Volunteer Requirements: An Idea

Guest Post by Rob Cain (a.k.a. SLF)

The subject of volunteer requirements, specifically trail work, has been a hot topic on Conduct The Juices over the last few years.  Recall the first WS synchroblog from January 2009 where Craig argued that while volunteerism is a good thing, making it mandatory denigrates the contributions we make and calls to question the authenticity of our efforts.  He suggested that instead of requirements, we need leaders and opportunities and with those, ultrarunners will be more than willing to help.  While I admire his idealism, my experience is mixed.

Ultrarunners Clearing Blowdown In Oregon

I am a co-race director of the SOB 50K in Oregon, and president of our local trails organization which has six to eight workdays a year.  Our typical turn out is six to seven of us.  All but one or two are the same people every time.  Only two to three are trail runners.  The rest are hikers or bikers.  We email around 300 people, including 100 trail runners.  Year after year, we see the same turnout, the same result.  The singular time we have any increased turnout is when the work is specifically for the race course, and we get over twenty people (most of which have entered the race) to help improve the trail (or in the case in the last two years, remove snow–grrr).

The Forest Service notices even this little amount of service we provide and it has strengthened our relationship.  We had little difficulty getting approval for an alternate route within three weeks of the race.  We’re in the process of getting some new trails approved through the local Ranger.  And, we’ve got new races approved due to our relationship.  They appreciate our work and our dedication.   I only wish we could do more.  I feel our relationship could be stronger with more maintenance hours spent by our group.  Especially in light of the significantly reduced budget they’re working under.

Ultrarunners Make Good Rock Movers

I was down at Angeles Crest recently and heard how the volunteer efforts are appreciated.  The race director is quite proud of the thousand hours his group has spent improving the course.  Without those hours, it is doubtful the race would be held at all.  Issues from a Wilderness Area, threatened or endangered species, to fire damage are all reasons not to approve the permit, yet it was approved.  The reason is the work.

As race directors, we’ve been looking for possible solutions to our dilemma.  We’re now in the enviable position of selling out our race(s) in about a month.  Our longest race is a 50k so we can’t go against the grain and require work.  So we had this idea.  What if we guarantee anyone who works at least one of our routine work parties a space even if we’re full.  If we would accept 300 in our race, we would still make sure any person who worked would be allowed in, even if it meant more than 300 in our race.  Not exactly a service requirement, but certainly a benefit if you help us with trail maintenance.  It is an either/or situation.  You can register routinely and not have to work, or you can work and guarantee yourself a spot.  Clearly we’re catering to local runners.

A variation of this might work for Western States.  What about letting in the person with the most hours of trail maintenance for the year?  How about a lottery for those that show up for a trail workday?  If they are serious about getting people to work, there are further incentives they could use to bolster turnout.  BTW, I’m totally fine with the service requirement.


  1. (Is it bad that I’m always the first to post — guess I’m not as busy at work as I think I am).

    Great post, SLF. I’m a believer in the requirement for one simple reason: EXPOSURE.

    Few, if any people, go from “no ultras” to a 100M like Western States. Similarly, the idea that a person with no trail work experience would go from “nothing” to doing a formal, 3-day trail work course (that they have to pay for) is unrealistic. It’s a huge commitment for something that A.) they don’t know anything about, and B.) may not enjoy.

    The “work requirement”** for races like WS creates EXPOSURE to the many tasks necessary for the running of an ultra (trail, in particular). For example, prior to my first work experience at Hagg Lake this year, I didn’t even know “sweeps” existed! Now I do, and moreover, I enjoyed the experience and would repeat it, willingly, without a requirement.

    (**it should be referred to as thus; rather than “volunteer”)

    Moreover, I’d never done any trail work until the Waldo Trail Weekend two weeks ago. Now I know how (comically) to repair root holes with enormous, multi-ton boulders! (By the way, sliding them along long metal pry bars is the key!). This was not only good for the trail, but I enjoyed that hard work and I’m now motivated to do more – with or without race incentives.

