I firmly believe that any runner who ever has, or ever will, run a race should also volunteer at a race.
The Emotional Benefit of Volunteering at a Marathon
The main reason to volunteer at a race is that is utterly inspiring. I can draw a direct line from volunteering at the finish line of the Chicago Marathon one year (before I’d ever considered running) and deciding to start running the next. It was one of the most motivating things I’ve ever done.
Who knew that getting hugged by sweaty, tired, smelly, overjoyed strangers in college would in many ways change the course of my life? (I think there is a joke in there about drunk college parties, but I’ll let it slide)
The More Practical Benefits
Besides the emotional benefits of volunteering at a race, there is also the much more practical reason: walking a mile in their shoes, as it were.
It’s important for runners to see and experience the other side of an event. Racers need to appreciate the volunteers- not a whole lot would happen on race day without them. Sadly, it is all too common to hear some racers complain about the volunteers during a race, and that is simply not acceptable.
Why didn’t they tell me that this was Gatorade instead of water?
How hard is it to pour water?
That sports drink was gross, how could they not mix it up right?
Until you have worked at an aid station at mile 3 of marathon where 25,000+ people will stream by you in the course of twenty minutes, you cannot bad mouth their preparations. There is no level of preparation sufficient to deal with that influx of people. You can prep and pour and prep and pour for hours ahead, but at those first aid stations especially, no level of preparation is enough.
The later aid stations aren’t any easier, with early call times for setting up, they have often been at it for 7 or 8 hours by the time the last runners come through. That’s a long time to be at it, especially if the weather isn’t great.
One trail run I did a few years ago, the weather was terrible. Cold, wind, hail. The worst weather I have every been outside in let alone raced in. And the volunteers were still standing by at the aid station. It was miserable for us runners, but at least we could run to warm up a little, all they could do was stand there for a few hours.
I’ve never respected race volunteers more.
In Defense of the Sports Drink Volunteers
Many of the issues runners have with volunteers revolves around the sports drink. They didn’t get it when they wanted it, they got it when they didn’t, or it wasn’t mixed right. While I rarely drink the sports drink during races, I do have lots experience being the volunteer holding the cup.
Volunteers holding the sports drink should tell runners what they are holding so a runner wanting water will not end up with a lemon-lime surprise. However, it is surprisingly difficult to say ‘Ultima’ over and over for 4-5 hours (Ultima was the sports drink sponsor of a race I volunteered at back in the day). After a few hours of ‘ultima…ultima…ultima,’ I started to get a little loopy. By the end of the morning, the chant resulted in my nearly entering another plane of reality.
And as for the mixing- the powder mix? Even in cases where we religiously following the mixing instructions, the drink always seems to taste… not quite right. One batch will be weak, the next will be way too strong, Even when they were mixed exactly the same. And some sports drinks always taste nasty, regardless of how it’s mixed.
Don’t blame the volunteers, race volunteers should only be thanked!
Volunteering at Trail Races
At least in the Bay Area, volunteering at trail races has its own rewards. At trail races, the aid stations often have great food spreads: candies, potatoes, pretzels. As a race volunteer, you have access to these goodies. My apologies to any runners at my aid stations that may have wanted a bite of payday bar. I think I may have eaten them all.
You also learn things you maybe didn’t want to know about your food. On a really, nasty hot day, I was handing out frozen otter pops, cutting them in half for the runners. They tasted amazing and the runners really appreciated the cooldown, but the artificial dye in the pops stained my hands for days. They may be yummy, but I think the food dyes they use are industrial strength. I haven’t looked at otter pops the same since.
And as if you need more reason to volunteer at a race? Many race companies offer volunteers the race swag and shirts as well as free or discounted entry to another race for volunteering. What a great way to cut down on race expenses.
Have you ever volunteered at a race? What was your experience like?