From Runner to Run Director – a Volunteer’s Journey

The school field is an ocean of bodies, bobbing and stretching. Weathered sinewy adults and bouncy excited children. Is this what 750 people look like? I’m as nervous as they are. More nervous. I’m the reason they are all here. The sun is shining and it is the Saturday before the London Marathon in April 2007.

Two years earlier, the High Street was closed and we were all standing in the middle of the road. My tummy was fluttering and my limbs were chilly. “I’ll start near the back of the pack as I’ve never done this before.” I told myself that no-one was looking at me in that crowd. Me, in my unfashionably baggy shorts – all the other ladies seemed to be wearing lycra. The smell all around of deep heat had cleared my nose and was now nauseating me. We started to squash forward in anticipation even thought nothing had happened. And then muffled words spewed out of a megaphone and we were off.

The ocean of people is lapping round me and asking me questions “Where’s the start?” “When’s the briefing?” I’m drowning! I seem to be the only fluorescent bib on the field and they are closing in on me. And my marshals, nervous too, are phoning me in relays to tell me they are ready out on the course. I glance at my watch and scan my plan, pages going crinkly in my sweaty hand. I need to get out to the start area. The start is prepared and here comes the flood of bodies, warmed up, briefed and raring to go.

“Start slow,” was my mantra. And I did. Before long there was just me and a couple of old biddies wearing running club vests and they were having a good chat about their holidays. A high-vis marshal at the first big junction stopped the traffic for me “Well done love, keep going and you’ll get a personal best today!”

“Three, two, one, go” and the 10k runners surge past in a long stream and the 4k runners drift up to the line. Keen teenagers, a sea of blue race t-shirts, in the front row; unfit mums and dads, running for the cause, linger at the back.

The lady in front of me had flapping laces; she stopped to tie them and I overtook her. After about 8k I felt a bit wobbly and walked a few paces but that felt worse. The marshals all smiled and cheered me on. They knew I was one of the last and I needed encouraging. And they knew they had nearly finished their jobs and could go home soon.

I feel relief as the starts pass without incident or drama. But in less than 20 minutes the 4k runners will be finishing and I need to make sure it’s all set up. The funnel of red and white tape leads the runners past computer timing to medals, a bonanza of goody bags and a forest of bananas.  Another flight of marshals is standing by ready for the tidal wave of finishers. Meanwhile, the younger children’s fun runs are rolling along on the running track. I can hear the PA system echoing around the field as the little athletes collect their prizes.

My final 500m felt good although I had to push my way past early finishers walking home. I felt tearfully euphoric as a finishing marshal urged me across the line before the clock ticked on another minute. Someone thrust a bottle of sports drink in my hand and I downed it in one.

It’s high tide on the school field again. My ocean of faces is smiling now. They are finding their friends and family, comparing their times and telling their stories. Waves of clapping are crashing all around me and I’m beginning to rise on the positive vibes. The marshals are drifting back, and I’m hugged and hand-shaken. They tell tales of grateful runners and a morning well spent. They bring back the luminous flotsam of signs and bibs, netted with red and white tape.

I’d done my first 10k. I hadn’t trained for it – I didn’t even know about training. My result was a triumph of determination over preparation. It hurt for 9.5k but I wanted to do another one. I also knew that the marshals had done more than show me the way – they had got me round.

My marshal’s pile of flotsam grows as the runners and helpers disappear – quickly like the tide ebbing over a flat sandy beach. Six months of risk assessments and planning meetings, e-mails and talks with the aristocratic landowner to set this up: and the races were all over in a splash. It’s just two years since I’d run my first race, and today I’d organised one – a 10k, a 4k and a fun run. I’d brought together a team of 75 to make it work – and 750 people had gone home having had a good time. I was running on top of the world.

Clever infographic on personal benefits of volunteering

Great infographic from @CareerVolnteer based on info from http://helpguide.org/life/volunteer_opportunities_benefits_volunteering.htm

Great infographic from @CareerVolnteer based on info from http://helpguide.org/life/volunteer_opportunities_benefits_volunteering.htm

Finding my way around the Commonwealth Games

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The mountain biking at Cathkin Braes was spectacular

I’ve just spent two of the most enjoyable weeks of my life as a volunteer at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. As a sports event organiser and serial volunteer it is no surprise that I applied to be a “Clyde-Sider” but when I made the 800 mile round trip for my interview early in 2013, I had a rough flight, a bumpy landing and a cold wet day. I remember sheltering in the relative warmth of the People’s Palace and wondering if it was such a good idea.

