Volunteering 101: How to be a Rockstar Race Volunteer

A few months ago, one of my closest friends, Cindy Salyer, passed away in a car accident.

Cindy was one of the most active race volunteers in Charleston. If Cindy wasn’t running a race, she was volunteering. Often, she was even volunteering pre-race when wearing a race number- because she was going out to run as soon as she finished helping with packet pick up.

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To carry on Cindy’s legacy, I’ve committed to volunteering at local charity races. My goal is to volunteer once a month. My actual running and race goals have not been successful this past year, but I have volunteered once a month.

Many runners never volunteer for a race. For a long time, I didn’t either. I started volunteering in 2014 when I had an injury that prevented me from running but wanted to be a part of the Race the Landing and Daniel Island Happy Hour 5K series.

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Once I was healthy enough to run these races again, I continued to volunteer occasionally. In the Charleston area, we have a race every weekend, and it’s not practical or healthy to run a race every single weekend. Volunteering is a great way to be with your running family, give back to the sport, and have fun without the wear and tear a race puts on the body and mind.

Sign up to volunteer

First things first, let the race director or volunteer coordinator know you plan to volunteer. If you’re a runner or have previous volunteer experience, let them know that too. On race day, race directors are like Santa on Christmas Eve and have enough stress.

I’ve never known a race to turn down someone who just showed up on race day to volunteer, but knowing in advance helps race directors place volunteers in the appropriate spots, make sure there are enough volunteers, and move people around as needed.

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In November, I planned to run the 9-11 Heroes Run 5K and was registered. I hurt my calf a few days before, so after picking up my packet, immediately walked over to the volunteer table and asked to be put to work. I knew the race needed volunteers, and they found me a spot. I would’ve been fine with just spectating and cheering on friends, but I’m glad they found a place for me.

Show up on time- and ready to work  

Race volunteering might not be a job, but you should treat it as one. You wouldn’t show up 30 minutes late to your job, so don’t show up late to volunteer. If you can show up early, that’s better because usually the race director can put you to work.

With that said, be prepared to work. You may not be running, but you will break a sweat working a water stop. If it’s cold outside, you will be colder than the runners. If it is wet… you will get wet. Dress appropriately!

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Stay late

Volunteering for races lasts longer than running races. Don’t schedule anything immediately after volunteering for a race. Plan to stay until the last runner comes through your aid station or crosses the finish line, if you’re a finish line volunteer. It’s only right to give the last finisher the same respect as those who win races. You may also need to help tear down the finish area and clean up- or hold down a tent on a windy, rainy summer afternoon.

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Dress the part

I don’t wear running clothes when I volunteer at races. For summer races, I typically wear a race shirt and khaki shorts. For winter races, I wear layers (hoodies and jeans) and always have extra gloves, headbands, and hats. Many races give shirts to volunteers for an official “uniform”. If you’re not sure, just ask the race director or volunteer coordinator what to wear.

Do wear comfortable shoes and plan to be on your feet. I’ve NEVER volunteered at a race where I wasn’t on my feet most of the time. If you’re injured and can’t be on your feet, let the volunteer coordinator know and they may be able to place you somewhere that you can sit (packet pick up).

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Be ready for anything

No matter how hard race directors, committees, and volunteers work, no race is  perfect. Someone’s timing chip will malfunction. A summer thunderstorm will force you to delay the race for 15 minutes. You will run out of at least one size of t-shirts. A family of five will show up at 7:55 AM to register for an 8 AM race, precisely the moment when the iPad with the card reader loses WiFi signal.

As a volunteer, do what you can to avoid big time mistakes. Know your job, know which direction to point runners so they don’t take a wrong turn. Don’t leave your aid station to take a bathroom break unless other volunteers are there. Most race directors will give you a number to call or a two-way radio to use if something goes wrong (medical emergency, etc). If not, ASK.

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Be inspiring- and ready for others to inspire you

I mentioned this under staying late, but if you’re volunteering on a course or at the finish, plan to cheer like crazy for every single runner. Every runner in a race can be inspiring- from the sub-elites who come blazing through a marathon water stop at a sub-6 pace to the costumed Marathon Maniacs to the walkers. Bring your cowbell, signs, and be ready for your lungs to burn- not from running, but from screaming like crazy cheering the runners on.

