Thursday, 31 October 2013

Running events voluntarily

Good for body and soul

A few years ago, the Saturday edition of the Times newspaper introduced a section entitled Body and Soul.  It was full of articles with advice about well known topics like healthy eating and the benefits of exercising.

One of its most persuasive early features examined voluntary activity.  In essence, it appears that volunteering can be a positive experience for the individual as well as benefitting those who need the assistance.  In modern parlance, this is a win-win situation.

Just being a volunteer, on this analysis, is good for your health.


Although I didn’t think of it as voluntary work at the time, but when I was pursuing a professional career and raising a family I got diverted - in a pleasant way - into what was then considered as extra-curricular activity.  
An invitation to join an organisation called Omagh Junior Chamber introduced me to the world of organising community events.

The Chamber took on all kinds of projects, like organising Christmas Illuminations, Halloween Fireworks Displays, inter-schools debating competitions, and sports events including swimming galas and a mini-marathon.   
I got involved in helping and sometimes in organising these events.

In subsequent years after I left the Chamber, I diversified, in a manner of speaking, and transferred that experience in community project-management to cultural events.  
I became the director of the Omagh Arts Festival, a two-week extravaganza, featuring all of the major art forms.  A risky venture in a small town in troubled times.

The enthusiasm of amateurs and the joy of the novelty factor brought us unexpected success.   

Year on year the festival grew in quality and in stature.  
We did it for the experience, rising to a challenge, and we worked for no financial reward.   
Our motivation was community development and making our town the best place it could aspire to be.

In the second half of my professional career, I was able to witness volunteering from the official’s perspective.  
In 1990, town planners became involved in helping community groups to develop regeneration plans for their village or town.  
The process of guiding projects from rough ideas via business plans and investment appraisal, never mind a panoply of administrative procedures, through to bricks and mortar was often difficult.

By contrast, the end results achieved by the energetic commitment of local people working together always managed to exceed expectations.  
It was inspiring to be a peripheral part of the civic efforts of determined volunteers creating jobs and improving the appearance of these places.  Real job satisfaction.


There are so many ways to get involved as a volunteer.

Some brave people work unpaid for charitable organisations overseas, sometimes even in war zones or as support for emergency services after a natural calamity.   
When I read reports of the medics who are volunteering in Syria, my history as a volunteer becomes a much lesser achievement.

Other volunteers give their time to raise funds for good causes at home.  Domestically, people are attracted to working unpaid for a vast range of charities, environmental bodies, and community groups, or for cultural, educational, sporting, and faith-based groups.


Having examined the success of the World Police and Fire Games 2013[1] as an exercise in volunteering, I want to look at sports volunteering a little further.  
It allows me to make a metaphorical claim.   

Running events is all about diligent project management, marketing and implementation.

Two athletics fixtures will exemplify the contrasting levels of responsibility that are available to willing volunteers.

Run Her October 2013

Since August 2007, athletics events have been held each year in Northern Ireland under the banner of Run Her, one in spring the other in autumn.   
They comprise a 5k and a 10k race, as well as a children’s run.   Most importantly, they are for ladies only.

Run Her is organised by a professional sports consultancy with substantial backing with prestige sponsors.  A slick operation.  

A large field of entrants is guaranteed because of the quantity and quality of publicity provided by the Belfast Telegraph newspaper.  
Moreover, competitors are rewarded with a goody bag of practical items provided by an athletics retailer, Pure Running.

The autumn race took place in the spectacular grounds of Stormont Castle on 6 October 2013.  Approximately 1,200 women ran on what was a beautiful sunny and warm day.  Most of them were raising funds for charities.  Some even took the time to dress up, ballet tutus being prominent on this occasion.

In these circumstances it is easy to be persuaded to be a volunteer.  Just submit your name, turn up early on the day for briefing, and stand at a given spot holding your arm out marshalling.  More importantly, the volunteer can help the multitude of long-suffering athletes by encouraging them in the jargon to dig deep.

Unusually for athletics volunteers, Pure Running generously provide the marshals with a selection of treats.   
This year my bag included a good-quality lycra tee-shirt, sports socks, a discount voucher for Pure Running, and a free physiotherapy session, as well as cranberry juice drinks and sugar-free chocolate.

Elaborate coverage of the races including 150 photos and two videos was provided in the Belfast Telegraph[2].  
I don’t know if she had the volunteer marshals in mind (not all of whom were male), but our ubiquitous grand Dame Mary Peters, the pentathlon gold medallist from the 1972 Munich Olympics kindly said:

“All the men round the course were giving us great support and for them to give up their Sunday was great to see.”

Omagh Half Marathon

Saturday 21 March 1987.  High noon on the Old Mountfield Road just outside Omagh’s award-winning Leisure Centre.   
Two hundred athletes line up to start the first half marathon with 5k fun-run ever held in my home town.  
Snow had been forecast but did not materialise.  Instead the inaugural run took place on a cool bright day with light wind.

Perfect conditions provided an auspicious beginning for a new event.

Like the majority of athletics fixtures, the Omagh half marathon was established and organised by entirely volunteers.  
In the first few years that role was undertaken by Omagh Junior Chamber, appointing me as race director.  

As a management training body with expertise in organising projects which enhance the local community, this provided a sizeable and enthusiastic band of voluntary help, particularly on the day with registration and marshalling.
Omagh Harriers Athletics Club subsequently took over management responsibility for the event.

