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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.