This past weekend, when the St. George Marathon ended up being nothing but a long hike for me when thoughts of a personal best blew up around mile 11, I began thinking a great deal about the relationship between runners and volunteers. It is a symbiotic relationship. Without volunteers, races cannot be run and without runners, there is no need for volunteers. However, more often than not, the two only meet for brief periods of time and usually it is not when either is at their best. Runners are tired, blunt, sweaty and abrupt with an unusual demanding nature. Volunteers are frazzled, overwhelmed and well, tired, blunt and sweaty. The best way for both to understand each other is to actually be the other.
Runners need to take time to volunteer at races. Besides the fact that races cannot be held without a much larger number of volunteers than most people can fathom and doing so helps maintain the sport we as runners love so much, volunteering gives runners a perspective from the other side of the outstretched-hand holding a cup of water. You can see how it is not always easy to have the aid station on the inside of the curve. You can realize that the information given to the volunteers is often limited to the scope of their job, and that alone. You can grasp that a little nod of thank you, a second of eye contact and a smile will make them feel like standing out in the freezing cold or blazing heat was worth it to help just one runner on their way to the finish.
Volunteers need to put down the orange safety vest and pick up a pen to sign up for race (Sure, I know virtually no one actually “fills out” an entry form anymore but bear with me.) The more people running in this world, the better the world will be. Now, as a runner, you will see how important it is to not fill the cup all the way to the top as a volunteer. You will appreciate that even if you know a volunteer may not have an answer, they are probably better equipped than you are to at least be able to find the person who does know the answer. Finally, you will realize that it is not a slight when you don’t remember to say “thank you” to a volunteer during the middle of a race; sometimes you simply don’t have the mental capacity of physical ability to raise that hand.
I have been fortunate enough to see the race from these aspects, as well as from the role of a race director and course designer. It seems simplistic to say that once you have walked (or run) a mile in another’s shoes, you understand them better, but that is without a doubt the case here. I get why a course may have been directed one way rather than another. I know that it is only the extraordinarily rare soul who doesn’t actually wish to make the race an enjoyable experience for all.
So, in your next race, runners, look a volunteer directly in the eye and say: “Thank you for being out here.” And in your next effort, volunteers, I want you to reply: “My pleasure. Hope it is you putting the medal around my neck next time.”