When my shift roster arrived I was delighted to see that my sports were Triathlon, Mountain Biking, Marathon and Road Cycling. The role said “Results Technology Services, Transponder Team” and the cynic in me imagined a back-room job sorting timing devices. Oh no! If you watched the BBC coverage of the Triathlon Relay, you might have seen that I put in nearly as many appearances as Alistair Brownlee. Our team was issuing and collecting timing transponders and that meant fixing them to bikes or athlete’s ankles before the start and removing them at the finish. It was an exciting role with a front row view of the action.

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I camped at Lochinch in Pollok Park, in a small tent (2 seconds pop-up: 25 mins not-pop-down!). Camping Ninja ran a good ship – it felt secure and they did their best to provide enough charging points for all the phones. And they supported Project Recamp to reuse and donate camping equipment at the end. The Lochinch Sports Club volunteers and staff worked hard to look after us and battled manfully to keep a supply of hot water to the showers. I only had one cold one. They provided food service, although I had always left before breakfast which started at 7.00am. And there were big screens to watch the sporting action until 11.30pm when they turned them off and sent us out to our tents.

Early morning peace at Camping Ninja

Early morning peace at Camping Ninja

With the help of friends, thank you Debbie and Elizabeth, I arrived by train and was reunited with my tent, bike and uniform. I embraced the Glasgow 2014 ideal of “active transport”, and set out to cycle to all my shifts. The triathlon in Strathclyde Country Park was always going to be a challenge. So I set off extra early with route details and a borrowed OS map (thank you Christine and Malcolm). Three hours later I arrived at the athlete check-in gate of the triathlon venue. The transport and security teams who greeted me were in awe of my determination to battle the (unsigned) diversions around the Glasgow Green venue and the athlete village. I went down in history as the mad cycling volunteer who put in more hours on a bike that the competing athletes! Security kindly looked after my bike and Transport put me on an athlete bus to the other end of the park – which was closed to all other traffic for the event. The staff at Workforce Check-in rallied round to find me a breakfast of a banana and a “Lees Original Macaroon”. Not a macaroon as I know it, but if I ever come across one of these again I will be transported back to Strathclyde Loch. I was inauspiciously late joining the timing team but luckily this was a preparation session. The next day I modified my transport plans and combined cycling with the train to Motherwell.

Our triathlon shifts included a venue and team training day, the individual women’s and men’s races, a relay rehearsal and – the highlight – the Mixed Team Relay. Was I proud to be English? You bet! Surprised at the National Anthem? We all were. Congratulations to:

  • Jodie Stimpson and Vicky Holland, Gold and Bronze
  • Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, Gold and Silver
  • and Holland/ Brownlee/ Stimpson /Brownlee, Gold in the Relay
Proud to be English, puzzled by the National Anthem

Proud to be English, puzzled by the National Anthem

It was a pleasure to work with these athletes and they confirmed my belief, formed in my early days with aat events, that triathletes are generally a very reasonable bunch of people. Before the start of the team relay, Jonny Brownlee appeared in the changeover area with a pair of scissors, and asked me if he could shorten the transponder straps to stop them flapping about. He did his, and his brother’s. Impressive race preparation. I later recalled that after the individual event there had been 4 straps that were too short to fit back on the rack they came on. We now know why.

The blistering sunshine in the first week warmed the water above the temperature that wetsuits were optional. Yes, in Glasgow the water was so warm that wetsuits were forbidden by Triathlon rules. I also heard reports of melting tarmac on the bike route. There were industrial sized containers of sun-screen for volunteers to help themselves at breaks.

Results technology team

Results technology team

On the train journey home from the relay, I enjoyed a lively conversation with some David McNamee fans. They could see what a great time I was having, and how passionate I was about organising sport at all levels. (They assumed I must work in a school – irony, Mr Gove). One of the triathlon fans mentioned that he had considered volunteering but ultimately had not because he felt it would be a big anti-climax when it was all over. Yes it really is. But there are solutions – there’s a topic for a future blog post.

The marathon route came right through our camp-site. Handy for spectators but I had to get up at 5.00am to cycle to the event HQ. I was somewhat dismayed to find out, after check-in, venue tour and team brief, that our team was overstaffed and one of us could go home. As I’d had such a great role at the Tri relay I stepped down. But by this time all the roads had been closed. I might have had a lie in and a short stroll to cheer the runners through Pollok Park. Never mind. I understand it’s hard to plan such complex volunteer schedules. Instead I went back to the People’s Palace which was now the workforce rest area. This spectacular greenhouse which had provided some warmth and shelter in the winter was – well, like a greenhouse! I sat down in a comfy chair and fell fast asleep and missed the marathon completely.

