In the midst of ten thousand missed messages, phone calls, and random alerts chiming out of my phones speaker box, one headline stayed prominent in my mind all day: “Looking for Trail Running Expert!” The note came from a co-worker who had me in mind and assumed that I could be ‘their expert’, I couldn’t help but laugh a little!
I would definitely not classify myself as an expert in anything to do with running, but I sure do love to let loose out on the trails! The race director was on the prowl for a volunteer to help mark their track through the New Hampshire forest.
Sure, it sounded like a sweet gig.. but I had never volunteered for anything in the running community, despite how much fun I had heard it really could be!
Tossing around the idea in my mind to pay-it-forward to all of the volunteers who had helped any of my past running events go as smoothly as they could, I decided to just shoot the Race Director an email to let her know that I would be the ‘expert’ that they longed for.
To my surprise after I hit the send button for my probably-too-lengthy email describing my elevated level of stoke for the STOAKED Trail Race, I almost immediately received a note back thanking me and breaking the news that someone (probably more qualified!) had already volunteered and filled the position!
I wrote off the whole event, content that I could remain in the cocoon of safety that I had woven for myself over the years.. because, after all.. if I don’t step out of my comfort-zone, then no one will see me fail.
Several days passed until my email box dinged back to life – it was the UVTA Race Director again.. on the prowl yet again!
After a multi-day game of tag over numerous emails I was thrilled to write on my calendar: “Saturday August 3rd: STOAKED Trail Run, 8am. Be there.”
Having ran the Stoaked trail race in Hanover, NH back in 2018 during the Western New Hampshire Trail Running Series, I was truly excited.. yet still nervous to say that I would be helping out – giving back to a community of runners who had helped whip my butt into some-sort of shape one year prior.
My official title as a volunteer: Course Sweeper
Being a creature of habit who likes to be in control of his environment, I had plenty of time in the preceding weeks to ponder the multitude of questions: Why did I volunteer? Why should anyone volunteer? What will I get out of this? ..and possibly the most important and frequently reoccurring question: What if I suck at everything I do and everyone sees me?
All I could do now is just show up.
That Saturday morning was like any other: wake up, coffee, check the weather, stretch and pile gear into the Subaru. I decided to remain calm during this entire ordeal by convincing myself that, if I arrived to utter chaos that would tail-spin me into a slew of panic, then I would simply hop back in the Subaru and drive away. I knew that I had that option, sure it may have made any situation more awkward, but that was my end-game escape plan!
The parking lot was a happening place as I dodged stretchers, sprinters, joggers to nab a parking spot. Quickly noticing how much I had actually missed the running environment and all of the excited bustlement that comes along with it, I found our Race Director who quickly broke down my task for the morning and handed me a big yellow “Volunteer” pin and my radio, should I find runners incapacitated.
Helping injured runners? That was beyond my scope of proficiencies – but ‘what could go wrong, it’s only a 10k!’, I gently reassured myself.
I would be taking to the trails 5 minutes after the start of the event, following the last few runners and removing the orange arrows and stapled signage from the trees.
I had a button, a radio and a purpose; time to run!
Immediately, I remembered the layout of the course: a turn here, up that hill, turn and scoot down over there.. and now jam over that-a-way.
Being instructed that I only needed to remove the signage on the sections of single-track trail where the ATVs could not access, I made quick work of the first mile and a half of this lush green pathway.
Here I came from behind.. the dreaded Course Sweeper wearing my bright white “Vegan Power 50K” t-shirt.. the combination of shirt themes brought a wave of chuckles over me, I was having an absolute blast as the Stoaked Trail Race Course Sweeper!
As to not startle the heck out of the woman in the Beef shirt, I politely and softly said “Good morning! Doing great up there!”, she remarked by noticing how fast I looked and that I should just pass her. I reassured her that was not my plan, today I was not a racer, today.. I was a fun-haver!
She was gone once we did finally hit the single-track section and it would be many miles of arrow-removal before I would see her again!
So why did I volunteer? Easy enough to say that I was tossed into the whole ordeal as instantaneously as the original email hit my inbox. In my heart, I had always wanted to give back – I always thought, somehow owning the title of “volunteer” would make me a better person. And did it? Yes, I like to think so!
It made me incredibly grateful to see the running and racing world from the inside, not trying to beat some other dudes time, or my own PR time, but just out there because friends counted on me. I was there to do a job, and that job (finally) was not just simply handing over $40 to throw on shoes and run to there and back.
