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America's Marathon Weekend: "I felt like I was on their team"

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APRIL 22, 2020 - ATLANTA -- "We have to be perfect."

That's what kept going through Courtney Strosnider's mind as she prepared to serve her customers: the fastest distance runners in the U.S., at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Marathon. "If we mess up," she told herself, "that's somebody's race."

As the volunteer crew chief for one of the personal hydration and fuel stations for the women's race, Strosnider was one of more than 2,500 people who served as volunteers for America's Marathon Weekend, making sure that athletes were taken care of during every inch, much less mile, of their Running City USA journey.

Strosnider and her team of 70 volunteers were tasked with ensuring that the runners' personalized water bottles were in the right spots and ready for the taking as the women approached their line of 36 tables at Miles 2, 10 and 18. With the women running as fast as 5:30 per mile and with an Olympic berth on the line, there was no room for error.

Strosnider, who describes herself as a "big fan" of both America and distance running, admits that she wasn't fully aware of what she was signing up for when she committed nearly nine months before to volunteering at the Trials. She just knew she had to be there, applying for four volunteer positions and crossing her fingers in hopes of a spot. When she got the assignment, she considered it a "dream come true."

But first, there was much work to be done. Strosnider and her team started training in the fall of 2019, starting with pictures and charts and evolving into hands-on training with volunteers playing the roles of the runners, trying to create every possible scenario they might face on race day. "With each meeting, I realized more and more how much we were responsible for," Strosnider said.

The first thing she was responsible for on race weekend was to help collect all the athletes' bottles. Strosnider spent all day Friday in the Omni Hotel collecting six bottles from each athlete, ensuring they were properly labeled and stored. "It was very entertaining," she said of the arts-and-crafts choices made by athletes so that they could quickly identify their bottles. "Some athletes used tons of decorations to make theirs flashy; others, like Des Linden, had very simple bottles without any decorations. Many mothers had their children decorate their bottles, a couple of athletes used ketchup bottles and many wrote their mantras on the top of the bottles."

As the race began, Atlanta Track Club's volunteer services coordinator, Caryn Lamphier, shouted across Peachtree Street: "Courtney, we're doing this. It's happening."

"They're coming!" Strosnider yelled back.

As the women grabbed their first bottles, disaster nearly struck: A gust of wind blew an empty cardboard box onto the course. Somehow, the projectile missed the feet of every runner and a volunteer was able to retrieve it before the next pack came through.

About an hour into the event, volunteers started to get thirsty. Although surrounded by thousands of other people's drinks, Strosnider realized that she didn't know where to find the water set aside for her crew. That's when she spotted her husband and a family friend walking down Peachtree Street, and sent them to a nearby CVS. "The next thing I know, they are walking back down Peachtree handing every volunteer a bottle of water." A hardly noticeable hiccup, she said, in an otherwise flawless day.

"I've been following these women for years," Strosnider said. "That day, I felt like I was on their team."

"To overcome this huge challenge with her, and with the other chiefs, changes you as a person," said Lamphier. "It was amazing to watch her lead, and she helped motivate me to do my best, as well."

Strosnider didn't take the next day to kick back and reflect on her success. Instead, she was back on the job, this time as the crew chief for the hydration and fuel station at Mile 21 of the Publix Atlanta Marathon. For the third consecutive year, Strosnider - a clinical instructor in the kinesiology and health department at Georgia State University - volunteered with a team of her students to provide crucial aid and motivation to runners in the final miles of their race. She said the excitement from the Trials had carried over. "It was bigger and louder," she said of the crowd. Everyone's heads were held up just a little bit higher."

After the weekend was over, the marathon runner admitted that inspiration from the Trials and the Publix Atlanta Marathon made her go a little faster on her daily runs. More than a month later, the memories from America's Marathon Weekend are still vivid.

"It was one of the best weekends I ever had," said Strosnider. "I really wish we had one more lap. I want it to happen again."

Photos: Joaquin Lara, Paul Ward, Courtesy of JJ Strosnider and Jamila Dickerson