By Eric Eagan
At 6 a.m. the gun went off for runners at the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile Trail race. The athletes had been gathering for about an hour, relaxing, chatting, shaking out pre-race jitters. An hour before that though there was a gathering of folks just as dedicated to the event as the athletes and event organizers. They have planned out schedules, prepared for the moment with intensity, and they do it all without expecting to be recognized or noticed at all. There is no finisher medal for them although their day is longer than most runners. There are no race day photos taken of them. They show up in the dark, and often leave in the dark. They are the aid station volunteers of an ultra marathon event.
They arrived at 4 a.m., started setting up tents in the rain, boiled potatoes with camp burners, mixed gallon after gallon of electrolyte mix, set up chairs for runners to take a break and even organized drop bags by bib number so runners could find them easily. Ian Golden Owner of Finger Lakes Running Company and Red Newt Racing knows that his races simply would not happen without aid station volunteers;
“Aid stations are a critical component of ultras. They serve as not only the lifeline for many runners, but are also a telling reflection of a caring community. They are composed of volunteers giving hours and most importantly driving energy to runners intent on achieving what to many may seem ludicrous.”
In the middle of a mental battle coming in to mile 37 at the Cayuga Trails 50 in Ithaca NY, Laura Rekkerth, 28 of Rochester, NY felt down and out but was revived by quality aid station crew. Certain her race was over she rolled into the Buttermilk Falls aid station staffed by #TrailsRoc – a trail running club from Rochester, NY. “When I got to the aid station everyone was cheering. This was the only aid station with that amount of energy. I totally forgot I wanted to sit down. I found myself in a hilarious situation with gloves being shoved on my hands and people giving me salt and pickles. The team made me laugh. I never had a mental issue after that. I thought I would be walking and instead I ran.”
So how do you pull off an aid station that rivals all others? Elyse Heerkens of #TrailsRoc -says it’s all about a few things.
- Being organized. Nothing is worse than when a runner asks for something and the volunteer wastes time looking for it.
- Understanding runners. You do not have to be a runner yourself, but you have to understand them and what they will need.
- Forget about yourself. Being willing to forget about yourself for an entire day to make sure runners have a great experience.
Sean Storie of #TrailsRoc says it’s the simple things. “Filling water bottles for runners, getting their food. Zipping packs, helping runners put them back on. “Runners should worry about one thing; running -Your job is to make the aid station easy. Exhausted not thinking runners need you to be the brains. Fill their water, give them food, even if they say no! Take charge.”
It’s not always about the fun and support though says Liz Pfleghardt of Rochester, NY. It’s about making sure runners move on. As much help an aid station can provide, if it’s not managed properly it can really be a burden to get moving when a runner stops for too long.
“I look forward to the faces and know you will be prepared and ready to go with all the candy and soda one could need, but at the same time, I know you won’t pity us; You don’t stand for whining or whimpering -You are going to push us along and through as fast as possible”
Why should you volunteer?
Other than the sense of giving back to runners, Heerkens says “I feel a sense of pride for our group and our name. Repeat runners know that they can trust us and we know what we are doing.” Heerkens among others who volunteer say it’s simple. If you want motivation to sign and up for, train, and rock your next race, work an aid station. “You feel a sense of pride from each finisher that came through your station,” says Heerkens. You want to hug them, high five them and celebrate with them. Then you want to go for a run because that’s what happens when you work the aid!
If you want to get involved at an aid station contact the Race Director of any local event. They will be sure to accept you with open arms!