Tips for coordinating volunteers during a race

These are some ideas I came up with on how to better manage & coordinate volunteers during a race, particularly when managing aid stations on a run course. I’m not an expert, and have never coordinated a race myself, but if you’ve ever volunteered for a race before, I think you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

Preface: I have never coordinated a race – or any part of a race.

I am simply a volunteer who has observed several coordinators, wasted countless hours going back-and-forth and been low on supplies numerous times throughout an event. I have no experience actually doing anything that I’m about to mention, but here are a few things I would try.

Most of these suggestions relate to aid station setup on a run course, as that is where most of my experience has occurred.

Multi-task & improvise

If you can’t do this, coordinating a race is not for you. If you think about one thing at a time, forget it. You’ll be late dropping off supplies, volunteers will be confused & frustrated, so on and so on.

Things never go exactly to plan. When they don’t, you need to improvise. If every minute of every day is planned out for you, please stay at home, pull out your planner, and proceed with your day… as scheduled.

Ice

Put one person (maybe two) solely in charge of ice. Especially on a hot day, you need truckloads of ice. And on a really hot day (95+), running out of it could mean heat stroke for a runner.

Scope out local 7-elevens, grocery stores, etc. that will be open during the race. Map them out. Give that map to your Iceman (that’s the designated person for ice. He’s the Iceman.). Have him do ice runs non-stop, for the first 1/2 of the race.

And everyone should have the Iceman’s phone number. He’s kind of a big deal. Speaking of phone numbers…

Create a spreadsheet with responsibilities, locations, phone numbers

I realize many volunteers sign up the night before, and some just show up the day of the race. I guess a good lesson there is to keep an open schedule the night before so you can make last minute arrangements. But I know you can do a better job than most of what I have seen.

Include phone numbers of important people.

  • You
  • The overall volunteer coordinator for the event
  • The Iceman (see above)

I would even ask the volunteers on race morning if some are comfortable sharing their number. Put one person in charge of each station, write their number on the spreadsheet, and give it to the head people of the other stations.

What else to include on the spreadsheet:

  • Names of volunteers, along with location where they will be
  • Approx. time of first runner arriving (underestimate to be safe)
  • Emergency contact numbers
  • Number of jugs, tables, cups, etc. at each station

Scout the course the day before… and morning of the race

Drive the course. Take notes.

  • Where is a good spot to setup the table? The tent?
  • Are there any abandoned cars (or other vehicles) that might obstruct the course?
  • Is there any shade? A place to escape the sun?
  • Is the course in good, runnable shape? If weather has been bad lately, there could be rough spots you could warn runners about before the race.
  • Is the course clearly marked?
  • Where’s the best place for a course marshall to stand?

Provide a course map to all volunteers

Runners will ask questions about the course, both before the race and during it. And volunteers will not have answers… unless you give them answers. A well-drawn map can be very helpful.

Go over a few specifics. Or print a handout.

Assume your volunteers have never done this before. Why? Because many of them haven’t. And the veteran volunteers won’t be offended when you go over the “basics.”

  • How much sports drink powder goes in here?
  • How many gallons are these jugs?
  • Do I hand them the cups or leave them on the table?
  • What do we do if we run out of cups?
  • Where do the runners turn once they come by here?
  • How far until the next aid station?
  • 1 jug of water? 2 jugs of Gatorade? 99 bottles of beer on the wall?
  • If someone is injured, what do I do?
  • How do we know when it’s over?

When to show up race morning

Three facts of life. Most races are on the weekend. Many races start early. Many volunteers like to sleep in on the weekends.

But if you have most of this stuff prepared beforehand, you don’t need them there at the buttcrack of dawn. Sure, you don’t want to try and time it exactly perfect. But don’t waste their time either. If they feel their time is wasted, they won’t come back next year.

Give volunteers a thank you gift

And no, the free t-shirt does not count.

I realize this might not be in the budget. Check with sponsors. What do the racers get in their race packets? Could you spare an extra 50 or 100 gift certificates or 20% off coupons? What about the racer no-shows? Give away their free stuff.

At the very least, you better be sending them a thank you note of some kind when the race is over. The sooner the better. Heck, type it up the day before. Have it ready to go. Just add a few things about the specifics of race day, and send it later that night.

In closing

I’m sure I left out some things. If you have suggestions, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Tips for coordinating volunteers during a race”

  1. True That! Today's race would have been a catastrophe without you Dave. Absolutely. I think that next year you'll make an awesome coordinator… I think my favorite comment here was… buttcrack of dawn… NO wait, it was “HOW WILL WE KNOW IT'S THE LAST RUNNER”. Yea, that was the best part…

  2. Seriously. You could not be funnier. And although both you and G made it sound like a complete catastrophe, I am super jealous I wasn't there to witness it firsthand ..

  3. This all seems like it would be common sense. Of course, it is not.

    At my last race, myself and a few other racers got there BEFORE THE RACE DIRECTOR.

    Huh?

    Registration started at 7. I was pre-regsitered, but like to get there early, so I was there a little after 7.

    How can you not get to your own race on time?

    Needless to say, the race started late, awards were late, etc, etc….

    Luckily, they didn’t run out of water, though. Been there, done that.

  4. @Lindsey – Thanks for sharing. That says a lot about your preparation for the race. Good for you for showing up early.

    If you have never volunteered to coordinate parts of a race, I encourage you to do so. I haven’t taken on a leadership role yet, but plan to in the near future, in large part because of this experience.

    I think we can gain a different perspective having gone through it ourselves.

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