I stood at a traffic intersection blocking angry drivers at last week’s marathon for seven and a half hours.
Yesterday was the Edmonton Marathon. A beautiful, sun-filled day on the streets of our city populated with 4500 runners and over 500 volunteers, all of them striving to ensure the thousands of klicks and millions of footsteps were fun, safe, and rewarding efforts of athletic achievement.
I didn’t run.
I stood on the side of the road for over seven hours. I wore my Tilley hat and sandels. I nursed a couple bottles of water and tracked over ten thousand steps in an area the size of a traffic intersection. Literally: it was a intersection. I was a human traffic cone.
I’ve been asked a hundred times why I didn’t run. Not that I need an excuse to avoid any race. There are hundreds, thousands of races that I don’t run. But the signature event in our city? So, here’s the best explanation that I can give you cobbled together from a dozen less coherent excuses that I’ve told people over the last few months:
Training is a qualitative thing. But races are quantitative acts. They are measured, pressured, unpredictable events that are meant to guage performance and lift energy through group participation. No, they are not incompatible with a training program, but they do introduce a measure of uncertainty that can either be net-positive or net-negative in the calculation one makes when striving for a training goal that is different than the actual race itself. You just don’t know what will happen between a start line and finish line. I’ve had awesome races and terrible ones. But you recall, guess, strategize, plan, focus, then run… or not. I’m currently training for what could be the most amazing race of my life: a full marathon through the streets of New York a few days before my fortieth birthday. I decided, simply, that I was not screwing that up by adding unnecessary uncertainty if I could have avoided it. Which I could. So I didn’t run.
Instead I decided to marshal.
I stood on the side of the road in a reflective safety vest and guarded a section of very busy course from the onslaught of some of the worst people in the world: impatient and entitled drivers who forgot a major race was running in-between them and their destination.
Delay is temporary. The insults and verbal abuse you slung at me and my fellow volunteers yesterday is now immortalized on this blog. Runners are generally awesome. Some of the people I met through a rolled down car window yesterday are the opposite of that. You know who you are. Or not. Part of me thinks you’re not that clever, aware or empathetic to the universe as a whole to understand that you suck so bad.
I’ve run a lot of races, but marshaling was a different beast. Despite the previous couple paragraphs I am very glad I played that small but important role.
We runners fly past the hundreds of people on the curbs, cheering or whatever, acting like traffic cones or whatever, handing out water or whatever, and we thank them or wave to them… or whatever. I didn’t expect much. I was there to be a cog in the big race machine, and at the end of the day it was a good thing for the thousands of racers.
But it was also important for some personal perspective. Forty-two klicks of guarded roadway, a safe space for thousands of varied athletes to play for a few hours, to race. I’ve now been that human traffic cone, holding back the reality of stupid and angry non-runners. But I’ve also been that athlete. I will be that athlete again, soon. And next time I’ll be a little more vigilant about throwing a much-needed smile of appreciation in their direction as I pass to those folks who stand there no less part of the race, even if they never run a single step.
a mash-up of rest & volunteering
People give away their time in a wide variety of interesting ways. We call that act volunteering.
To volunteer –towards something, with something, for something, as something– is an act of societal giving. And that gift, be that anywhere on the spectrum of purely generous to community restitution, comes in the form of a person with a skill or ability, performing that skill or ability for little or no compensation.
As a society, it seems as though we often take the act of volunteering for granted. But it’s actually worth something to society. A big something. For example, a perspective paper from 2013 noted that the estimated economic value of volunteering to Canadians amounted to $50 Billion dollars annually.  Fifty. Billion. That’s roughly $1500 per person (based on a rough population estimate) of value… per year.
Per capita, that’s mathematically less than our household pays in municipal property taxes. Y’know, less than the money collected to pave our roads, maintain our parks, haul away our trash, and do all those other useful services provided by the local city infrastructure.
Unpaid work. Provided by random people in their spare time. For free. Impressed, yet?
Yet, anecdotally, it seems as though volunteer turnover is higher than any other kind of work. From a professional perspective, at least, it seems like people stick to paid jobs for anywhere from two to ten years. As far as skilled labour, data suggest that there is a higher turnover than professional or managerial workers  but (again, anecdotally) that seems heavily dependent on the job-by-job nature of trades, local economic conditions, blah, blah, blah… and so on.
One would suppose that work people choose to do in their spare time, presumably chosen because of a passion, interest or because they get to work with friends or family, rather than work one is required to do because of the need to pay bills and expenses and being strictly limited by skills and availability of work… one would suppose that volunteer jobs may have a stronger staying power with the people who enter them.
But is that truly the case?
The author has personal observations on the subject, for example: Serving on boards, membership rotates quickly. Leading groups of sports teams, coaches and mentors burn out at an alarming rate. Donating skills in technology often comes in the form of cleaning up after a previous volunteer who has bailed from the role mid-stride. And working as a volunteer team coordinator for a cultural group meant constant recruiting and endless interviewing.
It could be speculated that this is due to any number of factors, not the least of which are that the lack of pay equates to a lack of incentive. People, in general, are naturally inclined to the path of least resistance, no? So, quitting a job that pays a wage or salary actually results in more work: looking for a new job, budgetting on a changed income, interviewing, learning new skills or adapting to a new workplace. On the other hand, quitting a volunteer job means less work because… well… the quitter gets a break, has more free time, and presumably fewer obligations and commitments to manage.
There is stigma attached to quitting anything, but walking away from a volunteer role is arguably seen as rest for the soul and a detachment from an unnecessary (though appreciated) obligation. Quitting a job is seen as, at best, social, economic, and familial risk-taking …and at worst, a kind of personal failure.
