February 2016


Since the Valentine’s Day episode of Runner of a Certain Age podcast was about volunteering for races, I thought I’d follow up with a post about my volunteering experiences. (Yes, this post is late. I’m sure we can all cope!) It turns out that volunteering is actually good for you, so at the bottom there are some resources for finding volunteer experiences.

Volunteering: my earliest days. Like many kids, I was in Girl Scouts and as part of that did various community service projects. I was also in the school choir and the middle school melodrama (by that I mean plays, not pre-pubescent school dances), and Miss Mann took us to Tonquish Creek Manor to perform for the retirees living there. Among all of these, the experience that had the biggest impact on my life was with my family.

The CrossRoads program runs a meal program (back then we called it “the soup kitchen”) in downtown Detroit. My understanding back then was that the various Episcopal Church parishes in the diocese took turns each Sunday, paying for the food and providing the volunteers. I grew up a relatively privileged white kid in the suburbs, and our church was affluent compared to Detroit. Individuals in my parish donated turkeys and money, and each year we provided the Thanksgiving meal. Or maybe it was Christmas. It doesn’t matter. Mom and Dad, me, and both of my brothers, we all went out to volunteer and serve the meal: turkey shredded into a giant pot of gravy, served over white bread, with various sides, and pie for dessert. One year the priest had to separate two guys who got into a fight over the last piece of pumpkin pie. My brothers saw the whole thing and did not understand, couldn’t believe what they saw. “Dad,” one said, “it’s just a piece of pie.” Dad explained, “Yes, but it might be the only piece of pie they see until next year.” We were appropriately awed.

I know I am blessed, I have never gone hungry. Feeding others is one way to show gratitude.
I know I am blessed, I have never gone hungry. Feeding others is one way to show gratitude.

Volunteering: as a semi-grownup. People always seemed happy when you helped them do things. In college I was busy with a million things, and some of them involved volunteer projects. My sorority, Alpha Xi Delta, also did volunteer projects. (I’m not making this up, I was actually in a sorority.) I solicited alumni for donations in exchange for face-paint paw prints before football games, to benefit the Norm Constatine scholarship for the student who plays the Nittany Lion mascot. I went “canning” (essentially holding cans and asking for change) in support of ‘THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. (In 2016, THON raised $9.7 million. Yes, million.)  The activity I remember most was a party we hosted at a home for people with Down’s Syndrome–we spent most of it playing a sort of balloon volleyball, and the residents could not be more pleased. During the summers I was a Brownie troop leader at the PNC Service Unit day camp.

After college came law school, which eats more of your time than breathing, as though that is somehow possible. Still, I managed to spend part of a year and then a summer preparing a group of older girls to attend an international camporee in Finland.

Volunteering at Races: the early years. No surprise, I started volunteering at races LONG before I ever considered running them. After law school I moved to Austin (lon g story, there was this guy I was going to marry), I handed out bibs at the ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot. It was fun, and I think I got a free sandwich. I know I got a long-sleeved t-shirt (I still have it, and keep sewing up the holes). Later I volunteered for a century ride–100 miles on a bike, those people are NUTS!–cutting up bananas and handing out cups of water.

This sight at Rock n Roll San Diego made me grin and shout--and thank the volunteers
This sight at Rock n Roll San Diego made me grin and shout–and thank the volunteers

When I moved to Portland I joined the Penn State Club there. One year the Big Ten alumni clubs joined forces to provide course support for The Portland Marathon. As unlikely as it seems, I made friends with two Ohio State alumnae, and convinced them to join me on countless Volkswalks as I explored Oregon. I’d never really run a race, but volunteering for the marathon got me started thinking about it…and then I found out the local Volkssport club had it certified as a 42k walk. Marianne had broken her foot, but Susan and I walked our first marathon the next year, with Dad in tow.

