There will be millions of thoughts racing through runners’ minds on White Rock Marathon morning, Sunday, Dec. 4: “Am I on pace? How much farther? Man, I’m tired …” But most will not think once about all those orange pointy cones that line the 26.2-mile course. That’s left to Gary Wright, also known as “the coning guru.” He loves the sport, plus, he simply is the type of guy who happily gives of himself. In fact, when we catch up with him, he has just given blood, something he does regularly for a friend in need.
Someone told us you are the coning guru of White Rock Lake. How did you earn that nickname?
Hmm. More often than that I get called the “cone head.” I guess I started helping out with races back in 2002, with the Dallas Running Club. When the coning crew needed a hand, I helped out and learned how to set up a racecourse.
Do the cones go out the day of the race or sooner?
The morning of the race.
OK, so what does a typical White Rock Marathon day look like for you?
We meet at about 4:30 a.m. — there are three or four of us on three trucks. The third truck is the one that responds to problems that arise. That’s the one I’m on. Before race day, we drive the course and we get a list from the police of the locations we must cone for traffic safety. Then I work up the rest of the details — I try to envision what cues a runner might need. I will print maps for each section of the course identifying those spots. There are two main purposes for the cones: guide runners and block traffic.
How many cones do you use in The Rock?
1,200, give or take. They have changed the course slightly over the years, so it can vary. The lake section of the course really takes care of itself.
Before and during the race, I answer any problem calls. My truck follows the so-called “sag wagon” (the vehicle that picks up runners who can’t finish the race). It follows the last runners on the course. I drive along behind it, if all is going as planned, and pick up the cones.
What is an example of a problem you might run into?
Well, once I got a call from police to come place a cone near a dangerous-looking pothole on McKinney. As I placed the cone, the lead runners were swiftly approaching and I barely got out of their way. Another time, a leading female runner in the half marathon got off course and when I saw her, she was running directly into three lanes of traffic. I got near her and she asked me where the course was. My voice was so hoarse from yelling at people all morning, all I could do was point.
Have you run the marathon yourself?
Yes, in the early ’90s I ran in The Rock for the first time. I’ve run it a few times, and other marathons.
How did you get involved in running?
I used do a lot of backpacking. I’d find myself in the altitude panting after a few minutes, so distance running became a means of conditioning. I knew a girl who went out and ran two laps around White Rock Lake one day [18-plus miles] and I thought, “I can do that.” Needless to say, there was a learning curve. But eventually I was able to cover that distance and more.
What motivates you to do things like give blood and volunteer, especially as the coning guy on whom so much responsibility is thrust?
I don’t know. [Pause.] I do get a sense of satisfaction looking out at all the runners and seeing that things are going well. I gain motivation from the charities served by the White Rock and other events — Scottish Rite Hospital [The White Rock Marathon beneficiary].
Early on I was involved with March of Dimes and their fundraising events because I had a sister who died of birth defects. My backpacking buddy, Mark, almost lost his son because of the same problem that affected her. Mark died from cancer about nine years ago. My girlfriend, Bobbie, also developed breast cancer three months after I met her. She had chemo, surgery and then radiation. The blood donations — those are for Renee, a fellow runner who got West Nile virus from a mosquito that bit her while she was running. It is making a difference. And that is really the point in both donating blood and marathon coning.
Questions and answers are edited for brevity.