The author shares no more or less guilt than the average quitter, but offers the notion as a conclusion to this essay: Are volunteer assignments too easy to quit? Could we change that? Or do we even want to?
 2013, Assigning an Economic Value to Volunteering – volunteer.ca
 Alberta HR Trends Report – 2015 hira.ca
I helped out at the Societe France Edmonton cooking and prepping crepes at the Heritage Festival just a couple weeks ago.
I’ll be cooking crepes down at the Heritage Festival France Pavilion for a few hours today. #gettingMyFrenchOn #comeEat
This year’s Fringe is currently rolling into its sixth day, but for whatever odd circumstance of scheduling my first volunteer shift was not until today. It starts sometime later this afternoon; after I finish my lunch break, after I find my way back to my car, and after I make my way to the grounds.
I haven’t told many people this (with the small exception of those people who actually need to know) but after this, my eighth year of volunteering for the multimedia team, I’m hanging up my photographer’s pass and moving on. What starts later today (for me) and ends sometime on Sunday evening is my last year volunteering with this organization… at least for a while.
As with all these types of transitions, I’ll try my best to be politik and avoid some of the specifics, frustrations and temptations to fling mud that always — invariably, inevitabally, unwaveringly — follows eight years of entrenchment in any position. Instead, I’ll suggest that as I always have tried and succeeded at coping with this kind of drama in years past, and I would have again this year… next year… and the years after that as well, there were some other more positive reasons to bow out gracefully at the end of this season.
As we were reminded while attending Claire’s kindergarten orientation last night, my daughter starts school in two weeks from today. Summer and childhood, it would seem, are in transition, and subsequently Augusts — this, next, and for the next twelve years — just got a lot more precious. Giving up August and rare chunks of holiday time up to various meetings and shifts and… well, it just got old real quickly.
Karin and I were married in August of 2003. Next August is our tenth anniversary. Next August, as tradition might suggest, something special is in order. Begging the night off once again to wander around Whyte Avenue in anticipation of a fancy dinner is great for anniversaries three through nine… but ten? Ten might require some more planning.
And so on.
In a couple hours I’ll be on site once again, revving up for the first (of my last) shift(s) and gleefully snapping photos, chatting with dozens of familiar peoples, and basking in the standard Fringe fare that’s become so routine for so many years. Then in a few more days… and then it will be done. And I will be on to something else, peppered with scattered regrets, pluck full of memories, and most certainly back to watch some shows as the years press on.
It’s that time again. Woot!
For the seventh year in a row — fourth as a team leader — the Edmonton Fringe Festival is once more in full swing and I’m primed with camera in hand to help with the whole multimedia-slash-photography thing. My first shift is on the morrow.
Given my role as a team leader I’m in the interesting position of not actually having a formal photography assignment like our other hard working volunteers — I don’t need to go out and capture one specific theme or set of images, as we enforce (however loosely) upon our crew. And that’s good. It really leaves me free to do two things: (a) fill gaps in our content and (b) wander the grounds and experiment with my camera. The latter has even more impact this year, not only because my shifts are weekend and evening shifts (unlike the dire collection of daytime stuff I did last year whilst quasi-employed) but I’m in the middle of my photography (un)project and prompted to do a little more experimenting than I otherwise might. Which is awesome. Cool. Excellent. FTW! I can hardly wait.
(It does mean I need to turn over those pics to the Fringe for use in something, whatever, who knows. But alas… I can still share a few with readers in my gallery. ‘Tis a hard bargain to be sure: photos for volunteer swag and free shows.)
So there it is: the challenge within a challenge. Thousands of urban festival-goers. Dozens of performers. The brisk evening air. Lights. Sounds. Colours. Art. Food. Stages. Streets. People everywhere. And I with my camera and lenses and hours worth of images to capture. I’ll need some focus, both literally and creatively.
Tell me then: what’s your idea? What should I capture? I have five shifts, so five themes — five challenges — are possible. Comment below. And, remember, if you happen to be going there yourself, too, snap along. I’ll post or link to your results and mine.
I think I slow-roasted my finger yesterday. The index finger on my left hand — the one that comes in useful for things I need to do on a fairly regular basis for work, such as typing and pressing elevator buttons — is very sore, numb, and doesn’t want to comply with even the simplest requests to do important things like bend or point at exciting or surprising things in the sky.
The reason for this is that I spent yesterday — that is, most of yesterday between the hours of ten and four — standing in a food pavilion tent in Hawrelak Park cooking approximately five hundred French crepes, and somewhere in all that cooking, between having my finger a few inches away from a propane flame, occasionally touching that metal part of the frying pan handle (that you’re not supposed to touch, I know!), and performing a whole variety of frying pan acrobatics — flipping, swirling, tilting, swishing, swashing, raising, shaking, and holding — said finger let me know via various aching and tingling sensations that it was taking the rest of the week off. Unfortunately, calling in sick with the excuse that “my finger is sore from cooking” probably wouldn’t fly… so… yeah.
Why, you ask, was I cooking French crepes in Hawrelak Park on my day off? I’m not French, you say. I’ve never cooked a crepe in my life, prior to yesterday, you remind me. I can’t even speak French, tu parles.
Unfortunately the story is not particularly crazy or nearly as interesting as the activity itself. My neighbor asked if I’d volunteer as they were short staffed for the Heritage Festival. That’s all. She poked her head out on her deck one day last weekend and asked me. So, I signed up and found my way down there and next thing you know: I’m cooking French crepes in Hawrelak Park on my day off. (Hey, I warned you it was not that exciting of a story.)
But my tale of finger woe? Now that’s a winner.