My car, a Mazda3, is currently moving at approximately two miles per hour. I have been on the same county road for just under twenty minutes. The temperature is 44 degrees, it is pouring rain, and I have not slept in 20 hours. I ask myself, “Is a volunteer for a race going to become its only casualty?”
Several weeks ago my wife and I had an amazing idea. We rarely go on vacations, like I don’t think we actually have ever gone on vacation. This year we settled on a fun adventure. A friend of ours, the one who is solely responsible for the majority of the expeditions into trail running for both of us, had signed up for a race in Colorado. How cool would it be to surprise her at the finish line? We checked with her coach, everything sounded good, so we started planning our trip.
A week into the planning we learned that my wife and her new coffee shop would be opening a week earlier than planned. Meaning, the vacation was a no-go. However, that still left me with a car full of gas, a beard that was being called back to the mountains, and a strange desire to serve chicken broth at 11,000 feet. I contacted the race director and filled out a form to volunteer for the race. He approved, and the email exchanges began. At one point I was to serve at one aid station, later I was moved to another, and in the end the simple question was asked, “Why not do all of them?”
The stage was set. I was heading to Colorado for the inaugural High Lonesome 100 as a volunteer. I would work the aid stations for 24 hours; collecting information, sharing stories, and serving fried eggs to a very hungry runner at 2:00 AM.
So eerily similar to every trail race I have ever been a part of; I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into.
To fully understand the trip, allow me to give you a few little pieces about High Lonesome. It takes place in the Sawatch Range of Colorado near Salida and Buena Vista. The entire course is a single 100 mile loop, with a 12 mile out and back journey at St. Elmo.
Climbers Runners will reach as high as 13,200 feet as they cross several peaks stretching through the continental divide. Cutoff for this race is 36 hours, and the fun begins at 6:00 AM Friday morning. 12 aid stations, seven of them being accessed by crew.
Heading in as a volunteer I had multiple sets of clothes to change into, a cup for coffee, some snacks, more weapons than necessary (bears, you know), and a handy rain jacket that had been delivered to my house an hour prior to leaving for this journey.
Going into High Lonesome I had assumed that it would be wise to apply all volunteer knowledge to practice; runners need everything; food, water, vaseline, sleeping bags, beer, and hugs…lots of hugs. Upon arrival my day had been set with three primary aid stations and a fourth one “just for fun”.
Aid Stations #1: St. Elmo
Elevation: 10,000 ft
St. Elmo, Colorado
Theme: Bears and Chipmunks
Time: Friday 8:00 AM MST to 4:00 PM MST
The first challenge is getting to St. Elmo. Like all mountain areas of Colorado, St. Elmo is not real. It is a ghost town, a figment of our imagination that is adorably haunted by chipmunks who rule the area with their tiny, cute fists. There is a convenient store that is open “9ish-6ish”, and the entire plot of land is privately owned. Because St. Elmo is a tourist destination (15 MILES OFF OF ANY NORMAL ROAD GOING TO WHO KNOWS WHERE IN THE MOUNTAINS), parking was crucial. St. Elmo allowed access to crew members, so I was placed with the daunting responsibility of dividing up three types of drivers heading into town. Crews for the runners, town visitors for the chipmunks, and ATV/Jeep/Motocross/Tanks/Optimus Prime for all the ‘Colorado roads’ to explore.
Thank goodness humanity decided to be kind on this day because aside from nearly being ran over by the local heating and cooling guy that deemed my life less important than a 9/16 pipe wrench, everyone was amazing. All visitors were encouraged to feed the chipmunks, but not to feed the runners. They would eat all the visitors food, I knew it. The crew would park their vehicles along the side of the dirt road/cliff/river, and begin the mile hike to the actual aid station. What did end up becoming fascinating for the day was the amount of visitors and crew members of other runners that would stand along the road and cheer in the runners as they arrived into town.
Nearing noon the sky began to cloud up, the lightning began, and the rain started to fall. The runners, humorously, seemed to enjoy the light shower as they came into town. I, thankfully, had my trusty rain jacket that I had put on at roughly 11:00 AM (this is an important detail). At 1:00 PM I was starting to become hungry, and with the aid station a mile away, I decided to just chill and drink coffee at St. Elmo.
The face of hunger, like a pitiful child, must have been across my skin because a woman, far more athletic than I will ever be, was kind enough to offer some food out of her vehicle. This is when I discovered the joy of fried rice. Out of a ball of aluminum foil came the joy of sticky Jasmine rice with quinoa, red peppers, scrambled eggs, bacon, and a bit of cheese. She went on to explain how this balanced food item was great for fueling, along with cooking instructions. I had no clue that I would learn about what to eat while watching people punish themselves along the mountains.
