By Paul Mitas with Rebecca Crump
Anyone who does an Obstacle Course Race will see lots and lots of volunteers on and about the course. I am one of the people who have volunteered at several events and I am starting to see things I like and don’t like about volunteering.
First, let me say that these events would not be possible at the price they are without volunteers. Yes I know some events are pricey but if it was not for the hard work of the volunteers either the events would be way more expensive or they would not happen at all. I always try my best to thank the volunteers I see and interact with.
Now on to the real topics of this article, the good, the bad, and the ugly of volunteering for an OCR.
The good parts of volunteering at events are many and various. Most events give volunteers either a discounted future event if not a free future event. Volunteers also get a volunteer shirt. A free lunch and/or snacks are usually part of the deal as well. Some of the other positive things are you get to see some of the behind the scenes stuff that goes on. You get to help build a stronger sport by helping participants and spectators at the events. You can get an up close view of obstacles and see different ways to complete the obstacle and often a few hundred ways not to complete the obstacles. Personally, no matter how long I volunteered for, half day or full day, I have always walked away with a lot of good memories, a few laughs, and even a few surprises.
On to the bad part of volunteering, there are four areas I want to touch on here.
First, while you are getting a discount or free race out of it, if you are planning on volunteering the first half of the day and running the second, you had best be in good shape. A half day of volunteering and a half day of running will be tough on all but the elite athletes. It is often the equivalent of running two or three laps. The volunteers are required to be there way before the first wave and are expected to often be there well past the last wave. If you are volunteering for a full day, expect a 12 – 15 hour work day, with little to no breaks in the work.
Second, the races usually give you a free lunch and sometimes a snack bag. I will be very clear that these are usually way short of being a healthy meal. Most of the time the snacks are chocolate and/or cookies, sometimes you will get some kind of energy bar. While those sound okay, after they sit in the sun for an hour or so the chocolate has melted, the cookies have been reduced to powder, and the energy bars have transformed into a chunk of some super sticky mess that can glue your mouth shut for hours. Some races are nice enough to keep the lunches in coolers or bring hot lunches out, but not often and on no kind of schedule. If you have or follow a restricted diet, bring your own food. If not bring some food to eat anyway, you might get something that you don’t like and you will likely get hunger before you get to eat anyway.
The third bad part of being a volunteer is often the racers themselves. I have often seen racers throw water cups on the ground beside the trash can at a water station, only to turn and laugh to their buddies about how they just gave the volunteers something to do. I have seen racers throw the half empty cup at volunteers. I am not sure how those people have survived this far but, they need to go back and learn some manners and respect. The volunteers are there to help, to make the event happen, to make it enjoyable by everyone there. At finish lines where the volunteers are handing out the shirts, finishing awards and sponsor products, I have seen time and again the volunteers trying to follow the instructions they were given in handing out the items and racers getting all upset because they are out of the size shirt they wanted, the volunteer will not give them a case of this product or that, or the water /beer cups are not being handed out fast enough. The list goes on and on. If you are a racer and are guilty of any of these, please rethink your behavior and thank the volunteers. They are doing sometimes very tough jobs for often very low (or no) pay.
The fourth bad thing is where I think the ugly of volunteering comes in and that is the race companies themselves. Both the volunteer and the race company have a contract. You will work X amount of time, the company will provide you with a shirt, some food and drink, and a free/discounted race. At the last three events I have volunteered, the companies have upped the amount of time I had to work without upping the compensation. When I agree to work from 7 to 7, a full day shift, I expect to be done at 7. I am sorry that there is still more work the company would like done, but I have already spent 12 hours on my feet in the sun, doing a job for you. The fact that they often take a week or more to set everything up, but then want the closing shift volunteers to take everything down in one to three hours just seems a little much to me. I often feel like a hostage near the end of my shift. The staff keeps asking you to do this or that or they tell you that you can’t leave until the next shift show up to replace you. You don’t want to leave without getting your race code and/or anything else you originally agreed to . The next part of that is the fact that some of the events only give the full day volunteers a little more than the half day ones and expect a lot more out of them. One example of this is Tough Mudder, half day gets you a race for $40, a full day gets you a race for $20. The extra 6 – 8 hours of work is at $3 per hour at 6 hours and $2.50 an hour for 8. You get the same shirt, the same lunch for a half or full day. Spartan does do a little better in that a full shift does earn you a volunteer hoodie, but that is only good one time. I don’t need 3 or 4 Spartan volunteer hoodies.
I understand that part of volunteering is being open to the needed changes during the hours you signed up for. But, if a change is needed, ask me if I can work a little longer or would I mind changing and doing this job. I think Tough Mudder really needs to rethink how they do it and give the volunteers a code that they can use or give to someone else for a free race rather than a discount. I also think the race companies would get more volunteers if the gave a free race to half and either 2 free or a free and discount to full day.
All of the negatives out in the open, I still volunteer, I know what I am getting myself into and what I am going to get in return. I think all racers should volunteer at some point to see what is happening “behind the scenes”. I hope that the race companies start to look at how much the volunteers do and how they are being treated and “paid”, otherwise there will be less and less volunteers and the events will likely go up in cost and down in quality.