Wednesday, December 8, 2010

This isn't happening without some aid...199 days to go

Thanks to the generosity of so many, I've already reached a big fundraising benchmark by surpassing the $1,000 mark. A couple donations were made by check offline, so it'll take a few days for the Wounded Warrior Project to process them, but as of tonight, I'm 10 1/2 miles into my 100 mile fundraising goal. I cannot thank you enough!

In honor of this huge achievement, I've decided to profile the first 10 1/2 miles of the course this week in honor of the $1,050 raised as of today. As the amount raised continues to increase toward the goal, I'll provide analysis of the equivalent signpost along the course. The easiest way to break down the Western States course, and in fact the way that I'll break it down mentally during my run, is from aid station to aid station along the 100.2 mile course. Therefore, I figured a good starting point for this course tour would be to explain how these aid stations work.

First of all, there are over 1500 volunteers manning the 25 aid stations! With a field of approximately 400 runners, that's nearly 4 volunteers for every runner on the course! Many groups (some runners, others not) volunteer at the same station every year; in fact, I've heard there's a long waiting list of people waiting for the opportunity to man a station! Some of the aid stations barely fit into a small clearing along single track; others are huge camps in the middle of an open field. One of the final aid stations, at No Hands Bridge just miles from the finish, set up a huge projection screen showing movie clips. Another's music could be heard echoing through the canyons for miles before it came into sight.

Manning an aid station is no easy task. It's not uncommon for the last few aid stations to work 12 or more hours, mostly in the dark, due to the gap that develops between the lead runners and the final runners. Many of the stations are only accessible by foot, so the volunteers must haul tables, chairs, food, water, and even generators several miles into the woods to set up their station. I'll note, however, that it's not uncommon for these remote locations (I'm looking at you, Brown's Bar at Mile 89.9) to resemble a spring break party.

(On the left) Need proof? Yes, that's me sharing an adult beverage with a man in a 2 the middle of nowhere....while Jimmy Buffett plays in the background (sorry, no audio available!).

Many people are familiar with the sight of a marathon aid station, where lines of volunteers hold out cups of Gatorade and water. By comparison, the Western States aid stations more closely resemble buffets, except there are personal servers for all runners.

Each station has an abundance of water, GU2O (a Gatorade-like drink), and even flat Coke, Mountain Dew, and Sprite (the carbonation would cause stomach problems). The daytime aid stations are known to have popsicles for sun-weary runners, while the night aid stations (basically all of them after mile 65) have hot soup, coffee, and hot chocolate. Every aid station is plentifully stocked with salt replacement foods such as saltines, pretzels, and chips, energy gels, fruits, potatoes (best rolled in the salt bowl next to the potato dish), cookies, and candy (M&Ms, jelly beans, gummy bears, and more!). Some of the larger aid stations have sliced turkey and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and I remember someone making me a quesadilla somewhere along the way, too.

At every aid station, an entering runner must announce his or her bib number to a volunteer manning a clipboard and watch. Many of these stations are connected to the web, where this entry is instantly transmitted across the internet. A runner can receive basic medical attention for common issues like blisters or scrapes at every station, and ten of the aid stations are medical stations, where the very next thing a runner has to do is step onto a scale to check weight loss or gain. Runners who have lost too much weight, usually on account of dehydration, may be put in a "timeout" until they consume enough fluids and food to be cleared to continue. Runners who have gained weight are at risk of hyponatremia, a potentially deadly issue resulting from having too much water in the body resulting in a lack of sodium, and also could be temporarily pulled from the course. It is not uncommon for runners in good enough health to continue, but with early warning signs of a problem, to be ordered to sit for 10, 15, or even 20 or more minutes before being released to continue on their way. Every runner exiting an aid station again must announce the departure to the man with the clipboard. It's more to confirm there are no missing runners as to weed out any potential Rosie Ruizs.

(On the right) Professional running stud and 2010 third place finisher Kilian Jornet of Spain weighs in at the Foresthill aid station (Mile 62).

Runners at the finish line can receive an IV if necessary. I'd like to say it's uncommon, but to be honest, the medical tent looks a bit like something out of M*A*S*H, with dozens of runners huddled under warm blankets and hooked to IVs. Those in good enough shape can seek out a massage or even partake in the breakfast spread of eggs, pancakes, sausage, and bacon!

The long and short of it is that this race, like any, owes a lot to its volunteers...maybe even more, given the logistics. Over the next few months, I'll look forward to taking you from aid station to aid station along the course as I give a course tour. When it comes to the first 62 miles, I'll be a poor guide since I've never seen those trails in person, but I hear that's not any different from your typical Let's Go! guide anyway. With each stopping point, just keep in mind that it will be the temporary home of dozens of generous folks giving their weekend to help folks like me reach the finish line. We're all indebted to them.


  1. Helping out at an aid station for a race like this is on my bucket list (because we all know I'm not running in one!).

    About that need to turn it in your photo editor before uploading it to blogger.

  2. Thanks, Jenn. Photo flipped right-side up!