On to volunteering in California. When I first moved to California, I joined the Junior League of the Oakland-East Bay. I was really excited by a program called “Done In A Day,” where volunteers gave a day to complete various community service projects. In my years with JLOEB I picked tall grasses for elephant snacks at the Oakland Zoo, painted the walls for the new computer and career center at a local domestic violence shelter, made blankets for Project Linus, and did a bunch of similar things. My law firm sponsored a trip to Guatemala, where we helped to built smokeless stoves purchased with funds donated by the firm. (Stove smoke is a major cause of respiratory problems among women and children in rural Guatemala.)

As it turns out, volunteering is good for you.  True story.  In 2013 United Health even published a study on it. Some of the benefits include increased self-confidence, a sense of purpose, combating depression, and helping you stay physically healthy. A study by Carnegie Mellon found it reduces blood pressure. Read more research here.

It’s also fun! Volunteering for anything pretty much guarantees a bunch of people will thank you. (That’s what Jen noted in the podcast. If you haven’t listened to it yet, you should.)

Resources. Every race needs volunteers. Find your local race, look up the race page, and sign up! Some races offer perks like shirts, snacks, or even credit towards a future race.

Many charity organizations are looking for volunteers. Check out the zoo, aquarium, food pantry, Meals on Wheels, Boys & Girls Club, Girl Scouts, humane society, animal shelter, parks & rec department, local beach cleanup… Some volunteer positions require training to do them right–like the sea otter volunteers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium–and those positions often require a  longer-term, specific commitment.

Not interested in volunteering for a race? Dislike early mornings? Can’t make the commitment that some places require? Check out One Brick, now organized in 12 cities. You can sign up for specific events that fit your schedule. In northern California, check out HandsOn Bay Area, which connects individuals, groups, and companies with volunteer projects. Or mark your calendar for the annual California Coastal Cleanup Day projects, which include clean-ups for rivers and streams. Nationally, Volunteer Match can connect you with opportunities.

Disclosure: I received a free entry to the Sedona Marathon because I am a BibRave Pro. (Per usual, all opinions are my own–you should know by now I don’t need any help with that, I’ve got plenty of ’em!) Learn more about becoming a BibRave Pro here. Read and write race reviews at! It’s a great way to choose between conflicting races, to help runners find the best races, and the help race directors improve each year.

The Sedona Marathon taught me this: if you live on an island that is 6’ above sea level, running a marathon at 4500+’ just might not be the best idea.

I worked Friday, and missed the expo. Sedona offered race-day pickup with almost no lines, so it took about five minutes to get my bib. My friend Jackie had come along to be my race crew, so I put what would have been my checked bag, as well as my race shirt, in her Jeep. (The shirt is great—a royal blue Greenlayer brand tech shirt—a classic run shirt design with a line drawing of the scenery, sunrise, and some runners. During the pre-race, there were also various vendors of running gear, natural foods, and Sedona-themed merchandise. Race staff announced interesting facts about the race, including that there were 47 states represented (note to South Dakota: time to represent!) and 80 runners from Japan!

After posing for a quick selfie with Emily (running the 10k), I hopped into the corral for the final announcements, a few dynamic movement warmups, and the national anthem. (Does anyone else want to yell “Play Ball!” at the end?) Then we were off!

BibRave Pro Emily pre-race
BibRave Pro Emily pre-race (thanks to Emily for the pic!)

I spent the week before the race waffling about whether to drop back to the half marathon. This was in large part due to my late realization at the elevation of the race (hey, I’d never been to Sedona!) and the fact that a hectic work schedule to got in the way of training. After weighing the merits of both options, and of course taking a poll on facebook, I decided to stick to the marathon. First, I’d accepted a bib to the race on the premise that I’d run the marathon. Second, I’ve only ever technically DNF’d one other race (The New Year’s Double marathon on New Year’s Day) and I still finished, which is more important to me than pretty much anything else. Finally, I figured if I got swept it would just give me more to blog about, right?

So I took off with the marathon start, with very good intentions and the knowledge that I was probably about to get my butt handed to me. The first little piece was downhill and I tried to pace myself. I once ran the fastest mile of my life at the beginning of a race—caught up in the excitement!—and regretted it about eight miles later. The course turned a few times, spent a block on the main road through Sedona, and then turned towards the hills. Uphill, naturally.

