If you’ve done your fair share of trail races and want to give back, there’s no better way to do it than volunteering for a race. It’s also a great motivator for trail running in general. Warning though, volunteering can become addicting. It’s a great way to get to know other trail runners and further your involvement in the trail running community. Most race directors understand how valuable volunteers are for races, and some offer extra incentives to help out at their races.
“In my opinion, volunteers are what can make or break a race,” states Northwest Trail Runs Gretchen Walla. “Typically volunteers are the first face a runner sees and interacts with. It sets the tone for the runner’s experience. Also, volunteers at aid stations can help a runner bounce back with encouragement and getting them what they need. We appreciate what volunteers do for us so we offer a 50% discount code to a future Northwest Trail Runs race and for those who volunteer 7+ hours, we give them a free race entry. We have several (wonderful) volunteers who pick which races they want to help at and which ones they want to run, many of those races for free. It’s an excellent way to give back AND race on a budget!”
“Our volunteers are essential, so we want them to know they’re appreciated, we want them to have a great time, meet lots of cool new people and reconnect with friends,” says Jeremy Long of Daybreak Racing. ” To do that, Daybreak stays really organized behind the scenes in order to make volunteering a super fun and enjoyable day, no matter a volunteer’s level of experience or whether they’re even a trail or ultra runner. We also offer every volunteer a few perks, including discounts toward future races, with swag and delicious food and beverages available after their shift too. Daybreak strives to provide our volunteers with a meaningful and fulfilling experience and nearly every time WE end up being thanked by our volunteers! So, we feel like we’re doing it right.”
There are several positions to volunteer at trail races. “Sweepers and aid stations are the first positions to fill,” declares Go Beyond Racing’s Renee Janssen. “At some of our races, we’ll have people asking for those spots before we’ve even opened registration. Tear down is the hardest one to fill. No one really wants to stick around at the very end of the race and load a truck. You don’t get to interact and directly support the racers, so it isn’t very desirable. However, it’s one of the positions we appreciate the most.”
According to Janssen, there are five main types of volunteers, although some races will have additional positions.
Check-Inn & Bib Pick Up – Distribute bibs, check in runners, and hand out pre-purchased merchandise.
Merchandise – Sell merchandise, distribute raffle prizes and awards
Aid Stations – Provide aid to the runners as they pass through, keeping supplies stocked throughout the event, motivate participants.
Sweeper – Follow the final racers, pick up course marking materials.
Set Up & Tear Down – Help unload and set up the start/finish area for the race and help break down and load everything up when it is over.
“Volunteers are the heart and soul of our events,” affirms Janssen. “First, the races couldn’t happen without them. And second, they really set the tone for the races. We hear over and over again from runners that the volunteers at our races are the best they’ve ever seen. This is very often the first words out of a runner’s mouth when they cross the finish line.”
“Volunteers are our most valuable resource at the races, no question!” adds Long. “There’s no way any long distance trail races could take place without their support. Daybreak has been really fortunate to have strong support in terms of volunteer turnout at all of our races, which makes each event better and encourages more people to come back year after year. It really is a fun and worthwhile experience, and it makes a huge difference for each racer’s experience!”
Volunteering is fun but it’s also essential to work for the day or even multiple days. “Volunteering is so much more appreciated than anyone other than the RD could ever quite grasp,” says Rainshadow Running’s Elizabeth Reece. “As a race director, I spend so much of my time making the race as organized and planned out as possible, but in the end, no matter how organized or prepped things are, the volunteers are the ones who make the race run smoothly from a runner’s perspective. They are out there solely for the runners, sometimes before the sun comes up and often long after the sun goes down. I feel very strongly that anyone who runs ultras should volunteer just as much as they run. It’s so important to give back. Plus it’s really fun! Volunteers get to interact with people all day, they can show up in fun costumes if they want, and there is something really special about helping someone get to the finish line. Just this past weekend, I ran into a runner after the race who told me that if it were not for one of the aid station volunteers, she would not have finished. She was struggling both physically and emotionally and when she got the aid station, the volunteer sat her in a chair, got her calmed down, and insisted she was going to be OK and that she could do it. That is the best feedback we can possibly get from a runner.”
“You should expect great communication with all of those fine details from the race organizers.” reminds Karen Peterson, Hagg Lake Mud Runs co-race director and volunteer for several other events. ” If you are not getting that within the week of the race, you should be asking those questions. Do I need to pack lunches? Do I need to bring changes of clothes? How long do I expect to be at my position? Most of the time with a reputable group, they will have that information. Always prepare to go longer. You may be having a great time and want to help out on the next aid station or at the finish. A volunteer might not show up and the organizer may ask you to stay longer. A runner could be stuck on the course and which involves being out longer than expected, especially where there is no place to drop between the last aid station and the finish. If you feel you are in over your head, tell the race director. It’s no big deal. The race director will give you another position.”
