What I’ve Learned from Volunteering at Ultramarathons
As a runner, I rather train than do almost anything else. So when I was selected by lottery to participate in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, I dreaded having to complete its service requirement. I thought assisting aid stations for eight hours would be a waste of my time. But I was wrong. Being forced to volunteer helped me learn the following about ultrarunning and gave me a greater appreciation for the sport.
Volunteering helped me really understand how much time and effort it takes to organize a race. At 4:00 AM, I watched people mark trails with red tape, fill water coolers in the back of pickup trucks, and haul cans of chicken soup and bottles of Gatorade over granite boulders. At 5:00 AM, I watched strangers in parkas hand out race bibs and safety pins, show runners and their families where they can park their cars without getting tickets, and shout through megaphones where to keep an eye out for bears or mountain lions.
I assumed entry fees paid for these preparations. Not so. I was surprised to see volunteers complete a majority of the tasks without complaint or compensation. Based on how many people, permits, and gear it takes to organize races, it became clear to me that entry fees don’t cover what it costs to fund events.
If there were no volunteers, and race directors had to pay a staff of people, then entry fees would easily double.
No race director can prepare or support a race alone — it’s physically impossible. Too many people are at too many random spots along endless miles of mud, dirt, or asphalt. To support an army of runners, a thousand things demand attention, whether it’s salt pills for dehydration or a pep talk to get someone over the next hill.
With these challenges in mind, it impressed me to see race directors calmly orchestrate events with up to 300 runners and only a handful of volunteers. When water went dry or vandals removed course markings, I saw race directors react as serenely as the Dalai Lama, but solve the problems as swiftly as General George Patton. If I hadn’t volunteered, I wouldn’t have witnessed the magical mix of leadership and logistical skills needed to host a race.
At one aid station, a race director paired me up with a volunteer who’d recently graduated from college, but never set foot on a trail. I thought anyone having anything to do with a trail race would’ve at least jogged over some sand or gravel. But she wanted to learn and take notes before she took her first steps into the sport. She asked everyone questions like a student: “How many days a week do you run? What do you eat before a race? Do you walk up hills?” Several runners provided her with answers, and she jotted them down in a journal.
At another event, I worked at an aid station with a young married couple attending medical school together. They told me about courses I’d never heard of before — marathons out in the desert of Death Valley, California, and tiny new race companies hosting ultramarathons on private vineyards and horse ranches throughout the West.
At the same event, I helped direct traffic with a guy in his seventies who’d run ultras since 1980. He looked half his age and rubbed sunscreen on his forehead every few minutes. He told me how the sport changed during the past thirty years:
“More unnecessary toys, but better tasting drinks.”
If I hadn’t volunteered, I wouldn’t have met runners outside of my social circle who gave me a greater perspective on what’s happening out on the trails.
At the races I’ve volunteered at, I’m surprised how often runners support each other. Total strangers disregard finish times to help someone fill up hydration packs, dig through drop bags to find spare flashlights, or tell people who look like they’re about to vomit: “Hey, you look great out there! Good job!”
At one aid station I supported, a woman limped up to me with a bloody bandage tied around a knee. She asked, “How many miles to the finish?” When I said, “Five,” she sobbed and threw her water bottles to the ground. I felt uncomfortable, as if a coworker cried and threw a keyboard to the floor.
But I did what people at aid stations had done for me — told me I could finish even though it felt impossible.
I patted the runner on the back. I let her know that I never thought I’d finish the same race either, but I did so the previous year by moving forward. Step-by-step. Limp-by-limp. Inch-by-inch.
Hours later, I saw her smiling at the finish line with a medal around her neck, and a cold beer in her hand. If I hadn’t volunteered, I wouldn’t have paid back the emotional debt to the countless strangers who motivated me to finish races I never thought I could complete.
The second time I was lucky enough to run Western States, I looked forward to the service requirement. I welcomed volunteering as an opportunity to learn from a new experience, similar to running a new trail for the first time.
Now, as a part of my continuous education on running, I make volunteering a regular part of my training routine.
If you haven’t volunteered to help out at a race before, I encourage you to do so — it might help you learn things about ultrarunning that you can’t find in books, movies, or magazines; or from your current group of running friends. If you need motivation to volunteer, think of it as trying a new diet, strength-building technique, or pair of shoes that might improve your times out on the trails.
Originally published as Aid Station Education in UltraRunning Magazine.