Posted by: pointlenana | June 28, 2016

Devil’s Thumb Aid Station – Western States Part 11

I thought my 10 chapter Western States book was done after I finished last year, but Janet and I volunteered at the Devil’s Thumb aid station during the race last Saturday, and I have a few more chapters to add.  This chapter is on the experience of volunteering at the aid station.


That rock (past the butterfly which very considerately flew by) is Devil’s Thumb.  Someone else at the aid station said that Thumb is not the anatomical part that came to mind.

Devil’s Thumb is 47.8 miles into the race, at the top of a very steep hot climb.  We asked to volunteer there because it was the crux of my run last year – I melted going up, got some great help at the aid station (from Bruce F, one of the co-captains of the aid station), and gradually recovered afterwards to finish and have a great experience.  Getting there as a volunteer meant driving 16 miles past Foresthill and then another 8 miles on a very very dusty somewhat-rough dirt road.  Everything in our trunk was covered in a layer of dust when we arrived. (I’m glad the rental car company doesn’t have a problem with filthy cars.)

We arrived early, ran down the nasty hill and then back up (for fun, yeah, right…), and when we got back people were arriving and setting up for the day.  People have been volunteering there for a long time – 19 years for the aid station captain, 10+ years for a few people, etc..  The result is a well-oiled machine, where there are practically X’s on the forest floor for the different tents, tables, supplies, etc..  Pretty quickly we had a fully-stocked aid station with a lot of people ready to help runners – that’s a reflection of how much work people do before the race and the years of experience.  At some point I volunteered to help check runners into the aid station, and ended up with another volunteer named Alan and the check-in captain Kelly .  The medical team was shorthanded and Janet is a doctor, so she ended up with them.

Based on the aid station flow/system, each runner had at least a dozen people observe and help them as they passed through Devil’s Thumb.  Near the top of the climb, the runner would reach a volunteer with a walkie talkie who would call their bib number up to Alan sitting next to me.  Alan would confirm the number, I’d write it on the tracking sheets, and Kelly would write it again on a backup scratch sheet.  Someone (usually me) would call the number back to the bag drop folks so they could find any drop bag the runner had sent ahead.  Kelly would look up the runner in the program and call their name down to the next runner “escort”.  By the time the runner appeared at the aid station, the escort knew the runner’s name and the drop bag was ready.  Kelly and I would confirm the bib number, and write down the time they arrived.  The escort would take the runner’s bottles and the runner’s wishes on how to fill them, and walk the runner up to the medical staff.  While the escort got the bottles filled (another volunteer or two on fluids helping with this), the medical staff would wash/ice down the runner, while using that time to quietly assess the person’s status.  If the runner seemed ok, the escort would hand back the bottles and take the runner to the food and chairs.  (“Ok” is a relative term here – plenty of ok runners showed up hot and with empty stomachs after barfing during the climb up.)  If the runner wasn’t ok, the medical staff would take the runner to a chair or cot and spend some time figuring things out.  Once a runner was ok and ended up at the food, a volunteer or two would collect food for them (not a typical race where runners plunge grimy hands into a shared food supply – this one had rubber gloves, people serving, and bowls/bags to put food in).  There were also a few floating volunteers around the (oh so comfortable) chairs to help people who had “gotten stuck”.  Eventually the runner would exit past two more volunteers who would track their out times on another set of tracking sheets.  Finally, the full in/out tracking sheets would be carried over to ham radio operators who would radio it in for live tracking.  Going through the whole chain, each runner had at least a dozen aid station volunteers focus on that runner alone for at least a few moments.  I hesitate to say that Western States aid stations are the best of any race anywhere (UTMB and San Diego are excellent also) but I will say that there are none better than Western States.

