A Rewarding Experience as a Race Volunteer

IMG_3359 (1)-2My first time volunteering meant more than cutting up fruit and handing out water during a race supporting cancer research.

Billy. Paul. Bob.

They are among the millions of Americans who have succumbed to cancer. Each of my aforementioned friends was taken way too soon. Of those three, only Bob would live long enough to ever meet his grandchildren. The others passed well before what we would consider middle age.

Those whose lives have been ravaged by cancer were on my mind a few Saturdays ago as I volunteered at The Purdue Challenge, a 5K run-walk which benefits cancer research at the university.

A rewarding experience as a race volunteer

Even though I have finished about 35 races, including The Challenge twice, I had never volunteered at one previously. In fact, while I have been interested in volunteering, I didn’t get the motivation until I began pinpointing which ultra I would do this summer.

The one I have landed on is called the Buckeye Trail 50k and requires participants to perform volunteer work at a race or on a trail before the ultramarathon. It did not take me long to decide at which race to volunteer.

While there are many worthwhile efforts under way in the fight against cancer, I wanted to support the research going on near where I live. The efforts by the university and the race directors are notable:

  • All of the money raised from the 5K goes to support the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research.
  • To date, the 9-year-old race has raised more than $600,000 for the center.
  • The Purdue center is one of only 68 National Cancer Institute designated cancer centers in the U.S.
  • Purdue researchers have been investigating causes, improving detection and developing treatments since the mid 1970s.

Preparing food and drink for racers

On race morning, I showed up at the appointed 7:45 a.m. time, 45 minutes before the start of the race. But even then, the area was swarming with activity. Other volunteers were assisting race-day registrants or others picking up their bibs. Course marshals were already stationed along the course on the edge of campus.

IMG_3354My volunteer duty of choice was at the finish line aid station. That meant getting all the food and drinks ready for the finishers for when they cross the finish line — from those who sped to a 16ish finishing time to those who strolled the course and returned an hour or so later.

When I arrived, I thought to myself that I have never seen so many oranges, apples and bagels in my life. I have seen plenty at finish lines before but those had all been picked through to a certain degree. In any case, there were eight of us, cutting up the fruit and placing the wedges in bins to be carried out to the finish line area. (The bagels were pre-cut and already bagged, and just needed to be transported.)

When the other volunteers (mostly students) and I had the food prepped, we wandered out from the concession stands area to see the start of the race. It was an odd feeling being on the opposite side of the start of a race. But a good feeling, nonetheless.

Role reversal

As I watched a few hundred runners head out, I thought about my participation in races and the appreciation I had shown to volunteers. I don’t think I have ever taken volunteers at races for granted. I know I have expressed thanks to volunteers holding out cups, police officers guarding intersections and others. (And I certainly remember chatting with and thanking volunteers at last year’s aid stations at the North Face Endurance Challenge Series in Wisconsin. The food spreads there — like the volunteers — were amazing.)

As the middle-of-the-packers began their 5K journeys at Purdue, our break from volunteering was over. We started moving the prepared fruit, bagel bites, chocolate milk and water out to the aid station area. Everything was in place for the first arrivals and much of the rest of my three-hour shift was spent handing out cold water to runners on the unseasonably warm Saturday morning.

Nearly everyone who I handed a cold bottle of water too, expressed their gratitude. I appreciated the sentiment but, honestly, it was my pleasure. I enjoyed being on the other end and giving back to those participating in the race.

After all the runners and walkers were the true heroes that day. Their commitment and energies were spent raising awareness and funds for cancer research in the hopes that one day the Bobs, Pauls and Billys of this world will be able to spend more sunny Saturdays with their loved ones.

More Posts by Henry Howard
A Voyage of Self Discovery
Race Review: The Tobacco Road Marathon
From 400 Pounds to Endurance Athlete
A Nutritionist’s Take on Diets for Athletes
Single Mom Tackles Parenting and Ultra Racing
What To Do The Day Before A Marathon

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