Lets talk about race volunteering. Last year I had the privilege to volunteer at the Meon Valley marathon and half marathon laid on by local event company Second Wind Running. It gave me a small insight into some of what goes on behind the scenes of an event like this. It really is amazing to see just a fraction of what goes on in the organisation and build up to an event. It’s been an eye opening experience which has given me a greater respect and level of appreciation to all those involved in putting on these wonderful races. It’s very easy as a runner to rock up and run in a race, pick up your medal and then head off home without a second thought, however for the organisers and volunteers it’s a completely different matter entirely.
Friday I’ve got the day off work. I’d normally go to the cinema or maybe disappear off to a theme park without the kids, or even just chill out doing very little, you know, basic slobbing around the house. This is not a normal Friday day off. I head off in the morning to meet up with the race director, Phil Hoy, to lend a hand setting up the course for Sunday’s event. I’m greeted with a cup of coffee and a mint club choccy biscuit, this is an excellent start to the day! Once that’s been consumed it’s on to the task in hand. As we start loading up the van I’m struck by the levels of organisation involved. Without boring you too much with the detail, the course has been broken down in to numbered points on a spreadsheet, these are colour coded for which parts can/can’t be easily accessed by road, each number has a corresponding bundle of signs and an order to lay them out in. It’s a well regimented affair and it has to be, with two courses, marathon and half marathon, being laid out over a vast area there are a lot of signs, a good couple of hundred at a guess. The bundles get loaded up in a manner so that each will be easily accessible when we get to the corresponding point on the map.
With the van loaded up we head off out into the countryside, there’s a lot of ground to cover and the weather looks like it’s about to turn. I’d only briefly met Phil a couple of times before whilst out on my regular QE runs. He’s an affable chap and conversation is jovial and easy. This makes the day fly by and the van empties quickly. Each stop we jump out and get the right bundle of signs and lay them out. Phil knows the course like the back of his hand, I’m gobsmacked by the level of knowledge of the area that he has. It works well, there are bits of the course where he drops me off with signs and ribbons and I run a section, marking it as I go and he picks me up at the other end. I’m glad I wore my trail shoes, they were certainly needed! It was raining for most the day so it was slippy underfoot and we were getting soaked through. We’ve covered a reasonable amount of ground by 3pm when we call it a day.
Saturday – more course set up
There is more course marking going on the Saturday, I had hoped to get along and help out a bit more after I’d finished doing my 25th volunteering stint at Portsmouth Lakeside parkrun, but sadly something else cropped up so I couldn’t make it. Phil and Theresa were out there though, with some other helpers, tirelessly continuing on marking the course and making sure that everything is as it should be. They encountered issues with people removing the markings they’d laid down. It always amazes me that you have people that sabotage races, there appear to be two types that do it. The NIMBY’s, Not In My Back Yard, these are the people that seem to think that the countryside belongs to them. The competitors, other race organisers that want to chuck a spanner in the works. Both groups of potential saboteurs equally need to have a word with themselves, though I guess they’d be too self-absorbed to figure that out. This time round it just appeared to be NIMBY’s.
Sunday – race day
Sunday comes around very quick, it’s race day. I’m out the house at 7:30am to head over to race HQ and see if there’s anything I can help with before my marshalling duties later. I get there at around 8am and it’s already a hive of activity. The hall has been set up, there are traders in the hall setting up to to provide an outlet for last minute provisions as well as race shirts and later sports massage available to sort out tired legs. Phil’s sticking the race carpark signs up with the help of Dean Spicer, one of the marathon tail runners. There’s also tea and coffee available so I grab a quick coffee before Phil and I jump in the van to go do some last minute course checks to ensure that there has been no further tampering. Once the checks are completed we head back to HQ, all the while Phil’s phone going off as people try to secure an on the day place and other such last minute enquiries. The calls were dealt with by Phil with aplomb. Personally I would have struggled to deal with some of the calls I heard in such a calm and friendly manner, especially given that we were rushing around trying to deal with potential course sabotage, but as ever Phil was unflappable, it was water off a ducks back.
Back at HQ there are runners everywhere going through their final prep before the off. For the Second Wind guys this is a hectic time, getting everyone through registration and issued with their numbers in quick order. There are maps and course instructions up on the walls for all to peruse. I have a brief chat with a few people I recognise before I need to head off to man my first marshal point for the day. I’m down to marshal two different road crossings and have been supplied with two pdfs detailing the location, what time I should be there from and to, even things to say to passing runners as well as the all important emergency numbers.
So I’m at marshal point 1 first, the 5k point, with runners expected due through at 9:50 and I should be here for just over an hour for the last of the runners to come through before I collect up all the nearby signs, relieve the tailrunners of everything they’ve collected on route as they’ve passed and jump in the car to head on over to my next marshal point at roughly 17 miles by 11.29 as that’s the time predicted for the first marathon runner to come through. It’s only a five minute drive so there should be plenty of time to get from one to the next.
I should mention that as well as the signs laid out on the course the kids and I, possibly mainly just me, made some extra ‘motivational’ signs to take along with us to help lift spirits and raise a smile. It’s going to be a long tough day for the runners so the more extra support I can give the better. I’m pleased to report that they seemed to go down a storm with the vast majority, with lots of laughing and joking around them.
