Race Report: Voyageur 50 2017 (Volunteering)

This was my second year volunteering at the Forbay Lake aid station for Voyageur. It was wildly different than last year for about a zillion reasons, including:

  1. I have actually completed marathons and ultras
  2. I ran the Curnow Marathon (the companion race to Voyageur) this year instead of DNSing
  3. I volunteered with friends, instead of strangers. It just so happens that last year’s strangers are this year’s friends

I showed up at the aid station around 12:40, which was stupid, because it meant I missed the lead runners. In a Darth Vader-Obi-Wan Kenobi moment, it turned out the winner of this year’s race was coached by the runner-up. (I am incredibly jealous – the winner has only been running for 6 years, and went from a 6 hour first marathon to BQs and a 6:56 trail 50 miler. Why can’t I be him?) I didn’t miss too many runners, but I wish I’d calculated better and had arrived at the same time as last year (around 11:45, per my report). I did get to see the first woman come through, on her way to improving the course record by 10 minutes!

We had a huge group of volunteers this year. My friends are part of the Duluth/Superior chapter of Moms Run This Town/She Runs This Town (MRTT/SRTT), and the trail running bug is rampant among those ladies. Several of them were fulfilling their obligation from Curnow ($10 entry fee for Voyageur volunteers), but others were doing it for fun or to learn more about trail/ultrarunning. We had music, vuvuzelas, a Wonder Woman/red, white, and blue theme, and lots of friendly, kind, upbeat faces ready to help with whatever came along. In other words, the perfect aid station.

One of the first people to come into the aid station after I arrived was a shirtless guy with a man bun who announced he was dropping. So that was a bad sign, although he turned out to be our only drop, and he was having serious dehydration issues. Despite the encouragement of a masters runner/total badazz, he did the smart thing and stopped. Another early arrival to our aid station was Doug, 51 year old winner of Zumbro 100 and FANS 24 hour, and Defeat the Stigma superambassador.

Once the leaders came through, most of the rest of the day was spent refilling all manner of water containers (a zillion types of bottles, those horrible prophylactic-esque soft flasks, and several configurations of hydration bladders), coaxing and cajoling boiling hot runners into eating something, pushing salt (not in tablets! just eat it with a potato or watermelon! it works faster! said our resident nutritionist), helping runners dump suspicious-looking white powder from plastic baggies into water bottles, resurrecting people from the dead, reassuring runners that “the next section is easy” and trying to force them out of the aid station while a cloud covered the sun (since the first half mile or so by the river is exposed), and praying that no one throws up 1. in the ice cooler 2. on the food table or 3. all over me.

Truly a lot of the day is a blur. I encourage all ultrarunners (and marathon runners, or really any runners) to volunteer at aid stations, for multiple reasons.

  1. It provides a greater understanding for all the work that goes into the 30 seconds – 2 minutes you’re there (for those folks whose races always go well, ha). Volunteers are always, always, always doing the very best that they can do serve runners as efficiently as possible. It might not seem that way if your water bottle isn’t filled the very instant you walk in, but it’s really not taking as long as it seems. I know when you’re hot and thirsty, it might feel like forever, though. There’s just so. much. going. on.
  2. It gives an opportunity to see what other runners and crew do, or to see how other people use their gear. I learned that tying a knot in one end of a buff is a great way to make a little ice beanie.
  3. It’s a chance to pay forward the amazing treatment you’ve gotten from an aid station volunteer in the past. If anyone’s ever talked you out of dropping, cooled you down, calmed you down, anticipated needs you didn’t even know you had, taken your food garbage in their hands without question, or had to put up with the stench of your sweat while you sat in their personal lawn chair, aid station volunteering is the chance to give a fellow runner that same experience. And even if you’ve never had any of the above happen (liar!), trust me, the first time someone who has been practically catatonic for 20 minutes at your aid station gets up, heads out again, and finishes the race thanks to your ministrations, you’ll feel a sense of almost parental pride.

