It was day four of the TransRockies six-day trail race and I was in the small town of Redcliff in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I was part of the finish line catering crew waiting for a group of more than 200 runners to finish the 14-mile run for the day. At 8,600 feet, the air was a little thin but the beautiful mountain scenery more than made up for it. Greg, a runner from California I had befriended a few days prior during breakfast, finally came into the finisher’s chute. I had a surprise for him—a four-pack of Starbucks DoubleShot Espresso. He’d jokingly requested this the day before and part of being a TransRockies volunteer is making athletes happy. This was by far the hardest volunteer gig I have ever done but the combination of venue, volunteer camaraderie, and athlete gratitude made it worthwhile.
There are more multi-day races than ever before and the need for volunteers who are willing to give up precious vacation time and the comforts of home is on the rise. Large-scale races like TransRockies and Race Across America welcome volunteers into their race family with open arms, and it only takes a quick e-mail to the race director for a would-be volunteer to get involved. Most volunteer positions are unpaid but race organizers provide meals, lodging, or free gear during the event. In some cases, people who volunteer at an event one year can earn a free or significantly reduced entry fee for a future race. But even more important than the “free stuff” are the new friendships and experiences that volunteers can expect to gain along the way that make volunteering worthwhile.
Volunteers make the races happen and the list of volunteer jobs can include site setup/tear down, race registration and packet pickup, race timing, officiating, logistics, water stop support, trash collection, and athlete/gear transport. If it is a multi-day event, volunteers may do the same job over and over or jobs may change from day to day. But the most tangible thing volunteers donate is their time and, in some cases, travel and related expenses getting to/from the event. Good volunteers also bring those intangible qualities that make for an overall successful race experience including emotional support for athletes, enthusiasm, and—if volunteers are also athletes—experience and wisdom.
Sometimes, volunteering is a necessity in that events such as the Wasatch 100 trail race and the Furnace Creek 508 bike race require “contributions to the sport,” including volunteer experience, as part of the race application process. But volunteering is also a great way to check out an event before actually participating as it provides a behind-the-scenes look at how well a race is organized and run. Volunteers can also become part of a race crew, supporting an athlete or team of athletes from start to finish, which allows for an up-close-and-personal look at how to manage race logistics. These opportunities can also be found by visiting race websites, monitoring blog posts, or by simply e-mailing a team and asking if they need help.
Where to begin? Pick a race or event on criteria that is important to you, such as location, venue, sport, time of year, or the extent of the volunteer commitment. Don’t be put off by multi-day events, as organizers are usually willing to accommodate limited availability and will schedule volunteers strategically rather than for the entire event. And if you have a specific skill set such as race timing, crew setup, or media/photography, let race organizers know so they can place you accordingly when possible.
Happy athletes mean a successful event and, in my case, providing that four-pack of Starbucks DoubleShot Espresso for Greg earned me the title “finish line angel.” So this holiday season, think about giving the gift of time by volunteering for an upcoming race or event. Who knows—it could lead to something epic!
Susan Farago has over 20 years of coaching experience and is a certified coach in running, cycling, and nutrition. She is an avid athlete, co-founder of Trailhead Running, and a nationally published freelance writer. For more information, go to www.susanfarago.com