My question came in response to a “thank you” I’d just received from Thing #2’s volunteer volleyball coach. I bumped into her on the street and thought she was asking me to buy a team jersey for Thing #2.
As it turned out, I had, in fact, apparently just agreed to spend the better part of a Saturday volunteering on behalf of the volleyball team.
I was still dealing with the switch-up when the coach leaned in and added, “It’s going to be awful. We have to show up around 5:00 or 5:30 and spend most of the morning volunteering – then we have to come back and do it again in the afternoon.”
With that, she waved and walked away. A little shell-shocked, I walked the rest of the way home trying to think of just how mean Thing #2 would be when I woke him up at 4:45 a.m. On a Saturday. He doesn’t even like fishing that early.
Bride #1 laughed when I explained my predicament. “You volunteered for that? Well, good luck.”
This was not the level of pity of was hoping for.
I then passed the news to Thing #2, who seemed to know about the fact that the entire team and at least one of the parents — ahem — had been volunteered to work the race. The volunteering was supposed to garner free jerseys for the volleyball team from the same company that was making them for the race. Thing #2 was not, however, aware of the start time of our work. When I explained how early that might be he grew quiet and asked to be alone.
Nearly two weeks passed. I attended the afternoon volleyball practice with Thing #2 the Thursday before our threatened volunteer gig. When we returned from practice Bride #1 asked if I’d discussed the details of the volunteering with the coach.
“Of course not,” I replied.
Her hand went to her hip (possibly in reality; definitely in my mind). “Are you kidding? You were just at practice. Why wouldn’t you ask for the details?”
I tried to explain that, in my experience with Pura Vida, the less I said the better. The coach might forget all about the fact that I’d been volunteered. Perhaps the entire volunteer gig had been cancelled. The team members and parents had a group on WhatsApp we’d received no information. Asking questions just meant I was inserting myself back into the mix.
“Look, it’s Thursday night. If we don’t hear anything by tomorrow night at 9:00 I’m declaring it a victory.”
“You know you have to go,” she replied.
I like to consider myself charming and pithy at moments like this. Not everyone agrees.
Sure enough, at 9:30 p.m. Friday night, mere hours before the race, the texts began. There would be no escape.
5:15 a.m. the following morning I drove the zombie equivalent of Thing #2, as well as some of his buddies/fellow volleyball players to the parking lot down the big hill where the race was staged.
The mood was tense. More volunteers showed up. Some were teachers. Many of us compared notes on where we’d gone wrong.
The coach arrived with a box of the shirts we were to wear as race volunteers. She already had hers on, and it sagged off of her in oversized comfort. My experience with t-shirts made in this area is that I need to stitch three of them together to get something that will fit around me, Gringo Grande. I thought, for a moment, that today might be different.
Moments later, squeezed into a shirt that threatened my circulation, I chuckled at my folly. The only shirt of any size was the one that had been claimed by the coach. The sizes indicated on the shirts bore no relation to reality (Thing #2’s was labeled XX but was only slightly bigger than his noodle of a body). I wasn’t the only one who wondered aloud what this meant for the free jerseys the team would receive in exchange for this work.
I was also not the only one who suffered from sausage shirt. Not everyone suffered silently, particularly me.
The high winds typical for the time of the year battered the banners and signs that the real race workers tried to hang. The boys on the volleyball team, mostly between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, began to break containment. Thing #2, who had finally woken up, was particularly rowdy.
So, when the chance came to pick the volunteer jobs directing the runners on nearby roads – getting us out of the crowded parking lot – I said Thing #2 and I would be delighted.
A few minutes later we were pointed to the back seat of a car that had just pulled up. The lady driving the car spoke in rapid-fire, heavily accented (Argentinian??) Spanish. I was still trying to figure out what she was saying when she threw the car into gear and drove through a crowd of people between us and the exit. I don’t know how she avoided hitting anyone as she never slowed down. She did, however, have a direct hit with a curb in the parking lot.
As she exited the lot at speed she hit another curb, then looked back at me and explained, “It’s a rental.”
Thing #2 and I scrambled to put on our seatbelts as she rocketed up the hill.
She crested the summit, hit the brakes, and urged Thing #2 out of the car. He would, she thought, get directions from someone. Sometime.
I waved to him as she accelerated away.
Moments later she again came to an abrupt, bouncing halt in a series of rocks just off the beginning of the steep hill that had, once upon a time, inspired me to write Will of The Hill.
