During my first 100-miler, Cascade Crest in 2019, I remember reaching an early aid station and a wonderful volunteer said they had popsicles. Did I want one? I could have two if I liked. I gleefully replied that I would take two please, thanked the magical folks at the aid station and took off. I can still clearly recall the joy I felt eating those popsicles while running down the trail. Then, I got to the next aid station and was offered a smoothie. Would I like the dairy or vegan version? “What kind of heaven is this?” I remember thinking. These selfless people are out in the middle of nowhere providing me with delicious treats while I attempt to run 100 miles. The day-night-day went on like that, I got to an aid station and was greeted by smiling volunteers who just wanted to help me achieve my goal. I ended up finishing that race with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for all the volunteers who helped me along the way.
This wasn’t my first experience at the race. The year before I volunteered at the Hyak aid station which is at about the halfway point of the race. I had the pleasure of assisting runners with their drop bags, resupplying them with fluids and food, and sending them on their way again. It was my first experience at any 100-mile race and it was incredible.
Why you should volunteer for a race this year
Which brings me to my thesis. I believe that all members of our trail and ultra-community should volunteer in some capacity! It is in the spirit of the sport that we don’t just run races but that we give back to the community in the form of volunteering and trail work. It’s ingrained. As our sport continues to grow, it is vitally important that new members (and not so new members) of our community understand the importance of volunteering and trail work. I would love to see people with influence in our sport bring attention to this by showing us when and where they volunteer and what makes it so special. We all know that without volunteers we wouldn’t have races to run. Gretchen Walla of Walla Trails said, “Without volunteers, so many races would not exist, including Walla Trails. I found once I started volunteering at trail races, not only did I meet other rad people, I found my experience as a runner much richer.”
Maybe you have friends or family that don’t necessarily want to run races but love being part of the community. Michele Hartwig of Ornery Mule Racing said, “Volunteering at trail races is for anyone. You do not need to be a runner. It is for anyone that enjoys the outdoors. Runners are so kind and welcoming. We have a lot of amazing volunteers that have never run but are a huge part of our community with tons of friends. I always say volunteering is selfish, it makes you feel so good to help others.” Michele also told me that she treats her volunteers to a VIP party with prizes, food, drinks, and dancing to show appreciation and to continue to build upon those relationships and grow the community.
Another benefit you may get from volunteering is a free entry to a race or priority in the lottery. I’ve volunteered many times with Northwest Trail Runs, working parking, aid stations, and my personal favorite, sweeping. So, when I signed up for a race this February, I was able to cash in my volunteer time for a free entry. Truly a win-win situation!
My call out to you, yes you – trail runners, front of the pack to the back of the pack, experienced or just getting started, I hope you’ll consider volunteering at races just as much as you pin on a bib in 2023.
Why you should volunteer for trail work in your community
Another important component of trail running, is well, the trails. Have you ever been on a run in the middle of nowhere and thought to yourself, how did this trail come to be? (Even while bushwhacking in the Cascades) Who were the people that brought this beautiful trail into existence so that I can be out here eating snacks and enjoying the scenery? Trails take work, a lot of work, to be forged and perhaps more importantly for us, maintained. A growing number of races are requiring trail work as part of the entry process, which is fantastic, and I hope more races follow suit. I was required to do eight hours of trail work to gain entry into Cascade Crest. Here in Washington, we have the Washington Trails Association (WTA) which hosts work parties throughout the year. I spoke with Anna Roth at WTA and she wanted everyone to know that trail work parties are for everyone and happen throughout the year and all throughout Washington. They also have backcountry trips throughout the summer where you could spend a few days in a remote location doing trail work and enjoying the company of the other wonderful people on the crew. You probably could get in a nice run after you complete the day’s work as well, if you aren’t completely exhausted. Trail associations exist all over the place, or a race organization local to you might also host its own trail work days, so keep a look out for opportunities.
When I did my first trail work gig with WTA we worked on creating a new trail, which meant a lot of double digging (IYKYK). I met many other wonderful volunteers, many of whom volunteer many days per year. I gained a new appreciation for the hard work that goes into making and maintaining the trails that I love to run on. I’ve since volunteered several more times, one of those work parties was at Cougar mountain in the Issy Alps. My husband and I spent hours digging a trench, by the time we finished I was covered in mud, and he somehow was not – but now every time I run on that trail I admire that beautiful trench. Here’s a pro tip – I asked my employer to give all employees a paid day off each year to volunteer. They said sure, thanks Seattle Reproductive Medicine!
When I ran Cascade Crest again in 2022 a couple of weeks before the race my husband and I were part of a crew doing trail work on the course. We helped clear the last portion of the course of downed trees, overgrowth, and debris. During the race when I ran from french cabin to silvercreek I admired all the work we had done, and managed to only fall once. Once again, I finished the race with a huge smile and enormous gratitude for all the trail work that had been done so I didn’t have to crawl over or under the many downed trees – and again for the volunteers that provided me with delicious treats, hot soup, and encouragement. I love our trail and ultrarunning community so much and I hope to be a part of it for the rest of my life through running, volunteering, and trail work. I hope you too will consider finding the time to do trail work in your community, and look forward to seeing you all out there with a bib on or handing over a popsicle or two!