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Volunteers: The Heroes of Ultra running

Being helped across the line Photo credit: Ben Goddard

Volunteers: The Heroes of Ultra running

07-Oct-20

Last updated: 12-Oct-20

By Sarah Cooke

If you’ve run an ultramarathon then you’ve come across race volunteers. Without them, most events just wouldn’t happen. Very few ultras make enough profit to employ sufficient paid staff to fill every role required. Luckily, plenty of runners are willing and often eager to give back to the sport.

I think every ultra runner would benefit from volunteering at least once. I have helped run a checkpoint once and assisted at race HQ from pre-registration through to post-finish on two occasions. It’s safe to say that far more goes on behind the scenes than runners are aware of, and that’s even when everything goes smoothly. If anything untoward happens, then the workload balloons.

Volunteering is good fun. You are spending the day with like-minded people to help put on an event for people like you. I would say that 99.9% of the time, runners are friendly and incredibly grateful. It’s a rewarding experience. Seeing people enjoying themselves makes you feel good. If anyone is struggling or gets injured, then you understand what they’re going through and are in a good position to support them.

Simon and Liz Edwards are frequent race volunteers. Simon writes, “it’s also hard work, mentally and physically, and it can be shattering when someone pulls out, but knowing that you've helped one runner, or an entire race work towards their goals can be as satisfying as having achieved that goal yourself. We've both competed (although not for a while now), so we know what goes on during those long hours on the trail. We know what works and what doesn't, what can help and what can hinder”.

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Getting the checkpoint food ready

The role of checkpoint volunteering is an opportunity to help runners while they are doing their thing. Filling bottles, recording numbers and cutting up cake enables them to focus on putting one foot in front of the other.

Simon told us about two contrasting checkpoint experiences: “On the Centurion Winter 100 years ago, one runner DNF'd at mile 75. It was his fourth (of four) Centurion 100s that year, all he had to do was trudge those last 25 miles (in plenty of time), to get his buckle. Didn't matter what we said, what we tried, he was out.

“On the other hand, the year before, running one of the aid stations in a village hall, a runner sauntered in, filled his bottles, turned to leave and spotted the piano tucked in the corner. He gave us five minutes of beautifully played Einaudi, closed the lid, and headed on his way smiling”.

Another role is working on registration and finish line timings and being at HQ while a race is going on. This is probably the best way to see how hard race directors work. There needs to be communication between HQ, checkpoints, marshals and sweeps at all times. Often, race routes don’t have reliable phone signal, so radios and sometimes RAYNET are required.

It is vital that each checkpoint knows how many runners were on the start line and that HQ know who has dropped out at each checkpoint and how many finishers to expect. If you have someone unaccounted for in the mountains you need to know where they were last seen.

Being on the finish line and recording runners’ times keeps you on your toes. It’s lovely to see the elation as runners come in. COVID guidelines have added an extra layer. Runners are a cooperative bunch, but when you’re tired and emotional, it’s easy to forget. It is our job to ensure one-way systems, social distancing, masks and hand sanitiser happen and events can continue in a COVID secure way.

There are plenty of other ways of volunteering. Spencer Millbery regularly paces and crews for other runners. In terms of pacing, he writes, “I enjoy spending time on the trails with fellow runners, especially the back end of a race when the sun’s coming up. You need to keep them moving without pushing too hard and keep an eye on their drink/nutrition habits. A bit of coaxing and some friendly ‘let’s catch up the person in front’ seems do the trick. After spending 5/6/7 hours helping them cross the finish line, it is nearly as good as doing the race yourself”.

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Keeping the runners topped up at the checkpoint

Spencer has also experienced both crewing and having crew. He says, “I’ve been lucky enough to have people crew me on races. Knowing you’re about to meet someone with the fluid/nutrition you want is a real mental boost…I recently followed a friend around his solo 50-mile race with coke, water and watermelon. He openly admits that not having to worry about when/where to get his nutrition/fluids was a factor in meeting his finishing time goal.

Simon has also crewed and paced his fellow runners. He was keen to point out the camaraderie experienced both as a race volunteer and as a crew member. In relation to crewing, he states, “the camaraderie is those shared moments in strange car parks, meeting those same few crews along the way, swapping tips, offering help or advice. It's getting one person to the finish line, rather than an entire race. It's a narrowed focus, an utter concentration on one individual.

“Throughout, the only thing that matters is your runner, not you, not how you feel, or what you need - that can come when they've finished, but not until then. Trust us though - seeing them across that line? That's as good as doing it yourself...”.

I caught up with another runner who has experience of sweeping races, a vital role when you need to keep people within cut-offs and know when everyone should have passed through a checkpoint. He told me that, “the point of sweeping a race is for the safety of competitors first and foremost. By carrying a radio, the sweep team are able to relay any relevant information to the race director and their team. For example, if a competitor suffers an injury and is unable to continue, this can be relayed to HQ and action can be taken to deal with the situation.

“On the ground, it is a rather difficult experience. I have swept twice and have given the runners a good start before I set off. Once I have caught up on the tail-enders, I try to maintain a balance between letting them know who I am and why I am here whilst not putting pressure on them. It's hard and it’s frustrating at times. The last person is invariably walking, yet up ahead I can see people straying off the route. Do I chase them? Navigation is their responsibility, but I also feel responsible for their safety. In short, it's a necessary role for which you are unlikely to be thanked by competitors”.

I know how vital sweeps can be when things go wrong. When a runner broke her leg during an event at which I was volunteering, it was the sweep who was the nearest person we could contact to get to her. He administered first aid and waited with her for rescue to arrive. It is hugely reassuring to have people out on the route when you know you have an injured runner at the top of a mountain. The sweeps may be the last people you want to see when you’re running, but in an emergency, you’d be very glad they were there.

The specific roles and volunteer duties required vary from race to race depending on terrain, distance, how ‘supported’ the race is designed to be and what technology the race has available and can afford. For example, if runners have trackers then you may not need people checking numbers and times. You would, however, still need a back up plan in the event of a technology glitch.

If you fancy getting involved, then contact some of your local events and find out how you can help. Many races will offer you a free place in a future event in return for your time and you will likely make new friends and get fed for the day. It’s well worth doing.

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Waiting for runners at the checkpoint

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