Race season is once again upon us! It’s time to finalize a racing schedule and put together a training plan, but don’t forget to set aside a day or two to give back a little to the community.
The relatively small fields that trail running races tend to allow for, given permitting restrictions in parks throughout North America, mean that race directors have to rely quite heavily on what can often be a small army of volunteers in order to keep the costs down for a race. It’s not uncommon for races to need over 200 volunteers!
Volunteering is a fun way to support and cheer for your friends who might be racing, and I’ve found it an especially great way to stay involved when I’m recovering from an injury or another race. Some race directors even provide discounts on future race entry fees in exchange for your service, or other great perks like swag and appreciation parties.
So if you’ve never volunteered then go ahead and email a race organizer about how you can help out this season with one of the positions below.
The course will need to be flagged in advance so that no one goes off course during the race. This requires someone or several people with sufficient knowledge of the trails, as well as how to properly flag for faster runners and to post signs at intersections.
Right before the start of a race, someone is typically needed to run the entire course to ensure that flagging is still in place. If anything looks odd or suspicious, they’ll likely be asked to radio the race director to help fix the issue. It’s not uncommon for flags to have been tampered with, so this is a pretty important job as well.
These smiling faces help check in every single racer and provide their race bibs and packages, while answering any questions they might have. Many races allow both registration and check-in the morning of the race, while some races require runners to register and even complete package pickup in advance.
Another crucial position to ensure a successful race, volunteers will be placed at key areas on course to direct runners through tricky intersections, to track them through loops and out-and-back sections, and to both ensure runner safety and provide encouragement along the way.
Aid Station Crew
In addition to setting up and taking down the aid stations, volunteers are needed to provide runners with much needed food, water, and other supplies during the race, all while cheering them on as they arrive and leave.
At many races, aid station crews will claim ownership to the same aid station year after year, bringing music, costumes or themes, giving the aid stations nicknames, and making them an experience that runners really look forward to. Have fun with it!
At races where professional timing isn’t in the budget, volunteers are needed to track start and finish times for every runner and record it into both a computer and on a backup paper system. A chief timing crew person may be needed to manage a team for this in larger fields of racers, as things can get pretty hectic as runners start crossing the finish line in large groups.
One or more runners will follow on the heels of the last racer to make sure that no one gets injured along the way. When the sweepers arrive at the finish line, the race director knows that it’s safe to close the course.
The sweepers will also often be responsible for pulling all flagging and signage along the way, although this may be a separate crew from that of the ‘people’ sweeps.
Pro-tip: Wear a big pack if you’re pulling flagging from a large section of trail, and don’t forget the gloves if the course is marked with flags on the little metal sticks as they tend to get rusty.
There are many other tasks that need to be handled throughout an event, like settting up the start/finishing area, prepping food for aid stations, and feeding runners at the finish line.
For larger races, additional volunteers are needed for things like transportation of aid station supplies, shuttling drivers to and from their vehicles, handling merchandise sales, and presenting medals.
More critical positions will typically be handled by those with a little more experience, like the logistics coordinator, the course manager, and the volunteer coordinator who manages the entire army of volunteers leading up to and during the event.
Thanks to Sarah Thompson and Dianna Christopoulos for their contribution to this post, as well as for all of their hard work as race volunteers themselves over the years!