Posted by: pointlenana | July 1, 2015

The Aid Stations – Western States Part 4

I’m kind of cynical about superlatives.  E.g. “best race”.  There are lots of good races out there, they can all be good, there doesn’t need to be a best, and best is hard to know without some way of measuring it.  Superlatives seem to be a marketing thing more than anything else – biggest, best, fastest, etc..  They always seems to be used in the context of getting people to “buy”.  E.g. Western States bills itself as the world’s oldest and most prestigious 100 mile trail race.  Oldest is a fact.  I’m not sure how prestige is measured and I don’t think it works to self-declare “most prestigious”.  Certainly it’s a great race, lots of people want to get in, there is lots of history, the competition upfront is amazing, and there are a lot of ordinary people further back doing amazing things over the course of 24-30 hours to finish.

Devil's Thumb Aid Station - I borrowed this image from the Buffalo Chip's site.  They man the aid station each year, and I hope they don't mind my borrowing.  They were awesome.

Devil’s Thumb Aid Station – I borrowed this image from the Buffalo Chips’ site. They man the aid station each year, and I hope they don’t mind my borrowing. They were awesome.

So, with my cynicism about superlatives on the table, I’m confident Western States has the world’s best aid stations.  Amazing aid stations.  This is what is was like to pass through an aid station at WS:

– about 200 yards out from the aid station, I’d see a volunteer.  Reaching the volunteer, I’d hear them say my bib number into a radio.

– 25 yards out, I’d hear “welcome runner!” and in a few cases “welcome Mark!”

– 5 yards out at an aid station with drop bags, a volunteer would walk up to me holding my drop bag

– simultaneously someone else would take my bottles, ask me what I wanted, and disappear.  I had three bottles, so sometimes they got another person to help.

– the drop bag volunteer would hold my bag while I swapped gear and restocked.

– at this point there are 3 people 100% focused on my needs.  If a 4 or 5 of us arrived at the same time, there’d be 10-15 people 100% focused on us.

– when I was done with the drop bag, the volunteer would take it away

– I’d move a few feet and volunteers would pack me with ice – in the back pocket of my ultra vest, into the pouch of my ice bandana, under my hat, wherever I needed.  Everyone seemed to know where the pockets were and how to get ice into them, even the unusual ice bandana which I had borrowed from my pacer Bob.  The first couple times I started to explain just to be helpful, but quickly stopped because it was unnecessary.

– I’d move a few more feet to the food tables, which had every type of ultra food I’ve ever seen or wanted.  Fresh fruit – watermelon, cantaloupe, melon, strawberries.  Healthy food – pb&j, tortilla roll-ups with and without meat, boiled potatoes and salt.  The good stuff – potato chips, oreos, m&ms, pieces of payday bars, gummy bears.  Drinks (often with ice in the little cup)- coke, sprite, mountain dew, 7-up, water.  Chemicals – electrolyte caps, antacids, etc..  Warm stuff – grilled cheese and some other things that I don’t remember because they weren’t working for me and I stopped looking at them.

– The drinks were usually cold, due to smart restocking.  E.g. I’d take the small cup of coke+ice from the front of a line of 8 cups, they’d fill another cup with warm coke + ice and put it at the back of the line, and then move the whole line forward.  By the time a runner got that new cup the coke was cold.

– They never ran out of anything.  I was mid-pack, so maybe this wasn’t true for people behind me.  But it’s unusual not to have at least one “we’re out of coke” experience during a race.  They mentioned that they get 20000 pounds of ice for the race.  10 tons of ice!  More than 50 lbs for every runner, and probably more if you figure some runners bring their own crew and ice.  And the ice continued to be available through the warm night when I still needed it, even if it would have been reasonable to assume it would cool off.

– Once I was done eating and my hands were free, the bottle volunteer(s) would give me back my bottles.  So basically they were 100% focused on me the whole time I was in the aid station.  The only time I got back my bottles “early” was when I was lying in El Dorado Creek.  When I climbed back up the bank I found my bottles lying where I couldn’t miss them.

– Heading out, there’d be more volunteers to sponge bath me – usually one or two people with big sponges drenching my top half, and directing me to bend over to keep my bottom half dry.

– The people checking me out for tracking/safety would yell “good luck runner” as I headed down the trail.

I had a drop bag at Robinson Flat and spent a bunch of time getting icy and wet, and yet still made it in and out in 5 minutes.  Early in the race when I still cared about shaving a minute where I could, if I didn’t have a drop bag I was usually in, fully restocked (with food, drinks and ice), and out in less than 2 minutes.

I don’t know anything about how they prepare the aid stations but from what I saw I’m pretty confident they do the following:

– there is some kind of training for the volunteers.  It’s not just “show up and figure it out during the race”.  There may even be specialized training, e.g. if you are an ice volunteer you learn how to pack people with ice.

– the aid station captains plan for the unique needs of their own aid stations.  E.g. there are likely to be lots of walking dead at Devil’s Thumb, so there are “floaters” there with no other jobs (ice, food, etc.) whose job is to look for and help people who are in trouble.  You don’t need those floaters so much at No-Hands Bridge because people who are in trouble don’t get there and everyone who does get there is almost done.

– aid station captains collaborate to make all the aid stations great, vs. focusing on making their own aid station the best.  If they figure out something that works at one aid station but is relevant more broadly, it will show up at all aid stations the next year.  If unique needs of one station require shifting resources across the race’s aid stations, they do that.  Robinson Flat probably has a lot more volunteers than Brown’s Bar, because people are still close together early in the race and at Brown’s Bar it’s probably rare to see more than 4 people at a time.

Given that this is all volunteers, it’s pretty amazing to see this level of excellence.  I said this a lot over the course of 27 hours but it’s worth saying again – thank you aid station volunteers, the level of service is incredible, you were awesome all day.

Oh, and if you asked ultra people around the world to name 3 prestigious ultras, WSER would probably be in most of the lists. If you then asked them to pick just one of the three, WSER would probably get more votes than all others combined.  So I’ll cut WSER some slack on “world’s most prestigious”.

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