The Elite Runner-Volunteer: Striking a Balance By Giving Back

The following is an addendum to Joe Uhan’s April column, “Volunteerism & Running Longevity

Locally, Craig Thornley was the first runner I knew to model this athlete/activist balance. Thornley co-founded Waldo 100K in 2001, while he was at the height of his competitiveness. That he notched eight Western States silver buckles and two top-ten finishes may be because of this activism. By redirecting his efforts away from running to race-directing, he was resting his body for two months each summer. This sort of activism-based periodization was no doubt crucial to his ability to bring home a buckle each June.

Volunteering and giving back part is just another component of the overall running experience

Western States has a history of inspiring activism in everyone it touches. That many of the volunteers are multi-time finishers – and outright champions – is testament to the notion that in giving to this event, the return is far greater.

Even more notable is that many of the race’s most decorated runners were, themselves, Western States volunteers during their competitive run. Tim Twietmeyer began his 25-year Western States run in the early 80s, and won his five cougars in the 90s. But rather than wait until after his star waned, Twietmeyer became intensely involved in the race in those middle years: everything from trail work, to training weekends, or leadership positions. The effect that had on him – to stoke his inspiration, as well as to strike balance in his own running, is not lost on him:

“My perspective on the volunteering and giving back part is that it’s just another component of the overall running experience. It’s not running and then volunteering as if it’s two separate things, volunteering is just something you do as part of being involved in the sport.”

Ten-time Western States finisher Bruce LaBelle has been a competitive runner for over three decades. His success, longevity, and emphasis on activism mirrors Twietmeyer’s. LaBelle’s activism was spurred at first by a mandatory volunteer instituted over twenty years ago by then-RD Norm Klein. Through volunteering, says LaBelle, “My Western States goals became not just to be competitive in the event, but to see if I could understand and be a part of what it takes behind the scenes to make the event a success. So far, I’ve crewed, paced, worked aid stations and start/finish lines, safety patrol, course marking, trail maintenance, and a variety of behind-the-scenes activities. The more time I’ve spent and the wider variety of ways I’ve volunteered at races and helped other runners, the more I’ve found it has helped my own running.”

Outside Western States, Hal Koerner has been atop the sport for nearly a decade, but when he’s not wearing a bib number, he’s handing them out: race directing the Lithia Loop Marathon and Pine to Palm 100-mile races in Ashland, Oregon. His business, Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland, is more than just a shoe store, it is a beacon of the running community: a hub for local runners to convene, a launch pad to share the trails, a steward to the lands they enjoy, and a hotspot for developing the latest running talent.

In his early racing days, that wasn’t the case. Koerner notes, “ I wore blinders for far too many years at ultra events. I thought my impact at events was rather minimal because I brought all my own supplies and had a crew to help and handle me through all the transitions, I didn’t know how much planning went into these events that run into the wilderness for miles upon miles.”

But after relocating to Seattle in the early 2000s, he got a first-hand look at what it took to create and sustain quality experiences, as well as what it took to create a hub of the running community, through his work at Seattle Running Company and the White River 50M, under the tutelage of owner/RD Scott McCoubrey:

“I had not been as close to an ultra as when I lived in Seattle and helped out with the White River 50. There was another level of commitment and attachment to the event once things got underway and I walked away with an overwhelming feeling of what it took to put on a top tier event.”

Koerner put these lessons of community activism to work when he relocated to Ashland, Oregon, to open his own running store, and create his own race in Pine to Palm 100:

“There was overwhelming community support to put on our events and a number of runners who wanted to be indebted to their success: more or less an ownership of, ‘This is our town and our events’”.

The time and efforts Koerner has put into these endeavors has clearly paid off in the community, as it has nurtured an already strong trail running program, and has launched the careers of several high profile ultra talents. But it has also fueled his ability to remain a consistent contender, year-after-year, in an increasingly youthful sport is likely due to the balance he strikes between personal running and his community obligations, and the inspiration he draws from his activism:

“Paradoxically, my race directing keeps me in touch with so many volunteers, entrants, crews, officials and friends that I feel more in touch with ultrarunning. I love watching the race unfold and the excitement of the day lives on and drives my motivation for the rest of the season.”

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Joe Uhan

Joe Uhan is a physical therapist, coach and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 18 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50/50 in October 2010, was the bronze medalist at the 2012 USATF 100K Trail Championships, and finished 9th overall at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe works at Tensegrity Physical Therapy in Eugene, Oregon.

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