In founding the event, my main objective to provide a road race which would be good preparation for spring classics such as the London marathon.  A late March date was also well-placed between the end of the cross-country and the start of the track seasons.

Part of the motivation was local patriotism in that it would, if well organised, put Omagh on the athletics map.


Marketing of any brand new event or product is crucially important to establish it as a credible fixture.  In the same way that the Run Her events have been developed by professional people and become well-known, the Omagh Half Marathon must also be promoted properly.

In the pre-internet era of the late 80’s, this was done by as creatively as possible.   
Posters were organised for display in leisure centres, sports clubs and even on lampposts; application forms had to be mailed to sports clubs and individuals and also handed out at cross-country and other races; and articles were placed in local newspapers.  
We also relied on the officials in Belfast’s Athletics House to add our event to their mailing list scheduling official races.


Everything was administered to accord with the rules of the sport.  
Approval was sought from and a permit granted by the Northern Ireland Amateur Athletic Association to stage the race.  The police were also involved.   

Medical back-up was provided by the impressive voluntary staff of St John’s Ambulance and the Order of Malta.  
Scouts and Guides were recruited to assist Chamber members at the water stops.

Other arrangements included seeking permission from the Western Health and Social Services Board to include the grounds of the Tyrone and Fermanagh Hospital as part of the route.  
We nominated the Heart Chest and Stroke Association as the race charity, encouraging runners to obtain sponsorship.

In early January 1987, the first completed entry forms began to trickle in.  Snail mail is the modern pejorative.  
I recall my delight when the first form arrived in the post – it was from one of three Belfast athletes with whom I had run the New York City Marathon a few months previously.  
It sounds like a modest number in retrospect, but to have received nearly 100 entries before race-day felt like a reward for hard graft, a minor miracle almost, and even more so when entrant numbers doubled on the day.

All finishers received a special medal.  
I had spent Christmas 1986 in Birmingham and found a company which manufactures medals.  Because these looked quite different from local products, they suited our objectives of being new.  

Prizes were presented to the first 3 men and first two women, and to the first male and female veterans.

The field included quality athletes even in its inaugural year. The female winner, Teresa Kidd and the second-placed male, Billy Gallagher, represented Ireland the next month at the World Marathon Cup in Seoul South Korea.  Tony Hartigan from Dundalk was the winning athlete.

We made improvements for the 1988 race.   
We rented a state-of-the art electronic timing system including a race clock for the lead vehicle and another for the gantry on the finishing line at the running track.  
The other piece of modern technology we used was to make video cassette recordings of the race.  The course distance of 13.1 miles was certified by the Northern Ireland Road Runners Club.

I recall my biggest and recurring fear as race day approached every year, and probably one shared by all race directors.  
This was the possibility that runners might go off-course.   
To me this was a genuine prospect, so complicated was the route with its many turns.  This dread determined me to ensure that all junctions must be well-and-truly manned.   

I also had a large-scale map of the route printed on poly-board and displayed at race reception, and another copy given to the navigator in the race lead vehicle.

By dint of the negative prospect of nightmares, nobody ever got lost.

In 1988 we persuaded Sub 4, the running apparel company to become the race sponsor and they stayed with us for a couple of years.  The prize list, consequently, became more extensive along with the marketability of the race.

I directed the race for the final time in March 1990 after which I moved job and home to Belfast.
Video of Omagh1/2 marathon start 1989


I competed in the Omagh half marathon on 12 occasions, returning several times after moving home.   
In my final year as director, I ran the course in 1 hour 24 minutes 51 seconds, and was the first Omagh runner over the line.  

When I ran it as race director, it gave me a unique learning perspective over how our plans were being implemented.  
When I competed as a visitor in later years, I was able to see how other directors were developing the event.

Inflation in fees and running costs is one big change.  In 1987, 88 and 89 the cost of entering before race day was £3.  
The other notable change from my years in charge is that today’s organisers avail of the benefits of modern technology.

From a personal standpoint, it is pleasing to see things that haven’t changed much, apart from a new principal sponsor(SPAR), the use of IT, and inflation in entrance fees.    
Key elements of the original event remain - most of the route apart from the removal of some hills, the start and finishing points, and the inclusion of a 5k event.

The twenty-fifth staging of the event will take place on Saturday 29 March 2014, it not having been run in two years during the 1990’s.  
Depending on discussions, I would like to mark the silver anniversary next spring by presenting a perpetual trophy for the overall winner.

The growth of Omagh half marathon over the last quarter of a century proves that voluntary effort can deliver successfully.  
The indisputable indicator of successful performance is the inexorable ten-fold rise in entrant numbers.   
Thanks to my successors, this race has become one of the most successful athletics events anywhere in Ireland, north or south.   
The hospitality provided may be incidental, but no other big race makes its visiting athletes feel so welcome.

The volunteer members of Omagh Harriers and all their support organisations can be proud of their efforts.

It was not in any way the reason why I got involved – my perspective back then was not longer term.  The experience gained in learning how to run events as a volunteer early in my career equipped me for more leisurely voluntary activity in retirement. 

It also provides an indelible appreciation of the organisational work needed to stage events and especially of the unheralded efforts of everyday people to make community life better.

©Michael McSorley 2013