VOLUNTEERS WITH A PURPOSE
An Elegant Solution to Staffing a 24 Hour Relay Race
by Marcie Glass
During a 24 hour running relay, there is a lot of time to think. Time to think about the beautiful scenery, what clothes you want to wear on the next leg, your new team of instant comrades, how much you love running, how much you hate running, and how much you really really like to sleep. Throughout the four, 24-hour relays I have been lucky to participate in, I have had all these thoughts and more; however, I have never given much consideration to another aspect vital to the running of these races - the volunteers.
While the athletes are creating some of their most memorable moments, behind the scenes there are a staggering number of volunteers checking in runners, setting up aid stations, sweeping the course, directing traffic, and coordinating help. Runners can escape the heat or the cold inside their vans, but volunteers are out in the elements at 6 am, 12 pm, and 3 am. whatever hour they have been assigned. Without them a relay race couldn't happen and no one is more aware of this fact than the race director. When the course covers 200 miles, 36 van exchanges, and lasts 24 hours or more, it can take hundreds or even thousands of volunteers to keep the logistical nightmare running smoothly.
Providing this support is a daunting issue that every relay race director must deal with, especially for the more rural and isolated routes, and the standard solution for Western relays has been to require all teams who have members living near the course to provide their own volunteers, usually 2 - 3 per team. The requirement makes perfect sense; burden the teams that are participating in the race with the task of providing the manpower to support it. Most teams are more than willing to do their share and often it is easy to draft spouses, parents, and friends, who, judging by the hooting and howling at some of the exchanges, enjoy their experience as much as the runners. In this way, the provision enables non-running connections to share in the fun.
However, once I was thrown into position as team captain I realized how hard it can be to get your friends to volunteer for an event that they aren't actively participating or necessarily interested in. Shuffling through my list of contacts, deciding who to beg next, was the one part of the relay experience I didn't enjoy (well, other than getting out of my sleeping bag at a heinous hour to start my third leg).
While this minor inconvenience was really a small price to pay for an amazing experience, when I heard that Wild West Relay (CO) director, Paul Vanderheiden, was going to do things a little differently, I was thrilled. Instead of putting the burden solely on the local teams, he decided every team should share in the responsibility. But to make it feasible for the out-of-staters, he offered the innovative option of paying a supplemental fee ($30 per person) to have volunteers provided for them. This entire amount would then go to local non-profit groups, most of them small, grass-roots organizations in need of fundraising outlets, in exchange for their efforts - "Volunteers With a Purpose".
It was such an obvious and elegant solution - filling a need by providing a need - I was surprised to learn that Wild West was the first 24-hour running relay to do this. But even more surprising was the response - 48% of the teams, including 20 local entries, chose to pay for their volunteers. Thus, in its first year (2005), the Wild West Relay raised over $10,000.00 for various non-profits. These numbers provide evidence for the popularity of "Volunteers With a Purpose", but more telling is the feedback from the non-profit groups themselves. (UPDATE - through 2012, Volunteers With a Purpose has raised and distributed over $221,000 to local non-profit organizations in Colorado, Vermont, & Oregon).
United Way 2-1-1, an organization dedicated to connecting members of the community who want to give to those who have a need, coordinates the non-profit volunteers. Their contact, Kerry Larkey, says "Volunteers With a Purpose" is a "great opportunity to fund raise in an easy and fun way". While she did not participate in last years Wild West Relay, she is really looking forward to this year's event because returning volunteers are so enthusiastic about it. Her sentiments are echoed by Stacey Greathouse, a member of the Johnstown Chapter of Epsilon Sigma Alpha (ESA), an international women's service organization with numerous charitable outlets, perhaps most notably, St. Jude's Cancer Research for Children. It can be difficult for her group to find quality events and they benefited more from Wild West with "far less work and people than other fundraisers". In fact, it was one of their "best overall fundraising event[s] for the year". In addition to the fundraising, Maddie Snow, FirstCall's coordinator in 2005, said that volunteers were "excited to be part of something so inspirational" and were "touched" and "honored" by how much the participants appreciated their work. (UPDATE - Volunteers With a Purpose, Inc. is now a 501(c)(3) organizations and recruites and coordinates the non-profit groups for all of the Roads Less Traveled Relay Races).
Not only did the non-profits further their respective causes; they also had a great time. An especially popular aspect of the event was the creation of themes, which was encouraged to make exchanges more festive. Runners voted on their favorite station and the top three winners received an additional monetary donation. The different groups had so much fun with crazy costumes and decorations, that some of them already have plans to outdo last year's themes.
