There are many aspects of the ultrarunning community that I love, and one of the most important is the fact that at 99% of races 99% of the folks out there helping the runners are volunteers. It’s easy to take this for granted and just assume that races are volunteer run. But have you considered how a race might differ in atmosphere if the folks handing you water or issuing your bib number were paid employees? I honestly feel it would make a huge difference in the ambiance of an event and the ethos of our whole sport.
I remember running a race overseas where the vibe was very different – don’t get me wrong – it was a really well organized event, super scenic and a joy to be a part of. But on arriving at the finish line one of my first questions was: “are the aid station folks paid?” Yes, they were. And the reason I had asked? They were polite, they were efficient, they were helpful but they lacked the enthusiasm and genuine passion of volunteers. No cowbells or crazy costumes in sight.
Volunteers are at an aid station because they want to be – they genuinely believe in the community and care about the runners they are helping. Paid employees? C’mon – we’ve all had those jobs where we fulfill our prescribed duties, but not much more. Do you want someone like that helping you at 3 a.m. in the pouring rain, when you are vomiting your way through a 100 miler? No, me neither – I want that volunteer who truly cares whether I get to the finish line or not.
It’s important to remember who the volunteers are. They are you! Yes, I get it – you have a demanding job, a busy family life and you are managing to train for your own ultra. That’s all very commendable, but are you really telling me that you can’t set aside say 10 hours in a year to help out the community? I think you can –
and as a side note, it will help your own racing in the process.
So how do you find time to volunteer? Pick a weekend soon after your key event, or look at your training plan and find that weekend where you’re planning a lower mileage week. Don’t feel you need to spend all weekend volunteering – most race directors will appreciate even four hours of your time, leaving you plenty of time to still get your own training done that day. Heck, some volunteer positions even involve running – a perfect combination of training and volunteering rolled into one. Maybe you can be assigned to course marshal at a remote spot that you need to run to get to. Maybe the race needs some pre- or post-sweeps – a chance to run some trails and ensure runners are well directed and safe on the course. It might not fit the specifics of your own training plan but at least it is some running rather than none at all.
Like I mentioned, volunteering at a race can also be a great benefit to your own racing. Last summer I spent a good chunk of a day at the 30-mile aid station of Squamish 50 miler in BC. It was a hot day and it’s a tough course so by the time many runners got to us they were looking a little worse for wear. But as a volunteer I got to see how some runners had well prepared and useful drop bags (containing items I’d never considered packing but will in future). Other runners were at a loss for what to eat and drink when their stomach had gone south (a good reminder of what I needed to plan for my own upcoming races). It was also useful to observe the pacing of runners – some were clearly pacing themselves for the distance and the weather, others looked like they’d got carried away with running a little too hard a little too soon and were beginning to feel the consequences – all good reminders for me to carry forward to my own future races.
So next time you are planning out your upcoming race schedule, try to also factor in a day or two for volunteering at a local race. Even if it’s a race you know little about, I doubt there is a race director out there who will turn away a willing volunteer (well, maybe Hardrock aside, so much is it’s allure). So send off an email and then show up ready and willing to help, learn and have a surprising amount of fun!