What I didn’t also consider was the realization of eggs, cheese, bacon, and other goodies mixed with coffee in my digestive track would begin a brew that would push the limits of life, liberty, and the cleanliness of my pants.
At 4:00 PM, while it was raining, I was relieved from my post and informed that the Hancock aid station was only 5 miles away from St. Elmo. I packed up my soaked lawn chair, my coffee, and said farewell to rodents and rocky mount riders alike and began my ascent to Hancock.
Aid Station #2: Hancock
Elevation 11,000 ft
Time: Friday 5:00 PM MST to 12:00 AM MST
The first amazing challenge of this aid station, as a volunteer, was just getting to the darn place. Hancock doesn’t exist, it’s a relative of St. Elmo. Like a washed up high school quarterback, it was a has been and is no more type of railroad town with an attempt at cabin building. How do I know? Because the remnants of said cabins are slowly sliding down the mountainside to the only road to the actual location of Hancock, or in my case, the aid station.
I had asked one of the race officials if my Mazda3 could make it to Hancock. The response…
Drive slow. Watch out for the potholes. You’ll be fine.
Trusting a Colorado native on road advice is like trusting a Texan on neutrality of state pride…it is very ill-advised. Hancock was a 1000 foot climb from St. Elmo on a rain soaked gravel “road”. You can watch for potholes all you want, but the reality is they make up 96% of the road. The other 4% is left to collapsing cabins. It was 5 miles…5…miles…to Hancock on that road. It took me a total of one hour to get to my destination. While I’m putting around with my 4 cylinder gas sipper, four wheel drive monstrosities straight out of Jurassic Park are flying the opposite direction (had to be velociraptors…I’m convinced). Naturally, like all good things involved with rules of the road, this required me to hug the right side of the road a little bit. And by a little bit, I mean another two inches would have resulted in my car tumbling down the mountain and revisiting the St. Elmo ghost town (likely as a permanent resident).
Finally through the light sprinkles of the sky, I arrived at Hancock. I was greeted by two mustache wearing ladies who showed me where to park.
My first job? Parking.
This is about the time the night started to turn entertaining. Crew members were rather perplexed as to why they saw another red jacketed ogre directing traffic where to park. This came with laughter amongst the rain increasing. It was while standing in the rain that I met John. John was also volunteering and somehow had grown up in Kansas City,
small world. We shot the breeze, talked about our love of trail running, spoke to Canadians (first time I ever met Canadians in real life), and tried to keep warm. I started to notice that as 8:00 PM MST arrived I was starting to get cold. The temperature was dropping along with the rain at 11,000 feet in the air. After adding another layer of clothes I walked up to the actual aid station, roughly 400 meters away, to spend the rest of my time at Hancock.
Upon my arrival to the actual station I witnessed possibly one of the most amazing acts of sportsmanship out of the whole race. From the photographer…
A runner came in well before his crew. He needed his rain shell jacket before leaving, but it was 400 meters in the opposite direction of where he would be traveling. I witnessed, mark my words, the lead photographer from Mile 90 Photography offer his rain shell to the runner. Naturally, the runner politely declined and still grabbed his own rain shell. That moment though; that captured what trail running is all about. The photographer, someone without a horse even in the race, was willing to give his own rain shell to a random runner he has never met until that one moment.
This was a very busy station. There were so many things going on all at once. Hancock was full service, plus drop bags, plus runners could grab their first pacer, plus crew access, plus…and this is a good one…a mandatory gear check prior to leaving the station.
Remember that line from Enemy at the Gates where the Russian official is yelling out orders about the first man grabbing the gun, second the ammunition, when the first is killed the second grabs the gun? Alright, Hancock had nothing to do with rifles, but the dialogue within the aid station in the late hours were just as intense.
The rain was pouring down in buckets, the temperatures was now in the 40’s and still dropping. NOAA has put at a weather bulletin for the area that we were sharing with crew and pacers…
A chance of 40-50 mph winds. 1/2″ hail. Frequent cloud to ground lightning.
It was not a scare tactic, but it was a reality for the runners leaving. After Hancock they would be in the dark going up the mountain side to a 12,500 foot ridge. The weather is extremely unpredictable, and the models were throwing out alerts left and right. Somehow, someway at 10:30 PM MST I wound up with the gear list/pacer/time in/time out sheet checking with runners and pacers for a brief spell. I could barely hear the
runners over the rain. The aid station was churning through broth and coffee at an alarming rate, and the medics were doing an amazing job keeping the runners warm. Not to overdramatize the event, but there were a few moments where Hancock was much more reflective of trench warfare of WWI instead of an ultra marathon. The difference? We weren’t dealing with artillery shells from the enemy, we were having to fight with mother nature. This is the first aid station where I think I did a little bit of everything. At one point I was checking pacers, another I was trying to talk a runner through their options of dropping, running, or waiting for their crew, and another moment I was standing in the pouring rain with my headlamp like a lighthouse just trying to spot runners coming up the boulder path to our station.
