Coffee and a Great Cause Fuels Early Morning Runners

By Grace McGuire

Erin Spaulding (left) with guide Michael Lo Presti (right) at her first Achilles race in the early morning

Erin Spaulding stood with her guide, Michael Lo Presti at the Disney Half Marathon starting line. It was just about 5:30 am, but they had gotten up before 2:30 for this. Darkness still surrounded them, so they wore clunky headlamps to illuminate each other’s faces and the path ahead. 

Achilles International Founder, Dick Traum was cracking jokes, but Spaulding was thrumming with nervous energy. She had heard a rumor the participants could encounter the alligators as they ran the backroads of Epcot around the park. When the gush of runners took off, Spaulding was just as fast, fear making the miles going by and also keeping her much too tired eyes open. Later in the race, she was awarded with the picturesque scene of a warm sunrise swathing Cinderella’s castle in oranges and pinks. 

The racing world is teeming with early call times such as these that are both awful and hilarious. The Achilles Connecticut Chapter is no stranger to these early starts. 

Margaret Rorrio, who is in charge of race day operations and sets up the Achilles team tent before the race starts, said coffee is their saving grace.

“It’s a whole lot of coffee and a whole lot of swearing,” Rorrio laughed. She has become sort of notorious for her ways of keeping people awake. One year, when she had to be there for 5:30 to set up, she made a sweet dessert for everyone.

“If we’re gonna have to be there this stupid early, we’re making fireball cake,” Rorrio said. It did its job as no athletes or volunteers fell asleep on her watch.

For some volunteers, less caffeine and fireball is needed as the principle of what they are doing keeps them awake. 

“I love that race atmosphere. I love hanging out with my friends in the morning, so, all that is usually motivation for me to be willing to set my alarm and spend some time with them and have an adventure together,” Lo Presti said. Lo Presti has been a guide for Achilles for 10 years now, so he has had his fair share of sunrise start times, but he still looks at it with this humble and grateful attitude.

“It sounds hokey but I love doing it so much it’s not a chore,” he said.

Michael Lo Presti (left) with athlete Adam Popp (right) starting the Disney Half Marathon in the dark

After doing this for so long, Lo Presti and all the members of Achilles have their early morning checklists. For Rorrio that might be getting a large coffee on her drive over and then thanking everyone who does an additional coffee run. Lo Presti has to have a breakfast smoothie and a quick shower. For guide Julie Dickinson, her routine simply entails helping whenever and wherever she can.

“I’m just one of those people that I can’t just sit still and do nothing when there’s work that needs to be done,” Dickinson said. Luckily she is already somewhat of a morning person as she has to get up at 5 am for work during the week anyway. Not everyone has been so lucky.

“Although the excitement of getting up and being there early and getting ready is exciting to do, it doesn’t make me a morning person,” Rorrio said. Even after working for this Achilles Chapter since their own early start, the effort to shut off the alarm and get up in the morning on race day is still lamentable. 

Spaulding, who has grown since that first half marathon amid alligators and is now the President of the Connecticut Chapter, simplified what the whole team seemed to be sharing: “It’s not human to run that early in the morning.” Still, this Achilles Chapter of super humans continually get up at the crack of dawn to spread their message of inclusivity, resilience, and the power of a cup of coffee.