There are three faces of the Boston Marathon. There are the runners who—deservedly—get the glory, garnering national attention for the race. There are the spectators who line the course for miles, motivating marathoners with their energy. And then there are the 10,000 volunteers. With each step a runner takes from Hopkinton to Back Bay, there’s almost always at least one of them in sight. Why do they do it? “I think the marathon is like your life. There are times when you’re going to be running. There are times when you’re going to be cheering others on,” explains volunteer Ann Everett. “All the people in our life that make it possible for us to live, that’s how I look at all the volunteers.” In the wake of last year’s tragedy, they’re all the more committed. Here are four of their stories, from the Athletes’ Village to the finish line.
The man behind the booming voice that can be heard throughout the Athletes’ Village, Mundy gets runners moving well before they reach the starting line. From the time the first bus arrives at 6 am till the last runner begins the race at around 11:30 am, he’s perched on the press box in Hopkinton, spouting directions to the start line, as well as updating “the unofficial official time.” Mundy started as a bus greeter for the centennial race in 1996, but he’s been the village announcer for 14 years. His role on the stage includes a little bit of Siri, a dash of Jimmy Kimmel (he’s interviewed the likes of Ayla Brown and Johnny Kelley “the Elder”) and some Wizard of Oz-style vocal power (announcing that there’s no line at the port-a-potties can really rouse the racers). “What a lot of people forget is Hopkinton is the only place where all your runners are at one time,” Mundy says. “If I can at least make these guys start out with a smile on their face, it’s up to them to finish it.”
Everett’s mission as she stands in front of the Gatorade station at Mile 20.05: Make Heartbreak Hill a little less heartbreaking. But before she can offer words of encouragement or walk alongside an ailing runner, there’s a hydration station to set up. The team of several dozen volunteers arrives at 7:30 am and unlocks the BAA shed that holds the tables, trash liners and water barrels. Next comes a quick refresher on how to hand out the water—hold it at the bottom, not the top!—as they pray a stiff wind doesn’t blow over the stacks of filled cups on the 18 tables. Then it’s go time. A runner in three Boston Marathons and a volunteer since 1996, Everett will never forget her interaction with one elite female racer who suddenly started walking six miles from the finish line: “I said, ‘You know what? You’re obviously a very elite runner. And this is obviously an atypical result for you. I just want you to remember this is just one race.’ And she turned around, and she smiled, and she mouthed the words ‘Thank you.’ And that meant the world to me. That sums up the spirit.”
Comber is one of the lucky few volunteers who get to see the entire course, from the bands playing in Framingham to the screaming college kids along the route in Boston. After loading wheelchairs at 4:30 am, he oversees a warm-up and then starts the course with the wheelchair division. But it’s shortly after the elite women begin at 9:30 that he really springs into action. Comber and seven other cyclists ride the gap between the final women’s wheelchair participants and the leading elite women (who are tracked by at least a half-dozen vehicles), making sure none of the runners, trucks or wheelchair competitors collide. Although his role is to keep marathoners safe, he does wonder whether the added security this year will alter the race. “I’m worried that it’s going to be more structured, more separation, more formal and maybe a little stiffer,” says Comber. “I’m hopeful that the special feeling that this is our event, this is a local event, isn’t changed.”
This year’s marathon won’t be the same for Parcellin, but it’s not simply because the memories of the bombing are still fresh—it’s because she won’t have her friend Diane Massa by her side just past the finish line. Diagnosed with myeloma in November, Massa will be undergoing stem-cell treatment at Dana-Farber, missing her first marathon after 11 straight years of handing medals to runners alongside Parcellin. The pair were together last year at 2:49 pm when they heard a loud noise and saw smoke. Parcellin looked at Massa and heard her volunteer captain, who just said: “Run.” The friends were separated amid the chaos, but shared a long hug (and some whiskey) upon reuniting outside the Park Plaza. Now, a year after the tragic ending to the marathon, Parcellin is facing the reality of another race that won’t feel quite right. “It’s going to be a tough one without [Massa]. We’re like a team. We do this together. But I’m doing it obviously for me, for her, for the runners.” And Massa has faith that their marathon tradition will soon be back to normal: “I’ll be back next year for sure.”