Or, we were.
Working for a race series like Rainshadow is a very different thing than most people imagine. We are almost always on our computers (95% of the 60+ hrs/week we work are on our laptops), and only rarely – race weeks, really – does our work take place outside. We're also pretty consistently overworked and overtired and undercaloried and underslept. When you go into a volunteer weekend – where you've planned to fill multiple shifts and completely forsake sleep – it's hard to do so already exhausted. This is a mistake we've made numerous times in the past, and we keep saying we're going to learn...but don't.
So of course that's exactly what we did going into Fat Dog. We're in the middle of moving, we just cancelled Angels Staircase (which, in this case, was both the right call and undoubtedly more work), and we simply haven't been sleeping. So we went into Thursday check-in tired (having only slept a few hours each of the nights previous), went into Friday morning (parking at the start, then the Ashnola aid station) really tired, and were clearly exhausted by the time we started hiking into Sky Junction Saturday morning (after sweeping from Ashnola to the river crossing overnight). At Sky Junction we couldn't stay warm – so bone chilled were we from the rain at Ashnola and the weather (everything but hail, really) through which we swept overnight. After three hours at the aid station the rain, we were dangerously chilled, and so made the decision to descend.
I still feel terrible about that decision.
Even as I know it was the right one.
We've never been the volunteers that bail; we're always the volunteers picking up extra shifts and filling in holes that seem to have popped up. In this case, though, it was our only safe choice – and Toby, the other volunteer at Sky Junction, was clearly capable of running the aid station even if more volunteers would have been nice. But: It was the choice we had to make.
As race directors and volunteer coordinators, we're regularly in the position where we are trying to fill holes vacated by previously confirmed volunteers who have since bailed – for reasons both good and bad. Replacing volunteers is simply part of the job, albeit sometimes one of the more frustrating parts.
Some runners (and volunteers) over-commit themselves. We were probably guilty of that ourselves at Fat Dog: We were only a week removed from a major race (in which cancelling said race likely resulted in an even heavier race-week workload), we're in the middle of moving, and it's been a full month since we last had even a single day in which our day wasn't jam-packed from the moment we woke up to the moment we went to bed. We were clearly over-committed and over-extended.
Some runners (and volunteers) sign up as a result of fear of missing out (hereafter, FOMO), then realize they aren't going to miss as much as they thought they were going to, or there's something else for which they have bigger FOMO which is also scheduled for the same weekend. This is a behavior we find particularly frustrating, but also not something we can change; while we'd appreciate if everyone simply did the things they said they were going to do, that's not human nature, and it's not realistic to expect that of everyone.
Some runners (and volunteers) sign up to volunteer because they want to be someone they are not. Being a good volunteer requires a certain amount of selflessness; it often requires putting the needs of the runners and the race ahead of your own needs. That doesn't mean volunteers shouldn't eat, or shouldn't wear comfortable clothes, or anything like that – but running a good aid station, or being diligent at finish/timing, or taking great care of post-race food, etc, often means putting the needs of others first. Expecting that out of everyone is again contrary to human nature. No matter what the volunteer coordinator does to frame the positions, or reward volunteers, not every volunteer is good at what they're doing. Selflessness is a somewhat rare human trait, and great volunteers are rare for exactly that reason – human nature dictates that most of us most often put ourselves first, even as good volunteer work requires putting the community ahead of the individual.
For those reasons and others, volunteers regularly bail on shifts as a result. There are several things race directors and other event organizers can do, though, to help make bailing volunteers both less likely and less of a problem when they do occur:
- Have back-up / float volunteers that you can plug into holes as they occur.
- Don't let volunteers over-commit themselves. Even if a volunteer says they can fill six shifts in a three-day window, that most often leads to either burnout (making them less likely to volunteer in the future) or overexhaustion (making them more likely to miss a shift or, even if they do make all of their shifts, dramatically hamper the quality of their volunteer work).
- Keep your volunteers wishing they'd done more. When volunteers are excited about the work they've done, and want to do more, they're more likely to come back. This, of course, is also usually easier done in theory than in practice, as race directors and event organizers frequently need more volunteers than they have, meaning if a volunteer wants to do more, we'll usually use them then.
- Take care of your volunteers. If they're doing a good job of putting the community ahead of themselves, they are probably doing so at least partially by not taking care of themselves. They will forget to eat, and forget to drink. Remind them. Help them. Take care of them, and they will be better volunteers.
Volunteers are the engine of big events; they are what make them possible, and when they go well, they are a huge part of the reason why. If you're a race director or event organizer, take care of your volunteers, and they'll help you take care of the event. If you're a runner, consider volunteering. And if you're a volunteer, take care of yourself, so that you can continue to volunteer in the future.
There's an appropriate work volume for every volunteer; find that balance, and help volunteers find the right position for their skill sets and interests, and you're well on your way to a great event.
Now we just have to work on finding that balance for ourselves, too, because we've become those volunteers that are over-committed.We're exhausted, and we're about to captain an aid station at Cascade Crest. Yes, it'll be great to see everyone, and it'll be great to give back to the runners, but...we're tired. We're really tired.
Finding a balance is hard. Best of luck to the other volunteers and volunteer coordinators out there.