Light rain drizzled on the runners as they waited for the start of the
marathon. The temperature that morning was several degrees below the freezing
point, and far below normal.
"And there was ice everywhere," recalls Les Cave. "It was just a dreadful
But that didn't stop Cave and his group of volunteers. Every single one
of them showed up that morning to take their assigned spots along the course,
"None of us would have even gone out into the front yard hadn't we committed
to being volunteers," he says.
"But the race was going to go on and the runners were going to be there.
And on a day like that, you can imagine how few spectators show up. So they
[the runners] didn't have anyone out there to watch out for them if they needed
encouragement or if they needed assistance. So it was really important that
they would be there."
Just by being there, marathon volunteers can make a big difference, says
Cave. He is also a marathon runner.
The volunteers could be doing so many other things with their time, he
says. "But instead, they are out there, perhaps on a lonely stretch of the
marathon course. And when you come by, they have something to say that gets
your attention and encourages you to continue.
"And it helps you to get through, just to know that you are not out there
It is almost like you are in a parade instead of a 26-mile race, he says.
But the image of marathon volunteers as cheerleaders who hand out small
plastic cups of water to passing runners is too simple.
Here is just a sample of tasks that marathon volunteers perform before,
during and after a race:
- Organize other volunteers
- Raise funds
- Register runners
- Build spectator stands
- Operate refreshment stations
- Keep spectators off the course
- Regulate traffic
- Offer first aid
- Take photos
- Escort finishers
- Answer questions from runners, spectators and the media
- Track and publish results
- Organize social activities
- Hand out medals
- Clean up after the race
- Deal with lost and found items
Volunteers, in other words, play a part in every aspect of organizing and
running marathons. "We couldn't do the race without the volunteers," says
Dave Powell. He is the volunteer coordinator for a large urban marathon.
Over the two past two decades, Joe Doucet and his wife Patricia have been
running marathons across the globe, from London to New York to Hawaii. Four
years ago, they also started to volunteer for marathons. Of course, they still
run them, training up to 12 hours a week.
Competing in the Boston Marathon, however, had remained an elusive goal
over the years. Or so it appeared.
The Boston Marathon is the most famous marathon in the world. Runners have
to qualify for it.
Doucet and his wife had no illusions about qualifying. She's 63 and he's
70, after all.
"But I found a way around that, by volunteering," he says.
Volunteer organizers asked the Doucets where they wanted to volunteer.
They chose to volunteer at the start line, where one of their jobs was to
keep people from jumping into the race.
"I betcha about 5,000 people jumped in," says Doucet. And guess what? He
and his wife were two of them.
"We worked for four hours at the starting line...and when everybody was
gone, we said, 'Let's go!' So away we went. It was my biggest event, if you
know what I mean."
They were, of course, far behind everybody else.
"After about 10 miles, we couldn't see anybody anymore," he says. "Everybody
was way ahead of us. So not to get lost, all we did was follow the garbage.
We followed the garbage all the way in. That was a nice experience."
Cave volunteered for his first marathon more than 25 years ago, and soon
after was inspired to start training for marathons. Eventually, he completed
his first race and has since run many marathons.
He still volunteers for nearly every marathon in his home town. And he
still gets a kick out of watching the runners.
"They have to put a lot of work into preparing for a marathon," he says.
"They come in all sizes and shapes and ages. It is just an amazing parade
that goes by. And if you are not inspired by them, I don't know what it takes."
Volunteering, it appears, comes natural for Phyllis Demy. Over the last
three decades, she has given time and energy to many causes in her area. So
when the local marathon asked for volunteers, she was more than happy to offer
her services. She also coaxed family members into volunteering.
A decade later, Demy shows no signs of slowing down, even though she is
now 61 years old. "I probably would have been a runner had I been younger,
but I'm a little bit too old to start running," she jokes.
But not too old to hand out race T-shirts.
The work can be physically demanding because she has to carry and move
boxes around all day long. She says she feels dead tired at the end of her
day. "But it doesn't bother me," she says. "This is a job that has to be done,
and I think that this is the reason [to volunteer]."
How to Get Involved
A marathon site on the Internet lists 500 races around the globe. So there
are many chances to volunteer. And if you decide to volunteer, organizers
expect you to follow through, regardless of the conditions that you may have
to deal with during a race.
"Just show up and stay until we say it's OK to go home," says Powell.
Those who want to volunteer need to know how much of a commitment they
can make, says Monique Anderson. She is the volunteer coordinator for a large
urban marathon. Once you made a commitment, organizers will try to find a
task that fits your skills.
"Everybody has their own special skills, and what we try to do is to adapt
those special skills to the type of work in all the different areas that we
need done," says Anderson.
Although a running background is not necessary, it certainly helps, says
It will help you understand what marathon runners have to go through during
the 26-mile race. It will also help you spot signs that a runner may be in
trouble, he says.
But even if you are not in great physical shape, you can be a marathon
volunteer. In fact, this volunteer activity is open to people who may have
"Even if you are in a wheelchair...we could make a road guard out of you,"
says Powell. People with physical limitations may also perform volunteer tasks
indoors, he says.
Above all, volunteers should have fun during the race, without losing concern
for the runners, says Cave. And they should be honest with them.
"There are a lot of volunteers who think they are being helpful by telling
a runner they are almost to the finish when in fact it may be two or three
miles left," says Cave. "When you have already run 23 or 24 miles, that seems
like a lifetime."
Boston Athletic Association
Road Runners Club of America
Find information on youth running clubs
Find volunteer opportunities in your area
View the guidelines for volunteers of this popular marathon