Tuesday 22 July 2014

Race Volunteers: you ran well because they made it happen

I haven't written any race reports for a while, and I started to wonder if it was because I was tired of blogging, or didn't enjoy the races, or just because I needed a vacation to empty my head enough to process what has actually been a pretty busy summer racing schedule.  In the end, I've realized that it's because as much fun/effort as the past few races have been, I'd come away from the race thinking as much about the race as about my running in it.  I'd spent a lot of time over the month trying to get to grips with what really makes me come home raving about a great event.  The answer: the volunteers.

We all know volunteers make races happen, but how many runners actually show that appreciation during a race?  Race Directors choose the course, set the wheels in motion, and try to steer things in the right direction.  Volunteers do pretty much all the hard work of getting aid stations up, pointing gormless runners in the right direction (yes, I've been both the pointer and the pointee - we all have our witless moments), having water, sweets, crisps, and goodness knows what else spilt all over them.  In nearly all cases, they do it with a smile or a look of incredulous awe, depending on just how crazy your event is.  In nearly all cases, they do it because helping someone achieve their goals is at least as enjoyable as achieving that goal yourself.

Just a small part of our medal collection: it takes more than good running to have a good race.

Here are just a few thoughts about volunteers and volunteering based on my June races.

Last month, I had the chance to return to one of my favourite local races, the Cleeve Cloud Cuckoo.  This year, it was 5.5mi of driving rain, cloud, and generally miserable weather.  I mostly had an absolute ball, and was quite thankful I was running.  It's daft enough to go out and race in that, but how crazy do you have to be to simply stand still?  Volunteering takes stamina and a warped sense of humour sometimes.

Ten days later, I headed out for another hard training run at Humph's Hilly Half, in Bourton-on-the-Water.  It was a glorious evening for racing, and perfect for volunteering.  When you sign up to help out, you hope for balmy weather, some nice sunshine, and beautiful surroundings like we had on the day.  On my way around the gently undulating course, I enjoyed a few low-fives with the younger volunteers, made one lad's day by stooping down to take water from him instead of his mum, and managed to knock over about 6 cups trying to get 1 off the table, rather than the bottles that were being handed out (I only needed a sip).  I was all smiles for the first two stations, and mortified when I cleverly tried to grab the final cup (to avoid knocking any over) and missed with superb malcoordination.  Still, all handled with friendly conversation and a smile.  Even when you're running hard, it's not much effort to grunt or gasp "thanks" or "sorry", or give a smile or a thumbs up as you pass.  That little bit of interaction lets the volunteers know they aren't taken for granted, and it generally gives the runner a boost, too.

A few days later, it was time for our club's annual fell race, the Bredon Bash.  It's a simple one-hill course. Run a bit, cross a field, run up the hill, run along the top, retrace your steps to the finish.  It's my turn to do a bit of payback, so I was stationed on top of the hill, encouraging everyone up to the turnaround point and then back down.  Since it's a pretty small local field, I knew about half the runners already, so I had a jovial time cheering, cajoling, and just occasionally shouting good-hearted abuse to help them on their way.  Having a friendly face on the route cheering you on is great. Apparently, though, when it's your coach it might not always seem like fun at the time, as you try to look great even though you really just want to decorate your shoes with your lunch.

The next weekend, I headed up and down Cleeve Hill again, in the Cheltenham Circular Challenge.  I rather arrogantly entered the ultra (48mi), deciding that it was just silly to go for the marathon when I could do an extra 22.  After all, it's only another lap of up & down the hill plus a flat 10K and a flat 5K.  As it turned out, it was also incredibly warm, and I got more than a bit stupid as I got tired. I enjoyed chatting with volunteers, they enjoyed encouraging me on, and we had lots of pleasant interactions (the joys of a lapped route) as I kept passing them.  Unfortunately, what I didn't have, until I'd gotten particularly dim, was an experienced ultra runner looking at me and telling me to stop, have some crisps, and cool down for 10 minutes.  After 39mi, Nic was waiting for me (having done the marathon, and looking quite happy and relaxed).  She asked me questions about what I wanted, shook her head in despair when I refused any sensible intervention and insisted on carrying on, and ended up having a fairly pathetic wreck of a husband for a few hours after I DNF'd. We've now adjusted my personal crew instructions - when I've been going for more than 20 miles, don't ask me questions, tell me what to do.  Otherwise, I'll probably insist everything is perfect and refuse all sensible support.  Friendly volunteers are amazing and will carry you through most races.  Bossy ones will get you to the end of an ultra.

Then came the big event of the summer: Endure24.  Nic and I spent so long trying to decide if we wanted to enter as a pair, enter as solos, or not enter at all, that we ended up defaulting to the 3rd option when the race filled up.  In reality, we didn't really mind, because it meant we would be happily crewing our friend Mitch as he attempted to win it and wipe last year's agony out of his mind.  Another friend, Matt, had sneakily entered so we crewed him as well.  We sat and cheered or clapped as runners passed again and again on their 5mi laps.  We dolled out drinks, food, encouragement, and instructions for hours on end.  When it got dark, I tried to cheer or clap less loudly.  To all those trying to sleep nearby, sorry about that, as it seems I wasn't as successful as I'd thought at keeping the noise down.  I couldn't accept just sitting and watching and not encouraging, so after setting Mitch on his laps, I tried to walk around a bit to keep from having all those trying to get some rest come out and throttle me. Encouraging is addictive.

In the end, Mitch did win the race.  He set a new course record. Once it was over, we all hugged and congratulated him and rumour has it I might even have shed a tear or two.  He was elated, we were overjoyed for him, his wife and daughter were full of emotion (and probably relief!), and all of that happiness could not have happened without a small army of people willing to sit in the woods for hours at a time, watching mud-covered runners pass by lap, after lap, after lap.  Nobody achieves a race goal on their own.

If you're not in the habit of somehow thanking marshals during the race with a nod, smile, cheery word, wave, or some other friendly gesture, change your habit.  Give them something back to help them continue to enjoy helping you.  If you haven't volunteered at a race, look at all those medals and t-shirts you've collected.  Then get in touch with a local running club or race director and find out how you can help someone else achieve something special.  Helping someone surpass their own expectations will certainly give you some tools to use when it's your turn to push past your known limits.  I guarantee you'll gain something from helping out, and if you help at a race or distance you'd like to step up to, you'll learn a lot as well.

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