Lots of little things stuck out from the blur. One of the top female runners rolled into the aid station and announced to her crew, “I had an epic throw-up back there.” I backed away slowly, though she ended up being fine and seemed pretty proud of it. Why can’t I be one of those people, who just takes barfing in stride? I’d probably be a better runner.

Last year’s winner (and perpetual podium populator), Mike, came into the aid station looking fresh. I chatted him up like we were friends (we are not, but that is the price you pay for being a very talented runner, buddy), thinking he had finished the race, but in fact he dropped out 18 miles in. Oops. But he was back to crew – for his dad! What a gene pool that family has!

The son of our aid station captain was running the race again. Last year he had a rough go of it but still rallied to a finish. This year he had a rough go of it (once again, his entire family was standing around at the entrance to the aid station, pacing, wondering where he was as runner after runner who they’d seen him hang with earlier came and went), but only spent a few minutes at the aid station before his sister-in-law gave him some tough love, got him out of the chair, and spurred him on to squeak in under 10 hours for a massive time improvement.

We had two (well, at least two) major success stories of the day. One guy came in, not sweating, and sat in a chair for a long rest while we force-fed him (not really) and talked to him, until we were satisfied that he had replenished his fluids/calories and was with it enough to continue. (He was “with it” all along, I guess, so it wasn’t a major concern.) He told us “I made the mistake of telling my wife what was going on, and she texted back ‘please stop.'” Whoops, we’re enablers. Another guy came in just miserably hot and nauseated, and I managed to cool him down and revive him with water, paper towels on the back of his neck (a great trick if you don’t have cooling towels!), and a cup of ice to chew on. He finally told me to get him out of the chair in two minutes, and I timed him, then helped him get his hydration pack back on (I even offered to buckle it) and he got out there and finished. I was so proud! *Sniff* So proud I forgot his bib number, name, and general appearance.

Kevin, author of Superior, a book I’ll eventually review on here, came through the aid station hot but otherwise in good shape, and sat down with us for a bit. I told him I read his book and liked it (does that count as a review), which I imagine is a nice pick-me-up and certainly a nice change from “You look great!” or “You got this!”

One member of the MRTT/SRTT crew was running the race, and the whole day, we were communicating with her husband, getting updates on where she was, and recalculating in our minds whether or not that meant she would make the cutoffs. Several women in our group headed back up the trail to find her once they learned she’d left the previous aid station, so they could run it in with her. Once she came charging in, with authority, she received a hero’s welcome. (“I just ran a less than 10 minute mile in my flip-flops,” my friend Rita told me as she came into the aid station with the pack. Yeesh.)

One of the final runners through was a friend of mine, who I also met volunteering! She cruised through the aid station but turned the wrong way, so I ran after her to 1. give her a hug and 2. guide her in the right direction (over the dam, which has a DANGER: KEEP AWAY sign on it, ironically).

25 minutes or so past the cutoff, the race official came charging out of the woods with two water bottles in his hands, telling us we’ve got to get them filled. The last runner was coming and he was going to let her continue, but she’s not allowed to stop. We filled the bottles with the pitchers we’ve got on the table as the runner comes out of the woods. She looked good and was charging hard. As she passed by, she asked if we had any gels. Which we did, but they were packed up in the car. (Hardly anyone had wanted gels all day!) I yelled at her to keep going and we frantically pawed through the box for the gels. I grabbed three kinds and took off after her (so glad I decided against flip flops!), catching her on the dam. She grabbed two of them and took off. That was my run for the day!

I am now extremely jealous of all these runners and can’t believe I don’t have a race until the big one at the end of September – somehow Curnow seems light years ago, rather than just 2 weeks ago. Maybe someday, if I ever get significantly faster, I’ll run Voyageur. If it’s a cool day, or at least cloudy. Right now once through the power lines at Curnow is enough for me.

Race Report: Voyageur 50 (Volunteering)

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.