I was going to write a more general “Typical Day in the Life of an Aid Station Volunteer” post but then I realized that what had become normalized for me isn’t necessarily the typical experience for a majority of volunteers. You see, by the time the pandemic canceled all our races, I’ve been volunteering with Inside Trail for about two years. And even though that might not sound like such a long time, during those two years I’d become an aid station leader, worked nearly every one of their races, and earned so many race credits that I could run with iTR until the day I die for free.
This “work” schedule is also partially my own fault because, even on my very first time volunteering, I came in earlier than I had to to help with the setup. I still remember that day clearly, but it’s a story for another time. For now, here is a typical day in my life as an aid station volunteer.
Wake up anywhere between 2:30 and 5:00 a.m. or don’t sleep at all if your neighbors are a bunch of A-hole kids. (This goes to say I wouldn’t wish my neighbors upon my worst enemy.) Have breakfast — or not. When it’s too early, a thermos with hot tea will suffice.
If you haven’t packed the night before, do the packing. Generally, you won’t need much; iTR feeds their volunteers with chocolate milk, beer, and anything else you find in aid stations or the start/finish area. Thinking about it again, you might want to pack a sandwich tho. It’s not impossible to survive off M&Ms the whole day but I wouldn’t recommend it either.
Leave the house. You might feel strange being the only person out on the roads at that ungodly hour. I’d like to say it gets better with time but it doesn’t; you’ll always question your life choices when you’re out so early even Starbucks hasn’t opened yet. Think you got lost in the fog and pray your ancient car won’t break down, letting anything that might be hiding in said fog eat you.
Arrive at the start/finish area. If you’re too early, wait for the ranger to unlock the gates while reading a magazine and, if you were lucky to find an open Starbucks, sip on your coffee (you’re gonna need it). Yes, that’s our trailer in front of my car. Ranger was late that day.
Hug everyone, even those who are too sleepy to hug you back. They’ll do it later; we’re one big family here.
It’s anywhere between 3:30 and 6:00 a.m. Start unloading the trailer. Usually, the RD will be inside, handing everyone boxes and tables and tents and pointing to the right places to put them. Everything has its place; the food that stays goes in one direction, while the aid station food, already neatly packed in blue bins, goes in another.
Start setting up tables, spreading tablecloths, and cutting open the award boxes. You’ll usually have some time before having to leave for your aid station; help around with the start/finish preparations. Set out the awards, set up the MyLaps timing mats. (Well, not you, usually the RD will do it. I learned how to do it because our RD hates that job, and I enjoy it.)
If it’s raining, now is about the time it starts getting into your sleeves and everywhere else. You’re moving a lot, raising your arms up, getting your hands dirty with mud as you set up the tents and timing mats. No matter how good your rain jacket is, water is getting up your sleeves. Deal with it.
Somewhere along the way, the sunrise comes, and you all pause for a few precious seconds to admire the beauty of the day’s coming. You point it out to each other and then you get back to work because there’s still a butt-load of things to do.
You’ve set up the awards table and, if you were lucky enough to have a later aid station, even got to witness the start of the race! But seeing all those people run out reminds you that it’s time to get your butt moving and load everything you need for your aid station into your tiny Toyota Camry. By now, a few more volunteers have arrived (you might have checked them in) and one or two are yours to take to your aid station. You give one of them the aid station tent because there’s no way for you to pack it into your car and provide them with driving directions to where your future aid station is supposed to be.
You pray the water jugs don’t spill all over your backseats as you drive up and down curvy roads, and sometimes roads where cars like yours probably shouldn’t drive. The blue bins are making weird sounds, and the tables threat to slide over to the front and jam your shift-stick but you know, it’s chill. You’ve survived worse.
You arrive at your planned aid station spot just to see that somebody also liked it and parked their giant trail maintenance machinery there. You tie a few bright pink ribbons to it to signal to the runners that you’re hidden just behind it and paint a giant flour-arrow on the ground in hopes it will help them find you.
You set up the tent, which is fun when there are only two of you. Like, really, really fun. Really. (I’m not going to even mention the possibility of you having to do it by yourself.)
Now it’s time to start cutting up the food, putting it in bowls, and remembering that there’s a system — a system that has worked and works perfectly for years, and so, there’s no reason for you to argue about it with your aid station leader. (I’m looking at you, you know who you are.)
You mix the Tailwind, cut up the GU waffles, prepare a beautifully arranged spread of energy gels. In the meanwhile, you finish the last of your tea or coffee (because who has the time to do that when setting up the start/finish).
