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Soma Massages at the 2016 Chicago Marathon

Soma Massages at the 2016 Chicago Marathon

Every year it happens.

We take all of our students to volunteer in the Balboa Hospitality tent at the Chicago Marathon. In the weeks preceding the event various students will tell the teachers how nervous they are.  These are actual people!  What if they’re not up for the task?  What if they start cramping and I can’t fix them?  What if they need medical attention?

Every year we reassure them.

It’s going to be alright.  We’ll review techniques before the race.  We’ll be there to guide you.  We won’t let you hurt anyone.

Every year they don’t believe us.

At 6am on race day most students are taking the train downtown to check in.  Unlike most Sunday mornings, they notice that these trains are packed full of runners who are checking their phones one last time, checking their devices they’ll use for timing themselves, shoveling down a last minute peanut butter and jelly sandwich and telling family members what to do when they come running by.  There are a handful of other commuters as well, bleary eyed, either going to work or coming home from a very late night out, some of whom are unimpressed by all the runners, some of whom attempt to make polite conversation with them.  From the Blue Line we notice there are no runners training on the 606 this morning.  The training is all done, and those runners who are not running the marathon choose to not go for their two mile jog this morning, either out of respect or embarrassment.

At 7am we all meet at the corner of Michigan Ave and 11th to check in and get our hats and jackets.  They are red this year and have been for the past several years, since massage got lumped in with all medical practitioners.  Everyone agrees the blue jackets looked cooler, and if we could get one of the gray ones we see some people have that would be even cooler still, but that the red ones are nice enough, and they’re free after all.  Here at check in we get to see our current students as well as the alumni who have volunteered to work in the medical tent with Mike Hovi, our program director, and it’s always a nice reunion with familiar faces, getting to hear the successes they’ve had in their careers thus far.

Around 7:30am Hovi leads his therapists to the medical tent for orientation, and we take the current students to the Balboa Hospitality Tent where we’ll be working.  Upon our arrival the students will pick the table they will use (at least at first) and who they will partner with.  We have 45 tables this year for about 65 students, so at some point we’ll have to divide them up and have one person per table.  We sip coffee and wait for Hovi to come back, and we watch the TV monitor in the main tent to see how the runners are doing.

At 8:30am Hovi comes back with the alumni and gathers everyone around two tables in the middle.  He and Lambert demonstrate what to do if a runner catches a cramp in the hamstrings, in the calves, in the hip flexors or in the dorsiflexors.  He talks everyone through basic techniques and stretches that they may or may not remember from their Sports Massage course.  He reminds the students to talk to the runners, see if they’ve hydrated enough, make sure their feet aren’t bleeding and most importantly to make sure they know where they are.  He encourages everyone to have a good time.

From 9am to 10am the students practice on each other, and we pace the tent correcting techniques, talking the students through stretches for particular muscles, cramp relief for various regions, and reminding them: feet on the table in supine, feet off the table in prone.  Although most students seem cool enough, a few still have some nervousness to burn through.  We will give those students the first runners, because it’s sink or swim time, and we know they almost always swim.

At 10:20 am the first runner arrives.  He has a time of 2:30, or somewhere around there.  The tent breaks into applause as he enters, and we give him to two students near the door.  They don’t admit to being nervous, but you can see it etched into their faces.  This is their first real client.  They ask the same questions twice, they perhaps forget to ask a few other questions, but once they get him on the table their better massage instincts kick in, and twenty minutes later they’re ready for another.

For the next hour a few of the faster runners come trickling in, and each is met by thunderous applause.  We try to stagger the runners around the room, so even if the students aren’t working they have a good view of somebody who is, and perhaps this will put them into a good frame of mind.  After the first twenty runners or so, when a good portion of the tables have people on them, the applause diminishes, and by 11:30, when nearly all the tables are full, the applause stops altogether.

For the next three and a half hours it’s nonstop massaging.  The faculty gets the runners to sign their consent form and then walks them over to the first free table they see.  Communication eventually get whittled down to:

“How’re you feeling?”


“Anything in particular?”

“My legs.”

“You don’t say.  Well let me give you to so and so, she’ll take good care of you.”

And so on.

The faculty also monitors the room for any situations that get out of hand.  We had only a few situations where the runners on the table wouldn’t stop cramping, and in all cases their problems were at least closer to being resolved when they left.  One student did scream: “OH MY GOD!” the first time she saw her client’s leg start to cramp, but aside from her outburst she did everything right, placing pressure on the cramp and stretching out the muscle belly fully.

Every year it happens.  These kids impress us.  All the nerves fade away and they step up, they face their fears, and they work until their bodies ache.

Every year we go in with worries, too.  There are always a few students who we tell each other to keep an eye on.  Perhaps they will try to sneak off and not do their fair share of the work.  Perhaps they will say something inappropriate in front of the runners, thereby embarrassing the school.  There are many variations to our worries.  So when one woman came up to a teacher and asked to talk to him, the teacher cringed a little bit.

“You see that student over there with his hat on backwards,” she said.

“Yes,” the teacher said, full of dread.

“I have to tell you something about him,” she said in a voice just above a whisper.

“Okay,” the teacher said, expecting the worst.

“I don’t know what you’re teaching these kids,” she said, “but my knee has been bothering me for the past six months, and when I got up off the table, I felt no pain whatsoever.  No pain.”

The teacher was slightly flummoxed and tried to stammer a response.

“So thank you,” the woman said.

The teacher nodded, absently, and thanked her for telling him that.

At 2:45 we let our last runner into the tent, and as the last few runners are being worked on, we set the students to work breaking down the tables and carrying them out to the curbside for later pickup.

Every year, the students come in afraid.

Every year they leave with a new found confidence in their work.  They walk away wearing their red hats and red coats with pride.  Some look sleepy, some still look wired from all the excitement, some pose for selfies, some text their rides to come get them, and some fall down in the grass, exhausted.  They come into school the following week exchanging stories of this guy that cramped, or that woman who said she’d never felt better, or the how they went home after the marathon and slept for twelve hours straight, or how they had to go to work immediately following.

Every year we are very proud of our students.

This year was no exception.