Let’s talk about volunteering…. I’ve done a fair bit of volunteering at running events in the past few years. It is something I enjoy and really do like giving back and supporting events, particularly those that I have run in or would like to participate in. Race volunteering can be quite a complex thing. Where do you start? How do you get involved, what will I be expected to do, need to bring etc. So I thought I’d share my thoughts and experiences on volunteering at running events.
Why Should I Volunteer?
Race volunteering, Let’s be honest up front, it isn’t a selfless act. There are many, many benefits in it for the individual. Most race organisers offer an incentive in some form to encourage volunteers. It may be a free tee shirt, a free race entry for the following year, vouchers or kit from sponsoring partners as well as many other freebies in the form of food and sponsored gifts. Some of the larger, international races also provide accommodation for volunteers, particularly for stage races where volunteers work multiple consecutive days. Besides these obvious tangible benefits, there are also the less obvious benefits like networking. You get to make connections with key people in the industry and form friendships with other runners and volunteers you’ll frequently meet at events. These can lead to all sorts of future opportunities, but, more importantly, friendships. Also, it is fun and a nice thing to do.
That being said, whilst we may offer our time to volunteer because we want to take advantage and for example, participate in the event the following year, these incentives might not always outweigh the commitment. A race entry for example might be anywhere from £50 to £200 quid for a UK trail ultra. That’s a small price to pay to enter an event and normally exceptional value for money. Volunteering isn’t always free. Typically you’d give up a whole day, maybe 8 hours or more of your time to support (to gain a spot in an event through volunteering, there will usually be a minimum commitment of volunteer hours required). You’ll spend possibly hours travelling to and from the event and that costs too. So if you really want to do a race, volunteering isn’t normally the most cost effective way to do it. Although, for popular events with limited places, a guaranteed entry for volunteers could be a significantly worthwhile investment of your time rather than playing with the race lottery.
Most importantly though, race directors and organisers need volunteers. We want so much for these events to be available to us, and they don’t happen without a huge amount of work behind the scenes to make them a reality. Race Directors often rely on small armies of volunteers to support them and make sure the events run as smoothly as they do. If you want events to continue to happen, to continue to be affordable and viable to run, give back and help out where you can.
How Do I get involved?
Simple, contact the race organiser. Most race organisers will have a specific section on their website or even a dedicated email address to contact if you would like to help out. Drop them a message or get in touch with them via their social media pages or in person if you’re at the event. Most organisers are desperate for help and will welcome your offer with open arms. Be patient though, there is a lot going on when organising events so it may take them a while to respond and take you up on your offer or they may direct you to someone else to speak to. Don’t be put off if that is the case. Many events have community groups and Facebook pages where you can also get involved and make contact with the organisers too.
What about pre event day?
Leading up to an event you can expect to be contacted by someone from the organisation to give you some instructions. They’ll ask for your key contact details and any information to help them support you (e.g. dietary requirements if they are providing food for the day) and details that could help them arrange all the volunteers. For instance if you can drive, if there are preferred roles you’d like to support with, if you are first aid trained or able to provide additional support during the day. Besides all that though, you need to be prepared yourself and think about how you will be ready to support on the day. Things to think about are:
- Figure out where you need to be and when – Do you know what is expected of you and when?
- How are you going to get to the event – This is likely to mean getting to the race at least an hour before the race registration begins and before runners start arriving.
- What do you need to take with you – Have you the right clothes for the day, do you have water and food supplies to see you through?
- Make sure you know who to ask for when you arrive. Don’t be offended when it’s assumed you are an eager runner who has turned up early!
What might I end up doing?
Types of roles and responsibilities you can expect to get involved with could include any or all of the following, depending on the scale of the event. Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive list of roles, but if you are a first time volunteer you’ll probably end up doing something like this, so don’t expect to be managing and coordinating other volunteers, acting as a deputy race director or MC-ing and event!
- Set up and support at an event village – Race villages don’t set themselves up. Tents and marquees need constructing. Fences, flags and tape need laying out. Tables and layouts need arranging. Kits, race numbers, medals and all sorts of stuff need setting out. At one event I volunteered at we even had to construct the winners trophies and ensure all the engraving was placed on the correct trophies!
- Course Marking – Most events will have signs and/or tape to help direct runners and keep them on the correct route. You may be able to get involved with walking/running the route and either setting out the course markings or checking they are still all in tact!
- Parking – someone needs to coordinate the runners when they arrive at an event by car. Humans persistently demonstrate that we can’t be relied upon to park responsibly!
- Registration – This is a hugely varied role from welcoming runners, to checking people are who they say they are, that they have paid to run the event, that they have their bib numbers and any other race items required (like pins, trackers). It could be that you are providing critical safety instructions, providing runners with their race packs like t-shirts or other gifts. In some events you might also be tasked with checking people have the required and mandatory kit with them.
