(After seeing Dianna many times throughout the day during the Sangre de Cristo Ultras, I asked her to write about how her day volunteering went. We always get the race reports from the athletes - never from the people out there helping. I know she'll get back to adventuring in the mountains soon, but meanwhile there's more ways to be a part of an event then just pinning on a bib number.)
To quote a blast from my college past, The Indigo Girls, “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” This is a different kind of race report. After battling with a health issue for 6 months, and many conversations with my MD and friends, I found myself making the difficult decision to sideline myself from any runs over 2 hours long for the near future. Eventually, I had to admit that the MD was correct, and I reluctantly emailed a Race Director, John Lacroix regarding my entry in the September Sangre de Cristo Ultra. I'd been looking forward to that race for almost a year and it was devastating not to be able to run. The race director was very supportive, which I hadn’t expected. He wished me good luck with my treatments, and then asked me to think about another avenue to be part of the race: He challenged me to volunteer!
I initially signed up for helping out at the finish line on Saturday afternoon. When I received the thank you email for volunteers it mentioned that there was “still a huge need” for overnight aid stations volunteers. Hummm... I convinced a friend to volunteer with me for both the 50k finish line and overnight at Colony Creek Aid. It just happened that Colony Creek was one of the least accessible points of the run, with a note in the volunteer manual recommending 4x4 to reach the location. I was having some doubts Saturday night as my jeep, “Sadie” whined as we drove up the dark dirt hill into the woods, and my out- of -practice off-roading skills got my jeep semi-stuck on a drain pipe. We finally reached the aid station at 9pm.
I've volunteered during the day at aid stations, but never overnight. Our shift was scheduled from 10p - 6a and we were set to receive some straggling 100Ker’s (most had checked in at that point) at mile 45.4 of their race. The bulk would be the outbound and inbound 100 milers at 58.8 and 88.8 miles. We were briefed by our aid captain, and he agreed to hang out with us until midnight to make sure we were all set. He toasted us with a shot of whiskey and we got busy. Setting heaters to combat the chill, making quesadillas to order, and heating up broth and coffee kept us occupied. Quesadillas and broth seemed to be the most popular 10pm “snack of choice” for runners on a brisk almost-fall night. In that first hour, people were coming in hot & and we were hopping. The 100kers were motivated as they were off to Music Meadows and “almost done.” Some of them just wanted a clap on the back and reassurance that they still had 4 hrs to the last aid station cut-off, with only 7 miles left to reach it. We were also seeing 100 milers heading out. They were tired, but had picked up a pacer at Music Meadows and were off to start a 30 mi out and back renewed by support, hi-fives, and chicken broth.
As the next two hours went by, the temperature dropped 20 degrees. We all put on another layer and some of the wearied runners started to trickle in from the darkness. One gal showed up almost blue and shivering. We wrapped her with blankets and stuck her in the car to warm up, fearful for her safety if she tried to continue in that state. The heater became our “new best friend” as everyone at the aid station huddled around it when we were not serving runners. We started taking turns greeting runners coming off the white-lit trail from Music Meadows with blankets, shouting ahead what to get ready, so our cold, weary runners could be greeted with warm food and drink. Most runners were in good spirits, despite the cold. One made the decision to drop and we helped him warm up before he headed back down to the start. We sent our “blue runner” out on the trail after getting her warmed up enough to continue. Finally, our aid captain informed us that he was “going to bed”. It had been almost as long a day for him as it was for the runners!
The next hour saw a slowing of runners and left us to play with music and remind each other to drink water, until we were surprised by a quiet and weary runner coming up the rainbow lit trail to the north. He was as the first runner to greet us at his 88 mile mark. He was visibly hurting, and definitely needed motivation and reassurance. In an instant, the job changed from chef to counselor and support, helping him to warm up enough to get back out there. He was almost done, currently leading at an amazing pace… 20 min after runner 1 left, runner 2 came in, motivated as heck, especially when he realized that he was less than an hour behind the leader.
The temps kept dropping. The wind was coming up at 9500 ft of elevation, adding to the cold from the creeks just to the north. My friend and I were freezing and starting to feel the effects of the cold ourselves and huddled together to try to stay warm. We tried to stay positive and cook things that runners would eat…mostly broth and coffee. The 2:30 doldrums set in for us, and our music died… The runners had been up for almost 24 hours at this point, moving the entire time. We were working hard to keep them from “giving in to the mountain” as one gentleman called it. The temps flirted with freezing, but the damp made it feel even colder. It was hard to stay focused on the runners and what they would need, not feeling sorry for ourselves being so cold. We started making up nicknames for the runners as they came in and groups started coming in together in the starry, cold, pre-dawn hours. We reminded runners to take a few seconds to “look up at the stars” and to eat what they could, and to drink water. We sought out “ pee spots” and provided toilet paper, we provided blankets and encouragement, soup, leftovers from our own dinners (because what is better than fried okra at 3am), and just told all of the runners how proud of them that we were. We got to hear a lot of stories about why people chose to take on the 100 mile challenge, and reminded people that they were nearing the finish.
About 3:40, one particular runner arrived that was emotionally and physically done. He was nearly in tears of frustration as the cold temps and dark night were getting to him. We sat him in the car, and turned on the heater on medium as we listened to his story. He described how his joints were aching, and how cold he felt, but also talked about the thing that brought him to 100 milers, and why this one, specifically. We told him that once the sun rose, he would feel much better and the view would help. We also encouraged him to regroup, refocus his goals that that he had plenty of time left. (This was also reminder to ourselves that the sun would bring a new day and new warmth, as we were equally cold at that point.) I later heard that he finished the race, and he was very complimentary about our aid station.
As the sun began to rise, one of our aid station guides did as well. I, tired and testy at that point, informed him that I was taking a nap. He said ok, and I grabbed a few minutes of shut-eye in the back of my car. The smell of bacon soon woke me. Our aid captain was awake and cooking breakfast for us. The runners started arriving in larger groups, the sun was just starting to fill the valley with light and warming our bones. The temp read 34 degrees and the wind had finally calmed. Just as I'd promised that late night, struggling runner: the sun renewed our spirits and the views filled our hearts. I went from shivering and “cursing” volunteering at 3:30 in the morning, to laughing and joking around with spirited runners grabbing breakfast at 6:30. We all agreed that volunteering over night, like racing, was a really mind-blowing experience. While my body wasn't sore the next day, my mind and heart were full in a different way. We made our way to the finish line and got to see a bunch of the runners that we had supported overnight finish. I have never gotten so many thank you’s and high-fives as I did that morning - both at the aid station and at the finish line hours later. It was a totally different experience than running.
I look forward to returning to running/racing, but I was excited to take on this new challenge. I was almost more tired than if I had actually run, and I gained a new respect for 100 milers…I also realized that I really have no desire to ever do that distance. I WILL be back to running, but I am glad that I got the opportunity to see a different side of the race while I was sidelined. I thank Tracy, and John for encouraging me to try a “different answer” to participating in a race. It won't be an experience that is soon forgotten.
For anyone that has not yet volunteered, I pass on the challenge to you: Get out there at a race and help others. To those who have volunteered during the day, I challenge you to tackle night shift…it was a whole different experience!