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Our Hearts Go Out To Volunteers Dawn and Jim Backus on This Valentine’s Day

Monday, Feb 13, 2023
Our Hearts Go Out To Volunteers Dawn and Jim Backus on This Valentine’s Day

The couple that volunteers together, stays together, and that’s certainly true for long-time Flying Pig volunteers Jim and Dawn Backus. You might not know them by name, but you would recognize them if you’ve crossed the Flying Pig or the Queen Bee finish line, working hard to take care of the finishers, keep the lines moving and make sure volunteers are in the right places.

They started volunteering almost by accident. “I worked at Cincinnati Bell, and Cincinnati Bell was one of the first sponsors of the Pig,” Jim said. “Word got around that they were looking for volunteer groups for water stops on the course. At the time I was running the Cincinnati Bell Running Club and I was asked if we could get enough people to do a water stop. I got some people from work, the running club, my wife Dawn, got some relatives, and we did the water stop for about five years.”

A change in the volunteer leadership brought them to the Flying Pig finish line. “Whoever used to coordinate all the volunteers for the finish line, marathon and half marathon, stopped doing it,” Jim said. “The marathon staff asked if we wanted to do it. That’s a lot bigger responsibility, that’s about 150 volunteers to coordinate and get ready, so we pulled in more people and more relatives.”

Over the years, the responsibilities of the finish line have grown, as the size of the marathon and half marathon fields have grown. “You get these massive waves coming in during the middle part of the half marathon and marathon,” Jim said. “We tell the volunteers, the beginning is your practice time, because finishers are trickling through and it slowly builds. Eventually you’ll have 100 people coming through at one time, and you really need to know what you’re doing. Because if you get behind, you can’t catch up.”

What makes the Flying Pig special? Both Jim and Dawn say it’s the people. “The city is so behind it,” Dawn said. “Before we got seriously involved Jim used to run marathons, and I would go to whatever city, and no matter where we went, no city puts on a marathon like we do. The entire city’s behind it. I’m at the finish line, and people say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m from this state or that state and I cannot believe how many people you have on your course, how cheerful everyone was, the bands, the water stops. I think with the city behind it, it makes it so different than everything else.”

“The volunteers in my mind really make or break that race,” Jim said, “so when people are getting a cup of water from you or food, tell them ‘great job,’ and be sincere when you tell them, and be friendly, smile at them. They want to see a smiling face because, especially on the marathon, or even for the half, the finishers don’t have a lot of energy left in them. When they cross, they get their energy from the volunteers. The more the volunteers smile and say ‘good job,’ and even if they don’t look that good, you still tell them, ‘you did fantastic’ because they need your energy.”

And each has a special memory that sticks with them, even after the event. “Whenever I see runners carry the American flag for 26.2 miles, it brings a tear,” said Dawn. “My dad was in the Navy during the war, and it just brings a tear that we’re able to run and do this because we’re part of a great country. And when we have the ones who propose at the finish line, I love that.”

For Jim, the special moment comes right at the finish. “There is a handful of people at every race that, as they cross the finish line, they get the medal, and then you see them walking, and they’re a little unsteady. I’ve caught a couple of people in my arms and then wave to medical personnel to bring a wheelchair over. The person’s OK, they just have nothing left. They are so thankful, and medical takes them over to the tent to get them water and ice and get them relaxed. That’s when it hits me that these people really do need our help. They do everything in their power to cross that finish line, especially for the marathon. It is a big deal for us to help them.”

Finally, what was it that kept them coming back year after year to volunteer? “It’s work, and it takes a lot of your energy, but it’s just so meaningful,” Jim said. “And I walk away always feeling a lot better about myself, and I think the volunteers enjoy it too, especially the ones who get involved and talk to people. It’s no fun volunteering if you’re just sitting there passing out water, if you don’t make eye contact, you don’t talk to anybody. You should make it fun for you AND them.”

“There are times I just stand right past the finish line in the middle,” Dawn added, “and some people come up and I’ll go, ‘You OK?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Do you need medical?’ ‘No.’ Then they’ll say, ‘Can I just hang onto your shoulder?’ ‘Sure.’  So to me, I helped somebody that spent all those months training to do this, and they were able to do it but they just needed a little bit of my help. And that is very gratifying.”

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