- Directing runners and supporters (e.g. where to go, what to do) – Races are exciting right? We all turn up with butterflies in our stomach, see people we know and ultimately don’t focus on what we need to do or where we need to go. How many times at an event have you asked where the toilets are, where the drop bag is or which way to the start line even? You might be that person providing the critical directions needed!
- Drop bag stands – we’ve all experienced the carnage of a badly managed drop bag zone. It isn’t an easy task to take in bags from runners, ensure they are correctly labelled, stored in the right place and sent to the right checkpoint (if it is for a mid-race drop bag!). This can be incredibly stressful but vital to the efficient flow of runners at an event. We’ve all seen the crowds of runners pushing towards drop bag zones throwing bags over people queuing. You want to avoid it ending up that way!
- Checkpoints and aid stations – most races will have, at minimum, a water stop. Ensuring these are set up before the first runner and adequately stocked so all runners, right through so that not only the last runner but also the course sweepers are able to get water and fuel they need to carry on.
- Shopping. Speaking of checkpoints and aid stations. Where do you think all the food and drink comes from? Someone, somewhere, will have to go shopping and buy it all! If you are tasked with this you will most likely be given a shopping list with the types of things and quantity to buy. You also won’t be expected to pay for it out of your own pocket and will be told how to reclaim the expenses, so don’t worry if you do end up being sent to Tesco to buy 200lts of coke, 50 oranges and all the jaffa cakes you can find!
- Marshal points directing runners – Ever got lost on a race because you took a wrong turn? Yep, me too. Most events will put marshals at key points to ensure runners don’t get lost. Be the human signpost. Keep everyone accounted for! Being a Marshal may even mean manually accounting for runners and ensuring no one is missing. You’ll have to be alert!
- Marshalling road crossings – Likewise, you might end up standing at a road crossing. Most of the time you won’t be expected to stop traffic (on quieter country roads I do tend to do this if I have enough visibility of the road, the runners approaching the crossing and feel it is safe to do so) but you will be expected to stop the runners. When runners are in the ‘zone’ we do tend to be quite ignorant of what is going on around us. We didn’t see the warning signs put out 100m from the crossing warning us of the danger ahead, we were too busy listening to Tina Turner pumping out “Walking on broken glass” to hear the HGV roaring up the road. Sometimes even we are just too damn exhausted and spaced out to realise the impending danger. Marshalling a road crossing is all about being the eyes and ears for the runners and ensuring that they don’t unknowingly (or sometimes intentionally) dash out onto a busy road!
- Event finish line – medals, directing etc. This is like the registration in reverse. You might still be ensuring every runner gets their allotted items (medals, appropriate sized t-shirts etc), directing them away from the finish line, getting their photos, drinks and generally telling them where to go. You may also need to deal with that runner who has pushed themselves a little too hard or has taken an unexpected turn for the worse. You need to be on the ball at the finish line to spot those signs of a runner in need of a helping hand!
- Drop bag collection – remember the prophesied carnage from earlier in the day…. Hopefully you’ll help to avoid that. At the same time though, recognise that this can be a time consuming role. Ever walked into a hall to find one bag amongst a few hundred? Even when it is meticulously laid out, it might be that one bag that is put in the wrong place. That one bag that has the name/number tag no longer attached. Ever seen a number ‘1’ that looks like a number ‘7’? Yep that can lead to confusion too! Or what about when you can’t find the bag and you ask a runner to describe it and they tell you it is ‘Green’ only it turns out the zip is the green bit and the rest of it is blue. Ever seen how many North Face Basecamp duffle bags are found at a trail race? Dozens of them, guaranteed, especially the yellow ones! It can take time to find the right bag, even under ideal circumstances. You also need to ensure you are giving the right bag to the right person.
- Course Sweeping – Safety of runners is paramount and the role of a sweeper is to follow (not closely!) the last runners and ensure the trails are swept of all event markings, litter and that all runners are accounted for and not left out on the route! This is a fantastic way to run some or all of an event whilst volunteering!
- Pack up and closure of events – When you think it’s all finished, you remember the boxes you took out of the van, or the marquee you fought to construct in the wind… yep, they need to be put away. The rubbish needs to be picked up. It doesn’t finish until it looks like the event never happened in the first place!
I’ve done most of these roles myself through volunteering. Some memorable times include being on Water and and Tailwind (hydration drink) duty at a checkpoint in the middle of the Centurion Running NDW100, to running up and down stairs to collect drop bags for runners at the SVP100 finish line, to standing alone in the woods in the pouring rain marshalling road crossings and course sweeping and collection for Maverick Races to even spending 8 hours dancing inside a giant penguin costume at the London Winter Run. The role of a volunteer is a varied one.