Runners generally arrived in one of 3 states – fine and looking fine, ok but looking like they were worried about having to go back to the hell they’d just escaped from, or in trouble.  There weren’t that many people who were really in trouble.  In fact, no one was pulled at Devil’s Thumb for medical reasons.  The fine/looking fine people (maybe a quarter of the runners) just passed through – they got all the observation/help I talked about above but didn’t need much help otherwise.  The middle group – I was one of those last year – generally sat in a chair for a bit and benefited from some coaching, problem-solving and encouragement.  Some of these folks were pale, some seemed anxious, some had “issues” (my kidneys hurt, I’m cramping, I can’t keep food down).  For the most part these people were hot and really tired from the brutal climb, and recovering/cooling/fueling for 5-10 minutes was enough for them.  But it seemed to help to encourage them and reassure them about what was to come (“5.1 miles to the next aid station, pretty flat for 2 miles then 3 miles downhill, and then you can lie down in a wonderful creek and cool off.  You’re doing great.  Here’s a bag of food, you are cooler now, just go slowly and it will stay down, time to get out of that chair and move on.  See you in Auburn!”)  Bruce F did this for me last year and I credit him for turning my day around when I was questioning life.  I only played Problem Solver to runners for a little while during my breaks from checking people in, but hopefully I did that for a couple people this year.  Amazingly – and this is a credit to both the runners and the aid station – there were no drops at Devil’s Thumb.  The only person who arrived at the aid station but didn’t continue in the race came in at the very end, gave up and let the cutoff pass.

It took some time for Kelly to get comfortable with Alan and me as her volunteers.  Last year someone made mistakes and at the end of the day they had “lost” a few runners – which meant spending a couple hours afterwards trying to figure out whether people had come in/exited/arrived at the next aid station.  She didn’t want to go through that again this year.  It turned out though that Alan and I were pretty competent and understood that we couldn’t make even one mistake.  We were both relieved at points by Alan’s wife Bev, who was equally competent.  Between the 4 of us, we caught all the likely problems – Kelly or I missing a number when a few people arrived at one time, or a number getting garbled in the walkie talkies.  At the end of the day, Kelly’s “In” team was perfect – we had accounted for every runner who arrived at the aid station.  The aid station did have 3 tracking issues – the Out count was two less than the In count (where did the 2 people go?  are they laying injured off a trail somewhere?) and according to the previous aid station (Last Chance) one more person left but hadn’t arrived at ours.  The Last Chance person turned out to be bogus – they didn’t ever leave the aid station.  One of the two missing from “Out” was sitting in the aid station when the cutoff happened.  The final person somehow got past Out without being recorded, was probably “found” at El Dorado Creek around the time we noticed she wasn’t on the out list, and eventually finished.

Runners arrived at the aid station over an 8-ish hour span.  Before the race, I expected a bell curve of arrivals – a trickle, a lot, and a trickle.  It was more like a two-humped camel (with its head down).  350-something runners started.  Only 6 of those arrived at Devil’s Thumb in the first 45 minutes (starting with the first runner to arrive).  Only ~35 people had come through in the first 2 hours.  At the 3 hour mark (about 2:40pm) about 70 people had come through, including most of the elite/fast people.  (This would be that camel head in my bad analogy.)  Because a bunch of people focus on finishing in less than 24 hours there was a clump (one camel lump) from about 3pm to 4:30pm, and by 4:30 about half of the starters (175 people) had arrived.  Then it slowed a little – people weren’t going to make 24 hours and were way ahead of the cutoffs, so there was no real reason to rush.  At 5:30pm (about 6 hours after the first runner arrived), ~230 people had arrived.  The last 100 people to make it to Devil’s Thumb (by the 7pm cutoff) came in between 5:30pm and 7pm – the second camel lump.