“At Rainshadow, we try to make things as easy and fun as possible for each volunteer,” says Reece. “I do my best to give them detailed instructions before race day so they come in knowing their task and feeling excited. I also give away raffle prizes from our great sponsors to volunteers, they get to eat wood-fired pizza and partake in all the post-race festivities for free, and there are special perks (like bypassing a lottery) for all volunteers.”
Some trail races also have high school cross country teams and other groups help volunteer. It’s a great way to meet more people from the community. “All of our events involve the communities that surround the trails we run on,” says Alpine Running’s Janessa Taylor. “It’s awesome to have those who are local at our events! Each race has a beneficiary – nearly all have more than one. It’s really important for us to support the local high school cross country teams. These teams man several of our aid stations, camp out, and run the trails while at the events. It’s a great way to have the kids see where the sport of running can take them.”
“We find that most of the people who volunteer with us are doing so because they want to help other racers,” sums up Janssen. “Often they want to pay it back and volunteer at a race they ran. Others volunteer to check out a race they are considering running. But we think one of the main reason people volunteer is that it just feels good, it is fun, and they like being part of this incredible trail running community we are fortunate to be a part of.”
Every race director has one or more special volunteers that seem to be at every race. We asked several race directors which volunteer would you like to recognize and why?. Here are their comments:
Gretchen Walla- Northwest Trail Races
When I started working for Northwest Trail Runs in the fall of 2015, there was a gal coming to all of our events and helping with whatever was needed. From sweeping to helping with check-in to finish-line food prep, Ellen Lavoie is a volunteer coordinator’s dream. I appreciate Ellen’s flexibility in case last minute issues pop up; she’s reliable; and she keeps it fun with her witty humor (her new favorite gig is holding Harper, our RD’s baby). The whole team always enjoys when Ellen is on board to help at a race!
Mike Ripley- Oregon Trail Runs
Evelyn Prior would be the person and she is a trail runner who simply cares about others. It’s as simple as that and she helps out quite a bit. Others care, but you can see the joy in her for supporting the runners through in most cases sweeping the runners at the back of the pack. That can take some patience and is a selfless act to see the last person to the finish line!
Jeremy Long- Daybreak Racing
Oh boy, this is a tough one! So many generous people come to mind that deserves our praise. We get a lot of returning volunteers, which has helped create a really high-quality experience for our race participants. That said, I will say that three people, in particular, made a big impact this year: Vince Deluccio, Theresa Silveyra, and Mack Roberston. These three generous people each volunteered at 2 of the 3 trail work days that Daybreak held so far this year, plus on some race days! Daybreak puts a strong emphasis on giving back through trail work in particular, and Vince, Mack, and Theresa really got dirty with us this year. They’ll hate that I mentioned them, but they deserve the recognition without a doubt.
Janessa Taylor- Alpine Running
Megan Bielemeier and Jeff Sanders are always willing to help out wherever we need them. They take time out of their busy lives to support the runners, sweep the course, long days and are always smiling & happy to be there. Races aren’t possible without amazing people like Megan and Jeff!
Renee Janssen- Go Beyond Racing
Kristin Lubell is amazing. She swept every race in 2018! That was more than 70 hours of volunteering. Sweeping is a critical position, that often is under-appreciated. The sweeper is out there longer than any racer, making sure all the course markings are picked up and that all the runners are safe. Kristin also helped to coordinate all the other sweepers at the races this year.”
Elizabeth Reese – Rainshadow Running
Oh man, choosing just one volunteer is hard. We have so many people who come out race after race to help. However, I think I am going to recognize Sean Downes. He comes to almost every single race we have and has been volunteering for years. He’s done every job from early morning parking to post-race food to long sweep shifts where he is out for hours. He’s also worked overnight shifts at the Orcas 100 and is one person I can always count on and I’ve often moved him around into various roles if I have cancellations. Sean is super flexible, incredibly hardworking, and always has a smile on his face.
Phil Hiom- Dirty Feet
The person I would like to recognize as a volunteer is Erica Malerby. Erica is always there to help. It does not matter the distance she is racing on that day, which usually is the longest distance we have available. Erica has helped us in the days leading up to the race with race package pickup as well as with course marking. Most race mornings she is there early to help with checking in racers in or Start/Finish setup. More often than not she shows up with coffees for both Grace and me. She has definitely made it much easier for us to do our jobs as event organizers and without her continued help, our days would be much longer and a lot more work. So I would love to give Erica Malerby a huge shoutout for all that she does to help us put on our successful event series.
Luke Larson- Lay It Out Events
Ron Deems is an amazing volunteer that is at every one of our races. He is willing to help in any capacity that we need, from course monitoring to manning the finish line aid station to handing out finishers medals. He is a critical component to our races and we truly value his dedication and willingness to help out.
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