I got myself all in position and set up ready to cheer the runners and get them safely across the road. I’d wrapped up with extra layers, double socks, motorcycle gloves but still the cold crept in, both my road junctions were out of the sun so no additional warmth available, the trick is to keep moving about, it’s a whole day of being on your feet and being ridiculously cheery. I had a partner in crime to, my friend Max who I met through Bosh and have run with a good few times made the trip down to come and help out and support too. You’ve got to love the running community for this selflessness that is displayed by so many. Her coming to help was a godsend as to marshal this junction as effectively as possible two people are required, one to watch and call out the numbers of runners approaching the turn to go over the road crossing and one to man the crossing itself. This all went very smoothly, sometimes holding the cars up for a minute other times holding the runners. All done with great big smiles, lots of loud encouragement and good cheer, lots of applause, big thumbs up and smiles, words of thanks to the motorists that stopped, like clockwork. The runners started streaming through from the time stated, marathon runners first followed by half marathoners. Now for the only drawback, time, it’s gone 11.15 and there is no sign of the tail runner as yet, I’ve been on point for coming up to an hour and a half and the last of the half marathon has yet to pass. I need to be elsewhere, I need to be at the next point imminently, luckily for me Max could head over and get set up whilst I waited for the stragglers. They came through the 5k point at roughly 11:25 so approaching two hours from the start, I managed to then hurriedly take all the signs down, grab the signs from the tail runners, lob them in the car and attempt to get to the next marshal point in time!
Max was there waiting for me and no runners had yet been through. I was parked up and out of the car in the nick of time. I got there at just after 11:30 and the lead runner came through literally a minute or two later at 11.36! I’d made it by the skin of my teeth! This was a tricky road crossing to marshal as it is a busy fairly blind junction, lots of cars, motorbikes, the occasional paleton of Lycra clad cyclists and the odd walker here and there. Most were very friendly, even when being flagged to slow down or stop, some nice comments from cyclists and walkers in the main with only a couple of grumpy motorists. We managed to get all the runners across this junction without any drama and managed to raise plenty of smiles and laughs with our signs and antics. We even managed to keep a few going that were going to drop out. We stayed here until we had an injured runner delivered to us by the lovely tail runners, Dean and Nikki. I relieved them of all the signs and markers they’ve collected and got the injured runner into the warmth of the car. It was at this point that Max and I parted ways, she headed off home whilst I headed back to HQ. I can’t thank her enough for joining me and making what would have been a very long and cold experience a lot of laughs and fly by, she’s a superstar!
After a short drive with the heated seats turned up to full and the heaters on I defrosted my injured runner and got her back to HQ, where she thanked me and headed off to gather her things. I went inside and grabbed a coffee to warm myself up a bit before seeing if there was anything else I could do to assist. I had a little wander around, went and said hello to San Clark who was in the main hall massaging the aches and pains out of weary runners. I went to the finish line and cheered a few people over the line and then went and relieved the chap on the gate to the finish area. It was about 3pm at this point and I’m still smiling even though I was the bearer of bad news for many, yes, “turn right into the finish”, “sorry yes you do have to run around the edge of the field to get there”, “no, I’m not joking”. This destroyed a few people, one lady had a complete melt down having a bit of a go at me about it as it “completely ruined the event” for her! Now bearing in mind I’ve been stood out in the cold all day making sure everyone could get round the course safely and not running myself I could have taken this tantrum badly, however, I can appreciate just how tired everyone was so let the rudeness slide. There is no call for behaviour like that but I won’t let it marr the day for me, hopefully once she’d had a hot drink and a bit of food she’ll calm down a bit and rue her petulant behaviour. Moving on, I was over the moon to see a couple of ladies running towards me, these were the ones I’d talked out of quitting, yes, they’d made it! That made my day! The runners kept coming in dribs and drabs and I have to admit I’d lost track of time a bit here. I’m not sure what time the tail runners came through but I was glad to see them, I’d been in my feet in the cold pretty much since 8:30am. Looking at the results they came through in 6 hours 49 minutes, it started at 9:30am, so it must have been about 4:20pm when the final runner came through, collected their medal and got a fantastic finishers picture taken.
The day is not yet over though, now that the last runners are in and the timers stopped it’s time for another coffee and a bit of hot food and sustenance. This is a nice welcome break, a sit down and some food! Even though I’ve not run a marathon I’ve been on my feet all day, I’m chilled to the bone and I’m shattered. A bit of hot food and drink works wonders, it’s also nice to sit and have a laugh and a joke with some of the remaining runners and other volunteers who have not yet sought the warmth and comfort of their own homes. Once the stragglers have departed it’s time to close up shop and leave the hall just how it was before it started. Lots of stuff to pack into Phil’s van and I fill my car with signs to help, there is a lot and it would have probably meant two trips, fortunately I’d swiped the Volvo so had plenty of room to help do it all in one. With everything loaded up, rubbish collected, floors swept it was like we had never been there! I headed back to Phil’s to empty out my bootload of signs before heading home.
I must have got home at around 7:30pm I think, as I said, I’d lost track of time a bit. It was a long day but what a great experience. It was nice to feel like I’d given something back to the local running community and got a small insight into what goes on behind the scenes. Obviously I got a little bit more involved than marshalling alone, so the day was a long one, but you should really give it a go if you’re not running for whatever reason, it’s normally a just a few hours of your day. You get so much warmth and thanks from the runners and it is really enjoyable, a great way to meet people in the community, people recognise your face. I can’t emphasise enough how much fun it can be if you get into the spirit of it, be loud, be vocal, be daft, be silly, be supportive, be encouraging, seize the moment and most of all enjoy yourself!