L.A. Marathon: Water Greases the Wheels

Share via
Times Staff Writer

Herds of grimacing harriers. Ambulances ominously looming in the background. Wheelchaired athletes, with forearms like logs. All those elements will be part of the spectacle March 1 at the second Los Angeles Marathon.

But some vital elements of the drama might escape attention. Perhaps none is more important than the people who touch the runners only fleetingly when they dole out hundreds of thousands of paper cups with water for drinking and dousing.

“It really ends up as a true blue military operation,” said Nick Curl, director of race operations for the Los Angeles Marathon. “Thousands of people do a variety of critical operations.”


Curl held a seminar on the labyrinthine process of proper water distribution management Sunday in the Sports Arena’s parking lot. About 60 water station captains, co-captains and other volunteers walked away from the two-hour parlay stunned by the logistics of the campaign. Three thousand volunteers are needed to man the 26 stations.

“It’s unbelievable. I feel much better that I came to see this,” said Connie Larimore, who will be posted at Station 7 near Sunset Boulevard and Beaudry Avenue. “I had no concept that it was going to be this size.”

Before the race is over, runners will have consumed 1 million cups of Vittel spring water plus another 30,000 cups of Exceed, a Gatorade-like fluid.

“There’s a lot of water. . . . Stations early in the race can expect to have to handle between 9,000 and 10,000 runners within 7 to 10 minutes,” said Greg Fritz, a spokesman for Los Angeles Marathon Inc., organizers of the race. The marathon is expected to attract 12,000 to 15,000 entrants, twice the number that ran last year.

Like relay racers handing off a baton, Curl said there is a fine art to slipping a cup into the grip of a marathon runner, sailing by at 12 m.p.h. Two important rules dictate the dynamics of the exchange.

No. 1: Don’t stand still when giving water to the athlete. Jog with him.

“You got to move with the runner,” volunteer Gene Behrman said. “If you don’t, it’s like he’s hitting a bomb.”


No. 2: Always hold the cup from the top.

“There has to be enough area for the runner to grab onto it,” Curl said.

The first simulated trial run was a disaster--more water splashed to the ground than remained in the cups--because participants failed to appreciate the gravity of rules one and two, Behrman said.

Experienced runners attest to the need of having well-trained water battalions. “It definitely helps,” said Maria Trujillo, a Mexican Olympian who is competing in the Los Angeles marathon. “When you have to slow down and grab water for yourself, runners can’t keep their pace.”

Without liquids, Trujillo said, runners quickly become dehydrated. A lack of fluid leads to dizziness, headaches and fainting.

“The water you give a runner is like oil,” Curl said. “No car can run well without oil. No one can run without water.”

Most of the captains and co-captains interviewed are employees of companies sponsoring the water stations. Few hesitated in expressing the importance of their responsibilities.

“Last year I was scared to death (because) I didn’t realize how vital liquid was to a runner,” volunteer Sarah Alvillar said. “It’s really an awesome responsibility.”


In addition to handing off cups, they must tend to other tasks, including wetting 25,000 rinsing sponges, constantly filling 1,300 30-gallon trash cans with water from fire hydrants, mixing the Exceed with rowing oars and stacking the cups on the 500 tables throughout the course.

Volunteers must also prevent spectators who line the course from going onto the road, interrupting the flow of the race. Last year the marathon attracted more than 1 million fans, police said.

Without Sunday’s rehearsal, Fritz said, the race would be “chaos. They’ve got to learn the system or else people aren’t going to get their water.”