Another gastronomic memory of Glasgow 2014 - a volunteer staple

Another gastronomic memory of Glasgow 2014 – a volunteer staple

The Mountain Bike venue also presented transport challenges, not least the 400m climb to the top of Cathkin Braes hill. So I settled for the bus – did my research on the way home from the marathon to check the bus stop was not on a closed road. The very helpful bus driver set me down in a random housing estate and told me to head off uphill on a minor track. Better luck than at the triathlon, I arrived straight to Workforce Check-in. It was an awesome venue and the huge wind turbine and buzzing helicopters added to the atmosphere. My job was again working with the Longines timing team and here on the 80% gate where athletes that drop behind are pulled or retire. Some were clearly outclassed. Others were frustrated. But I was surprised at the reaction of the crashed and bloodied Isle of Man rider who punched the air with joy when his team manager told him that his crash had been replayed several times on the big screen. If seems if you are going to crash, you want people to see it. Radio communications presented an unexpected challenge for me as all messages were in German. Most of the numbers came back to me, but who would have thought I’d have needed a European language at the Commonwealth Games in Scotland.

A day off – and someone gave me an athletics ticket. Thank you 🙂 And other priorities were washing clothes and bike repairs.

For the cycling time trial we were asked to meet at Commonwealth House in the City centre, the venue for my distant past interview on that chilly day. We were sorted into sectors, slowly, and bussed out onto the route. 7.30am check-in; 10.01am race start. we were in place and set up with only minutes to spare, a reminder that it takes a long time to organise so many people.

Back up timing for the Cycling Time Trial

Back up timing for the Cycling Time Trial

We were dropped into the middle of nowhere, in pouring rain. Our uniform rain jackets and umbrellas were good, and our trousers were quick-dry, but I was relieved to see a gazebo at my timing station. My job was to record the cyclist numbers and make sure the back-up info was radioed to Longines timing HQ – this time thankfully in English.

Cycle route sculpture on Route 7

Cycle sculpture on Route 7

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs

I must have been inspired by all that cycling. Next day off I embarked on an excursion to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. It was a splendid cycle along Sustrans NCR 7 which followed the Forth & Clyde Canal and the River Leven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A chance to run in the Pollok parkrun on Saturday – don’t forget your barcode! And then my final shift was the Cycling Road Race where we were removing transponders from some very expensive bikes.

Throughout my two weeks I’d experienced some great team leadership – take a bow Terence from Canada, our Tri results tech team leader. I’d had the satisfaction of of collaborating with some real team players, and a little bit of working with some non-team players too. Just occasionally it felt like we were in an episode of The Apprentice with some jostling and posturing and imagined calls of “Notice me! Give me the best job!”

But what I will remember most is the teamwork, the camaraderie of the campsite and the amazing friendliness of people in the city.

If you were in uniform people wanted to talk to you. I cycled in and out of the city at all times of day and night. They say “People Make Glasgow”.

One of my favourite places to relax was the BBC at the Quay: A hub of entertainment, free bands, big screen and the studio where they recorded “Tonight at the Games”. I’d been lucky enough to see Public Service Broadcasting, Bellowhead, PAWS, Prides and The Radiophonic workshop. On the last night Debbie and I, and several thousand others returned for one last time to The Quay to watch the closing ceremony.

Clydeside Evening

Sun sets on the iconic Finnieston Crane and Glasgow 2014 venues

Sad Glasgow 2014 is over. Will I be finding my way to the Gold Coast in 2018, I wonder.

It’s an honour to volunteer for parkrun

runners enjoying parkrun

More than 1 million people are registered with parkrun    Photo courtesy Simon Hart

On Saturday 14th June, 2014, Paul Sinton-Hewitt was awarded the CBE in the Queen’s Birthday honours list for “services to Grass-roots Sport Participation”. Paul started parkrun in 2004. And now these free, 5k, timed,Saturday runs are happening all over the UK and in a growing number of other countries. The statistics are so phenomenal that I will not include them here as they will be out of date tomorrow! Instead I’ll refer you to the foot of the parkrunUK home page where you can find the latest stats and here for the worldwide numbers. 