I got out of the car as quickly as I could. She rolled down her window and again said something about somebody else coming by to tell me what to do. I made sure to keep my toes away from her tires.
About a minute later a guy on a quad screeched to a halt and began barking instructions at me. It was a lot. Most, but not all of it, was in Spanish. There was something about telling the first two group of runners to go up the hill, but not the third, whose members needed to continue straight. There would also be a fourth group. I never really understood what was going on there.
He stopped talking and said, “Ok?”
Sure, I thought, why not.
“Yeah, maybe. I think so.” I paused for effect, then added, “But maybe you could repeat it?”
He rolled his eyes and yelled what could have been the same information. I nodded, helpfully, at intervals. He then added an entirely different set of directions about how I needed to steer all of these groups when the came down the hill/back my direction.
I thought I’d take a different tack. “Are these runners wearing different colored shirts so I will know who is who?”
He grimaced at my incompetence and said something about armbands before he roared away.
I wondered how Thing #2 was doing at his perch down the road. I would have called him, but he, unlike every other fifteen-year-old, doesn’t carry his phone with him (often because he’s not sure where it is).
With nothing better to do, I tried to expand my sausage-shirt without tearing it. As I did, I recalled that I’d recently mentioned this race to a local friend of mine. I was very confused because I thought it happened at night. He told me that it had, years before, gone off during the night but that the complete lack of medical personnel and the high frequency of falls involving roots and holes made that problematic. He also volunteered that he and another friend of his actually worked the race and used to be the ones who marked the trail.
“Why’d you stop volunteering with the race?” I asked.
“Well, the last time my friend and I thought it would be more interesting if we brought along a bottle of Jagermeister,” he replied, grinning.
“And that didn’t go well?”
His grin broke into a laugh. “No, it did not.”
My volunteer shirt had a surprising resiliency and resisted every effort to expand it. I gave up and stared down the road where the runners would presumably emerge.
The first two groups go up, and the third group goes straight… or is that the fourth group?
Ten minutes later the first group of runners appeared. I did the best I could to raise my arm and point them up the hill. This event, which apparently now has multiple races in different lengths, starts at the bottom of steep hill. I was sending them up an even longer, steeper hill. A hill that has broken at least two chains on my bicycle as I attempted to compel my ample posterior to the top.
None of the racers looked happy with me. Many of them immediately began walking.
Much of the rest was a blur. Lots of runners eventually passed. The guy on the quad drove by several times with updated directions. I think I sent people the correct direction. Several racers attempted to ask me questions about the route, or their particular race. I didn’t want to admit that I knew absolutely nothing about it, so I just smiled and pointed up the hill.
Two things happened around the time the first groups of runners became returning down the hill. First, Things #2 ambled up with a number of stories about confusion at his check point. I’ve neglected to mention thus far that, while this race is apparently now a well-known, international event, that doesn’t mean they close the roads or divert traffic. Thing #2’s spot was at one of the few intersections of the main road (which is considered a highway by the Costa Rican government). I didn’t get all of the details, which including the local police, but Thing #2’s presence was not desired.
The second thing that happened involved my recognition that my sausage shirt was creating a medical situation. I don’t know if “nipple irritation” is an actual medical term, but things felt a lot better once I squeezed out of the shirt and just waved it at the runners.
Thing #2, with little to do, began an intense round of playing of rocks and dirt. His theory, which jibed, was that both of us weren’t needed to wave at runners and, in any case, they were going to see Gringo Grande and his chafed nipples waving around his tiny red shirt far more easily than his slenderman self.
We spent a couple of hours that way, passing the time by watching near-misses between the runners and the trucks, busses, cars and motos with whom they attempted to share the road. Most of the runners returning down the hill looked tired, but happy – minus the large group of athletes that were steered away from the finish so to tag on another 25 – 30 kilometres.
Eventually, Thing #2 and I left our spot and returned to the parking lot where the race started, and was now finishing. After conversing with the other volleyball volunteers who had stayed in the lot it was apparent that we hadn’t missed much (eight or nine of them stood together pointing out the exit to the runners for a large portion).
Thing #2 handed out medals at the finish line for a while, and I negotiated our release. That last group of ultra-runners wasn’t due in for several more hours, but the afternoon shift of volunteers was arriving and I really needed to get home and apply some lotion. A lot of lotion.