Giving Back

This column by Simon Gear first appeared in Runners World SA in March 2009

Some stern faced bureaucrat once thundered that with every right, comes an obligation.  Similarly, in running, if you enter races, you owe it to yourself and everyone else to volunteer as a helper once during the year.  

Road running remains the last of the great amateur sports as far as organisation is concerned.  Even our biggest races are organised by a tiny team of part-timers and a whole army of on-the-day volunteers.As a result, you can’t follow the lead of professional athletes in the lesser sports who wait until they have retired (or been dropped) before choosing to nobly ‘give something back’.  The lifeblood of the overwhelming success that is South Africa’s road racing scene is the guy who gets up at crack of dawn to wave a small red flag on a suburban road corner.

The trick is to pick one race a year, preferably the one closest to home, and volunteer to marshal or man a water table.  If you’re part of a big club that organises its own races, this will be taken out of your hands, as they are generally pretty good about mobilising their members to come out and support the home event.  When called upon to do your bit, do so reliably and with good grace.  It’s one of those unwritten etiquette issues that it isn’t on to show up at your home club’s race to run, unless (and this NEVER happens), they’ve already got enough volunteers.  Also, if you are blithely showing up to run a race where your club needs you to volunteer, chances are good that you are so far out of the loop that you aren’t getting full value out of being a club member.  A central part of the club culture in our running, is the social aspect that is built on weekly timetrials, organised Sunday long runs and the annual home race.  But even if you’re one of the old grumpies who ‘doesn’t want to be a part of a club’, you still owe it to everyone to give your time back once a year.

So, we’ve committed you to volunteering your time.  Now here are a couple of tips to make the day worthwhile:

First up, this is the perfect day off from running.  Embrace it whole heartedly.  There is an awful lot of hurry up and waiting as most organising bodies like all the marshals to be out on the road well before the start.  This means that you may be hanging around for an hour or more before the lead group bursts around the corner.  Stock up on the Sunday paper, croissants and cricket on the car radio and you will be the happiest pavement dweller in town.

Make sure that you know what you are doing.  Know where the runners are coming from and where they are going.  Don’t take this for granted.  As a student race organiser, I once had to explain to an ASA referee how I had come to lose a field of 3,500 runners in the hills of Melville.  It came down to a marshal waving his flag in the wrong direction.

Work out before hand where you are going to be expecting traffic from and make plans accordingly.  If yours is a big intersection, you should have traffic cops with you, but even quiet roads can get busy as traffic tries to rat run around the race.  It is so important to remain courteous and in control in the face of Sunday morning drivers.  In my experience, the rudest ones are the ones that you’ve made late for church, which just goes to show.  Your only duty is to ensure the safety of the runners.  That includes sometimes stopping the backmarkers to let the cars through before someone tries to jump through a gap on their own.

Lastly, take along a black bag and clean up the road between yours and the next marshalling point.  Road running is the paragon of all that is good and pure but it does generate litter.

Take from running everything that you can, but remember that at least just once a year, it’s better to give than to receive.

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