might be a tall task for Shellenberger as she watches over the relay exchange on the North Side.
Because of the predicted 47-degree race start and a forecast of high 60s by the finish, the race's medical director, Dr. Ron Roth, said runners should dress in layers, which they likely will shed.
Shellenberger said she'll watch for odd items among the tossed clothing and will keep a closer eye on where police are stationed.
“If I see something odd that's been sitting awhile, I might call someone over to look at it,” she said.
She started volunteering to bring the family together when her daughters were young “because it's just fun.” She wants to keep it fun for the runners and volunteers and said she'll focus most on getting everyone through her exchange smoothly.
“I'll leave the worrying to those who need to worry,” she said.
David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or email@example.com.