Volunteers – The silent heroes behind your race

Volunteers – The silent heroes behind your race

Almost every event needs volunteers. Enthusiastic people who help to make the event happen and support the athletes in their free time and “unpaid”. Often enough, they have longer, maybe in a different way an even more exhausting day as the athlete themselves. After 10 hours as a course marshal sitting around in sun and rain and cold, I caught myself thinking: “Yeah, other people have done a short enjoyable marathon and others a nice 65 k run 😉 – That would have been way more fun than sitting here around!” What a wasted day for me as a sportler, just sitting around and guiding other people in the right direction – feeling like a retired, “old”, ex-athlete cheering other people – but seeing all the smiles and happiness is another way of satisfaction than running/doing a race. A way I can recommend to try out yourself at some point.  
After volunteering over 100 hours and supporting more than 10.000 athletes at different event types – I thought it’s worth to share my experiences and ideas.

Why should I volunteer?
There can be different motivations and reasons to volunteer but first of all it’s always a good idea to change your perspective as an athlete and over all the reasons a big smile and enthusiastic “Thank you” of another athlete  is always the biggest praise.


1.       Motivation: To be injured is probably one of the hardest parts of being a sportler but it’s a change to see a race from another point of view and still be part of the race and the community behinf and motivate you for upcoming events.


2.       Communication/Socialization/Networking: Sport events and helping there are great opportunity to network and socialize and meet cool, sporty people with the same interests, especially if you’re new to a area, place or town.


3.       Money: Sport is luxury and some races are incredible expensive, especially if you’re are a student. Often the easiest way for the organizers to return the favor is to give away a entry for the race the following year or vouchers/discounts. Combined I got race entries worth more than 1000 $, often the entry is not transferable but to be serious often enough it’s easier to earn the money somewhere else but maybe not so much fun and in the end we all just pay with our time. Sometimes you get other good goodies too.


It also can be a combination or other reasons. At the Innsbruck Alpine Trailrun Festival 2019, I met two girls studying sport management, interested to experience a big event and also getting a certification for sport related applications. At another event, one of the co-organizers, I was working with over a week offered to write a reference letter for me – and references are always good – right 😉.


Where/Which kind of event?

I noticed differences of volunteering at events in Canada, USA and Europe. Of course every event is different but I made my best volunteer experiences in Canada and America and think they have a more distinctive volunteer culture there, we Europeans/or Germans can learn from.
Also interesting is the different atmosphere of different sports: swimming, triathlon, running, trail running, biking or Mountain Biking; time scales: one day or festivals or multi-stages or size of the event: a few hundred participants or thousands.
I started volunteering for my triathlon team : The Tri-Bandits organizing one of the biggest team organized triathlon events in Northern Germany. A one/two day weekend event with more than 1000 starters. Be part of the club meant to know most of the other volunteers from training, packing the starter bags together a week before, building up and down the event and experience, help out wherever you been needed and  basically working a full weekend, you have a different connection to “your” event.
Big, “professional” events are different! Often you have an online application form, a volunteer manager and a short briefing and one job the full day: Starter bags, course marshal, catering, setting up/down – it’s different and I personally like the more chaotic way, where I feel more needed, of smaller events better. At a small running event (Auelauf) with around 200 participants we were only ten volunteers. I commented the kids run, just to run 5 minutes later a race myself and jumped to be course marshal 10 minutes after that – I was on fire the full day and it wasn’t boring for one second but I was also really tired at the end of the day.
Helping at a multi-stage race for more days and travelling together was another great experience with a special focus on the socialization factor, not only you get to know the other volunteers but also some of the racers – a special good experience and way different than a one or two day event.


Some Pros and Cons and special experiences while volunteering:

 Here, I will list some experiences I made while volunteering which could maybe be used as role models for other races.

