Editor’s note: This article was originally published February 12, 2014
Seven or eight years ago, the Austin Marathon changed its route, sending thousands of runners streaming down Arroyo Seco - and snarling traffic leading to Hope Chapel.
Attendance dropped by 40 percent on race morning, because worshippers couldn’t get to the church.
The next year, church leaders printed maps, trying to help people get to the chapel. Still, many didn’t make it.
"We were frustrated and quite irritated," says senior pastor Geno Hildebrandt.
Church leaders tried to persuade marathon organizers to move the race route. That didn’t happen. Then, four years ago, they tried a different strategy.
"We talked to the congregation from the pulpit," Hildebrandt says. "We told them, ‘This is our change in attitude - please come worship Saturday night and come back Sunday morning and cheer the runners.’"
The strategy worked. About 100 people - a third of the congregation - joined volunteers at the water stop near the church, handing out water and serving breakfast tacos to those manning the station.
"They were highly engaged, they totally loved it," Hildebrandt said. "For me as pastor it was totally encouraging."
About 80 percent of the congregation showed up for church on Saturday night.
The tradition has grown at the small church across from Brentwood Elementary School. These days the congregation’s worship band sets up on the front porch, playing uplifting music as the runners pass. Other members clang cowbells and hold up motivational signs.
"Runners have told us it’s their favorite water stop," Hildebrandt said. "We’re at Mile 20 where fatigue really kicks in, but they turn that corner and as they come down Arroyo Seco they begin to hear music."
Look for even more folks at the Mile 20 water stop this year. And thank them as you run by.