Volunteers Keep Events Running

It’s race day and check-in for the Garden of the Gods Ten Miler in Colorado Springs. When the gun goes off and runners take off from the Pikes Peak Marathon start line in downtown Manitou Springs, Colo., volunteers have already been on site and along the trail to ensure the event’s success.

About 800 runners participated in the 2021 Pikes Peak Marathon, a challenging 26.2-mile race to the 14,115-foot summit and back down. Another 1800 runners hit the trail for its sister-event, the Pikes Peak Ascent, racing to the top along the historic Barr Trail.

Volunteers hand out pizza to participants post-race at the Garden of the Gods Ten Miler in Colorado Springs.

It requires approximately 235 volunteers to put on the race, and that’s not including jobs required by outside services.

“Volunteers are essential for any extreme mountain race, including the Pikes Peak Marathon,” volunteer coordinator Madeline Redlinger said.

For a race this grueling, even the volunteers must be physically fit and acclimated to the high altitude. Some volunteers must haul supplies to locations on the mountain unreachable by vehicles.

“Volunteers must be prepared for drastic changing and extreme weather conditions – whether volunteering at the base of the mountain or on the mountain,” Redlinger said. “In turn, volunteers must ensure runners are able to endure these extremes – from proper clothing to their physical well-being.”

Prep starts early for the volunteer race operations team, which provides the manpower to set up the marathon. The team places street cones and banners to build and place the start line arch. They also erect the announcer’s structure, setup fencing for crowd control, provide tables and chairs where needed, and transport equipment and supplies.

Volunteers man aid stations along the historic Barr Trail during the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent, held each year in Manitou Springs, Colo. Courtesy of Skip Williams

At the start and finish line, volunteers serve as race information/direction guides, conduct sweat checks, hand out water, conduct staggered wave starts, distribute medals, and provide medical assistance.

Volunteers man aid stations from Manitou Springs to Pikes Peak and back down, where they hand out much-needed water and other liquids, along with energy snacks vital to the runners. After all, runners may take 3 to 10 hours to complete the marathon, so this job is essential.

Post-race, volunteers distribute food and beverages, hand out finisher shirts and merchandise, and assist with the award ceremony. At the Runners Expo, tasks include packet pickup, vendor assistance, merchandise sales, volunteer check-in, and trash pickup.

Volunteers also help with parking, street traffic control, and crossings for both cars and runners.

“Outside services such as the El Paso County Search and Rescue and medical staff are also needed, and mountain bike groups place mile markers,” Redlinger said.

Across the country, sports organizations count on an army of (mostly) unpaid workers to put on competitions.

“Volunteer support makes or breaks an event,” said Michelle Russ, vice president of sales, sports, and events for Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events in Alabama.

A young volunteer dishes food in a buffet held post-race at the Brett/Robinson Alabama Coastal Triathlon. The run, now in its 15th year, takes place each September in Gulf Shores, Ala.

“We rely on volunteers from local civic groups, schools and churches to help facilitate multi-faceted events from races to collegiate national championships,” Russ said.

More than 200 volunteers help each year with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Men’s & Women’s Track & Field National Championships, an event that brings more than 1100 athletes to the Alabama coast.

Another 160 volunteers are on hand for the Brett/Robinson Alabama Coastal Triathlon, 100 for the Coastal Half Marathon, 5K & 1-Mile Fun Run and about 80 for the NAIA Women’s Soccer National Championship.

“Without volunteer support, we would not be able to successfully run the events we hold multi-year contracts for or our owned and operated events,” Russ said.

Glen Hollingsworth, senior events manager at USA Fencing, said the organization needs hundreds of volunteers to put on its events over the course of the year.

“This spans across virtually every aspect of our tournaments, from registration and scheduling to IT,” Hollingsworth said. “There are even other opportunities to serve on committees and resource groups, helping with the planning and preparation process for future tournaments.”

Volunteers are the backbone for events like Brett/Robinson Alabama Coastal Triathlon, held each September in Gulf Shores, Ala.

Some volunteers need training, while others can show up on the day of a tournament to help.

Bout Committee officials sometimes train for a couple of years at the local and regional event level before making their way to working a national tournament.

“But for someone looking to help at the registration area, for example, they could walk in the morning of and be able to pick things up pretty quickly with some direction from our staff,” Hollingsworth said.

“We have ways for all kinds of people to get involved, no matter their level of interest, background with the sport or extent to which they want to get involved,” he said. “Whether it’s just for the weekend or something they want to do on a regular basis, we’ve got roles to fill.”

For the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent, lead volunteers, “especially new leads,” are given several hours of instructions, Redlinger said. Current year leads recruit potential new leads and train them the first year or two.

Most day volunteers for the Pikes Peak races are given instructions on their duties and responsibilities at the start of their shift and then given additional instructions as the day progresses.

Recruiting Volunteers

Redlinger said that to recruit volunteers each year, the Pikes Peak Marathon starts by contacting the prior year’s volunteers.

Pikes Peak Marathon also develops a flyer with general information and dates of their races, which includes the Garden of the Gods Ten-Miler. Those flyers are inserted into local running club newsletters and distributed to local running, sports, and outdoor stores. Flyers are also posted in local coffee shops and cafes.

Social media is used for recruitment, as is the Pikes Peak Marathon website. Articles and ads are published in newsletters and the local newspaper.

“We rely on word-of-mouth to friends, staff/committee family members and runners’ spouses,” Redlinger said. “We also reach out to the local military installations – Army, Air Force and the Air Force Academy, as well as the city’s Community Services organization.”

Gulf Shores Orange Beach Sports & Events started a Volunteer Incentive Program in 2016. It allows civic groups, school teams or individuals to earn $40 per person, per a 4-hour shift worked for a verified organization during select events.

“We have seen success with the program as an ideal way for local athletic teams, clubs, churches and other civic organizations to earn money relatively easily and quickly,” Russ said. “Many local school groups consistently volunteer.”

A few members of the fencing community function as “leads” for USA Fencing events.

“These individuals are working year-round on hiring volunteers for the various events and then facilitating training and education programs to help keep the pipeline going for future years,” Hollingsworth said.

Many of them also serve on committees and teams that have oversight in specific areas.

“We are fortunate to have a community of parents, coaches, club owners and many others who are just looking for ways to get involved and help put on these programs,” Hollingsworth said.

Individuals often contact the USA Fencing National Office looking for ways to get started and staff loops them in with the best contact.

“We also typically work with our CVB and Sports Commission partners to set up sign-up pages and links to bring in people from the area,” Hollingsworth said.

Retaining Volunteers

“Retaining volunteers is a big part of what committees help do,” Hollingsworth added.

“Many keep contact lists and information for those who work events across each season and then will follow up with them during the ‘off-season’ to be sure they still want to stay on the following year,” Hollingsworth said.

“There’s definitely a bit of a revolving door in some roles as people figure out what they like and don’t like to do,” he said. “But for the most part, we have a really high rate of people who return year to year.”

The Pikes Peak Marathon uses retention initiatives such as a year-end volunteer celebration, rewards based on hours volunteered, some race entries, gift cards, and thank you letters post-race from leads and race staff.

“Most lead position volunteers come back year-after-year and a significant number of volunteers come back, even people as far as Nebraska and Pennsylvania,” Redlinger said.