Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Making the magic happen: How volunteering, pacing, and crewing can make you a better runner

Pacing my Mom to her first 50K at FANS 12 hour!
This is a piece I originally wrote for the INKnBURN blog. Excited about volunteering after reading this? Wild Duluth and Surf the Murph are still looking for volunteers this year!

Volunteering, pacing, and crewing. We all know they're critical components of any ultramarathon -- and volunteering is critical to any race of any distance. Doing them is certainly good "karma". But more than that, I'm convinced that spending time on the "other side of the table" can help make you a better runner. Here are five ways I've benefited from spending hours at races without a number pinned to my shorts.

1. Dip a toe into the world of trail and ultrarunning.

Considering signing up for a first trail race, or a new distance? Volunteering, pacing, and crewing are all opportunities to learn what you're in for. It's difficult to imagine what it's like to run all night, run xx (or xxx) miles, or run when you've already been running for many hours. But spend time at the mile 72 aid station, or pace a runner from mile 85 to the finish, and -- BAM! -- a quick education. It's not the same as running all those miles yourself, but spending time helping those who are running all those miles is a great way to begin getting a clearer picture of what it's like, and what it takes.
Much more excited than my runner at mile 85 of
last year's Superior 100.

2. Give back to the running community.

Okay, it's the obvious reason to volunteer, right? Maybe it even sounds trite. But look deeper. First of all, when you work an aid station or pace a runner, you're helping people who share your interests, goals, and values. Friends and potential friends. Second, volunteering/pacing/crewing models the actions and ideas that make our running community positive, supportive, and fun. (Check out this recent Ultrarunning article for a nice articulation of this idea). Finally, your mere presence can provide a huge lift. What's better than running into an aid station, deep into a difficult race, and seeing familiar faces behind the table? An encouraging word from a friend can be as much a lift as a slice of ice-cold watermelon. 
The volunteers at Voyageur last summer absolutely made my race!
Yay for Stephanie, Amy, and Maria!
It's an open secret that my kids volunteer with me at the
Endless Summer Trail Races just for the free Coke.

3. Quality time.

Time spent on the trail with another runner passes in a different way from time spent anywhere else... or so it seems in the middle of the night, while navigating rocky trails or the emotional ups and downs of 24 hours of running. It might not be what you expect: lots of talking, no talking at all, laughter, silence, inexplicable highs and intractable lows. But however it plays out, it's an amazing shared experience. And whether you're pacing a 5K or a 100 mile race, there's a thrill to crossing the finish line with your runner, especially if you can do it with a shared smile. 
Mom and I on our way to a half marathon PR...
... and Janet and I getting 50K done at Icebox 480.

4. Be part of the running community even when you're injured.

When you're injured, missing out on connecting with friends at weekend runs and races can hurt as much as your plantar fascia. It's easy to feel isolated from the running community and quietly withdraw until you're back on the trails. Volunteering and crewing are opportunities to be in the running community, whether or not you can run a step. Working an aid station or crewing a runner is a way to stay engaged, excited, and connected.
Irresistably delicious aid station food at Superior 100.
It looks even better in the dark!

5. Vicarious thrills.

The Western States lottery only accepts 400 runners per year. Want to run that course? If your number doesn't come up, your best chance might be to pace a lucky friend. Along similar lines: I've got no plans to run 100 miles at this time. But I want to understand more about what it's like. Short of signing up for a race, what better way is there to learn more than to support a runner who's living the dream? 

Ultramarathoners often say that as your time on the course lengthens, the highs get higher and the lows get lower. But in my still-young pacing career, I can say that it was still a pretty amazing high running out of this aid station...
Last stop before the finish at Superior 100!
... and finishing the last technical climb of Zumbro 100 with this guy:
Bad picture, happy runners
And the feeling of bringing my runners into the finish line? I'm sure running 100 myself would be amazing... but the contact high was still pretty awesome.

The bottom line

Looking for a chance to make a fellow runner's dreams come true? Think about opportunities for volunteering, crewing, and pacing. Not only will it make you a better runner, it just might make you a better, happier person.

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