    Lastly, I love the idea of guaranteed entries via work hours. However, I’d make those work requirements significant: 16-24 hours, at least. Because I’d sweep the WS course with a straw broom from Squaw to Robinson for a guaranteed entry. :p

    • Addendum: I know what LB’s saying: we need the trail runner/worker “underlings” to ultimately step up to Lieutenant positions capable of leading the novices in the woods.

      I’m not sure how you make that happen; but I feel that the more work that is done, the more skilled, confident and likely those are to take up those leadership roles…

      • OOJ, one way to gain those skills in Oregon is to take the FREE classes in the spring that are offered by the PCTA and High Cascade Forest Volunteers. These are three-day weekends in May in Westfir and June near Sisters. There is also a third in Cascade Locks in the gorge. We’ve had several runners in the Waldo group step up and gain skills or get certified the last few years at these training weekends. I have blogged about them the last two years.

  2. SLF, thanks for the guest post. Anytime we talk about trail work I think is a good thing. You were the one who got me connected with the PCTA and that is proving to be very fun and rewarding. A great organization to be a part of. I’ve met lots of great people. Thank you for that.

    I’m not sure I understand why you feel you need to do this. You do a lot of trail work and as a result have a great relationship with the FS which has proved valuable to all of us who race or have raced in Ashland. That’s fantastic. What more do you expect to gain if, say, you doubled the number of volunteer hours your group performs? I don’t see what you could expect to gain in terms of strengthening your relationship with the FS.

    Are you and the few that help you growing tired of doing trail work and you want others to do their share? Are you disappointed with the ultrarunning community because we aren’t stepping up and helping in the proportions you think we should? That we don’t value trail work enough?

    Whatever your reasons for wanting to increase participation, your idea of letting folks in obviously will not work at some number of runners. What would be your max? 10, 20, 100, 300, 500 runners doing trail work? Guess once you reached a certain number you would then just go to a lottery and have something similar to Hardrock in that trail work hours increase your chances in the lottery. But since your race opens before the trail work season you’d have to reward the prior year’s trail work. Perhaps a good problem to have?

    Here are a couple of other ideas to increase participation:

    1. Make the days/projects meaningful and significant. Big projects people can look back at and feel good about. Bridges, trail reconstruction, etc. Also, if there are too many people on a project then chances some folks will feel like they weren’t needed increases. The burden is on the leader(s) which I argue every time is really the crux of the matter.

    2. Include food and drinks. Maybe you already do this, but WS definitely has this part figured out.

    3. Use different media to advertise your work parties. Facebook, twitter, blog, etc. I’ve never seen word of one of your work parties and I’m pretty well connected. Using the same stale mailing list doesn’t seem to be attracting any new workers. Time for a change.

    4. Make it fun and enjoy the work. “Complaining” (probably too strong a word) that you don’t get enough help isn’t likely to attract more people. Talk about all the benefits you personally get out of doing trail work. There must be reasons other than just to strengthen the relationship with the FS.

    5. Finally, if you are OK with a trail work requirement for 100 milers, why don’t you buck the trend, grow a pair, and implement a 4-hour trail work requirement to run SOB 50K? You’d sure get a lot of attention.

  3. All good questions Craig.

    Let me start with your last since it somehow sticks longer than the others. I guess I’d rather get a lot of runners rather than attention. We’re successful, so why buck any trend. We are thinking of having prepaid ice-cold Sierra Nevada Pale Ale six packs available in an attempt to get AJW to run, but that’s another topic.

    I really try not to complain (too much). I’m very happy that most people know to stay away from the trails that we’re working on that day. I’m not sure what would come out of my mouth if a large group of runners came by and flipped dust on me. That happens to me at the beach all the time and I have to keep quite.

    I think your third point is valid. We need to do more in the way of publicizing our work parties. We do the fb but twitter scares us down here in Ashland. We’ve seen a national caliber runner here try it and well, the results are pathetic.

    We do the food and drink thing. No cheesy t-shirt like WS though.

    I think your first point is very valid. We’ve been doing routine maintenance on many trails around Ashland for years. It will be interesting when we get some of the new trails approved to see the response. I think building is much more fun than maintaining. Opening a trail has an ending. Maintaining one doesn’t. Human nature.