It. Was. Intense.
At 11:45 PM MST I had received my next set of orders. I was to leave at midnight and travel to Monarch Pass. There I would find some rest, warmth, and time to recover a bit. However, that also meant that the only way I could get out of Hancock was back down the same road I came in on. The same road that had been dealing with non-stop rain for over six hours. Pitifully I looked at John and asked if he was leaving at any specific time. Realizing that my poker face is pathetic, he said he would leave around midnight. I asked him, this is a true story, if I could follow him out because I was that afraid of the road.
Of course John was ready to rock, and I had placed my faith in him. Surely, a Colorado man of his stature would whip through the road quickly in a stylish, tall, AWD vehicle. Ensuring that I would be taken to safety.
He showed up in a Honda Odyssey.
Nothing against the van, it is a great vehicle, but my faith in humanity (and my own life) slipped slightly at that moment. However, John was not playing around. We cleared that road in less than 20 minutes.
Knowing that I was free from the clenches of death, I started my journey to Monarch Pass.
Aid Station #3: Monarch Pass
Theme: The Devil
Time: Saturday 1:00 AM MST to 7:00 AM MST
The good news about Monarch Pass is the reality that it is directly off of US 50; there is no Colorado road to fight. The bad news? It is an hour drive on the highway from Hancock to the pass. It is a trip. Halfway through the journey, it hit…the eggs, bacon, coffee, and other colorful items that I had ingested. Naturally, I am terrified of porty-potty’s (I know all the runners are laughing at me now, it’s alright, I ate lunch alone in school), and I sure as heck am not taking the gamble of leaving my own choices 6 inches in the ground, while realizing I could be tracking in a bear to my untimely demise.
Between the cramping and the stench of the car; I saw it like a beacon of hope. Some small town 24/7 gas station with restrooms on the outside of the building. I hopped out of the car at 1:00 AM MST and marched up to the guys side.
SOMEHOW IN THE MIDDLE OF NOTHING THE MEN’S RESTROOM IN ONE STOP GAS STATION WAS BEING OCCUPIED AT 1:00 AM MST!
A polite woman and I used sign language to figure out what was going because our language barrier at that time of night was not going to achieve anything. Being panicked, feeling the doomsday clock ticking inside me, and replaying that image of the inmate exploding in The Dark Night caused me to fly into the women’s restroom at the horror of the kind lady in the van watching.
After coming back to life with my second wind (hehe) I finished my journey to Monarach Pass. St. Elmo was special, Hancock was rough, but Monarch Pass had an element of fear and creep that only Steven King could whip up. On top of Monarch Pass sat this aid station in a parking lot in the middle of nothing. There was no traffic, there was no movement, just the slow creeping of the fog, and the local aid station workers wearing devil horns*.
Remember learning about coal mines? Remember that image from October Sky or The Hunger Games in which the miners would come up the elevator. All you could see was their headlamp? They looked like worn corpses just trying to find eternal rest?
Welcome to Monarch Pass.
Even after Bryce Canyon I have never seen so many half-dead runners in my life. From the aid station, if you looked across the highway, you could see the runners coming down the ridge. The bouncing lights would take another twenty minutes to find the actual station. When they crossed the road, mixed with the fog, all you could see was their headlamp searching for sanctuary from the elements. The tap, tap, tapping of their trekking poles for many of them were their only ways of expressing life.
This is where aid stations become hugging stations.
I’m so cold.
That was a lot.
Do you have something warm?
I got lost in the fog. I could not find a #@^! thing.
That was hard.
Every runner came in with a different thought as the early morning pressed on. At 2:00 AM MST the aid station was cooking up fried “Waffle House” eggs for one runner. At 3:00 AM MST another runner came in convinced that the race director had lost his golf clubs on the ridge behind us. The crews were wearing down, the aid station was calm, the runners were cold…realistically…we all needed daylight. At 4:00 AM MST after eating a wonderful scotcharoo that painfully reminded me of my ex-girlfriend from college, I sat down in my chair. That is when I started to notice the shaking. It would come and go, and eventually it just came to stay. My legs were shaking, my upper body was shaking, the world was shaking. Without causing alarm of my own internal earthquake I walked over to my Mazda3. I turned the car on, cranked the heat up to 90 degrees, and grabbed my pillow.
