The Bank of America Chicago Marathon relies heavily on volunteers to ensure that the race goes off smoothly. It’s an effort that takes nearly a year to recruit volunteers, train them and make sure they are ready on race day, according to race organizers Chicago Event Management, which also runs the annual Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle 8K.

“Volunteers are an integral part of everything that we do race weekend, from helping staff at the Health & Fitness Expo, to Grant Park, to the course,” says Carey Pinkowski, executive race director. “They really are the backbone of the event and we could not do what we do without that level of support. People enjoy being a part of a world-class athletic event, and whether you are handing out packets at the Health & Fitness Expo or cups of water and Gatorade along the course, you are helping thousands of people achieve their goal of finishing a marathon. It’s an opportunity to be a part of that life-changing experience. Someone will never forget the person who handed them a cup of Gatorade or offered a much-needed word of encouragement when they have just a few miles to go in the marathon.”

The race uses more than 12,000 volunteers to do everything from assembling and distributing race packets that include bibs, timing chips and other items to working in the first aid areas. Those working in first aid are licensed medical professionals from Illinois. Other volunteers come from a variety of places and professions, from various running clubs, most of them in and around Chicago, to high schools and community groups located along the race course, according to race organizers.

Many of these groups have worked with the marathon ever since the race started, according to race organizers, making it much easier to recruit and train volunteers year after year.

“We work with a number of service groups, whether they are a community group, charity or church group,” Pinkowski says. “We also work with a lot of local high school cross country and track teams. Of course there are also a number of Chicago area running clubs that have been volunteering for many years. It’s a great mix and each year we see a lot of the same groups returning, as well as new groups that want to get involved. The vast majority of our volunteers are associated with a larger group, which is integral in the dissemination of information and preparation of those volunteers.”

Groups often offer more help than is necessary, with several more volunteers available. But too many volunteers would mean too many people standing around and hurting the event more than helping it, so race organizers consider the 12,000 level to be the optimum number of volunteers.

While the volunteers do a majority of the work, there are certain duties that require paid workers.

“With 45,000 participants, there are a lot of jobs that require many hands on deck, such as packet pick-up and t-shirt distribution at the Health & Fitness Expo, handing out water and Gatorade at the aid stations, or helping escort runners into their start corrals,” Pinkowski explains. “We need large groups of volunteers to help with efficiency while handling large volumes of traffic. Those tend to be volunteer roles. There are other jobs that require specialized crews with equipment and/or training that we hire out to a contractor.”

Training is also streamlined by working with specific groups, according to race organizers. Rather than needing to directly train thousands of volunteers, the race can concentrate on training representatives, known as volunteer captains, of the various volunteer groups, who then in turn train their members who will be working at the race. The volunteer captains also aid with distributing other information to group members. That is much more effective than attempting to distribute all of the information to individual volunteers, according to race organizers.

Group organizers also go through their own training, traveling to and volunteering at different marathons to continue to pick up new ideas that may be incorporated into future Bank of America Chicago Marathons.