Even more amazing than the numbers of people running, are the numbers of people volunteering. Every week at least 3000 people in the UK help put on their local parkrun and a grand total of 60,055 different people have volunteered for parkrun in some way or another. I have been fortunate to see the inner workings of parkrun and experience the dedication of the most committed volunteers at the recent Ambassador’s conference. Ambassadors are instrumental in helping parkrun continue to grow.

The success of parkrun lies in having practical systems that can be taken on by volunteers. But I believe a far bigger contributor to the meteoric rise in new parkruns is the ethos that inspires ordinary people to step forward and volunteer. parkruns are organised by local people with the support of the ambassadors, a tiny staff of parkrun and sponsors.

parkrun is bringing communities together to make grass-roots sport happen; and as a consequence parkrun is bringing communities together.

 

Paul and parkrun deserve this Birthday Honour. And as one of the local volunteer Event Directors I can say that I feel very honoured to be part of parkrun.

You can read more about this story in the parkrun weekly news.

Get out of your comfort zone

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Get out of your comfort zone and push yourself to new employable heights. Read the sound advice in this Vinspired blog post “5 ways to get the most out of volunteering“. It will help you choose the right sort of volunteering and help you get something out for YOU.

“People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it”

said, George Bernard Shaw, and I agree.

Ever wanted to put your hand up but hesitated in the face of negativity? Ever watched while a single doom-monger, with a well-timed outburst, puts off a whole crowd who are working on a good idea?

You may have just encountered a pessimist. Pessimists will often sound like this: He tried whatever you are suggesting once (just once, mind!) and it didn’t work. She did something similar to what you are suggesting and it didn’t work. They know someone who tried something ……..

What to do? Here’s a simple 3-point plan:

Separate
Dismiss
Gather strength in numbers

Separate yourself from these negative people. You will never change them. They may be people who have always had trouble seeing the positive or they have had a past experience that has put them off.

Dismiss their discouraging remarks for what they are – usually an isolated or historical example not relevant to the plans in progress.

Gather strength in numbers if there are more of you with positive ideas on what CAN be done, stick together. Support each other.

What ever happens, don’t let a lone negative voice disrupt the way of progress and good ideas. If all else fails, quote George Bernard Shaw at them!

And see for here for more inspiration

 

 

Want to join in and help with a local sport event?

Saturday 27th July 2013 is the anniversary of the London Olympic Games opening ceremony. If you were inspired by the Olympic Volunteers a year ago, do you want to dip your toe in the water of volunteering now? No big commitment. No long journey. If you do, Join In UK has the answer by offering you a way to find a sports even near you that needs some helpers. There are more 10,000 events to choose from all between July 27th to Sept 9th.

I was lucky enough to be at the Olympic Park for the launch and I recommend you watch this video now for some inspiration!

And you can listen to Dave Moorcroft (Director of Join In Local) talking to Danny Norman of parkrun.

If you want to be part of the Olympic Games volunteering legacy, then Join In is the place to start. And if you are a club or group looking for volunteers you can register here.

Volunteers’ Week – anyone for sport?

Volunteers’ Week is an annual celebration of the fantastic contribution millions of volunteers make across the UK – and it’s taking place from the 1-7 June 2013

If Volunteers’ Week makes you want to start – then let  me inspire you with some leads into  sport volunteering. You don’t need to be sporty – some of the best volunteers I know wouldn’t dream of breaking into a sweat!

Sport Makers is the official London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic sports legacy, a Sport England scheme for sport volunteering. Watch this video to find out what it is all about. Formal or informal, your own initiative or part of a club – support and training is there for 40,000 Sport Makers.

Sport volunteering doesn’t need to be all form-filling and formalities. There are weekly parkruns all over the UK, and becoming worldwide, that are organised entirely by volunteers. You can find your local parkrun and contact them by e-mail – the address is on each parkrun’s volunteer page. Or just pitch up to the start of your local parkrun – at about 8.30 on a Saturday morning – and offer to help and they will involve you in the team. It will take less than 2 hours and you can probably join them for coffee afterwards.

Cancer Research UK organises Race for Life runs all over the UK. There is bound to be one near you. They urgently need volunteers to help on the day – find out more and sign up here. No previous experience required – a great place to start.

 

Giving and gaining

Friday 17th May is Give & Gain Day

This is a National day when companies support their employees to get out and volunteer in the comgive_and_gain_day_2013-100x142munity. It is organised by Business in the Community.

