Smile Politely

Hero: The race volunteer

Race bag, check. Shoes, check. Post race clothes, check. It’s 6:00 a.m., and you’re getting ready for your next race. You’re packed for what you hope will be another PR.

But, there is someone who has been up since 5:00: someone who has filled packets, who has marked a course or manned an aid station, filled cups of water and Gatorade, stood in the cold, wet weather or hot, steamy summer mornings while you’ve stayed comfortable in your car with the engine running. It’s the race volunteer I’m talking about, and without them, that PR you’re about to embark on wouldn’t happen.

I try not to use the word “hero” too often. Our men and women in uniform, putting their lives on the line for our freedom, are heroes. A fireman running into a burning building to save someone’s life? Hero. But to a runner, race volunteers are heroes, too.

Volunteering for a race is an act of true selflessness. You’re taking yourself out of the competition so others can run. For example, the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon needed nearly 4,000 volunteers. That’s huge, and requires volunteers from all over the community.

Smaller races have far fewer spots to fill and a much more difficult time filling them. Take the Allerton Trail Run, currently in its 25th year, that ran last weekend. It requires many volunteers to put on successfully. Many volunteers come from the Second Wind Running Club (SWRC) who puts on the race. The club fills spots by sending recruitment emails to its members. Other volunteers come from outside organizations. For example, Lincoln’s Challenge in Rantoul has provided volunteers for water stops in past years at the Mahomet Half Marathon in August.

What do people give up when volunteering?

First and foremost, they give up the opportunity to run the race. Seth Chiles is a super volunteer with SWRC, and Tricia Crowder is the former SWRC Volunteer Coordinator who now lives in Kansas City, MO.

In the last two years alone, Seth has worked approximately twelve races: “At this point, I just assume I’m volunteering at some of these races (Buffalo Trace and Allerton) and don’t really contemplate running them.”

Tricia worked nearly every race in that same period: “I’ve volunteered for almost every race the club has supported or coordinated. Last year, I actually volunteered for pre-race duties and processed results for the Women’s Fitness 5K, AND ran it as well!”

Why volunteer?

“I volunteer for a couple of reasons,” Chiles said:

I always like knowing how these sorts of things work. How do they match up your place with your time? Does that big clock actually matter? Why do they have a computer at a running race? Volunteering gets me into the ‘inner circle’ and lets me learn all those things. I also love being a cheerleader and facilitating all these hardworking runners meeting goals and accomplishing big things with their runs.

For Tricia, volunteering is a form of giving back:

I know that the great experience runners have at races is in great part due to a lot of behind-the-scenes work by volunteers. I’ve enjoyed so many great races in other cities that I just really enjoy paying it forward. I really have a great time watching friends and strangers alike, cheering them on.

What kinds of things have you done when you’ve volunteered?

“My duties when I volunteer have varied,” Chiles said:

I like to learn the process so I can volunteer at several different points wherever someone is needed. I’ve pulled bib tags as runners come through the finishing chute, been timekeeper, recorded bib numbers, and worked at aid stations, but mostly dealt with registration and results.

Crowder’s duties as Volunteer Coordinator have varied:

I’ve helped hand out packets, assisted with race registration. I’ve coordinated the brunch prep for Allerton. I’ve spent a lot of time working the finish line, and have processed results as well. I’ve really enjoyed volunteering at the IL Marathon half marathon split, using a bullhorn to assist runners make the correct turn at the split. The only time I didn’t perform that duty was in 2011, when I actually ran the half.

What would you say to someone on the fence about volunteering?

“It’s all about giving back,” Chiles said:

Do you run any of the races? Have you seen any volunteers at these races? Yes, of course you have – so give back and volunteer. Give the volunteers a chance to run the races too, as well as improving your running community! It’s fun in and of itself. Learning a new skill and cheering people on is good stuff.

“Give it a shot, even just once,” Crowder said:

If you’ve raced, you know race day is a memorable day because folks you may not know want to make sure you don’t get lost, don’t get run over by cars, have enough water, can get help if you need it, and make sure you are taken care of after you cross the finish line.

Volunteering at races is rewarding, it gives back to the community, and it gives runners of all ages the opportunity to yell out: “Thank you for volunteering!”

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