Giving Back

Races of every distance could not happen without their volunteers. Giving back to the running community is essential because of this. We’ve all be “saved” by a volunteer at some point during our running careers. It could have been something simple, like them handing you a Gu or a cup of water, or as complex as helping you remove your shoes, take care of blisters, and get your shoes back on your wet muddy feet.

The volunteers out there may or may not have family or friends running in the event. I’ve run into many an aid station to find out the aid station is run by a family or community group who does it every year and no one runs.

I know we are all very busy with training, working, family, and some minimal form of social life, but there are races nearly every weekend, especially 5k and 10ks. They are not a huge time commitment either, just a couple of hours.

Experiencing the running world from the volunteer’s side, will give you a new perspective and much appreciation for what they do. It will help you make their lives easier when you come into their aid station. It will also help you, if you ever decide to be a race director or organize a race of your own to benefit a non-profit agency.

How do you get started?

  1. Contact the race director for a race you have run or that supports something you can get behind. There are always 5k and 10k races support things like prevention and research of medical and mental health problems. There are also a ton of races raising money for local non-profit groups. Even schools have them to raise money.
  2. If you don’t know about any races, go to your local running store or get on their website and find the race calendar.
  3. Search on the internet.
  4. Once you have a race selected, email/call the race director or volunteer coordinator.
  5. Let them know you’d like to volunteer.

If you are considering a big event, such as a ultra, it’s good to let them know your experience as a runner so they can place you at points in the race where you will be the most help to the runners. The other thing to know about volunteering for an ultra, especially if you’re going to be the captain of an aid station, is you have to bring a lot of your own stuff.

The bigger races such as Western States, Leadville, Hardrock and the like, will have bigger sponsors and more supplies. But your smaller races that draw mostly locals and rarely the top runners of the ultra world don’t have as much and you may be expected to bring things, including food items, canopies, chairs, cots, heaters, and whatever else you want for your own comfort and that of the amazing runners.

Don’t be put off by bring your own stuff. Call in friends and family. I’ve always been able to gather the things I need and haven’t had to buy more than some food items and even that cost is split between my friends who volunteer with me at the aid station.

Remember none of us would be out there without the amazing volunteers.

Aid Stations, Bigger and Better

aid buffet

The number one job of an aid station is to keep track of runners. They check you in and check you out. The second mission of the aid station is to supply runners with food and hydration to keep them in the race. The third thing aid stations do, is encourage the runners.

Aid station volunteers are remarkable people. They stand out there all day and all night and all day making sure runners get through and resupplied, regardless of the weather conditions. They don’t have to be there. They are donating their time.

Many aid stations have a captain who teaches new recruits the ropes and manages the running of the aid station. There is a system and assigned roles, in the most proficient aid station.

Aid stations have come a long way over the years. Not too long ago, and still with inaugural races, there was a lonely volunteer in the middle of nowhere with a tarp on the ground and some food and water set out. Sometimes if you weren’t in the lead, there wasn’t much left when you arrived.

Now a days, they are a runners dream buffet. Most aid stations have tents or canopies with heaters or fires at night. They set up stoves to cook food like quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate, coffee, and broth. And of course, there is coke, mountain due, and ginger ale among the water and electrolyte mixes.

If you can’t find what you want at the aid station or you know that the race doesn’t stock your favorite running fuel, they will haul it out there for you in your drop bag. Drop bags allow you to have everything you need at the aid stations including food, gear, and clothing.

When my running team sets up an aid station for a 100, we bring out a full kitchen. We make breakfast including eggs, bacon, and pancakes. We also  have a pizza oven and bake fresh pizza for any runner who wants it. We can make hot drinks as well. There are heaters, chairs, a cot, and blankets in our tent for any runner to use.

Volunteers at the aid stations come from every area of life and many volunteer year after year. Some of them have become experts in assisting ultrarunners just from their experience as volunteers. They can make suggestions on dealing with the various issues runners deal with and tell you about what is to come in the race. Some of them are ultrarunners themselves and can be invaluable when things are getting really tough out there.

Being a volunteer is something I recommend to all runners. It’s good to stand on the other side. You appreciate the aid station crews even more when you have done it. All the volunteers ask in return is a smile and gratitude, which is easy enough to give even at mile ninety-five.