At one of my last volunteer gigs, the runners who inspired me the most didn’t win the race. At Mile 8, I saw my friend Eryn from Charleston Beer Runners running as a guide for an athlete named Mark. Mark was visiting from Philadelphia and running as a part of Achilles International, a group that helps differently abled athletes complete races. Mark is legally blind, and Eryn “guided” him to a 2:40 half marathon finish by telling him when streets were cobblestone, when they approached a hill (err, speed bump).

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Most of all, respect all the runners who are doing what brings them joy- whether that’s running for place, a time, or just to complete a distance. Be ready for volunteering to bring YOU joy too, perhaps as much or more joy as running.

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This entry was posted in Charleston Beer Runners, Charleston Running, Charleston Running Club, Daniel Island Happy Hour 5K, Injury, Race the Landing, Race Volunteering and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Volunteering 101: How to be a Rockstar Race Volunteer

  1. dianetrites says:

    So sorry for the loss of your friend. What a great way to remember her!
    Great tips for volunteers. I have volunteered only twice, but enjoy it. The running community has been very good to me and it is a great way to give back.

    • Amy Lauren says:

      Cindy volunteered so much. I can think of several organizations that are without a VERY passionate volunteer this year, and I hope that locals here in Charleston will step up to the plate and help sometimes.

  2. That is a great way to keep the good memory of your friend alive. You really nailed everything about being a volunteer! Since being a Run Toledo Ambassador, I’ve been helping out at races a lot more – and I’m really enjoying it! Heck, for many of the last races I’ve been helping to get the race shirts too! Run Toledo has made it super easy to sign up as a volunteer because you do it online, and you pick the job you’d like. That way there are no surprises on how long you’ll be working or what you’ll be doing. I hope to get more of my friends out there helping this year!

    • Amy Lauren says:

      I like when you can pick the jobs you want at a race. Not everyone wants to be behind the scenes and some people prefer that. They’re really lucky to have you on board because you’ve run a lot of races and can give them good feedback, too.

  3. runeatralph says:

    What a great post! Your timing is excellent. Since I’m out of commission for another several months, I think volunteering is how I need to spend some time with the running community.

    • Amy Lauren says:

      A bunch of us volunteers are injured runners and this is just what we do for races we can’t run. At the Jan. 1 race, between 4 people we had a stress reaction, tendonitis, a torn meniscus, and someone had a knee problem but I’m not sure what his DX was. As long as the RD knows your limitations as a injured runner turned volunteer, you’ll be good.

  4. steph says:

    I miss being the “best damn race volunteer ever” 😉 I started volunteering for races because I worked at 9am on Saturdays. I couldn’t run much, but I was able to help at packet pickup and early morning shifts. I always enjoyed it, even when I had to stuff hot dogs and got yelled at sometimes!
    As a longtime volunteer coordinator, I have some tips, too. Feed your volunteers! Happy volunteers are so much more pleasant. Swag also helps 🙂 Also, give volunteers meaningful work and show your appreciation. After being a kickass volunteer at a smallish race, I was asked to help at a bigger one. Although the coordinator had recognized my talent at organization and customer service, I was placed in a behind the scenes role. It wasn’t fun for me and I don’t feel like I did the stellar job I’d hope to do.

    • Amy Lauren says:

      I agree with you on taking care of volunteers. Thankfully, most races I’ve volunteered for have taken EXCELLENT care of us. I agree that if a race has an after-party with food, beer, volunteers should be able to partake too.

      The best appreciation is honestly a thank you from the volunteer coordinator or race director. If nothing else, that says that the race can’t go on without volunteers.

      I don’t find myself above any volunteer role- I’ve sliced fruit and I’ve written website copy- but I do love a runner-facing role :).

  5. AJ says:

    I’ve been wanting to volunteer this year and you definitely reconfirmed that

  6. Loved this post! Volunteers are so important and your tips are spot-on. I also agree with the other commenters that it’s a perfect way to honor your friend!

  7. This. Is. Awesome.

    I have always admired the fact that you volunteer in the running world so much! I love what you said about being prepared for volunteering to bring you joy. So true!

    • Amy Lauren says:

      It is a lot of fun- you get to be a part of the running community even if you can’t log all the miles. It’s crazy how many races have trouble finding volunteers, too.

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