The volunteers were not the only ones having fun; runners were raving about their experience in the Wild West Relay. With this success behind him, Vanderheiden took his race model out to Vermont, where the inaugural Green Mountain Relay is scheduled for June 10-11, 2006. This is when he learned that Eastern relays, including Reach the Beach (NH), Blue Ridge (VA&NC) and Hoosier 200 (IN), have no volunteer requirements; each race takes complete responsibility for staffing their event. Jamie Feagans of Hoosier 200 believes it is the race's place to find volunteers, not the runners, and her event encourages local groups to get involved and use the event as a fundraiser through the selling of concessions. She has also used a portion of the race proceeds as well as successfully networked with local sponsors to support these participating groups. Reach the Beach donates an amount for each volunteer who assists in their race to local parks or to their specific organization. While these relays are also using donations as a volunteer incentive, it is done without increasing costs to the runners. As a result, there have been complaints that, on top of a standard entry fee, the supplement of $30 per person for "Volunteers With a Purpose" is out of line. While I disagree, as a participant in the lowest tax bracket, I can easily empathize with concerns over cost. Not only are relay races expensive for the entry fee alone, there are always items such as traveling, van rentals, and gas to account for.
Such feedback is also one concern Vanderheiden had when struggling between keeping entry costs down and making it worthwhile for non-profit groups to participate. He did not want to deter possible entrants but he was very aware he was asking a lot of his volunteers, considering that they were commuting on their own time (maybe hundreds of miles) in addition to working between 4-6 hours (some from 2 - 6 in the morning!). Through "Volunteers With a Purpose" the Wild West Relay contributed an impressive $90 - $120 per volunteer, an amount he felt was appropriate for their effort. In addition, Vanderheiden reasoned that runners won't blink an eye to pay a $25 registration fee for a 5K, a race that lasts about ½ hour and only requires volunteers for only a couple hours; when you compare the costs to a 24 hour race that requires volunteers for 4-6 hours, even with the late registration fee of $85 and the $30 supplement (a total of $115), you're looking at only $4.80/hour for the relay versus $50/hour for the 5K. His registration fees are also consistent with those of many marathons and ultra-marathons.
These comparisons really put the minimal cost versus return of "Volunteers With a Purpose" into perspective. It's also easy for participants who see the results and not the planning behind it, to compare race fees and structures without considering variables. One event, especially a young one, might not have the sponsors, connections, or exposure that another one has. Its course could be very rural and more isolated than other routes. It takes an incredible amount of resources to fully staff a relay and tapping into participants, the largest resource, might be necessary to recruit the sheer volume of volunteers required, especially if the race committee is a one-man show, as in Vanderheiden's case. Even though the Wild West Relay attracted more than the estimated number of volunteers needed, Lee Jordan of ESA felt there weren't nearly enough people available at her location, the busy van exchange point at Wood's Landing. This is proof that even with "enough volunteers" more hands are still welcome. But more importantly, "Volunteers With a Purpose" is the way Wild West and Green Mountain Relays are giving back to the community, which can be argued, is as essential to a relay race as the volunteers themselves.
Maintaining a fine balance between allowing athletes access and enjoyment and respecting local residents peace and privacy rights is an issue that has popped up in a variety of sports including rock climbing, hunting, and river rafting. While I have yet to hear about such an issue in running, these events subject roads and trails to hordes of teams and vans, crowding normally peaceful areas for a crazy 24-hour period. With the ever-increasing popularity of adventure races and the growing number of teams that want to participate each year, it is feasible that resistance in the impacted communities could develop. A race that has a purpose greater than itself has a better chance of preventing this. Collaboration with non-profit groups can only help engender positive support for these events and the more support they have in the community, the easier they are to grow, whether it's through obtaining permission from private landowners and businesses for use of parking space and facilities or attracting additional sponsors. And of course, the more support a race has, the more it can offer back to it's participants as well.
"Volunteers With a Purpose" is only one approach to giving back to the community. All races promote commerce along their route but, in addition, Outward Bound raises money for itself through the Colorado Relay (CO), with a $250 fundraising requirement above the standard entry fee, Hoosier 200 (IN) networks with local sponsors to provide donations for the non-profit groups who participate, and Hood to Coast (OR) requests optional donations for the American Cancer Society. Others may donate a portion of the proceeds to pre-determined charities, such as Wasatch Back (UT) for Operation for Kids. Any model a race director chooses is commendable; however, Vanderheiden believes that "it is a race director's responsibility to devise a way for a relay to give back to a community, not to encourage the runners to do this on an individual basis." That is why he built the optional fundraising into the fee structure and tied it to the essential aspect of recruiting volunteers. The race can't happen without volunteers, therefore, it is guaranteed that his races will raise money for the community and continue to raise more money as the event grows.
Personally, one aspect of "Volunteers With a Purpose" that I'm particularly fond of is that it opens the fundraising opportunity to any local group. Rather than the race director choosing who will benefit, the groups themselves decide if they want to actively participate and reap the rewards, effectively putting the power in their hands. It's also a great venue to advertise the work of these smaller, lesser-known non-profits to the community. I'm a local resident and, honestly, I had never even heard of most of the charities involved before running the Wild West Relay.
In the end, volunteers are essential to a relay and without teams helping to provide these volunteers a race might not be able to exist. "Volunteers With a Purpose" is successfully addressing this essential component in a very positive way, enabling non-profit groups to benefit without the extensive work a fundraiser usually requires. While it can be argued that fees are unnecessary, $30 is a minimal expense for what is provided. And for a participant out there purely for fun, here's what it boils down to: Is the cost of the relay worth the experience? For me, it is a resounding, "Yes!"