Volunteers are the backbone, the framework of every single endurance race on the planet. They are the support that makes it possible to realize a deep dream you have as an athlete.

Volunteers make sport possible.

They are more indispensable to sports than television or sponsors. Without volunteers all we would have would be a bunch of chaotic training days. Without volunteers that amazing potential you have to burst through your limits and experience the intensity of a personal best would never, ever happen!

On August 16th 2017 I’ll be in Kona at a gathering to honor the head volunteers for the IRONMAN World Championship. There are a lot of them! And each one can be counted on to help every athlete racing have one of the best experiences of their lives. And very few if any of those racing will ever know the work those volunteers put in to make that a reality.

Give the volunteers a hello and a smile!

As athletes we have a responsibility to these folks. We have a responsibility to thank them. It’s out job to give them a smile when we hand them our gear at check in.

A volunteer does their work out of love for their communities, for the athletes and for sports. They do their best to help make your experience great. I’ll never forget the volunteers who got up way earlier than I did in Kona so that when I got down to the pier all I had to do was show up and get numbered. All I had to do was pump up my bike tires and go to the start line. Everything else was taken care of.

Yes, we have a responsibility to those volunteers once the gun goes off. They may miss a handoff of a water bottle at an aid station as you whiz by at 20 mph. I’d like to see you run that fast with a water bottle you are trying to hand off to an athlete!

It’s nearly impossible to see race numbers at over 20 mph.

The volunteers may have trouble finding your special needs bag at the turn around half way through the bike. Again, seeing your race number on your body at lightening speeds is nearly impossible. So if they seem to be off the mark, slow down. That is your responsibility.

As an athlete you owe even more to the volunteers. It goes way beyond being respectful at every juncture where athlete and volunteer cross paths. It’s your job to honor the efforts they are putting out there for you by doing your best no matter what.

So if your race is not going the way you had hoped, give it everything you have anyway! The effort of the volunteers is validated by those who keep going for it no matter what. Even if the wheels come off of your race and you are now in complete survival mode, honor the volunteers with your effort. That’s important. It’s your part of the bargain.

Give it your all. That is all the volunteers ask in return.

And keep in mind that a “volunteer” goes way beyond the folks seen and unseen who coordinate the actual race you are in. Yes, there are more! What about the family and friends, the training partners and others who have helped you get to the start line? Those people are in the category of volunteer as well. Without them it is likely that even starting may have been a challenge. Honor those “volunteers” as well. Their help and inspiration doesn’t end the moment the gun goes off.

I know the importance of this perspective so well. In my final IRONMAN World Championship in 1995 I found myself over 13:30 behind the leader starting the marathon.

I was hoping to win my 6th IRONMAN World Championship. But with that gap it looked impossible. About three miles into the marathon I was feeling so lousy I was ready to just quit, to stop and end my career on a DNF. Fortunately I had a moment of quiet in the middle of running against all odds. I remembered all the people who had helped me get ready for the race.

If I quit, I would not be able to honor the effort and work they had done to help me get ready for my final IRONMAN. If I quit there was no way I could honor all the volunteers waiting out there at all the aid stations to come, people expecting to see me giving my best no matter what.

I had to go on. So I made that commitment. No matter what, I would do what it took to finish the race, even if I had to walk every step of the marathon from that point forward. Fortunately with that commitment the entire complexion of the race changed. My energy came back. I was once again able to look around and see how amazing the Island of Hawaii is and how beautiful and wonderful the people were who were helping me get through that incredibly tough day.

No matter what, keep going!

Each aid station was like an oasis. Sometimes the mile between each one seemed instantaneous. Other times it felt like the next one was on the other side of infinity. But then the aid station would appear. The volunteers would be cheering and holding out cups of life giving fluid and calories.

I made it to the finish that day, in first place! Thank you to all the volunteers who gave me inspiration to keep going. Thank you my family and friends who where the “volunteers” behind the scenes that got me ready to win my final IRONMAN World Championship.

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About the author Mark Allen More information on the author

I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.