“It’s set to be a record breaking year here in the UK – we’re currently sitting at 12,000 business volunteers, 300 companies, approximately 96,000 volunteer hours and £1.5 million worth of support for UK communities.” said Tom Gater of Give & Gain.

Give & Gain Day encourages thousands of people across the globe to spend a working day volunteering for good causes in their local community. Since 2008, over 60,000 people in 31 countries around the world have taken part.

Give & Gain Day connects skilled professionals with community organisations by matching them with a volunteering project, offering invaluable support in tough times. Business volunteers will help in schools, day centres, and youth groups, doing everything from school sports days, to employability workshops and CV training for the long term unemployed.

Focus on Young People

The 2013 event takes place against the backdrop of increasing pressures on local services, with recent figures suggesting that 1 in every 6 charities are at risk of closing. With the level of unemployment among 18-24 year olds sitting at a worryingly high 21.1%, this year Give & Gain Day has a focus on supporting young people.

Paul Turner, Group Community & Sustainable Business Director at Lloyds Banking Group said: “One of the best ways businesses can support their local communities is by encouraging employees, customers and suppliers to use their skills and time through volunteering. We are deeply committed to playing an active part in the communities where we live, work and do business. Colleagues across the Lloyds Banking Group volunteer throughout the year, but Give & Gain Day provides the perfect focal point.”

Simon Lucas, Managing Director of recruitment and executive search firm Society, comments “I think the impact Give & Gain Day can have on local communities is really profound. There’s the short term benefits of community organisations getting an event run or a mural painted, but there’s also a fundamental exchange happening. Businesses are getting exposed to the issues that community organisations on their doorstep are having to grapple with, the community organisations are getting exposed to business ways of thinking and acting.”

Give & Gain Day volunteers are in good company, joining a global movement of thousands of volunteers across 25 countries as diverse as Spain, Iran, Nigeria and Switzerland.

Sponsored by Lloyds Banking Group and Society and in association with BT, Give & Gain Day 2013 is dedicated to getting thousands of employees out of the office, store or factory to volunteer in their local communities. By making volunteering fun, accessible and inspirational BITC believes that it is something all businesses should give their staff an opportunity to do in work time.

If you are taking part in Give & Gain day tomorrow please leave a comment – we would love to hear what you’ve done:

Dedicated to my event volunteers

Now we have deflated the finish gantry on the 7th, and my final, Clandon Park Run, I would like to say thank you to the 100 volunteers who have helped on the day – every year. When they agreed to help 7 years ago, many had no idea what was in store and I’m sure this is the only time they put on a high-viz, stand in a field and cheer. I would like to pay tribute to their loyalty.

The Clandon Park Run is like any other charity run. It attracts serious and fun runners and it relies on a lot of volunteers to hand out race numbers and marshal runners round the course. Compared to many charity runs Clandon needs a generous number of volunteers to look after the hundreds of under-18s that take part. What started as a school fundraiser has gained a life of its own as a community event and I think this is what has made it so popular. Every year we are reminded that the local and school communities want to be involved either to run or to volunteer and some volunteers keep coming back long after their children have left the school.

Thank you to all our volunteers – it has been a pleasure to work with you.

We try to look after our volunteers. Here are some of the things we have done that might have helped them to keep coming back:

  • We tell volunteers what they will be doing in advance
    • We describe the different roles and let them choose
    • We tell them that the outside jobs may be in the rain and mud
    • We tell them what hours we need them
  • We prepare them
    • In the first couple of years we held briefings.
    • After that the majority were repeat volunteers and so we dropped the briefings
    • We give “marshal captains” one to one training
    • We tell everyone what to bring on the day
    • And we give written instructions and a map
  • We organise them on the day
    • We put new race marshals near to experienced ones
    • We put groups of volunteers under the leadership of “marshal captains” who check they know what they are doing
    • We organise lift shares if needed
    • We give everyone a drink and some cake!
  • We say thank you afterwards and share some positive feedback

And to let the runners have the final word:

“I really enjoyed the race, and thought it was very well organised. The family particularly enjoyed the atmosphere.” One of the winners

“I wanted to thank you for hosting such a professional, friendly and superbly organised event. From the moment we arrived in your car park to the moment we drove away, the experience was a very special one.  Thank you for all the thought you had clearly put into the organisation and for the warm atmosphere you created on arrival and around the whole 10km course. Well done and a very big thank you.” A group of novice runners supporting a local hospice charity