Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 12 Mar 2006 05:39:27 -0500

Giving Back


(rerun from March 1999 RC)

One of the great strengths of American running is also one of its subtle weaknesses. We rarely suffer a shortage of runners willing to run any distance, anywhere there is a race that weekend. We often suffer from a shortage of workers willing to help conduct the races.

In this sport we are a nation of doers, not viewers. We would rather run in a race ourselves than watch others run it, now matter how fast they are and how slow we are.

Few events here are in danger of disappearing for lack of entrants. Many must limit their fields by setting a maximum number (New York City Marathon) or by imposing qualifying times (Boston Marathon).

The demand for space at starting lines is high and growing higher. The demand for volunteer workers grows too, and the supply remains short.

Race directors -- who usually are volunteers themselves -- forever beg for help. They never seem to have quite enough of it on raceday.

The volunteers give up a weekend day to stand shivering in the cold or baking in the sun, delivering the aid that runners demand. For this the workers usually receive no more than a free T-shirt.

I often go to races as a guest of the directors. This lets me follow them through their raceday, which usually begins after a sleepless night for them. They and their support troops arrive before the first runner, and stay long after the last one goes home.

Watching the start area come together, seeing the course from the standpoint of the workers, then observing the finish-line cleanup is something every runner should experience at least once. It tells several truths about this sport:

-- Running the race may be one of the easiest tasks that day. At least it takes much less time than the scene-setting work that makes the running possible.

-- Runners are abundant, and each has only one job to perform -- running his or her own race. Workers are scarce, and each often does multiple jobs.

-- Runners as a group are quick to complain and slow to compliment these workers. They hear little or nothing from the 99 percent of runners who go home happy, but hear much from the one percent who are not pleased.

The least we can do as runners is to say more thank-yous. Let the volunteers, those too often invisible heroes of the sport, know that we appreciate them.

The best we can do is to give back to the sport by serving as volunteers ourselves. Set aside an occasional race to stand and deliver assistance to the runners.

Christian churches promote the concept of the tithe, or giving one-tenth of one's earnings to the church. Runners of all religions, or none, would do well to practice a form of tithing.

For every 10 races we run, we might agree to work at one. Hand out the race packets, work at an aid station, direct the traffic, read the splits, award the winners, assist the injured, distribute the food.

Doing this would help a sport that is always long on runners and short on helpers. It would also help us to be slower with complaints and quicker with compliments when next we run a race.

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