Be a trail running super hero – volunteer!

Aid Station Two superheroes at TrailSTOKE. Photo: Bruno Long

It was an ashamedly long time in coming, but come it did. It was time to volunteer at a race.

As those who have raced and volunteered know only too well, volunteers are the lifeblood of a race. As Elaine Fung wrote in a great article on volunteering in the spring edition of Trail Running Canada: “That feeling of camaraderie and community that draws us to race events is in large part created by the tireless work of volunteers.” Setting wonderful courses, negotiating and obtaining permission from the authorities and landowners, securing sponsors and racers, organizing the food and porta potties – it would all be meaningless without volunteers.

Without volunteers there would in most, if not all, cases be no race. There would be no race packets to pick up and no one to pick them up from. There would be no aid stations; no one to fill bottles and hand out water and gels; no one to point the way at those critical intersections. Volunteers are so crucial that some race organizers such as 5Peaks, Grizzly Mountain Events, and Pace Sports Fitness will compensate volunteers for their time and effort by offering credits towards, or free entry into, future races.

I know from my experience two weeks ago at TrailSTOKE that without the volunteers, without their support, their encouragement, high fives and, in some cases, their costumes and humour, not only would there have been no race but I would have had a very different and considerably less enjoyable race. They made all the difference on the day in so many important ways.

Which is why it’s so awful and the source of personal shame that it took me so long to get around to doing my bit. To giving back. But i’m so pleased I did. What a total hoot.

True, it wasn’t all down to me. Much of the credit lies with Fitzy, the coordinator of Canmore Trail Culture. He was the instigator, the driving force, who got a group of willing souls together from Trail Culture to turn up last weekend for race 5 of the 5Peaks series at the Canmore Nordic Centre to play our part, staffing aid stations, sweeping the course, leading the kids races, and so on.

Just to add to the occasion, and given that they’d just run the 1km kids race, Ms. Canmore Runner and I decided to make this a family affair and took the kids. Following Fitzy’s lead, we also dressed for the occasion. We didn’t really have a theme so much as a random mix of Gilligan’s Island and a skeleton fairy cat and racing car driver equipped with duck callers:

Photo: Jasprit Bhatia

But we did have a lot of fun amongst the series stuff of cheering on the racers, attending to their water and electrolyte needs and directing them to take the left turn at the table. And we weren’t alone. We were joined by Jas from Calgary and these two stars from Canmore Trail Culture:

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So, what did I learn from this experience?

First, that I would happily do it again, and indeed will and must do it again. Not only because it’s an essential act and great fun to boot, but because if you race, you’re part of a community and you rely on, and benefit from, the goodness of others. You have to return the favour. You have to give back to the community. My new rule is that I must, at a minimum, volunteer at as many races as I actually race.

Second, dressing up for the occasion and breaking out into dance parties are essentials. Maybe it’s the British in me, but I found my enthusiasm and support for the racers was a lot more forthcoming dressed as someone loosely out of Gilligan’s Island than they might otherwise have been. It also helps to pass the time which, in the case of an ultra, could be considerable. We were only out there for around three hours and had periods of quiet that were usefully filled with dancing. Playing loud music might also have the added bonus of helping keep the bears away. Elaine Fung’s article contains some good advice on other essentials (like taking food and warm clothing for yourself) which would have been useful to follow…

Third, while it’s good to have fun, it’s important to remember that you’ve got a job to do. There are racers coming in and they’re not there to dance (though some did). They’re there to get replenished, refuelled and back on their way as quickly as possible. And for all the goofing about, we didn’t lose sight of that. As racers approached, we’d go to them and ask what they wanted. We’d then run back to the table and get it for them and send them on their way with shouts and howls of encouragement and a few quacks. And for those who were having a tough time and wanted to talk about it, we were there to listen and support as best we could.

And before we knew it, it was all over. The sweeper came through and it was time to pack up and find our way back to the day lodge…

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Until next time, happy trails.

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