Volunteering at an aid station is a surefire cure for the running blues.
The Curnow Trail Marathon only set me back $10, as I made a commitment to volunteering for the Voyageur. So while DNS-ing the race had a significant impact on my dignity and self-esteem, the financial impact was minimal.
The Voyageur 50 is an out-and back race which follows essentially the same trail as the Curnow Marathon. It starts and ends in Carlton, instead of starting at the Zoo and ending in Carlton. This means some aid stations end up being open for quite awhile. I was at the Forbay Lake aid station, which was at mile 5.8/44.2, so it was a long day to staff. I only worked the afternoon portion, arriving around 11:45, about 5 minutes before the lead runner arrived. The aid station captain and 3 of the other women already there when I arrived had been there since 6 a.m., and stayed until 4 or later, so it was a really long day! They did have a long lull after the final runners went through and got in a run. Two other people arrived midway through my shift, and four of us closed down the aid station, along with one of the ham radio operators.
The first thing I have to do is compliment the race staff and our aid station captain for being on top of things. We were prepared for runners’ needs (within reason) and didn’t run out of anything except ginger ale and maybe watermelon at the very end. When we ran low on ice and watermelon, the race staff was there to refill us well in advance of truly running out, since the AS captain had thought to call ahead with plenty of time. We had more than enough water and sports drink, and runners were always able to grab what they needed off the table. The only things they really had to wait for were ice (which we scooped from coolers) and bottle/hydration pack refills.
My job was to mark down the numbers of runners as they came through. At first, I shared this job with another woman, who I finally realized looked familiar because I had seen her at Superior; she was one of the top women finishers (though I don’t believe a podium finisher). I felt kinda dumb because I was talking about what it’s like to be slow to someone who doesn’t know anything about being slow! For the most part, it wasn’t too hard to get all the numbers down, although sometimes we couldn’t read the numbers til the runners were practically on top of us. We didn’t have a single drop at our aid station, and only 3 runners who were cut by the grim reaper after the cutoff, so we didn’t have to call in many numbers.
Beyond collecting numbers, I helped out filling water bottles, replenishing drink cups, scooping ice into hats, and anything else that was needed. I sprayed one guy down with sunscreen I’d brought for myself; he was shirtless and sweaty and trying to apply sunscreen lotion to his back, but it was fruitless. I gave him a few spritzes and he was on his way. Our group talked to everyone, whether it was just to be friendly, to try to assess their condition, or to offer some encouragement to someone struggling. We reassured people they hardly had any distance left, and it was easy — at least until the next aid station. We answered their questions with a smile, and then answered the same question again when they forgot they’d even asked it. “2.4 miles to the next aid station, then 3.4 to the finish. 5.8 total.” I said that probably 500 times, if you consider that there were over 300 runners and I repeated it to many people.
No one came into the aid station looking like a zombie, or vomiting profusely, or covered in blood. Very few people even looked like they needed an extra eye on them while they ate or drank. It seemed anyone who was struggling or sick or injured badly had already been weeded out by the tough course, and anyone who reached us before the cutoff was destined to finish. I was pretty grateful no one barfed on or near me, as I always am. The AS captain’s son was running the race, and her husband and other son, who were crewing for him, arrived in the late afternoon to hang out, help with runners, and wait for their runner to show up. He had a bit of a rough day, but since his family was running the aid station, he didn’t get much pity. The other runners coming through with him got a secondhand dose of parental tough love, which they thought was funny.
The final hour or so before the cutoff, the aid station got rather quiet. We’d been bustling in the mid-afternoon, with crews showing up hoping to catch their family or friend and offer encouragement or help them get what they needed. (I was really grateful when a large group of runners came through and a few of them had crew; it allowed us to serve the crew-less runners more quickly.) Watching them was interesting. Some were anxious. Some barely seemed bothered (or were too busy entertaining kids to be anxious). Some were tired, others had already completed the race or had dropped and were coming to crew others. (One left his race number on and I nearly wrote it down multiple times before finally exercising my authority and making him take it off.) Some barely made it in time for their runners or even missed them, others camped out well in advance of their runner’s arrival. Some crews were efficient, with loads of extra supplies, receiving orders from their runners. Others were there simply to give a hug and a kiss and support. Some brought very cute dogs, others brought very cute kids.
In the final hour, we had several large groups of runners burst through together, and then long lulls. We watched the time tick away, hoping for more runners to make it. The race had started late, so the cutoff had been extended about 5 minutes. We got them through quickly, shouting encouragement. I told one woman who looked a little desperate that I had no doubt she would finish. I don’t know if that helped much, but I think she finished. (It’s Wednesday and the results have not been published yet.) The final guy through was told by the race official that he had to keep going, couldn’t stop for aid. And then the next guy, a few minutes later, was cut.
I really felt for the three men who sat with us at the aid station after we’d closed, knowing they were so close to the finish line, not looking particularly worse for the wear, but unable to continue. I spent quite awhile talking with one of them. He told me about his coach (Michael Borst, the winner of the race!), and how he’d learned so much and had finished the Zumbro 50 thanks to his advice and expertise. I really felt badly, and I told him “It takes a lot of courage to run a race when you’re not sure you’ll make the cut-offs. It’s one thing to be fast and have a bad race, but still come in well before the cut-offs. It’s another thing to know that even a good race might get you cut.” Or something to that effect. I hope it helped a little. It seemed to, at least for a moment. But I also know it was pretty embarrassing and dejecting for those 3 guys sitting there, waiting to figure out rides, and then finally piling into a race official’s car to get a ride back to the finish. Especially when the finish was only 5.8 miles away.
It took awhile for the sweeps to come; so long, in fact, that I jogged out on the trail with one of the other volunteers to look for them. I’m not sure how far we went out, maybe half a mile, and then turned around without finding them. If we’d just gone a little farther, we’d have found them, as they arrived a few minutes after we returned. They took some food and water and then left, and we finished the final few tasks involved in breaking down the aid station. I’m not a huge fan of that part of an event (who is?), but with fun people to work with, it wasn’t terrible.
I really enjoyed working at the aid station, although I still think my favorite volunteer experience was working the finish line at Superior last fall. I’m glad I did it; not only did it give me a chance to give back to the trail running community and to give the kind of service to other runners that I have received at numerous aid stations, it also re-motivated me to train for the Moose Mountain Marathon. I missed running and missed racing, although from the tales of the Curnow Marathon I heard from the women at the aid station, I felt a little more justified in skipping the race. I was not prepared to climb up slick, muddy hills after being awake for 30 hours. I’m a little more at peace with my decision.
Thanks, Voyageur runners and volunteers, for inspiring me and re-energizing me for the next 6 weeks of training. I’m happy to be back on the trails.