I've only run a handful of races in my life. Every time I do, I always am surprised by the volunteers. Who are these people that stand at the water stations for hours? Where do they come from? Why on Earth would they want to stand in the heat or rain or snow for hours just to hand me a cup of water that I'm going to throw on the ground?
Consider a marathon or half-marathon. The speedsters will come cruising by quickly, but then the volunteers still stand at their post for another hour or two until the snails like me come creeping by.
The longest race I have ever run was a 15k last spring. It was cold, it was hilly, it was windy, it was snowing. It was miserable. But it was going to be my first medal - and I was excited for it. I even knew just where I was going to hang it at home.
When I came across the finish line an older lady in a yellow jacket smiled and put her hands out to stop me. She grabbed the bottom piece off my bib, then put the hard-earned medal over my head and told me congratulations. It was a proud moment for me.
This past weekend I volunteered to work at the local Hypothermic Half Marathon. Lucky for me, my assignment was the finish line. The race organizers took the whole thing in stride, as if they'd done this a million time, which I'm sure they have. Similarly, the runners at the front of the pack also seemed very relaxed - like this was just another half marathon for them.
But if you walked to the back of the pack it was easy to see the first timers. The people who had been training for months. The people that were putting their heart, their soul, and all their hard work into this race. It was clear that this was a big moment for them.
I could totally relate. I trained for a half marathon last year but was side-lined at the last minute. I knew first hand how nerve racking and exciting this race must be for them.
It was a small race of less than three hundred people. As the first wave of runners crossed the finish line I stopped each one, congratulated them and ripped the bottom off their bib while someone else handed out the medals. As the minutes passed the snow was picking up and it was getting colder while the other volunteers and I waited for the later runners to come in. The crowd was thinning and the excitement at the finish line was obviously fading.
All I could think was how the people we were waiting for - those finishing with slower times - were the ones that were probably the most excited and therefore probably needed the biggest congratulations at the end. I made that my job. At the now desolate finish line, I became their own personal cheerleader as they crossed the finished line.
I can't tell you how good it felt to give them that big smile just like the lady in the yellow jacket gave me last year. I danced, I high-fived, I cheered, I even gave a few hugs right there in the middle of a blizzard at the finish line. It's funny how proud you can be of someone you don't even know.
If you are a runner, or even a part time runner, and you've never volunteered at a race then I highly recommend giving back to the racing world. As good as it feels to cross the finish line yourself, helping someone else do it feels pretty darn good too.
Just some food for thought.