Toro Creek. Of all the aid stations you can work for Inside Trail Racing, this one might be considered to be the most challenging one. It’s “open” for 12 hours (8:45 AM – 8:45 PM) but you’re out there for around 15 hours. I like to say that you work the AS “from I can’t see to I can’t see,” a Czech idiom meaning “a really damn long time.” The race takes place in February, so the weather turns foul more often than not, leaving you drenched or freezing or sunburnt or wind-burnt or all at the same time. And you don’t have a bathroom. (Where you can, you know, hide from the elements or curl and cry on the floor.)
All things considered, it sounds pretty miserable, doesn’t it?
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
🎵Can we skip to the good part…?🎵
No, we can’t. Let’s work through the reasons for why this aid station isn’t for the faint of heart first. The reward will be the sweeter then.
From I Can’t See to I Can’t See
This idiom fits for this particular aid station perfectly. You make it out there just before the sun comes up, setting up early just in case the leader is having a great, fast day. You then stay late into the night, waiting for those who come after cut-offs, making sure you don’t leave anyone out on the course.
Especially in the afternoon/evening/night, when the runners are spread far and wide, the waiting can get quite tedious unless you have a good co-volunteer to share the misery with. (I hit a jackpot this year!)
Normal people opt to volunteer at the aid station for a few hours, maybe half a day, and then get switched out. Not yours truly. I’m the idiot who always chooses to stay the whole day.
Being out there for this long can get tiring, especially when, after several years, you still haven’t remembered to bring a damn chair. (I’m looking at me. I am the idiot who, every single year, forgot to bring a chair.) Given the fact that the weather has been awful all times but one, sitting on the ground was never an option, as that would equal a drenched butt on top of drenched feet.
Weathering the Storm
Speaking of weather… Out of the many times I’ve worked the aid station, the day was marked by freezing temperatures, strong winds, and heavy rains every time but one.
2018: Heatstrokes mid-day, hypothermias at night. A runner passed out on the bathroom floor at the start/finish and gave us a collective heart attack. That year saw the greatest temperature difference between day and night and not everyone made it through. The park always locks the bathrooms for the event now and we have to bring port-a-potties. Apparently, people sleeping on the floor was too much.
2019: The worst bloody weather we’ve ever experienced during Ordnance. From Friday until Sunday morning, the wind was so strong it rocked our cars that we “slept” in (it was impossible to sleep). Nobody even attempted to build a tent, these potential attempts were doomed to fail.
We had to keep the event tents we managed to put up bolted in the ground and lowered all the way down. It rained sideways and keeping anything dry proved absolutely impossible; even checking in runners was a pain because the pens couldn’t work on the wet paper.
We got one rain-free hour and a pretty rainbow mid-day Saturday before our aid station was literally blown away and we had to go chase the food and the tent a mile down the trail. We had to hand food out of our cars after that.
Towards the end of the event, I had runners shivering in my car that I ran with the heater on full blast, trying to prevent hypothermia.
2020: Cold as °F. Absolutely freezing. The day was clear and there was no rain but it didn’t get warm through the day and only got colder at night.
At the aid station, one of our last runners coiled himself around our space heater that we used to keep our fingers functional enough to be able to perform the most basic tasks. I burnt my fingers on it that night but didn’t notice until much later when I managed to get some feeling back in them. Thank god for the space heater, I think it’s the one thing that kept us all alive.
At least it was a dry year and we weren’t going to have to pack everything wet, right? WRONG. About two hours before the end of the race, fog so thick it was precipitating rolled in and got everything and everyone drenched again.
2021: Um… yeah, literal viral apocalypse, the race didn’t even take place.
2022: Finally a good-weather year! Nice and sunny during the day but still chilly enough for us that it was perfect running weather for our runners. It got a bit cold at night and we did appreciate the space heater and hot soup but compared to previous years, this one was a holiday.