The starting line (see the lady dressed like a cactus)
The starting line (see the lady dressed like a cactus)

I am not a fan of running uphill. I am REALLY not a fan of running uphill at elevation. It quickly became apparent that sticking to a 1 minute run/1 minute walk interval was not happening, so I adjusted to a terrain-based interval: run downhill, walk uphill, do intervals on the flat pieces. By the first aid station, I was almost the last marathoner.

We passed the 10k turnaround, and I wondered if Emily wasn’t the smartest person I knew running this race. The half marathon runners caught up with me around mile 3 or 4 or so and I got another burst of energy from being in a crowd again. Jeremy came up from behind me, and then snapped an epic selfie.

Faux-to Bomb!
Faux-to Bomb! (thanks to Jeremy for the pic)

Despite my newly-made terrain-based plan, my lungs were really unhappy with me. My legs were fresh and eager to run, but my lungs were on fire. I shortened my flat intervals from 1/1 to “until my lungs start to smokle”/the remainder of that 1 + 1. I attempted to distract my lungs by looking at the gorgeous scene unfolding before me. Scenically, you could not ask for a prettier desert-mountain course. The “urban” portion was less than a mile of the course, and even then it was set against the majestic backdrop that is Sedona. I’d never been to Sedona before, so I spent a lot of time gawking at the red and white striations in the rock formations. The greenery was pretty much all foreign-to-me desert-y stuff, so also fun to look at.

Scenery and runners
Scenery and runners

As I approached the half marathon turnaround, I looked for Jackie. The plan had been for her to camp out near that aid station. I didn’t see her, which turned out to be a good thing—I had planned to shed my long-sleeved base later at that point (the sun had come out and unlike the Arizona natives I was no longer cold). Later on as the chilly breezes came through I was glad to have the sleeves!

At half marathon turnaround the course shifted from paved to dirt roads. The paved section was the nicest pot-hole-free blacktop I’ve run on in quite some time. The dirt road entrance was flanked by U.S. Park Service (or was it U.S. Forest Service?) signs warning “primitive road” that is “not regularly maintained.” They totally overstated it—I’ve run on paved roads in California that aren’t as nice. The road was open to traffic, and multiple ATVs, Jeeps, and other vehicles passed while I was running. (Jeep tours are A Thing in Sedona.) For the most part this was no big deal, as most drivers were courteous and went rather slow. I was glad I had a Buff with me, as I used it over my nose/mouth when drivers kicked up a little too much dust.

The crowd had thinned out completely by mile 7. I had two runners in sight ahead of me, and one close behind. As I ran-walked-woggled I heard the sound of ice cracking where the sun hit the frozen water drainage at the side of the road. Sedona rocked my concept of Arizona; first it was “cold” (the Arizona runners all had on winter gear!), and then I saw cactus surrounded by snow!

Believe it: snow on the cactus!
Believe it: snow on the cactus!

As I passed the spotter at mile 8, I overheard his radio: the lead marathoner had just passed mile 17! We exchanged pleasantries and he clapped and said, “I’m proud of you!” as I passed. That reminded me of Mom, and I powered on to the next aid station. The aid stations were the best! All of them were staffed by themed-groups, including “run from the zombies” and a group with big flowers on their heads.

The majority of the marathoners passed me on their way back as I hit miles 10 and 11. Everyone with breath to spare told me to keep it up and encouraged me onward. One of the last inbound marathoners passed me at mile 12.5—in a particularly hilly section of the course—and I’d bet she was old enough to be my grandmother. Inspired, I ran down the hill to the marathon turnaround and did a funny little dance as I went around the cone. There was a runner there awaiting transport back to the start, which I wished I’d noticed before I danced around the cone. Then it was back uphill towards the start.

