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.

Aid station tips for race volunteers

Here is a list of tips when working an aid station or water stop on a run course. I cover some general tips, races in the heat & dealing with elite runners. I’ve also included a checklist for volunteers on what to bring.

Here are some aid station tips for race volunteers that I learned while working the aid station at mile 3 of the 10k run during the Rockett’s Landing Triathlon.

General aid station tips for volunteers

  • If you can’t fill the cups fast enough to keep up with runners, take the lid off the gatorade jug and just start scooping
  • If you can’t hand runners cups, it’s better to make sure they are filled. Put the table in a spot where they can grab it. They would rather have to pick up their own full cup than have you hand them an empty one.
  • If a runner is not responding when you ask them what you can get them, and they look out of it, they could be deaf/mute. Don’t just assume they are suffering from the heat. But of course, when in doubt, air on the side of caution.
  • If a runner is holding out her water bottle, please ask her what she wants, and offer to fill it for her
  • Don’t fill the cups to the top. 3/4 or halfway is fine. They will only knock half the water out of the cup if you fill it to the top.
  • If you have Gatorade in your cup, yell “Gatorade.” If you have water, yell “Water.”
  • Keep the sports drink at one end of the table, and the water at the other.
  • Create your own tasks. You won’t always be told what to do. So look around, see what needs done, and do it.

Aid station tips for handing out water in the heat

  • For a really hot, humid race, water is more popular than the sports drink. You can never have too much water or ice.
  • During a hot race, be prepared to pour water down someone’s back, or ice into their tri suit. Someone will probably ask for it.
  • If you can spare it, keep some ice separate in a cooler by itself. Some people will ask for ice only to put in their hat and/or shirts, shorts… basically anywhere it will fit.
  • Volunteers… REMEMBER TO DRINK. It’s easy to hand out cup after cup, and forget about yourself. Please remember to stay hydrated.
  • If you have a tent providing shade, offer it to the runners. They might not think to stop, but once you offer it, they realize it’s a great idea.

Aid station tips for handing out water to the elite runners

  • Practice your cup handoff  before the elites get there. They expect (and have earned) water to be handed to them. They will be traveling very fast. And they will not stop or slow down to get it. Handoff is crucial.
  • For many of the first runners you see, only fill the cups halfway. They will knock half the water out of the cup when they grab it from you.
  • For the faster runners, all volunteers should offer up water, 15-20 ft. apart. If the first handoff is dropped, and even the 2nd and 3rd handoffs are dropped, the runner could still be able to grab a drink.

Volunteers. What should you bring with you?

  • Shorts/Pants with pockets
  • A copy of the course map and/or transition area (you are likely to get questions)
  • Dry clothes/shirts to change into, especially if it’s hot
  • Sunscreen
  • Folding chairs (you won’t use them once the runners start coming through, but you might have 30 minutes to an hour to wait before they do)
  • Refillable water bottle (so you don’t have to use the cups)
  • Snacks. Most races will have bottled water for you, but don’t count on any food.
  • Towel. Keep in the car. Use to dry off and/or lay over the seat.
  • A semi-empty trunk and/or backseat. You may be asked to transport supplies.
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat/visor
  • Hand sanitizer (…especially if you are having the post-race finger foods. You will get nasty dirty.)
  • Swiss Army knife (or even a simple pocket knife)

Volunteer for a race when injured

I know it sucks to be injured. And you probably don’t want to watch hundreds of people doing the thing you love, but are unable to do because of your injury. But you owe it to your sport. And more importantly, you owe it to your fellow athletes who I’m sure have volunteered (and maybe even saved your ass a few times) for races that you have run.

Here’s a recap of my volunteer experience for the Rockett’s Landing Tri in Richmond, VA.

When you’re injured, volunteering for a race is a great way to spend your weekend. With a bum hamstring, I decided to put in some serious hours this weekend with the Rockett’s Landing Triathlon in Richmond, VA. It always feels good to volunteer, but this time I learned quite a few lessons along the way… and am very motivated now to be a race coordinator next time.

Big shout out to Ginny for keeping me company for 7 hours on Sunday morning. It wouldn’t have been half the fun without someone to share it with.

Below, you can read about my experience this weekend at the Rockett’s Landing Triathlon, or jump on over to my separate entries about tips for volunteers at an aid station & tips for coordinating volunteers during a race.

Saturday before the Rockett’s Landing Triathlon

I was assigned to ride with the bike coordinator, Mike, while he drove the bike course Saturday morning. We marked the course with spray paint. Mike took down some notes on where to place volunteers with flags, and noted where he could get away with fewer than the recommend amount of volunteers (because we were running low in that department). We even swept the course with a broom.

Sweeping the bike course before a triathlon

I had no idea someone was actually responsible for doing this. In theory, it’s a great thing to do. However, for the detail-oriented, anal-retentive people, it’s probably not the best job. I think Mike and I swept many more pebbles than what was necessary. The course was clean, but it took us 2 hours to ride 26 miles… in a car.

Sunday at the Rockett’s Landing Triathlon

We arrived just before 5:30am. Of course, we were ready to go. But you can’t always count on having something to do right away. We waited around for 20 minutes before anyone really told us what was going on.

The rest of the day was a blur. We drove around for a while and helped setup the other stations. Then we arrived at our station, got it setup, and waited. Once the first runner came through, chaos ensued, and 5 hours went by in a flash.

How volunteering made me a more conscientious runner

  • It’s easier to pick up cups that aren’t smashed, so if you must throw them on the ground, do it away from the running area
  • You never know if/when the aid station might run out of cups, so if you can, refill the same one instead of using 3 or 4. The runners behind you will love you for it, especially on a hot day.

I’ll leave you with my favorite comment of the day…

Said a woman somewhere near the middle of the pack, and I quote, “I’ve never put a sponge in so many inappropriate places in my entire life.” Yeah. It was that hot.

Don’t forget about tips for volunteers at an aid station & tips for coordinating volunteers during a race.