1.) I ended up to be in Golden, BC at the same time when a few guys build up a starter area for a bike event – Singletrack 6 (Transrockies) – a multistage bike event in different locations in BC, Canada. At that time, I had time, was a little bit bored, and tried to hitchhike with my bike to Vancouver, so I thought helping at a bike event would be a good idea. I asked if I could help a bit, not knowing that transrockies is probably one of the biggest outdoor sport event organizers in Canada with events like the singletrack 6 and the Transrockies Run in Colorado. I was very welcome from the first moment and after helping the first day building up the stage, I also helped the next three days in Golden as a Course marshal – I got some food and another volunteer offered me to camp in her garden. After three days I was part of the small and amazing volunteer team and we travelled to the next town – I got more responsibilities and worked in different positions. They organized a hotel room for me and gave me some goodies like T-shirts or sponsored bag packs – worth 100$, and honored my work. The event finished with a great party with all the volunteers and athletes and I felt to be truly part of the event and the group formed over the last few days.
Tip: During the celebration ceremony every volunteer was named and honored by the athletes a really nice way to honor the volunteers and I think it takes not much to offer your volunteers a stage and give the athletes a chance to say Thank You – I wish every organizer would honor their volunteers like that.

2.) Another great experience was volunteering at the Winter River Valley Revenge (RVR) of the Edmonton Trail runners, therefore you have to know that Edmonton has an incredible trail runner culture. Before the race they organize free, volunteer based orientation runs. It was enough for me to see and enjoy the course chatting with friends instead of racing the course. Before the race the organizers Sheryl and Todd invited all Volunteers for a potluck into their house – just a super friendly way to connect and say Thank you before and create already a team before the event even started!
Tip: I think a pre-/or after event Come Together is a great way to bring all the volunteers together, especially because most of the volunteers work during the event in small teams and not even get to know what others are doing. It’s also a great way for a recap and feedback.

3.) The Grand Circle Trailfest, Kanab, Utah organizing three races in Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon and Horseshoe Bay was another great experience and actually one of the few events which combine the running with a real festival – a great idea!. I really was excited to go there but when I noticed the existence of this event it was booked out and also way to expensive for me. I applied over an online form just to hear nothing for a while and after asking again getting rejected because of no more need for volunteers. A few days later I saw on their FB page a call for volunteers and asked this time directly via Messenger – I was very welcome!
The Trailfest was a great experience and most of the other volunteers and Tana (volunteer organizer) told me that I was chosen to the “Volunteer of the Event”. When the event finished we built down 450 tents while it was raining like hell. I got invited to sleep in one of other volunteer owned B&B’s and I’m pretty sure I will have some good friends to meet up with in Kanab, whenever I will come back.
Con’s: As nice as the people during the event, as unfriendly and cold was the office team!
When asking for my goodies with a long Thank you email with feedback etc. I just got a really short Voucher Code – No Thank you or reaction on my email.
Not the best finish!
I think it’s good to have one volunteer contact person organizing everything before, during and after the event. A Thank You email with all the promised Goodies should be naturally and is normally no big deal!


4.) The Innsbruck Alpine Trail Run Festival is with around 3000 runners one of the bigger trail events. Sponsored by INOV 8, taking place in the beautiful located town of Innsbruck in the heart of the Alps and close to my summer working place, I saw a great opportunity volunteering there and getting in contact with some local trail runners.
The online form made it easy to apply and you could even chose references where you want to work.
I ended up getting my third and last reference working position as a course marshal for 10 hours outside and alone for one day, definitely not what I wished for and listed in a table form working time 10.00 am to 7.30 pm with an online info board generally made for all volunteers, which looked not really appealing. Otherwise Steffi, the volunteer coordinator, was really friendly and after asking again and talking to her I could volunteer for three days experiencing different positions and getting a full insight about a great organized event. After asking for a advice for an accommodation they even provided a hostel bed, so sometimes it’s worth to be persistent!

Tip: Give your volunteers a feeling of being needed and not just being a cheap worker. Maybe it’s better to change positions instead of let a volunteer staying at one place for 10 hours. It takes some effort but it’s probably worth it to make the volunteer – a future starter of your event happy and recommending your event.


Happy Runners, Happy Volunteers and Happy Organizers should be the goal for every event!

If you made other experiences or have other tips, ideas etc. please feel free to send me a feedback etc.

Cheers, Hajo

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