    As to why I want more involvement, there are a number of factors. First, I see much work that we simply can’t get to due to spreading too thin. Additionally, the trails proposal we’re giving the Forest Service will require much in the way of building, but also, long term, maintaining. Who will do the routine work on the additional trails?

    Yes, I’d like to share the burden. The small group of us will eventually get burned out. What happens then? That being said, I don’t want to make a big deal out of it either. Having a market mechanism like entry into a race makes it safe, convenient and appeals to my inner Adam Smith. You can either do it or not.

    If you think about it, we (the SOB and other races) have a huge volunteer base. For the folks that staff each of our aid stations, they have given up a big part of their day for the benefit of others. They do it year after year, with a great attitude which results in fantastic reports from the runners. All our races are filled with tens and hundreds of people volunteering. I don’t lose sight of that and am grateful at each race I run or direct.

  4. … when I think of trail work (and having to pay entrance fees to state and national parks), my first thought is: where do my tax dollars go? (other countries; useless wars; fraud; entitlements and so forth). For what the government wastes each year, we could have beautiful trails, bike paths, free entry to our parks (and parks for that matter instead of closing them) and so forth.

    Volunteerism/charity work is good for the soul for sure … but when required or strong-armed into it, well, different vibe.

  5. All good comments. Perhaps relatively we’re doing well given that we draw our volunteers from
    a town of 20,000. But I share some of Rob’s frustration of carrying the torch for a long time and not seeing much change in volunteerism. I think in small towns like ours, we’re going to have to be a bit more creative in drawing people out. Not really sure what the answer is. But god knows, we’ve tried a lot of different approaches.

    I’m not particularly worried about our race being overrun with entrants given our relative geographic isolation. I tend to prefer the carrot to the stick (mandatory requirement) approach.
    It also gives locals who want to race a chance to get involved with trail work. I’d be thrilled if late entry brought us 10 more volunteers.

    As for incentives…we’ve always enjoyed trail work, and yes we have fun and frequently head out for beer after work. There’s not much complaining done publicly. I bet Rob would even don the pink miss Muffet outfit if it would get a few more people out (maybe we’ll check with the local sisters of perpetual indulgence chapter)!

    As for 100 milers which usually have a work requirement, I have no problem with it. I wish more runners could be more altruistic like Craig and Rob. Reality seems to say otherwise, or perhaps people are just too busy. Either way, I think requiring 8 hours of volunteer time is a pretty small requirement given the needs of putting on a 100. And frankly, if you’ve got the time to train for a 100, you oughta be able to give up a day for trails.

    • Given the wide geographic distances many runners have to travel to get to some of these out of the way events, it could be difficult for many runner/participants to travel that far to do trail work. In my experience, I spend a lot more time traveling to help out for trail work or at races than I would spend if I just went running. This may be a factor for a lot of people who might want to but don’t go out of their way to help out.

      Whether or not trail work or “volunteering” should be required remains an undecided issue in my mind. For the most part I think hard work is it’s own reward but I’m not an RD trying to keep his/her trails race ready. Extra hands could go a long way to alleviating the RD’s burden of putting on races and give the races more longevity which, in turn, is a boon for runners. Then again, I don’t think I’d like working along side people who felt forced into “helping” and do their part begrudgingly or half-assed. Does this happen? I’d like to think that the kind of people who run ultras would have a good attitude about doing “volunteer” work, but I’m probably naive. I know I wouldn’t like having to be the referee about who “really” worked (hard enough) and who didn’t.

  6. … one other factor to consider is whether the race is a for-profit business enterprise (I’ve been around ultras for going on 3 decades so I know that most are not … even if they attempt to be). If the race director is making money, then I question the notion of coerced ‘volunteering.’ Now, if someone enjoys volunteering or working races (as many of us do from time to time), that’s our business … but don’t make it a requirement for entry.

    Another point, lmost everyone ‘volunteers’ in one way or another every single day (and sometimes whether they want to not)… from unpaid stuff we do at our work to little things like picking up some garbage on the trail. If nothing else, if you are paying middle-class level taxes then you are already paying for a huge amount of charity doled out by the US government both here and abroad.

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