Sadly, 6 people arrived after the cutoff.  That last half hour was a little dramatic.  At 6:30 someone blew an airhorn over the cliff edge to the runners below.  I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a tired runner down there struggling up a very steep hill, hearing that horn.  The horn was blown again at 6:40 and again at 6:50.  At ~6:52 we told the walkie talkie guy down the hill to tell anyone who passes to move their butt (the cutoff is for leaving our aid station, not arriving).  Any time a runner showed up, they had about 10 of us helping by saying “you have 14 (10, 7, 3…) minutes to get out of here”.  The last 10 people to get out of Devil’s Thumb before the cutoff arrived at 6:43pm or later (of those 10, only 2 made it to the finish).  And then at 7pm the horn was blown one last time in camp.  By then a sweep/safety patrol person arrived up the hill, letting us know how many people were still out there below us – this year it was 6 people.  Each of those people had another sweep/safety patrol volunteer traveling with them to get them up the hill safely.  One by one they’d come in, we’d check them off, let them know the cutoff had passed, and take them over to a chair to eat and recover.  Eventually they drove out with a volunteer.  Shortly after the last runner arrived, 2 or 3 horses and riders came through as the final sweep – in a sense a tribute to Western States’ origin as a horse race (the Tevis Cup).

I really enjoyed the day (Janet had a good time too).  I’ve learned this over my past few races, but although these long races look like an individual sport, it’s much more of a team sport.  There’s some individual competition, especially at the front, but for the most part everyone out there – volunteers, crew, pacers, runners – are working to get all the runners to the finish.  I was lucky to get to run last year and I feel equally lucky to have been working on behalf of the runners this year.

Keeping the kudos in mind, if I were King Of The Aid Stations (and had unlimited resources), I’d make two changes.

  • match skills to jobs a little better.  My “In” teammates Alan and Bev are very accomplished ultra runners.  They were great checking people in, but would have been even better spending their whole time helping struggling runners.  The check-in job can be done just fine by a focused, detail-oriented non-runner.
  • look hard at the situations where the aid station is pushing a runner down the trail (“kicking the can down the road”, as Janet calls it).  I’ve done those long runs and don’t have a DNF experience so I only think about getting people to the finish. Janet’s a doctor and thinks about things from an outcome perspective.  Only 2 of the last 10 arrivals that we rushed out finished.  One other runner lay in the medical tent for more than an hour, got pushed out shortly before the cutoff, and dropped two aid stations later.  There’s a difference between helping someone to the finish, and putting someone who is not going to make it through more suffering (not to mention extra time for volunteers – sweeps and tracking people – to find and handle that person).  This is a research project but perhaps there are a couple questions we need to ask the people right on the edge, so we can separate the 2 who will finish from the 8 who won’t.  E.g. “Have you been getting stronger recently or struggling more?”  “You will be chasing cutoffs for hours before you might build a small time buffer.  If things go wrong – you get a blister – you won’t have time to deal with it and it will get worse.  Are you mentally prepared for that?”  As Janet says, these folks are very capable adults and given the right context will probably make good decisions.  We all want people to finish, but if the odds are very high that they won’t and/or they are not committed deeply to that, it’s probably better for everyone to have them drop vs. go on.  I heard that Gunhild Swanson – last year’s hero, she arrived at Devil’s Thumb 15 minutes before the cutoff this year – eventually chose to time out at Rucky Chuck (10 hours later) in part because she had blisters that had needed attention for hours and there was no time to do that.  She’s smart and had the experience to make that decision.  Some runners might not have that experience and maybe could benefit from more nuanced guidance than “get going!!!!”

Perhaps the very best thing about working at Devil’s Thumb was going to Auburn later that evening and the next morning, and recognizing a lot of people (who had been suffering 10-16 hours before) as they rounded the track and crossed the finish line at Western States.


My Seattle friend John showed up at Devil’s Thumb looking like I felt last year – pale, with an empty stomach from the climb up in the heat.  The next morning he was on the track, 200 yards from the finish, smile on his face.  Very cool.

P.S. As we drove home in the evening, a bear crossed the road a little ways in front of the car.  My second bear-in-the-wild sighting.  Very cool also!



  1. […] Neat report from Devil’s Thumb aid station at Western. […]

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