Pay It Forward: The Race Volunteer Spirit
written by Faith (Communications Manager)
I raced almost every other weekend during my time in Singapore and after several races, I determined that I should give back to the running community.
Long story short, in my first experience as a race volunteer, a large group of us sat around waiting listlessly. With no leadership or timeline, I grew impatient. Ultimately, I grabbed a taxi and was home well before the start gun sounded.
That was a couple years ago and I’m happy to say that I’ve (successfully) volunteered for more than a handful of races since then.
From early in the morning at a road race to midnight at a full Ironman, we see them everywhere. What do they do? Why? We offer some insight – and encouragament.
RACES RUN ON VOLUNTEERS
We often take volunteers for granted but every race relies on unpaid (or minimally paid) volunteers. From Ironman to Spartan, the Tour de France or the neighborhood 5K turkey trot, volunteers are an ubiquitous presence at any athletic event. And whether you’re the race director, a spectator, or an athlete, the selfless service of volunteers benefits everyone involved.
Bottom line: volunteers are essential to every race and it’s no joke when we say, “No volunteers, no race.”
WHAT DO YOU DO?
Much like volunteering in other realms, volunteering at a race is not just one particular task. Volunteers are the worker bees tirelessly exerting their energy to ensure you get that cup of water and receive proper medical care. They catch your bike at transition, place a finisher medal around your neck, and wrap you with a towel as you cross the finish line. Some will guide the lead athlete while others strip you out of your wetsuit and lather you down with sunscreen.
Whatever your role is, one of the toughest things about being a volunteer is that it’s exhausting! While it depends on the race, the volunteer schedule, and your task(s), it’s not unheard of to be required to arrive at the race well before the athletes and working well past the time the last athlete crosses the finish line. In fact, some races also require volunteers to meet in the days or weeks leading up to the event.
Volunteers and their movements are usually coordinated by a designated event staff (who may also be a volunteer). There is usually some flexibility pertaining to your preferred volunteer role and depending on the race, you may be able to select a timeframe of availability. Speaking from experience, even a shift of just a few hours will have you absolutely knackered by the end. Truth be told, volunteering for a race can oftentimes feel more exhausting than competing in the race itself!
Have first aid training? Standby – you just may be asked to draw on the skills you possess.
Interested in event management? Gain invaluable work experience.
Want to learn how races are run? Experience it firsthand.
Enjoy observing people? Watch real, raw emotions throughout the day (and especially at the finish line).
Volunteers have different reasons for donating their time and energy. It’s unlikely that people are volunteering to receive accolades and bask in the glory of selflessness. All things considered, there is very little glamor involved, you don’t get a medal, and if you’re lucky, you won’t encounter undesirable bodily fluids.
So why volunteer?
Whatever it is that motivates the volunteer, there’s no doubt that you’ll finish the day feeling pretty satisfied knowing you’ve put your time and energy towards a great cause!
YOU ARE APPRECIATED
Deep breath. Beyond the occasional emcee shout-out and rounds of lukewarm applause, we hardly give volunteers the recognition they deserve. Despite the long hours and effort expended, it can often feel like a rather thankless position. The dirty truth is that not every athlete (or race organizer!) understands and/or appreciates the volunteers’ commitment.
Out on the course, it can be hard to personally express gratitude in the heat of a race. I’ve once expressed my appreciation by half-heartedly projectile vomiting at the feet of a horrified volunteer trying to give me my finisher medal. Pro-tip: try to avoid doing that.
At the same time, there is no denying the increasingly popular trend to develop unique ways to not only recognize volunteers, but also incentivize potential volunteers.
- Spartan Race provides a free or discounted individual entry for the next domestic race for each volunteer. Entry is usually limited to the shortest distance available in the Open category.
- The Ironman Foundation provides a single silicone wristband for each athlete to give to an especially helpful volunteer as a token of appreciation (North America only).
- Bigger races may host a special meal for volunteers after the race or more commonly, at a later date.
- Kashico is a start-up movement in Japan specifically designed for race organizers to give athletes the rare opportunity to express their appreciation to volunteers after a race.
- Depending on the event, some Ironman triathlons offer volunteers priority registration to the next edition of the same race.
THANK YOU, COME AGAIN
At any race, experience can be a gamechanger that enriches the race experience for all involved. More experienced volunteers can be found mentoring others and a select few go on to become race directors. Repeat volunteers often develop skills in specific areas, making procedures more efficient and effective. Deceivingly simple things, like being able to ensure a steady flow of water in clean cups, knowing the bike course, or having experience with a timing management system is not only helpful to a race director, it can literally change the outcomes of a race.
Of course, race organization can vary wildly on factors that may or may not be in the control of the organizer and race director(s). From the terrain to weather conditions, participant entitlements and finisher medals, aid stations and medics, even the smallest of races involve an immense amount of labor hours in event management, logistics, and operations.
Though most races only happen on an annual basis, many races are held throughout the year – no matter where you are in the world. Find one (or more!) that’s convenient for you, particularly in terms of location and date. As you gain race volunteer experience, you may find that you’ll develop certain affinities or preferences as a race volunteer. For instance, role (info desk or wetsuit stripper?), race type (trail run or open water swim?), distance (5K or ultra?), race organizer (local or corporate), etc.
We’re not saying you should volunteer for every race or even your favorite race. In fact, for many volunteering at a race might be like going to church on Easter Sunday or mass on Christmas Eve. We get it – it’s usually a lot more fun to race.
Your motivations might be philanthropic, social, or incentivized…It doesn’t really matter so long as you’re willing to don the volunteer label with the right attitude – the volunteer spirit.
So, whether it’s a few times a year or once in a blue moon, we hope you’ll take a serious look at the next call for race volunteers.
And if you have no intention of taking the volunteer baton, maybe you’ll consider showing them some love. You may not have the energy to express gratitude to every single volunteer but even just a moment of eye contact, a small nod or a faint smile, and mouthing the words, “THANK YOU!” is better than silently galloping off into the horizon with your soggy paper cup.
About the Author
Born in Singapore and raised in Malaysia, Faith holds a Japanese passport, a BA from Southern Methodist University, and M.Ed from Vanderbilt University. Currently, she works as the Communications Manager at Samurai Sports where she spends weekdays at a desk and weekends at various races.
In her free time, she trains regularly for her triathlon pursuits and hopes to qualify for her second 70.3 World Championship in 2019. Faith loves dogs, hates celery, and is always hungry.