Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Those who can't...volunteer!

The term “volunteering” for me has always been one of those things that you don’t necessarily want to do, but you know it’s the right thing to do. Kind of like how kids are obligated to give their estranged relatives a hug and a kiss once a year on a holiday. They don’t want to, but they do it because if they don’t, they won’t get dessert, or get to play with their new toys, or get to go home. Volunteerism is essentially doing what you have to do, in order to get what you want.

I don’t discount the usefulness in volunteer efforts. Imagine how many houses wouldn’t get built from the efforts of Habitat for Humanity. Or how many Boston Marathon runners would keel over from dehydration or get lost because no one was there to hand them water and point them in the right direction. Even some small town fire departments (like my own) survive thanks to the efforts of the volunteer firefighters. Volunteers are by all accounts critical to the success of many operations, large and small.
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been looking forward to running the West Hill Dam trail series. It’s been on my 2011 race calendar since January, and I have a soft spot for this race because it’s right in my backyard. I ran it once last year before I was a member of TVFR and I really enjoyed it. It was my first trail race and I ran it very conservatively. Since then, I’ve been getting out on the trails more often and working to become more comfortable with the varying terrain. I’ve been excited to get a chance to run the race again with more experience under my belt. Earlier in the year I coordinated a trail clean up day to freshen up the trails, which had seen a rough winter. I solicited assistance from a few TVFR runners who joined my other club, the Bay State Trail Riders, for a “fun” morning of tree trimming and culvert repairs. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t all grueling. There was pizza at the end).

Unfortunately with my lousy stinking hip (which coincidentally was injured on these same trails) I had to bail out of participating in this race. Although I was pretty bummed out about it, I knew it was the right move and it was the only way my hip would be healthy enough for the 10k on July 4. Since I couldn’t run the race, the next best thing I could think to do was volunteer. Volunteer! Totally unprovoked, unsolicited, good old fashioned lending a hand for nothing in return. Wow, I really am maturing.
I walked to the race (it’s just a mile through the woods) and immediately was assigned to the registration table. It was a bit of an unorthodox process involving a lot of handwriting and categorizing runners into age groups using colored stickers, and after a quick tutorial I was churning through race applications like a pro. The registration table was a blast and I got to have a brief chat with just about everyone racing. Things really heated up at the table just before the start of the race, and it was pretty hectic for a short time. I was processing applications right up until the gun went off, and then immediately I transitioned to start setting up the finish table. We had a lot of prepping to do, and I eagerly absorbed all the directions and useful tips shared by my experienced co-volunteers. It felt like we had just finished setting up the finishing table when the winner came barreling toward the finish line! From that point on, it was a frantic process of tracking the numbers, keeping everyone in order, and carefully writing everyone’s times on a scoreboard. Runners, as I am keenly aware, are very passionate about their times. As a result, I had a revolving crowd of runners hovering over my shoulder trying to get a sneak peek at their official time. They probably weren’t thrilled with my left-handed, steeply downward facing chicken scratch!
Once all the runners had crossed the finish line and were accounted for, I had a few minutes to mingle with some of the runners before listening to the awards and then starting the cleanup process. As expected, the TVFR members had a strong turnout and grabbed a lot of awards. My friend and new TVFR member Nancy won an age group award and donated it to her trusty friend Tucson!

What really resonated with me was the sense of appreciation that the runners had for the volunteers. On countless occasions, runners approached us and thanked us for our efforts. Not because we handed them something, or helped them with something specific. They just walked up to us and thanked us for being there and putting on a good race. That was pretty awesome. I thought about other races where I have tried my best to thank every volunteer that handed me a cup of water, shouted out a mile split, or told me which way to turn. I never once walked up to a volunteer and thanked them for all their efforts. I noticed at the 10k at Patriots Place yesterday that I heard many runners shouting out “thank you’s” to the police officers for directing traffic and firefighters for lining the streets. Runners are almost without exception a breed with great character.

So, why did I volunteer for this race? I certainly wasn’t coerced. There was no carrot dangling in front of me. In another club I belong to, volunteering is a requirement in order to be eligible for year-end awards. I can see why they have to do that, but it’s sad that they have to. I can also say in the hundreds of hours I’ve volunteered for that club, no one has walked up to me and thanked me for helping make a successful event. I don’t for a second think that people are ungrateful. I simply think that the average participant in any event has little awareness of the efforts required to make the event run smoothly. I volunteered for this race because it was the only way I could participate, and it made me feel great. It was an absolute blast and gave me a small glimpse into the level of resources required to coordinate a race. With two more races in the summer series, I know that I will be torn between running and volunteering, but with my unpredictable hip injury it’s nice to have options!

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