2) E-mail the race director
3) Actually go
4) Don't leave early
Just kidding. I mean, yeah that works, but there's so much more to it!
What does it take to be a good race day volunteer?
I've volunteered at three races this year. It has been a positive experience each and every time. There are things you can do to make it a good experience for yourself, the runners, and everyone involved.
1) Volunteer early
I have done this each and every time. Plan ahead and pick a race in advance. This is especially easy if you were planning to run a race and then got injured - there's nothing else on your calendar that day. E-mail the race director (RD) and let him/her know you are available to volunteer at said race if he/she needs anymore volunteers.
He/she will say "yes!" because it's still four weeks 'til race day and there's no way they have enough people already. You may be asked what tasks you would prefer and you should be honest. If you physically cannot get up at 4:30 AM to begin checking in runners at 5:30 AM at the start line then you shouldn't volunteer for check-in. Let the RD know you can't be there til 7.
2) Do things you don't want to do
This goes against the first thing for those of you who are super dedicated. You don't WANT to get up at 4:30 AM but you can, so you do. I think waking up super early on occasion is good practice for other times you may have to do this (early flight, early race, etc.). There will be other tasks you will be asked to do outside of your comfort zone and I suggest you do them as if it was your job.
3) Show up on time
This goes along with "if it was your job." You committed to being somewhere. Do not think they should be grateful you showed up at all. Even if you get there and they don't need you yet, you should not think it was a waste. The point is you followed through on your commitment.
4) Show up in a good mood
This can be a hard one if it's early or if you ran over the neighbor's cat pulling out of your driveway this morning. But whatever is going on inside your head, it's time to drop it and start smiling at everyone. Smile at the other volunteers. Introduce yourself cheerfully. And for cryin' out loud, if you don't smile at the runners then there is no point in being there.
5) Pay attention
Especially true for trail races or other logistically challenging events, you need to be able to answer basic questions for runners. If there is a briefing on the course, you need to convert that shit to memory. How far to the next aid station? What mile are you at? Where are the bathrooms? What is the cut-off time? For ultras this is especially true. Things runners knew at the beginning, they have no idea now that they have been running all morning. Also pay attention to your surroundings and to the runners you see. If a runner looks ill or anything at all looks potentially dangerous, let someone know.
5) Be a problem-solver
Be proactive and assist in problem solving. If a tent is going to blow away, figure out a way to make it not. If the water is sitting out in the sun, figure out a way to get it into the shade. If the chocolate covered almonds are melting then put them back in the cooler. There's always a ton of problems on race morning and your job as a volunteer is to make them as not-obvious to the runners as possible. Are you running out of small shirts? Ask the RD if she has a way to order more and deliver later. Is it hotter than expected? Ask if you need to make an ice run. I could list thousands of possible race-day issues that you may be required to solve. Don't expect the RD or even veteran volunteers to be on top of everything. They have a HUGE job already taking care of the main logistics.
6) Stick around 'til the end
This is my least favorite because I am extremely impatient. I would rather get there early than stay late. So I try really hard to somehow get excused when the first volunteers are let loose. But before I go, I help with every single task that I can see needs to be done. I pick up trash, fold up chairs, pack boxes, etc. I walk around and see if there are other things I can do in areas I haven't yet checked out that day. The thing is, as long as you're still doing stuff and not just standing around it's not so bad. The worst thing is when you can't find any other reasonable chore and you're just waiting for someone to tell you it's ok to leave. In that case, you have two options. You can ask the volunteer in charge if there's anything else you can help with before you take off, or you can just tough it out and wait until someone notices there's not much left to do. Notice there's no option for "leave and hope no one notices."
7) Remember why you're there
And no, I don't mean to remember how you're getting a free race entry out of this. You're there for the runners! When you're running a race, all those volunteers are there so YOU can run the race! They would look awfully silly with all those canopy tents and water coolers and a timing mat if there weren't any runners. Think about how you would want volunteers to be when you are racing. You want them to be friendly and encouraging - to say things like "looking strong!" or "great finish!" You want them to be helpful and knowledgable - to be able to answer your questions about the race or the course. And you want them to do what can be reasonably expected of them - like, make sure the aid station is stocked or be able to find your name on the registration sheet.
I have heard before that runners "owe it" to running to volunteer at races, but I don't think that's true. You pay for the race and you run. The only thing you ever owed was the registration fee. But I do think there's a lot to learn from volunteering, especially at aid stations specifically at ultras. Observing runners' behavior at aid stations is interesting and you can learn a lot from watching the more experienced runners. It's also incredibly inspiring to be out on the course at a 50-mile event and see how people will their way to finishing. And for most people, the biggest reward is helping fellow runners and the LOADS of appreciation they show for that.
End note: if you're thinking about it, just do it. Even if you're shy (like me), it's not that bad. Other end note: small races need volunteers, too, BUT if you're even thinking about running an ultra one day, go volunteer at an ultra. It will light the fire!