7 things I learned about running ultras from working an aid station

23 Sep

This past weekend, we spent over 30 hours getting runners through a 50k, 50 miler or 100 miler.  This was not our first time at the rodeo, and not to brag, but we’re kind of amazing when it comes to aid stationing.  There was very little sleep (maybe 3 hours all weekend???), a lot of work and busy-ness, lots of cheering and screaming and a TON of fun.  Being there was so inspirational.  Every time we’ve done this, I leave feeling so excited to be a runner.  Feeling proud of the people I know that are running and the people I don’t know, too.  I love being able to give back to the community by volunteering and helping people to achieve their goals.  And I always leave wondering what else my body is capable of…



Working 3 ultra aid stations now (Virgil twice and Cayuga Trails this summer), I feel like I’ve learned a lot about what to do when I am running ultras in the future.


1.  Be prepared.  Bring what you think you might need.  Aid stations usually all have a wide selection to choose from (we rocked a variety of candy, fruit, chips, quesadillas and bacon…yes, bacon), but if there’s something specific you want, pack it for yourself, either in your pack or in a drop bag.  One of our favorite runners came into our aid station every time with his own goodies (most notably single serve guacamoles) to add to our stuff.  Had we not had anything he ate (he was vegetarian), he was prepared with his own nutrition.  Other runners had their own electrolyte mixes.  It’s smart to plan ahead and bring along some of the things that you used during your training runs (that whole train like you race so you know how your stomach is going to handle things idea).  And this goes for non-food items as well.  SO many runners wanted things like Pepto, Tums, Ibuprofin, salt tabs, or anti-chafe stuff…if you’re doing an ultra, pack ’em in drop bags (or give them to your crew), just in case those things are unavailable at your aid station.


2.  Don’t sit down (for too long).  I personally think sitting down is a bad idea in almost all cases–in fact, stopping movement for very long is a bad plan.  I get to a place in most long runs and races where starting to run after a break hurts worse than just continuing the “ultra shuffle.”  If you do sit down, you might want someone to help you get back up.  We had a guy sitting down by our fire Saturday night, and when he tried to stand up, he almost fell into the fire!  Don’t be the guy that falls into the fire.  Get some help if you need it.


3.  Which brings me to point 3: Let the volunteers do stuff for you. Give them your hydration pack or bottle and let them refill it for you. Ask for what you need. Let them pick up your garbage. Don’t waste your energy doing tasks that they are there to do FOR you.  I would normally be mortified to let someone get close to me/touch me if I’m sweaty and smelly and gross after miles of tough trail running.  But guess what?! I never once noticed that I was touching someone’s sweaty pack or that they were stinky or anything like that.  All I was focused on was helping whoever was in front of me with whatever they needed help with so they could get back on the trail.


4.  Listen to your body.  Know when to push through and when to call it.  There’s a fine line between being tired/sore and being hurt.  We’ve seen some people who were pretty messed up when they first got to our aid station.  Some of them just needed some food, a few minutes of human interaction, some rest and they were good to go again.  Others, though, were not ok.  We’ve even had some scary moments when runners were REALLY not ok.  I have a lot of respect for runners who know when to call a race before it gets to the point of calling EMTs.  Making the choice to DNF is never easy, but you have to trust your gut.  The only one who knows what is really going on in your body and how you are feeling is YOU.  So learn to read the signs that you are done and then listen to them.


5. Night time is the right time…to drop. Don’t. Get through the night however you can. So many drops seem to come when people had to run in the woods at night. I personally understand this perfectly; I find being in the woods at night terrifying, and it is a major reason I am not sure I ever want to do a 50 or 100 miler. If your race allows it, get a pacer to keep you company. If not, find another runner who is a similar pace  to go with.  Or at least to be able to see their head lamp once in a while and know you’re not alone.


6. There are going to be really good times and really, REALLY shitty times. Just push through the shitty times. A few runners came in, and when we asked how they were doing, they just said “well…ya know…” or something to that effect. The truth was, they were not feeling great. They were hurting. They were tired. They wanted to stop. But they also knew this was all part of the experience. Hurting, tired and wanting to quit, but continuing on anyway…that’s how you get through an ultra. Which leads right to my final point…


7.  Enjoy the experience.  I think this is probably the key, and the one thing that I will really have to remember for future races.  The people who seemed the strongest were the ones who were the happiest.  The ones who skipped up the start of the ski slope (they didn’t skip for long haha) or who triumphantly raised their hands over their heads coming down the mountain as we cheered them into our station.  The ones who were joking around or who were all smiles on the way in and the way out.  In both marathons, when I started feeling worst, just shouting a thank you to volunteers manning aid stations or road crossings made me feel better (marginally).  Be thankful to be in a place where you can run and be in pain and still overcome it and finish something that most people won’t ever even contemplate doing.  The look on non-runners’ faces when I say “50 mile race” is priceless. Often I forget that ultras are not “normal” because they are pretty normal for the majority of the circle I hang with.  So take the experience for what  it is–the good, the bad, the ugly and the incredibly spectacular.  You are kicking ass just by putting one foot in front of another and not giving up, especially when you least feel like moving forward.



I’m not sure if a 50 or 100 mile race is in my future.  I know that the thought of it intrigues me and that I am curious how far I can go and how my body might react to a super-long endurance event.  I am curious where my mind would go after running for 12 or 24 hours.  I am curious, which means it will probably happen, at some point.  In the meantime, I am perfectly content to volunteer and keep learning lessons from all the badasses out there rocking ultras.  To those runners who made my weekend an amazing and unforgettable one, thanks.  You all rock!


2 Responses to “7 things I learned about running ultras from working an aid station”

  1. Jen September 23, 2014 at 7:53 pm #

    Love this! Especially “Don’t be the guy that falls into the fire.” You guys are the best! I’m pretty sure anyone could run an ultra if they had you at all their aid stations!

  2. nomeatbarefeet September 26, 2014 at 8:24 pm #

    Hey, just wanted to let you know that we nominated you for the Liebster Award. (check out our recent post) Thanks for blogging!

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