As someone who competes in more than a dozen races every year, with many taking five hours or more, I’ve spent a lot of time with — and been reliant on — race crew staff and volunteers. At a big event such as Ironman, for example, there are thousands of volunteers spread across a 140.6-mile course over a span of close to 20 hours. And amazingly, in my experience, I’ve rarely seen any of these volunteers without a smile.
Two weeks ago when I competed in the Vineman 140.6 down in Sonoma County, the on-course volunteers were truly one of the biggest factors that kept me motivated, kept me going and kept me pushing hard. Particularly on the run course, which is a three-loop (essentially out-and-back) course where you pass an aid station just about every mile and see hundreds of volunteers over several brutal hours, these people become a huge part of your race.
Not only are they working extremely hard to get us racers everything we need at the most critical moments when we are virtually helpless on our own, but they also play a crucial role in staying positive and enthusiastic during long, hot hours on the course. As I raced my way through that final, and most challenging, 26.2-mile phase of the race, I was in awe of the many cheers and beaming smiles I received from volunteers along the course. They will never know just what a big difference that made for me in those challenging moments, and how appreciative I am of all they did for me and the other racers, both within and above their “call of duty.”
Though much longer and more challenging, this experience was not unlike the many others I’ve had with race staff and volunteers over numerous years of races, both big and small, long and short, in the sun and in the snow. It seems that no matter the venue or nature of the race, these fine folks are always out there giving their very best just to make our day, as racers, better. I truly believe that in many ways they have the hardest job out there, and often see little recognition for their work. No matter how tired and desperate I am, I try muster some version of “thank you so much” to these kind volunteers, or at least a big, appreciative smile, but I know it’s not nearly what they deserve. I can only hope they know how grateful I am that they’re out there.
While I’ve experienced the great work of so many race staff and volunteers countless times as a racer, only a few times have I been able to see the “view from the other side.” This past week was one of those times, as I worked an aid station at the Squaw Mountain Run. With nearly 600 racers fighting their way up the steep mountain course, often in huge packs, working with my partners to get everyone a cup of water was incredibly challenging, and even a little bit stressful. I certainly breathed a sigh of relief after everyone had come through. However, it was also very rewarding.
Racing so often, this is one of the few chances I get each year to be the one serving the racers. I wish there could be more. Not only was it great to get such a first-hand look at the incredible efforts being put out by so many participants, but I think it’s really important as a racer to have at least one experience as a crew member or volunteer, to understand just a little better how hard the volunteers in our own races are working, and just how important their jobs are.
Only having worked much shorter races, I can only imagine how much work goes into helping out with something like an Ironman or ultrarun. But people come out in droves every time to do so. And thank goodness they do, because we as racers could never make it through without them, in so many ways.
I highly encourage anyone who races to have at least one experience as a race staff member or volunteer. It will certainly be one you won’t forget. At the very least, let’s all make a conscious effort to say “thanks” as we pass these folks along the course. Because I know that in my experience last weekend, even just hearing that word a few times during the day truly made all the difference.
— Kara LaPoint is an elite amateur triathlete competing for LUNA bar, and working up to the pro ranks. She has earned numerous overall amateur podium finishes and age-group wins across distances from Olympic to Ironman, and finished the 2011 season ranked as an All-American nationally among her age group (25-29). Read more about her racing and training at www.karalapoint.wordpress.com. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.