After a long stretch in the darkness at Black Canyon 100K earlier this month, I was thrilled to see in the distance a tiny spark of light on the horizon. It would disappear and reappear many times as the trail I was on undulated along the contours of ravines and hillsides. Gradually, it grew and grew until ultimately that spark of light materialized into a brightly lit tent. When I arrived, I found it full of cheerful and helpful volunteers whose only goal right then was to take care of me: food? water? electrolytes? Yes please!
Race volunteers are there before the race starts, marking the course, setting up aid stations, checking runners in, and—perhaps the most thankless job—directing traffic. They’re doing whatever’s needed so runners have a great experience, everything goes smoothly, nobody gets lost, and the race starts on time.
Once the race has begun, they’re touching slobbered-on, sweated on, and just in general disgusting water battles, hydration packs, you name it. They’re offering cheer and support and concern. Many times they’re dressed in costumes and have taken the time to create personality for their particular aid station: beach theme? shark week? 80s nerd? pierogie heaven? There’s no end to the creativity! And when you stagger out of the woods or the dark and into one of these amazing havens, the race feels a little easier and spirits are higher.
At Volcanic 50 on Mt. St. Helens, these volunteers not only staffed aid stations but in many cases also hiked in their supplies and decorations and signs and music. All so the racers could have an amazing experience. At Beacon Rock 50K, there was one aid station at the middle of a double figure eight loop—so it was just this group of guys, all day, helping everyone multiple times. I was wearing a running dress at that race, and after a while they got to know me and I still smile when I remember their whoops and their hollers of “Yay running dress!” as I’d come back through.
Volunteers also stay long after the runners do. They tear down aid stations, clean up trash, sweep the course, and ultimately dismantle race HQ and the finish line. It doesn’t pay in money; it’s all just part of volunteering and the role volunteers play in making races awesome.
Some race volunteers are locals who enjoy supporting the runners who come from all over to be a part of their community for a day, or a weekend, or longer. Others are friends or family members who have found a role for themselves as their loved ones take on the course. And others are runners who are giving back … it’s their chance to create cheer, to fill bottles, to make endless PBJs and cut up hundreds of bananas and oranges, to offer words of encouragement, to simply be there and make a difference.
As a race volunteer, I’ve worn a knight costume, dressed up like a cowboy, and spent hours decked out as a shark while tracking runners on a 100-mile course through the night. I’ve been covered in trail markers that stuck to me as I swept on a 100-degree day. I’ve done trailside first aid on a dislocated shoulder. And I don’t think I can ever give back as much as I’ve been given when I’ve been the runner. But always, the best part of being a race volunteer is the thank yous and the smiles—because trail runners are the best and, while they may blow snot rockets and go to the bathroom in the woods, they always have the best manners.