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Carlson: These OKC Memorial Marathon leaders have no race to lead this year, but here's how they found 'something good ... out of something bad'

Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon relay chairwoman Samantha Bentson, left, normally spends race weekend with vice chairwoman Keelee Bright, moving supplies and readying the exchange areas. This year, they will instead be doing the half marathon after the Memorial Marathon went virtual. [PROVIDED]
Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon relay chairwoman Samantha Bentson, left, normally spends race weekend with vice chairwoman Keelee Bright, moving supplies and readying the exchange areas. This year, they will instead be doing the half marathon after the Memorial Marathon went virtual. [PROVIDED]

Samantha Bentson and Paula Kirkpatrick haven’t been regular participants in the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon.

Still, race day is a marathon.

They are race chairwomen. Think of them as uber volunteers heading up different areas of the huge event. Bentson typically oversees the relay exchange areas, Kirkpatrick the food and medals at the finish line, and their race day begins three or four hours before the starter’s gun sounds and ends after the runners have finished and the crowds have gone.

Not this year, though.

As the coronavirus turned everything on its head, the Memorial Marathon first postponed its April race to October, then decided a virtual race was the safest option. The rescheduled race would’ve been Sunday, and even though you won’t see tens of thousands of runners filling the streets of OKC, you may see Bentson and Kirkpatrick.

Along with a few other race leaders with no race to lead, they will do the half marathon.

“Something good ... out of something bad,” Kirkpatrick said.

Both Kirkpatrick and Bentson love this race and everything that it stands for, and as much as they plan to enjoy getting medals instead of awarding them this year, they’d much rather be doing what they normally do on race day. Working behind the scenes. Doing duties that make the race go.

After all, they have seen this event's growth over its 20 years, Kirkpatrick being among a handful of people who have volunteered every year and Bentson putting in more than a decade of volunteering.

Bentson grew up around running. Her dad is a distance runner, having finished marathons in all 50 states and seven continents. There was always a 5K or 10K that he was running when Bentson was a kid.

“I was always getting drug around to all that,” she said.

She did some races herself as she got older, mostly walking, often with her mom.

But Bentson first got involved with the Memorial Marathon when Cashland, where she is the CEO, signed on as a race partner. They manned a water stop on Classen Boulevard at first, then took over one of the marathon-relay exchange points.

Six years ago, Bentson was asked to become the relay chair.

Along with vice chair Keelee Bright, Bentson oversees the relay exchange points, which are like mini finish lines for the first four runners on the five-person relay teams. She manages everything from the set-up of the four exchange zones to buses to transport runners to and from the area. She does work related to the marathon relay eight months out of the year, but it’s nothing compared to the days leading up to the race.

“Race weekend is insane,” Bentson said.

Race packets are stuffed Friday, trucks with material for each exchange point are loaded Saturday, and Sunday is show time.

Bentson’s race day starts at 3 a.m.

So does Kirkpatrick's.

She is officially in charge of finish line food, but really, she oversees just about everything runners encounter once they cross the finish line. Medals are her domain. So are hydration and nutrition.

She first got involved as a race volunteer in the Memorial Marathon's inaugural year. Her sons were in Boy Scouts, and she wanted them not only to get some community service hours but also be exposed to the lessons of the Memorial Marathon, which honors those killed, injured and changed forever by the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

The Kirkpatricks helped with water near the start and finish lines, and eventually, Paula was asked to take over food at the finish line, then added medal duties a few years later.

There’s lots of prep prior to race day — how many bananas are in case, and how many cases does the marathon need? — but setting up at the finish line takes the work to another level. There are tents and tables to assemble, crates and boxes to unload.

Kirkpatrick has more than 200 volunteers she oversees, though she tells them to expect her to be working right alongside them.

“The volunteers know going in that I will never ask them to do something that I won’t do myself,” Kirkpatrick said. “Some of the kids .. just look at me like, ‘Uh huh.’”

She laughed.

But she takes that promise seriously. Even though she's started using a golf cart to get from one place to another more quickly, she still logs between 25,000 and 30,000 steps on race day. That would be upwards of 15 miles.

Bentson gets a workout during the race, too, spending a good chunk of the morning moving around coolers for drinks and 40-pound bags of ice.

“I’d rather be doing the half marathon,” Bentson has joked. “It’d be less work.”

She chuckled.

“Wish granted,” she said.

Bentson and Kirkpatrick aren’t sure how long their group will take to finish the half marathon Sunday, but their time isn’t important. They plan to enjoy the hours they will get to spend together.

They also plan to think of those who died in the Oklahoma City bombing. That’s why they got involved in the Memorial Marathon in the first place, why they put in all the hours, why they do the work so others can run, and why it is never far from their minds on race weekend.

It won’t be this race weekend either.

“I always try to walk through just the outdoor memorial and take that moment,” Bentson said, “and just be like, ‘Yep, this is why we’re all doing it.’”

Their race day will be different.

Their motivation will not.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

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