A few miles in, I found Jackie! Or rather she found me. If you’re running a marathon and suspect you’re doing to DNF or otherwise come in close to the end, I cannot recommend this highly enough: bring a chaser! First, it was great to see a friend encouraging you on. Second, Jackie had gone absolutely nuts and brought enough snacks, drinks, and treats for pretty much the entire field of runners. She said the Japanese runners were confused by red vines (I guess those don’t exist there) and she had to explain that they were food. “Sugar?” one asked. Anyway, from that point forward, Jackie met me every mile or two. In addition to providing moral support, she also refilled my water bottles, mixed Nuun for me, and had every snack imaginable on hand. While I had put snacks in my Orange Mud vest, knowing I’d be out on the course all day, the Honey Stinger gingerbread waffle was the perfect treat when she offered.

"sedrona"? Completely blue skies made for good photo drone weather at the start
“sedrona”? Completely blue skies made for good photo drone weather at the start

By that time there were only two runners behind me. The famous Pink Jeeps that I’d recently seen on an episode of the Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race” drove up and down the course checking on us back-of-the-packers. At several points the Pink Jeep crew or their leader pulled up and offered me bottled water or Clif Shots. Around mile 22 or so, the crew leader tol me the crew was starting to close down the course. I said if course policy was to sag-wagon/sweep the last runners, I would completely understand, but I did have my own race crew to watch over me (and sweep me if necessary) and would prefer to finish. The Pink Jeep crew leader obtained the “a-okay” to carry on, once all were assured that I knew what I was doing and would be safe. The U-Hauls taking down the course also offered me water and provisions. Part of their job was also to sweep any trash that had landed on the side of the road. (Aid stations had garbage bags, but some runners forgot that when running through a National Park, you don’t drop your snack wrappers on the ground.) I let them know I had talked to the Pink Jeep crew leader and that I had my own crew, and was going to carry on.

Which I did, meeting Jackie every mile or so for more water, Nuun, and at times a snack. My pace was somewhat erratic, with little bursts of run until my lungs got fiery again. The Pink Jeep leader vacillated between thinking I’d hit the finish line before it closed at 4:00 and assuming I wouldn’t. At mile 24 I must have been looking somewhat pathetic. Jackie asked, “do you want to go another mile?” I said OH HELL NO, I’m going to finish this race.

The last 1/4 of the course returned to pavement
The last 1/4 of the course returned to pavement

Less than a mile before the finish line, I hit the intersection of the highway that is the main road through town. I sent Jackie a text to try to figure out whether to turn right or go straight and then realized that DUH I had the course map on my phone. As I turned, a woman in a Sedona Marathon shirt came running up. “Finish line is this way!” Sadly, I have forgotten her name, but she is definitely The Spirit of Running embodied. Having finished the half marathon, she had showered, changed clothes, and come back to first cheer, and then help the last marathoners find their way to the finish line! As we walked/ran small spurts toward the finish line I learned that she had flown in earlier in the week (a smart thing to do, as it gave her time to adjust to the elevation). Jackie met us a few hundred feet from the finish line.

Just before the finish line there is a little hill, and most runners take off from the top and run to the finish. I gave it a shot, my legs willingly and my lungs grudgingly, and crossed under the finish line truss as the race director and his crew were removing the signage. Everyone cheered, which was pretty cool. Even though the timing mat was gone—as were all the non-race-personnel, the finish line festival, and pretty much any other trace of evidence that a race had happened—The Spirit of Running made sure to present me with a finisher’s medal and some cookies.

Post-race margarita and hard-earned bling
Post-race margarita and hard-earned bling

As I pointed out in my review, in addition to having no reason to complain, I have extra reasons to be thrilled with race management. First, after assuring themselves that I would be safe, they allowed me to finish even after the course officially closed. Second, as I turned the last corner off the main out-and-back portion, The Spirit of Running made sure I found my way and got me to the finish line. While I didn’t get an official time (the timing system was shut down after 7 hours, well beyond the 6.5 hour limit advertised) I was presented with a medal and allowed to raid the snacks. Finally, the race staff taking down the finish line and packing things up thanked me for coming out to run the race and were sincerely interested in what I thought of the race. It felt like pretty amazing hospitality for one of the very slowest runners out there.