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Volunteers the lifeblood of successful races It's way to sample fun of rec sports

Karen Michaels clearly remembers when she began her healthy lifestyle. It was 1998 and through her own will power, she gave up her two-packs-a-day smoking habit. Three months later, she ran her first 5K.

While she ditched the smoking habit and picked up exercising, Michaels found a way to gain confidence slowly while still surrounding herself with people who were living the lifestyle she was aspiring to -- she began volunteering.

Michaels was running and active, but she joined area clubs and began helping out at local races as a way to learn about new sports, to encourage others and to gain confidence herself. Now, Michaels is preparing for her first half-Ironman race in Syracuse next month.

"I didn't know how to swim so volunteering was my way of getting involved," Michaels said. "I loved cheering the participants on while I was controlling traffic or directing the athletes along a route. Almost everyone had a positive, energetic happiness to them.

"I realized that anybody could do this with the proper training tools. There were big, little, short, tall, overweight, even underweight people participating in these events, and looks can be very deceiving. You don't have to be skinny; you just need the commitment and desire to reach the finish line. You can't let your mind fail your body.

"Participating in this stuff is more mental than physical. Usually your body can still propel forward, it's the believing in yourself that you could lose during a race. You need to stay focused on the reward, crossing the finish line with a time that's all your own."

Volunteering was a way for Michaels to learn about triathlon and gain some mental confidence before jumping into the sport. It's an often overlooked aspect of racing but one that is key on a variety of levels. For some, like Michaels, volunteering serves as an introduction to the sport and a way to meet like-minded people. For others, it's a way to stay connected through an injury while some people use volunteering as a way to support friends and family members who are racing.

For Brenda Litzinger, it's a way to give back to a sport and a community which has meant so much to her along with a way to support organizations she believes in.

"I know what running did for me as person and that's why I like to give back to the sport," said Litzinger who, among other activities, helps the Buffalo Marathon and the Team Cure Challenge program for the Roswell Park Foundation. "Running changed my life for the positive. It made me a better person, a better friend and a better mother. I also do it for myself. I love it. I love cheering people on and seeing the look on their faces. It's so rewarding. It's a way to help a non-profit. A lot of groups do these races as fundraisers and I'm donating my time which helps them out tremendously. It just gives me a good feeling."

While volunteers have as many motivations for participation as the athletes do, they are vital to race organizers. A successful event often depends on the number of volunteers. Even small races need extra help to ensure an enjoyable and safe experience.

"From our position, the more volunteers we have the better because it just makes everything run smoother," said Rich Clark, who runs the timing services Score-This!!! and serves as a race director for several area triathlons. "It really helps us with our first goal which is to run a safe event. The more people you have at a corner helping with traffic control or handing out water, it's just better for everyone involved."

Race volunteers handle any number of jobs. At a triathlon, for example, volunteers help kick off the day by body-marking athletes. On the course, they will hand out water and nutrition products and help direct athletes. Volunteers count athletes into the swim corrals, stand at intersections on the bike and run course to help with traffic control and cut off timing chips at the finish line. Specialty skills are also needed, included being an open water certified lifeguard, a kayaker for safety on the swim or medical help. Volunteer cyclists also serve as the "sweep" vehicle so that race officials know where the last athlete is on the course at all times.

And if you happen to show up race morning to watch a friend or family member compete, don't be by shy about raising your hand to volunteer. Clark, for one, will never turn away the help.

"We always make announcements on race mornings for people who are there to watch to come and volunteer," Clark said. "We'll find them a job that's easy for them to do around the finish line so they can see their person finish and still help out. We want people to know the jobs aren't hard and you get a free lunch."

While individuals find their way to volunteer, races also connect with local non-profit agencies for assistance. While many events have a built-in charitable tie-in, some also financially reward organizations for bringing volunteers to the event. At the triathlons in which Clark serves as race director, non-profits are able to earn money for volunteering.

"Some organizations earn as little as $40 and some earn thousands based on what they do for the race," Clark said. "We've always come from the point of view that we like to partner with organizations who can get volunteers to come out. It makes it that much easier to run an event."