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It's the Water, and a Lot More : Marathon: Volunteers and their stations are a big part of the big race.

March 05, 1994|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The assignment is water stations.

The instructions are to talk to some of the 3,750 who will hand cups of water to the runners Sunday in the Los Angeles Marathon.

You have seen them on television. They are the ones stationed at each mile along the course, handing a competitor a green Gatorade cup and then jumping out of the way.

They are not worried about a collision. They are worried about the runners spitting the water back on them.

In the annals of road-racing journalism, this assignment is what is known as the last frontier.

We can think of only one question.

How hard can it be?

You have been working water stations since you were 8. When somebody told you to hand lemonade to that guy running across the front yard with a lawn mower.

How hard can it be?

We are standing on a street outside the Coliseum in early February, listening to a race official lecturing volunteers.

"Grab the top of the cup with your thumb and middle finger," Joe Blackstone says. "Hold it out for the runner to take it from you. Try to move with him."

Blackstone demonstrates. The volunteers go, "Hmmm," and nod their heads.

As if he had just diagramed the Pythagorean Theorem. We are still confused.

A woman appears. Her name is Jacquie Jacquet-Williams. She is the captain of the station at Mile 25 along Exposition Boulevard.

How hard can it be? Her eyes widen.

"Last year we ran out of water," she says. "Had to make a deal with the family who lived behind our station.

"We had to give them snacks and cookies and whatever we had just so we could hook up a hose to their house."

A man appears. Ulysses S. Griggs Jr., Mile 24 on Rodeo Road. He is shaking his head.

How hard can it be? One woman shows up at his station every year trying to sell barbecue to the runners.

One woman, wearing much less, tries to sell something else.

"We ask them if they can't please wait until the race is over," he says.

Another man appears. Andy Ronquillo, Mile 16 in Hancock Park.

When Ronquillo first volunteered, he worked at Mile 9 on Sunset Boulevard.

How hard can it be? He was there about an hour when he realized the water station was directly in front of a crack house.

"All of these people coming out of there wanting us to give them things," Ronquillo recalls. "I told the marathon people, 'Get me out of here!' "

Marathon organizers have since arranged for the station to be sponsored and staffed by employees of Rose Hills Memorial Park.

It was a stroke of unmatched brilliance. Gang members still wander out of the nearby apartment buildings, and they sometimes still attempt to steal the Gatorade.

But when they get one look at those Rose Hills caps, they have second thoughts. The same as those runners who arrive at the station with ideas about quitting.

"Some of our guys actually think this would be a good place to hand out our cards," says Judi Hurner, Mile 9 captain.

Not many of these water station people are actual runners: "The only time you'd find me running is if my keys weren't in my car," Ronquillo says.

Some are homeless: The Los Angeles Mission works Mile 20.

Others are recovering alcoholics and drug abusers experiencing society for the first time in weeks: The Los Angeles Alliance for a Drug-Free Community works Mile 2.

What brings the diverse group together one Sunday each year could be what Julie Hofstedt, a Los Angeles Alliance coordinator, feels when waiting for the runners at Mile 2.

"You're standing there, 10,000 people running at you all at once, all of them wanting water. . . . It's really something," she says. "To think you can get that kind of adrenaline rush without running."

Julie Mulvaney gets a different sort of rush. When she agreed to run a station for the inaugural marathon in 1986, she was stunned to be given Mile 1 on Figueroa Street.

Not because she couldn't believe anybody would be thirsty that soon. But only one block away was the site of her childhood home.

She spread the word to four siblings. They began gathering at each race to reminisce.

Today, Mile 1 is more than a water station, it's a family reunion. It is the only time of the year that three generations of Mulvaneys and Wolfes gather together from around the state to talk about days when a young city still held wonders.

The house has become a parking lot. The party survives.

It takes the field only 20 minutes to pass them, so they are finished by 9 a.m., when they drive downtown for breakfast at Philippe's.

"This is the one time of the year when Angelenos take back their city," says Mulvaney, 71.

A few of the water stations' little-known oddities:

--Volunteers pass out tap water only if they run out of everything else.

Tap water, you see, doesn't come with a sponsor.

--Elite runners, the guys who actually have a chance to win, don't drink from the same trough as the unwashed.

They have separate bottles containing concoctions such as "flat" Coke or Green Magma, a mixture of water and young barley leaves.

Magma men are the ones who finish the race looking like a salad.

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