The exact thought in my head…
I’m just a volunteer. I should not feel like this. I should be helping. I have to warm up. I am so embarrassed.
At 6:00 AM MST I woke up to the strangest, borderline hallucination I have ever witnessed. Standing in front of my car was Leia. Leia was the runner from Kansas City, Leia was the one that got me into all of this a year ago; Leia is unstoppable.
Why the hell is Leia in front of my car?
Forgetting that I was at an aid station at the summit of a mountain in Colorado, I scrambled to get out of the car. Smacked my head on the doorframe, lost a glove, cut my forehead, and tried to get to Leia.
I timed out at Middlefork.
I did not know what to do. I was speechless. I wasn’t sure to say, “I’m sorry”, or “you’re awesome”, or “I’m amazed” because I was scared that anything was going to result in crying…by either one of us. I just listened as her crew grabbed her, got her into a warm vehicle, and took off.
That one moment summed up the entire experience. When you volunteer you become so emotionally involved with the people actually running, whether you mean to or not, that when they find heartache. You find it also. It is nowhere close to what they had experienced, but you can still find the lump in your throat. Somehow, someway you want to cheer for everyone. It is not about the person who comes in first, though that is awesome, it is about the survival of the whole field.
At 6:30 AM MST, after witnessing that brief event, I apologized for sleeping in my car and at that moment I saw Chris enter the parking lot, while the rain continued to pour.
Chris and I met at Hancock. Her shoes were soaked, so she slept in our aid station for nearly an hour waiting for dry shoes. We talked about her plan of action, especially since she was doing the course without a pacer. Eventually after some rest, some broth, and some dry shoes she left Hancock. She reminded me of “The Legend” back home. So much mental, but physically so strong.
Seeing Chris at Monarch Pass made my own experience. She came into Monarch smiling. She grabbed some coffee, got some bacon, and I walked with her back out onto the course. Witnessing the energy levels that she had made me so happy. Chris was my ‘feel good’ story of the race. There was a lot, including my ginger-beard brother, my Cleveland twin with the same name, and the crazy Canadian, and so many more.
After Chris left, feeling my age coming before me, I realized that my journey had come to an end. It was time to leave, but I had one last place I needed to travel to…
Aid Stations #4: Start/Finish
Time: Saturday 8:00 AM MST to 10:00 AM MST
I never had met the race director. All I knew was that his name was Caleb and he ‘had legs of a road runner’. The intent was to travel to the start/finish line, say thank you, and head back to my hotel for some rest. Upon arrival what I saw was another aid station. I saw a few runners, already finished, resting at the finish line. However, runners were coming in with cold core temperatures. So, myself and three other people started to build a quick aid station with camp stoves and JetBoil** contraptions. The biggest request was just broth. Maybe I’m thinking too much about this experience, but volunteers should try to make an attempt to visit the finish line when they are done serving. Why? Because that is when you get to witness the most incredible reward. It is not the hat, the shirt, the whiskey, etc…it is seeing people that you’ve been around for split seconds through the darkest parts of the night come across the finish line. Children running with fathers, runners limping into the finish; the laughter, the crying, the cramping, the kissing, anyone who understands what is going on will cry at the finish line. I enjoyed boiling the broth, but I loved seeing the finish of the runners. It was inspiring, but it was also fulfilling. It made me believe that my time out in Colorado was well spent, and that somehow, someway I was able to assist those runners achieve the impossible.
I also burned my hand on the pot and realized that my lack of sleep was catching up with me.
At 10:00 AM MST I took my rain jacket off for the first time in nearly 24 hours***, I shook hands with Caleb (without making any leg comments that some at the aid station volunteers had told me to), and slowly walked along the side of the finish line ‘funnel’. I walked along the road with two recreational hikers enjoying the morning, got into my Mazda3 that smelled like wet dog, took a deep breath, and started my journey to some well needed rest.
It is hard to still be a ‘new runner’ and watch events like this unfold. You are both equally intimidated by being around such high caliber runners that you’ll likely never be like, and at the same time your heart longs to accomplish a similar journey. It is an internal paradox that I have not found an answer for.
That was one of the most exciting, adventurous, exhausting, taxing, rewarding journeys I have ever had the blessing to be a part of in the trail running community.
…and I was just volunteering.
If you find a High Lonesome runner around you; give them a hug.
Don’t ask questions, just trust me on this one.
*Mile 66.6, get it? Devil, 666, Hell’s Hill, etc…I thought it was clever.
**I have now seen enough JetBoil devices to successfully send at least one man into space by one of these aid stations. Probably Monarch Pass.
***Best $14 I have ever spent! Thank you Trail and Ultra Runner Facebook page for the lead! Retail was $130, I’m still proud of myself.