It felt amazing to be out there, on the course as I was clearly in ‘last place’, picking my orange cardboard with black arrows off the trees, to stop, breathe in deeply, look around and just pause.
That’s what I could do, just pause and think about anything and everything all at once: the friendly faces at all of the aid stations I had thanked in the past; the times I had watched the sun make its way into the sky as my feet beat down rhythmically, leaving my mark on the soft blackened soil; all of the doggy-slobber that had lathered my beard from the post-race puppy kisses during the days running mountains with Ciara, Boone and Crockett.
I was in a good space as I gathered up my arrows.
Running these familiar trails became an unforgettable experience as the thought of several hundred sweaty runners plowing through, dipping and dodging the chilly streams, mud and trees on their quest for their best trail run yet!
I never caught up to another runner until I had radioed in to let my team know that all of my signs had been picked up and dropped off with the last aid station attendant. Then I heard the words crackle through the radio waves: “Thanks Erik so much, well that is it.. you are good to just RUN IT IN!!!”
My hands were completely free now as I blew by the reservoir and over the ATV paths, destroying the one beast-of-a-hill that I recalled had annihilated me one year ago as I threw down footsteps in this dirt – this time the tables were turned, I was rested. I destroyed that climb and made it beg out for mercy.. okay maybe that is taking it a bit too far, but dang did I have such a blast!
Waving to the cars on Route 10, I meandered my way now out in the sun, tracing the outline of a mowed teardrop in the alfalfa field before returning to the tree cover.
With my head held high and feeling like a rockstar – I kicked harder, breathed slower and waved to the campers who were still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.
Making my way through the campground, I could hear the mega-phone echoing out the automated voice reading off the winners and raffle prize winners.
“Last hill, get it!” I thought, now seeing the same red shirt with huge white letters, “BEEF” was still in front of me.
Cheers rang out for my friend just ahead of me as I now crossed my imaginary finish line to the sound of “..and now everyone put your hands together for this years COURSE SWEEPER… ERIK!!!!”
I received lots of congrats and hand claps during my first full marathon back in 2018, but that was nothing compared to the deafening hoots and hollers that I received today.. and for what? Removing staples from trees? Maybe.. but perhaps also for finally doing something selfless, for putting other folks ahead of myself, my own aspirations and wills.
Today I helped other friends aspire to kick some booty and take that step – one step closer to reaching their goals!
I am thrilled to say that my story is not dissimilar to so many other folks out there: earlier this year Ciara volunteered at several events which I assumed would simply be a terribly mundane and boring experience for her – she brought her camera and photographed runners coming into her aid station! I heard for several days after the events that she had a great, memorable time helping runners with water bottles or PB & J sammiches (even the time I ran into her station and simply tossed my soft flasks right at her and continued running the 1 mile out-and-back.. upon realizing what I had done and how much of a jerk I must have seemed to be – I was all apologies when I returned to Ciara and her positive-vibed aid station! We both laughed it off when we got home!).
Should you volunteer? Do you want to get a different experience from the same old running event? Do you want to meet other like-minded (sometimes overly energetic, smelly and sweaty) runners? Do you like free stuff? Do you want to develop new skills? Do you want to be productive? Are you injured to the point that you cannot run?
Well.. I really hope that you are not injured to the point that you cannot run!! But YES! Everyone should volunteer from time to time! I did not think it would amount anything to ..write a blog post about.. but it was such a memorable experience!
It is deeply gratifying to be thanked and applauded for doing something that seemed so.. simple!
There is no doubt in my mind that I will be volunteering again – hopefully next time Ciara and I can both be at the same aid station making days brighter for fellow friends who shelled out hard-earned cash to punish and push the limits of their bodies!
Don’t know where to start?
These days there are so many small 5K’s and local shin-digs that it really shouldn’t be difficult to find an event that fits your schedule and what you want to do with your time, or perhaps what you want to get out of your volunteering experience – or if all else fails, hit up Google or ultrasignup.com, check the bulletin boards at your local Co-op, ask around – chances have it that someone you see every day knows of an event looking for your help!
I hope this helped make the decision easier for you – to go volunteer and give back a few hours of your day.. it will be worth it and pay you back ten fold!
Have an awesome day out there – go out and enjoy nature – enjoy giving back!
Thanks for following along this wild journey!