Shoveling snow can be a daunting task when the undertaking is completely solitary. But call in the troops during a time of need and it can be a truly valiant effort. Volunteers in Bend, Oregon came out by the dozens this past weekend to clear snow off a course that will soon be used by a few hundred runners. In a time of need, the Bend running community came to the rescue. And in the ultra community, it’s certainly not unheard of. In fact, volunteers keep races going year after year and during a particularly tumultuous time in our country, it seems like the perfect opportunity to remind those in the ultra running world that we’re surrounded by amazing people (as if we needed a reminder). But it doesn’t hurt to look ahead and plan to participate in an ultra as a non-runner this year. It might just open your eyes to a whole perspective on why both runners and volunteers continue to unite.
Think back to your last trail run. How many trees did you have to hurdle? Five? Two? None? If you got lucky and the trail didn’t resemble an obstacle course, there’s probably a good reason. Volunteers across the country (many of them from the ultra running world) spend hours not only clearing trails of fallen trees, but training just to be volunteers. A chainsaw class with the U.S. Forest Service takes 32 hours of course work, as participants must have both classroom and field lessons to learn about wood tension, bind, compression, safe saw operating procedures and more. It’s no surprise that hiking trails with the goal of clearing fallen trees and debris takes time, and benefits most ultrarunners due to easier accessibility. And with many well-known ultras requiring a certain number of volunteer hours be logged by entrants prior to race day, we’re allowed yet another opportunity to gain appreciation for the trails we treasure most.
Speaking of race day, those aid stations might seem like mirages in the middle of a desert landscape but they take a certain number of volunteers to set up and staff. These amazing folks attend to each and every last runner before breaking equipment down at the day’s end (and sometimes longer). This dedicated bunch hauls coolers, gallons of water, and buckets of ice into remote areas with often difficult access. And yet, they put their worries aside and greet each runner with the care and compassion of family. The same goes for the crews at the finish line or sweeping the course – putting in long hours monitoring the time clock, cleaning up course markers and breaking everything down when the last finisher has crossed the line. These are the people who make a race successful.
As runners, we all know there’s nothing like the sight of a familiar face on the course. Sometimes the support from a crew member or pacer can bring you back from a tough place, which is why they are so important. Often times crew members take the brunt of the stress because they’re basically in charge of getting you to the finish line. Fuel, gear and supplies are all in the hands of crew members who need to strategically time their arrival at each aid station to meet up with their runners. It’s not an easy gig, but an incredibly rewarding one at that. As a pacer, you’re out there on the course trying to keep your runner moving forward towards the finish line. When they have stomach issues or low motivation, there’s no telling what amount of mental and/or physical carnage a pacer will have to deal with.
We’ve all had good races and bad races, but volunteering in an ultra is going to be good 99% of the time – even in bad weather. Lending a hand allows you be a part of an amazing group of people who are there to support a bunch of incredible runners who’ve been training for months. And that feeling you get when you’re a part of something so awesome, well, that’s what it’s all about.