I’ve been making it a point to volunteer for more trail and ultra races. Being an Aid Station Volunteer is a highly respected and important line of work. If you want to do this you ought to take your job very seriously. You can literally make or break someone’s race! Well, maybe not…but I’ve learned a lot from experienced volunteers and have noticed some “best practices”. So, if you are interested in being an aid station volunteer or are wanting to move up in the ranks of Aid Station Volunteers, these tips will help you out!
Aid Station Volunteering 101
On Handling Your Business
- Don’t be a tool. Volunteer ONLY IF you will actually show up. If you can’t make it or something happens let the Race Director or Volunteer Coordinator know. If you were asked to bring bags of ice or gallons of water, pony up the cash. You’ll probably be reimbursed.
- Act like you’re running the race. Pack some supplies for yourself (water, food, etc.) and get the directions to your post sorted. Know the start times and cut off times, and know the section of the course where you’ll be stationed.
- Don’t DRESS like you’re running the race. You might run a cold race in shorts and a t-shirt but you’re not going to want to sit around on a cold day in shorts and a t-shirt. Know the weather and dress accordingly. Instant hero if you wear a costume!
- Obey the Captain. Usually, there is an Aid Station Captain and usually they’re experienced with the event. Know who you’re reporting too, how to get ahold of them, and report for duty as soon as you arrive.
- Don’t be a diva. If you’re working with others, work together. It doesn’t matter if you are helping one runner or a stampede coming in all at once. Be a team.
- Be prepared for a long shift. Your aid station may be far away, down remote fire roads. Once you’re out there, you’re out there. If another volunteer doesn’t show, you may be asked to do more than you planned. If this is an ultra, you may have a 12+ hour shift! Bring entertainment for periods of down time.
- Set up quick! This is your Run-Up Bar, so organize your supplies (and decorations if applicable) as soon as you get there. For a trail race, you may have large tubs of stuff to unpack; a random collection of food and food-like edibles, cups, utensils, basic first aid, etc. Get familiar with it and make sure reusable supplies get returned to the RD for future races.
- Clean up ALL the mess. Make sure you don’t leave any personal mess. In other words, burry your poo. Also, your aid station is your mess. Keep it tidy. Also, if there is non-race mess from other hikers, clean that up too.
On Interacting with Race Directors
- Don’t be needy. Most RDs are kind of busy on R-Day. They are very thankful you are there but they don’t have time to hold your hand through your volunteer post.
- Be understanding. If somethings goes wrong, the RD may get snippy or not really pay attention to you. It’s not personal. Take it as a sign they’re stressed and need help.
- Be uncommonly helpful. If you can accomplish your task as assigned, great. If you can do that AND help the RD with other things like bringing them a cookie because they have forgotten to eat for hours, do!
- Don’t be greedy. If you do all these things with a smile, there’s a chance the RD may give you a free race registration someday. Just don’t ask them about it right when you show up.
On Interacting with Runners
- Be a cheerleader. Runners may be in the zone but they hear you! Praise their fabulous running form or their awesome fuel belt. Applaud their effort. It can boost their morale.
- Be an auctioneer. Call out your supplies if they’re not readily visible. A runner may not think to ask for what they need if they don’t see it or hear you say it.
- Be Speedy Gonzales. Hand them a cup with one hand and offer a gel with the other. If they have a hydration pack, meet them as they approach to help them get it refilled. Fine motor skills may not be working so maybe just do it for them.
- Be a mom. Ask them how they’re doing and brace yourself for what you may hear. It may be emotional or just gory details of what’s chaffing. If it’s a hot day and someone looks a bit confused, get them talking. You may be the first clear minded person who recognizes a runner is in trouble. Assess their situation.
- Know everything. Runners will ask you all kinds of things! Have answers.
- Know how far it is to the next aid station.
- Know how far they’ve come to get to you & how far they have to go to finish.
- Know where their drop bags are.
- Know what time it is. What day it is.
- Know the cut off times for your aid station, the next aid station, and the finish.
- Know where the medical staff is and how to contact them.
- When the first runners come by, know how long ago the lead runner left.
- Call out or write down bib numbers as runners come through. This is important to make sure runners aren’t lost or, if they are, where they were last seen. If there are HAM radio operators present, calling out numbers helps them do their job.
- Prevent Forest Fires. You are in a beautiful outdoor park or reserve. Whether forest or desert, this event probably has a permit and repercussions if the event damages nature. Kindly remind EVERYONE not to ditch paper cups or wrappers until they get to the next aid station. Also, if you see trash that isn’t race trash, bag it up and pack it out when you leave, and give yourself a big ‘ol pat on the back for being a good person.
Two more things to learn…
- Learn what NOT to say to a runner.
- “You’re almost done.”
- “Only X miles left!”
- “You look horrible. Bad day?”
- “How can you run in that?”
- Learn to cut watermelon crazy fast to feed the onslaught of hungry runners.