Sunday, 11 March 2018

Volunteering makes you smarter

Being in Jo'burg overnight for a meeting, I had the pleasure of doing a different parkrun yesterday - the one at Ernest Ullmann Park and Recreation Centre in Wendywood. It is a two-lap course and for much of the course there is a two-directional flow of runners. On either end (near the start/finish and at the fartherest end) the route 'bulges' and the participants go around the bulge (one-directional) and then meet up again at the neck.

The route requires a good deal of marshals to prevent people from cheating. Yes, a lot of people will  cheat at parkrun when given the opportunity.

After finishing, I went to say hello to the Run Director and to introduce myself. Being the Event Director here in Parys, I enjoy it when other Event Directors and Run Directors come and say hello. Frank was standing at the start of the finish chute, directing runners in.

Within a minute or so there were two happenings that spurred me to write this post. I can't remember the first but I remember the second, a guy pushing a baby jogger pram. He wanted to go down the chute but did say that he hadn't done both laps. I told him to come around the side of me and not to go through the chute.

"But I want to go down here", was his response.

I told him that it confuses the finish marshals and timing so to please come around (a detour of about two metres!).

He was insistent. I was insistent. He went around.

What a stupid idiot!

Let me explain to you how parkrun works.

Everyone starts at the same time. 08h00. You then have to run, jog or walk the five-kilometre course. Some courses may be one big 5km route; others are out-and-back, some are two-lappers and others may have a repeat loop of a section somewhere along the course (our Parys parkrun is the latter layout).

When you finish, there will be a finish chute. The volunteers who do the timekeeping usually stand at the entrance to the chute. They clock your finish time. They may or may not call out your time. For the most part, they are focusing on making sure that the click the stopwatch button for every person entering the finish chute.

The next step is receiving a position token. For bigger parkruns, the volunteer will hand you a token. Here in Parys, we have the tokens on a wire, which a marshal at the finish manages (we no longer hand you the token).

You then progress down the finish chute, with your position token, to the volunteers doing the barcode scanning. They first scan your personal parkrun barcode, which you receive for free when you register online as a parkrun participant.

Anyone can participate in parkrun whether or not you have a personal barcode. The value of having one is that your results are logged on the parkrun system, which you can access through the parkrun website. A record is kept of how many parkruns you have done, where you have done them, the time recorded and how you placed overall, in your gender and in your age category. There are various parkrun milestones for 50, 100 and 250 parkruns completed and for each of these your receive a running tee from parkrun - free-of-charge with thanks to parkrun's sponsors.

Back to the finish...
The barcode scanning volunteers will first scan your personal barcode (if you have one) and then the position token.

When the results are processed by the designated volunteer, the clever parkrun system pairs the 'clicks' on the stopwatch with the position and personal barcode scans. And there you have the results.

Common issues we see are:

People who have not completed the full 5km distance going down the finish chute
We don't mind if you cannot yet complete the 5km distance - this is where routes with loops or two laps are very useful because they allow beginners to build up to completing 5km. It is not right for you to go down the finish chute - because you have not done the full 5km. We ask that you peel off before the finish. By coming down the chute, you get a time and result but you have not actually done the distance. This messes up age gradings, positions and placements for other participants who have actually done the full distance. Yes, this is cheating.

Marshals on the route try to look out for this and at the finish, especially with the faster times, we can spot offenders. It gets more difficult down the line.

We see this with children too. There have been instances where children will sit out a loop/lap and then they come through the finish with their parents. THIS IS CHEATING. I don't care whether you are 6 or 60, if you have not done the full 5km you should not go down the finish chute and you should not get a time.

Children in prams (or carried on a parent's shoulders) do not get results, even if they did walk 100m. Until a child does the full 5km on their own two feet, they do not get a result.

People finish and then go back to fetch a friend and then come through the chute again
You can only go through once. Yes, I know you want to run through with your friend, but all you have to do is to peel off at the entrance to the chute.

When you cross the timing volunteers, they click you. If you the duck under the tape to miss being scanned because "I've already finished", then you bugger up the timing.

Think about it. Let's say the timekeepers have logged 54 people (you for the second time included) and then you duck out of the finish chute, the token scanning will only be on 53. So the next person that comes through will be logged as 55 by the timekeepers and 54 by the scanners. This messes up the timing for the people that come after you. We do checks - between the timekeepers and the scanners - but it could take a number of people before we pick up the discrepancy.

People turnaround in the finish chute to walk back out the way they came in
One-directional flow here, friends. In one side, out the other. It isn't difficult. Don't turnaround once you've been scanned to walk out the way you came in against the flow of people coming into the finish. Really???

People without barcodes pass the timekeepers and then try to duck out of the finish chute 
This has the same effect as above in causing a mismatch between stopwatch clicks and positional tokens.

Even if you do not have a parkrun barcode, we still count your participation.


  • because you understand how things work
  • because you see all the stupid things that participants do and then you don't do the same stupid things
  • because you appreciate volunteers who, every Saturday morning, are there early to setup and to be out there so that you can enjoy a free, weekly, timed run.
When you go to parkrun, think. Use your brain and do what you are required to do (complete 5km and pass through the finish chute once).

And remember to volunteer. For parkrun and for anything else.

I learned so much in adventure racing from volunteering (as support crew or a marshal) and also when I was very involved in media because I got to observe all the stupid things that participants do (and all the really neat things). It made me a better racer because I saw first-hand what worked well and what didn't - I didn't need to make the mistakes myself.

Volunteering makes you a smarter and more considerate participant. Try it.

1 comment:

indiebio said...

Thanks Lisa, wasn't what I was expecting to read though, I think volunteering makes you smarter in general, and I truly believe volunteering is the cornerstone of democracy. I also think volunteering makes - well, me at least - rude. Because I don't have time when I'm doing timing to be nice. I volunteer at Zandvlei parkrun, and get gruff with people. It seems to work well, our participants are well trained!

I want to challenge the cheating thing, but will do that on your other thread.