The right words just do not exist when trying to take the joy of the running world and apply it to the digital screen. I am trying to document my attempt at working my first aid station ever, during a 100 mile trail race.
Hold your breath…
Several weeks ago I had been informed that the secret to the trail world is not just running, but immersing yourself in it like a bad ice bath. This includes doing things such as volunteering to work at an aid station.
Aid Station (Noun): Buffet with waiters and waitresses (and perhaps a random disco ball and/or ukulele). Frequently found at aid stations include pickles, Pringles, flat Coca-Cola, and an old man sleeping in a lawn chair.
Wanting to continue to strive to be like the ‘cool kids’ I signed up to work at “The Hawk” in Lawrence, Kansas. This course would handle three races, the lower mileage being a marathon (because in trail running white is black, up is down, and marathons are the short runs) and the other two being a 50 mile and a 100 mile course…I’ll let you read that again…a 100 mile course. In my lifetime I have never seen a marathon race, so to see that plus the other two adventures would be something surely I would never forget.
The race started at 6:00 AM Saturday morning on pavement due to the rain the night prior. Both the marathon and 50 mile race were 100% on pavement/gravel due to the trails being too wet from the rain. I arrived at the aid station at noon; knowing absolutely no one, getting lost at least once, and somehow the race director (RD) had planted a container of cold brew coffee in my car for me to deliver.
I was expecting to find people smiling with volunteer shirts on, and handing out water cups. What I found was possibly one of the biggest circus performances on the planet. I found people in lawn chairs, a runner sleeping on the gravel, and people picking through scores of M&M’s and peanut butter filled pretzels. If it was not for the realization of knowing I was at a race, I would have mistaken this for a cut scenes from the movie Heavy Weights. People were laughing, dancing, and just messing around. I was fearful the sun had gotten to these poor souls and it was my responsibility to rope them back into reality. Unfortunately, peer pressure is a powerful drug.
Aid stations work like this: Runner comes up to the aid station, you gently (rip) off their bottles and bladders (synthetic, not real) and ask if they want water or Tailwind (nectar of the gods). Once they are filled and you are soaked, you find the runner in a delusional state eating random things and ensuring that they are not putting small plastic objects in their mouth (spit that out!). After you have restocked their liquids, gave them a pep talk, and ensured that they ate something…including chewing on painkillers for some strange reason, you let them out of the gate like a crazy bull. Meaning…they shuffle off into sunset for another riveting 26 miles.
I am blessed to know that my years of being a water boy in high school truly paid off at the aid station. Hauling water containers, filling bladders, and being soaked were merely second nature for my nerdy soul. All the while I was laughing when a 60 year old man who was running 100 miles came down the road dancing, acting like an airplane, and singing the entire time. The sun is truly a cruel, cruel creature.
Confession; I did get misty eyed when ‘my runners’ came to the station. They are not really mine, but there were four people out in the chaos that I run with throughout the week. One killed her first marathon, one destroyed her 50 mile, and two very unstable…uh…amazing women rocked their 100 mile races. Seeing them on the path towards the station made me jump, clap, and overall look like a nerd, dork, child…everything that a cool trail runner is not.
Strange things happen when you are working an aid station; you start to have fun and you easily lose track of time. The duration I signed up to work was from noon to 6:00 PM. However, like a strange mission trip with youth, flexibility is key. We learned that the fourth loop of the 100 Mile race was going to be held on the trail. Because of this, they needed an individual to hang out in the woods and direct runners along their course and to the aid station. Meaning, I volunteered to be fed to the rabid raccoons and found myself standing in the middle of the woods.
With no light.
With no shelter.
With no hope.
By 8:00 PM my wife was sending me texts, curious as to when I was planning on coming home. I jokingly said that it would be Sunday morning. At this point my desire to capture the events taking place similar to the Blair Witch Project was in full swing on Facebook Live for the rest of the world to watch. Sadly, there are many reports of people fearing that I was intoxicated during those videos…I was 100% sober…and that is how my mind functions…daily.
By 10:00 PM the new aid station co-director had gotten into the swing of things at the station. By 11:00 PM through the woods, in the darkness, I could hear what sounded to be Burning Man Part II or 2016 Woodstock coming from the aid station.
At 1:00 AM the party was in full swing, loud music from the 1980’s was blaring, someone had gotten into a bottle of Pecan Pie Whiskey, and a ukulele was being played for every runner coming into the station. Some volunteers brought down a cup a vegan soup and a cheese quesadilla. Allow me to state that when it is 51 degrees outside and you are wearing shorts, these are the delights that keep you warm…namely the whiskey.
By 2:00 AM delusional images were coming to life and on several occasions I swore that a runner coming through with their headlamp was indeed ET trying to phone his home. When 3:00 AM hit the person sitting in the woods with me and myself had finished all of the world’s problems, analyzed the political philosophy of our time, and charted out half the stars in the night sky. Truly, we were productive.
4:00 AM passed and I was considering my poor life choices over a small bowl of ramen noodles (turns out that is a favorite dish amongst the runners late in the night) with my closest friends. A random stranger had my car keys for safe keeping, and the 200 yard trip between the aid station and my ‘look out point’ was the most dangerous trail run I have ever attempted. I even witnessed a runner or two take a shot of Fireball for safe measures on their way out.
Around 5:00 AM I saw one of my friends (aka: the person who dragged me into this world to begin with) as she prepared for her final section of the 100 mile race. Seeing her so happy, so strong, and so focused made my numb body from the cold just light up in warmth and joy. Through all the partying in the night, nothing surpassed seeing someone so happy with their future accomplishment (she went on to win third female overall and finished under 24 hours).
At 7:30 AM I was trying to figure out how I wound up in the middle of nowhere through my daze of fatigue and lack of water. I saw my other ‘my runner’ passing through. I could have cried for her because of how hard she was working. She finished in 28 hours with either a sprain, strain, fracture, or amputated foot. This too was her first 100 mile race.
With her passing by, I knew my time had expired. I had fought the good fight, somehow my legs were covered with mud, I had witnessed all ‘my runners’ in their amazing glory, and twenty hours after the beginning of this adventure I sent a short text to my wife:
Coming home. Shower. Sleep. Biscuits and gravy. Not necessarily in that order.
I bid a kind, warm farewell to the aid station that had taught me so much about life, love, and the liberty of the trail runner. I found my friend that had already finished her 100 mile, gave her a high five, and unapologetically stated…
When I grow up, I want to be like you.
At 9:00 AM, and I am still trying to figure this one out due to the insane amount of fatigue, I wound up in the driveway of my home 75 miles and nearly 24 hours away from the beginning of this adventure. I proceeded to sleep for nearly another 18 hours without a single regret.
My weekend as a volunteer summed up in two words: no regrets.
EDIT: Please NOTE: NO runners were lost, or misdirected, or not 110% well taken care of with whatever their needs might be: hydration, soup, quesadillas, buffet of food and soda options, massaged feet/back/shoulders/calves/quads, blister care, etc… whatever they need, we aim to please.
At 3 a.m., I’d like to think we were an oasis of energy for the runners and crew to draw from and continue on their journeys.