The Bathroom Situation
Bathroom-less aid stations are the norm. When I do happen to have an aid station near a trailhead with bathrooms, it’s a luxury. It’s more or less easy to go without a bathroom; nature is usually all around. But going without it for over half a day in a place that gets super busy with hikers isn’t the best if I’m one to judge. The Toro Creek AS used to be near a trailhead with a bathroom but had to be moved to a bathroom-less location. Thank god the boss had a port-a-potty delivered to us.
THE GOOD, (GREAT, AWESOME, BEST, THAT MAKES UP FOR EVERYTHING ELSE): THE RUNNERS
When you work aid stations, you usually get only a snippet of each runner’s story. Mostly, you don’t get to witness the start and the finish and everything that goes down in between. You’re there, helping them reach their goals, but you don’t get to witness the moment of their triumph.
But Toro Creek is different. I get to see our Ordnance (100k) runners head out to the sound of the cheers of the few who are already working (other distance runners arrive after Ordnance runners leave for their adventure) and cheer them on as they run into the darkness.
I get to see them at mile 33. It’s far enough into the race that things might have gone south already, but it’s also “only” halfway through, so a lot of the runners are still in high spirits. Sometimes, their feet have already blistered over or their muscles are tight and need a bit of rolling out, and I do my best to make sure they make it back to us a second time and, eventually, finish. Some might say that dealing with a runner’s feet at mile 33 (or, ever, really) should probably go into the “bad and ugly” part of this post but honestly, it’s an honor when they trust you enough to let you handle their hurting legs, the same legs they depend on to finish the race.
To the back-of-the-packers, I tell that next time they come, there would be hot soup and quesadillas, and if that isn’t motivating to make it back, I don’t know what is. (Just kidding; finishing the race is a huge motivation in and of itself. But the promise of hot food when it’s dark and cold? Now that’s a motivator!)
I get to see the runners again at mile 55.6, less than 10 kilometers from the finish. At this point, literally anything could have happened. They’ve gone through the highs and the lows, their legs are more likely than not shot, and depending on the weather and how fast they were up until then, we might be feeding them hot soup, warming them up with space blankets, and sending them back out into the night. There’s a hill they have to get up, and they all know it very well because it’s the same one they had to get up the first time they came through, so it sometimes takes a bit of convincing to get them back out there.
Sometimes, there will be people who want to or have to drop. That can happen at any point in the race and, usually, I try to talk to them and see the reason behind their decision. If it’s an injury or something of similar weight, or if I know that they know exactly what they’re doing, I take care of that and wish them all the best in their future races, always saying some version of “hope to see you back out there somewhere.” If it’s a momentary weakness, which can very well happen—ultra races are tough on the mind and really test one’s resolve—I usually manage to talk them into continuing. Depending on the person, sometimes it takes a bit of hot soup, a gentle talk, and a hug, while sometimes it takes a bit of tough love, but every time it takes treating the runners with kindness.
Sometimes they want to keep running but can’t because of some serious issue. It’s the most heartbreaking part of the job, having to pull a runner off course but it’s something that we must do; letting a runner with suspected onset rhabdo continue would put them in significant danger. Sometimes, there are tears, and always, there’s disappointment. “We’ll see you back here next year” usually helps make the drop easier for our runners.
Seeing and helping people in these moments, moments when they want something so badly, moments when all the wheels might have come off and every step is a struggle, or moments when they’re riding the high toward the finish, is the best reward there can be.
Above all, I get to see our golden-hour runners finish, running under the arch in the night. This year, I got to run the last half-mile with one of our most loyal runners and volunteers, and it was an honor of the highest degree to pass under the arch with him and be there when the tears came.
In short: THE WORK IS A REWARD in and of itself.
And that’s the whole secret. This aid station is my favourite one because the runners and the interactions make it so. I’m not there for myself, I’m there for them. And even if my eyes are closing from exhaustion, if I’m wet and cold and miserable, seeing that lone headlamp appear on the trail, make its way to the AS, then leave and disappear into the night again to finish what they’ve worked for for so long, makes it always worth it a hundred times over.