What to expect
- Larger events, like a mass participation road event, you’ll tend to rock up at a set time, meet a team leader, be given instructions and get on with it, leaving at a set time
- At a smaller event, you may meet the entire team of volunteers and be involved in a little of everything
- Be prepared to go the extra distance. You can’t expect the race directors and team to pander to you and your needs. It may be that you need to figure out a way to get to your volunteer spot in the middle of nowhere. Local transport, run, walk if you can. Don’t be put off if you can’t get a lift to where you need to get to!
- Hanging around alone. You have a responsibility to ensure the safety of runners. That might mean you are waiting for hours before you first see a runner and are on point for a long time after the last runner goes past. Be prepared for loneliness, but stay alert.
- Be prepared to travel – races won’t be on your doorstep. It is your responsibility to manage your time and ensure you are where you need to be when you should be!
- Be patient. No doubt you’ll have plenty of questions before volunteering and even after (when will I get my free stuff?!), but be patient. The race directors will be fielding endless amounts of questions from participants, other volunteers, locals and the community surrounding the event as well as authorities giving the race the permit to proceed. You won’t be forgotten about, be patient whilst the questions are prioritised and addressed.
- Most races you’ll volunteer at will be experienced. They’ll have plans and processes in place for coordinating and managing the volunteers. You’ll be told what to do and given what you need in good time. Don’t panic if you’ve not been given detailed instructions weeks before the race!
What to do
- Get involved. Offer help, ask what you can do. It might just be unloading boxes from a van, but it needs doing. Take the initiative and don’t just stand about like a lemon waiting to be instructed.
- Do it with passion, do it with interest. Standing around at the side of the road or in the middle of a wet field might sound dull but you can make it interesting. Dance, sing, clap and cheer. Be stupid. Make people laugh, bring some enjoyment to what you are doing and it will rub off on others.
- Entertain and support. As a runner you’ll know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a big smile and someone encouraging you on. This is your opportunity to give back
- Be prepared. It can be long and tiring volunteering. Take food, take plenty of water, take warm and appropriate clothing.
- Gain some knowledge about the event. Passers by will want to talk to you and find out what you are doing. Make sure you know how to give them information and share the word about the event.
- Be prepared to support runners. We always want to know where we are, how far left to go, where is the water etc. Make sure you have the key information to hand. No one enjoys it when they are told there is ‘only 1 mile to go’ but that 1 mile turns out to be 3 miles.
- Explore your surroundings, this I think is particularly more relevant for trail events. Go past your checkpoint, explore just before it. Know where runners are coming from and where they are going and what hazards they can expect to encounter. You can help them prepare then.
- Make sure you know who to contact in an emergency. This could be in the case of an injury to a runner, an angry local who has a complaint or your own personal situation should it arise.
- Be yourself, bring your character
Some things to think about
- Understand the commitment you are making. That free tee shirt sounds great, but do you really want to help and are you committed? I’ve already mentioned the stresses leading up to organising a race. The last thing organisers need is a volunteer pulling out last minute because they’ve changed their mind. Obviously sometimes life means you have to pull out, but don’t pull out because you’ve changed your mind or underestimated the responsibility you’ve volunteered for.
- Be prepared. Events are prepared to deal with the inevitable injuries to a runner, but they are not prepared for the avoidable situation where a volunteer has caught pneumonia because they didn’t bring a jacket, or they didn’t bring water and are dehydrated etc.
- Make sure you can get there on time and can get home afterwards. It isn’t a race director’s responsibility to coordinate you or help you when you realise you missed the last train home because you weren’t prepared.
- Be helpful. Don’t be rude, don’t try and dominate or change the processes in place. If you have feedback, save it and provide it directly to the event organiser, maybe after the event, as a suggestion for future consideration. You are there to help runners, be patient with them. It is inevitable they will ask questions you’ve heard a 100 times already that day, or be frustrated that the course was 10 meters longer than they thought. Remember you are representing the event and the organisers. Be helpful where you can.
- Be thankful. Build those relationships for next time you volunteer or participate in the event.
Whatever your reason, volunteering is incredibly fulfilling. Don’t be put off, don’t feel guilty that you are doing it for the wrong reasons such as the personal incentives. Don’t be afraid of being uncomfortable. Races rely on the support and volunteers to make them happen. Behind every race is an army of people getting involved. Many of these you will never see on race day. I’ve volunteered because I want that race entry (thanks Centurion Running!) or a particular tee shirt (yep, I wanted the yellow SVP100 tee in my collection!) or a voucher to buy some trainers (Cheers Maverick Race!) I could afford to just buy anyway. But, despite all this, for each event I’ve volunteered at, I’ve gained knowledge, experience, thanks and memories that go far beyond just running. Be part of the community you love so much, get involved!