The Mother Theresa
You spend the next five to twelve hours re-filling jugs and bottles, putting out food, handing out sunscreen and vaseline, rolling out stiff muscles, treating blisters, and taping bloody nipples. (The last three aren’t required but I’ve become desensitized enough to be able to treat a runner’s feet at mile 35 while eating a snack.) Sometimes, there will be a more serious injury when you’ll have to put your first aid training to use and then drive the runner back to start/finish where the EMTs are waiting. Sometimes, your volunteers might throw up at the sight of so much blood and leave early. You never know.
Deal with one sexist piece of trash whom we shall call Jonh. (For storytime, click here!)
You might have to show your permit to the authorities or defend your aid station against hungry dogs. You might have to scratch everything, take down the tent, and hand out food from your car because the wind is so strong that it blew all the food off your tables and ripped the tent while dumping ropes of rain down your neck and into the pretzels.
You might pray for death somewhere along the way, or fall asleep sitting on a fence because the lack of sleep has gotten you. (How I managed to do that, I have no idea.) You might have a space heater and you might shove your fingers so close to it you’ll smell them burning but they might be so frozen that you don’t feel anything.
Towards the end, some of your volunteers might leave because it’s the end of their shift and you’ll wonder once again why in the world you’d sign up for the entire day.
In the end, you might see a rainbow but mostly, there will be only bags of trash to be taken back to the start/finish and a lot of packing to do. You wait for the sweeper to come through, give them all the food and water they want, wish them good luck and let them chase after the strugglers.
You put all dirty cutlery and dishes in one bin, foods that can’t spoil in the other. You pay special attention to NOT leave any fruit in. The fruit is yours. Unless they need it at the start/finish (never happened), you keep it.
You fold the tent (again, super fun to do alone) and manage to squeeze everything in your car while praying the trash bags don’t burst open. You check for trash everywhere you can think of and then, finally, you drive back, possibly having a companion in the form of a runner who had to DNF. They might cry. They might not. You become friends, most likely.
You dump everything out of your car (you dump it carefully because even though you feel like you’ve had just about enough for the day, you don’t want to break stuff) and carry it where it belongs, usually right next to the trailer to be packed later in a spectacular game of Tetris.
You try to dry the patch where something spilled but you fail miserably and only hope that it wasn’t sweet and therefore won’t attract bears when you drive to bear country. You say hi to everyone at start/finish and give a short report to the RD. You immediately go after the chocolate milk and quesadillas and soup because it’s the first hot food you’ve seen all day. Fresh quesadillas might be made especially for you.
The Golden Hour
If you arrive back at the right time, you might witness the “golden hour” of ultrarunning. This term is mostly used in connection with the last hour of Western States when the last finishers get through, having given it their everything. It just might be even more beautiful to witness this “golden hour” than to see Jim Walmsley break the record.
There’s hot soup at the finish and after you’ve defrosted your fingers, you help with heating it up and handing it out to the last of the runners. A guy who ran the entire thing (filled with muddy trails) in a white shirt makes it back, the shirt still as clean as at the start, and looks for his pants he dropped off at your aid station. He left his car keys in them but they’re nowhere to be found now.
You invite a few frozen-to-the-bone runners inside your car and start the engine just so you can put the heat on full blast and help them feel a little better. (Don’t worry, they won’t drive away in your car; one, because this community is just the best community I’ve ever met and two, their feet are too battered to allow them to press the pedals anyway.) One of them might take your sleeping bag and wrap his dirty bleeding legs and sweaty torso in it. You might have been upset before but you’ve seen enough already that you’re not surprised. You shrug it off.
Play Tetris as you help pack the trailer. You can fit five of the slightly wider tables in a row, then you have to make another row with the ten slightly slimmer tables. You can’t differentiate them anymore because you’re beat, but the faster you get it done correctly, the sooner you’ll be home, taking a hot shower.
The black-and-yellow bins go to the right. Stack them. The blue ones go right next to them. The cones have to go in last. The generator needs to be tied to the wall. The trash can setup wires need to be put in near star-shaped stack and zip-tied together. (I can’t believe I can tell you the set-up from the top of my head after a year. But I have a photo somewhere. Might just look for it.)
If you packed up and it’s still light outside, congratulations! It won’t make a difference; by the time you get home, it’s going to be dark anyway. If you brought your running clothes, thinking you might go for a run when it’s all over, good for you. Now drag your sorry butt to the car, glad that nobody knew you planned on running, and so you don’t have to come up with excuses as to why you won’t do it.
By this time you’re too exhausted to care that your shoes are filled with mud and that you haven’t gone to the bathroom the whole day. Give everyone one last hug, say “next time” and crawl into your car to drive yourself home. Turn the heat up to help you drive away the biting cold and hope that you’ll keep all your toes, even though you can’t feel them right now.
Feel utterly, inexplicably happy.