Volunteering My Heart & Soul: Ultra X Wales

At the end of August and before I was fortunate enough to be able to return to Slovenia, I volunteered at another Ultra X race. The whole week was quite demanding if I’m to be honest but incredibly rewarding once again. And it made me realize that during these events, I don’t volunteer just my time; I volunteer my heart and soul. After all, if I could, I’d gladly dedicate my whole life to it.

The journey to Wales was riddled with delayed busses, cancelled train rides, and eerily empty trains. By the time I finally arrived in Machynlleth, I was the only person on the train that glided through the darkening countryside. A lovely old gentleman helped me find the farm where we had our base camp, then I joined the base crew in a pub and we started the week off with beer and a slightly late good-night.

The next day, the event could truly begin when the runners arrived. The race bubble formed, a few more volunteers joined, and the sun started to set while the mood in the camp shifted as anticipation filled the air. The next morning, it all started.

I was captaining the last checkpoint runners would come through every day. That meant long days out, waiting for every last runner. Or it could be called having the most time to enjoy the gorgeous Welsh nature.

Besides making sure we had everything we needed, were at the checkpoints on time, and had accounted for every runner in the race, three days out of the five, I took care of course sweeping, which meant running through the stunning Snowdonia National Park, collecting flags and other markings, and making sure nobody stayed out on the course.

As always, I absolutely loved my job. Aid stations are my favourite and I couldn’t complain about a single thing. There were, however, a few, well… special moments.

waylaid by cows

On Day 3, our checkpoint was behind a small hill nearby Llynnau Cregennen, a gorgeous lake surrounded by heather-covered peaks. The Llwybr Path leads through these parts, and fences and rocky walls with ladders where the paths lead criss-cross the land.

Unfortunately just when the other two volunteers drove off to park the car in a small parking lot behind said hill and enjoy the lake for a bit, a herd of cows decided to come take a look at what was going on. I had just set up the osteo bed and our table when, out of nowhere, I was surrounded by about eight cows, one more inquisitive than the other.

They took hostage the osteo bed and tried to taste it. When it fell over, they got scared and ran directly for the table—and me. Luckily, once their curiosity was satisfied, they were off to find something more interesting—not before I had sent a few panicked messages and a photo to the group chat. Of course, when I made it back from course sweeping that evening, I heard the LOL‘s and hahahahahah‘s in real life, not just from the phone screen.

Jenny the Generator and her Death

Day 4 is usually pretty hard. Not only is it the longest or the second-longest (in which case the day before would be the longest) day out there for runners, but it’s also a challenging one for the crew. It means getting up much earlier than other days, staying out there longer, and, generally, having to exert much more energy to keep the runners motivated and in good shape. (Don’t get me wrong, I still love those days.)

What made Day 4 still a bit harder for me was the fact that as a CP captain, I was the one who had to get up an hour and a half earlier than others and turn on the generator so that hot water would be available for runners when they got up. Since Thursday was the longest day of the week, that meant getting up at 2:30 in the morning.

Noctilucent clouds above the tents

I made my way through the night to Jenny the Generator and, just as I was shown the evening before, turned it on. Having done it on the first try, I was excited to go back to my tent and catch another hour of sleep. I made it to my tent, wrapped myself up in the warm sleeping bag, and closed my eyes… only to hear how Jenny started to cough.

I couldn’t sleep, anxiously waiting for what was going to happen with Jenny. And, sure enough, soon, she coughed for the last time and died. I crawled out of my sleeping bag back into the cold. I managed to start the generator again, only for it to die two minutes after I got back to my tent. Even though we filled it with fuel the night before, I gave it some more. When I turned it on for the third time, it died within five seconds… and then I couldn’t start it at all anymore. As far as I knew, Jenny was dead.

I tried a few tricks but nothing worked. There was nothing else I could do; after 45 minutes of willing that damn thing to live, I had to give up and go wake up the race director.

Guy was cooler about being woken up at such a witching hour than anyone else I know could ever be. He walked to Jenny with me, tried to bring her to life, and failed.
“Did you refill her?”
“Yeah, she’s full.”
“You know what? She fell off the rocks!”

I didn’t even notice there were some rocks but sure enough, when I helped Guy prop Genny back up on the rocks, she sprung back to life. Apparently, because she slid off the small rocks and was slightly at an angle, the fuel couldn’t flow properly.

With Jenny back up and running, I made my way to the common area. Sleep wasn’t happening anymore, so I set up the lights, cleaned up a bit, and grabbed a book to read instead. It would be only about half-hour before the first runners started to wake up anyway.

As I was reading, I lifted up my eyes to the sky that had turned from inky black into a deep, deep blue. And there, on the background of the bottom-less sky, I saw a few clouds. A few noctilucent clouds.

I never thought I’d ever see noctilucent clouds. They’re very rare. Noctilucent clouds are so high up in the atmosphere that the sun illuminates them long before any sign of dawning comes. They glow in the night sky like phantoms from tales older than time.

Hurting Heart & Freezing Bath

Tired from the morning shenanigans, I was absolutely exhausted by the time Thursday afternoon rolled around. When the sun hid behind the tall hills near where our checkpoint was and the last runner passed through, the singing of a nearby creek and the gentle touch of the late-afternoon golden light drew out the otherwise better-guarded things inside me.

When most people left and the two other volunteers from our checkpoint went further away to lay in the sun, I sat down on a tree stump near the stream and let the heaviest thing in me, my loneliness, pour out. And pour out it did; like the water in the stream, my tears started to flow down my cheeks.

I realized how terribly close the week was to its end. I was painfully aware of the fact that in less than two days, I was going to have to, once again, leave behind the small scrap of a sense of community these people gave me.

When H, one of the volunteers, found me there, she decided we were going to a store to buy ice cream instead of heading back to the base. So we did; we got ice cream and we chatted and, somehow, it made things better, while making them a little worse at the same time.

When we came back to the base, M, another one of the volunteers and also a great person, noticed my still red eyes. He didn’t ask what it was. Instead, he laid a hand on my shoulder and pointed toward one of the gates that surrounded the farm where our base was located.

“There’s a beautiful stream there. Take your towel and go take a dip,” he said.
“But there’s work to be done here,” I protested.
“No, you’ve done your work today. Go.” His voice was gentle but firm, unyielding yet kind. So I went.

The water in the stream was freezing. The fact that it was painted gold by the setting sun made it seem a bit warmer but that illusion went away as soon as I dipped my toes in it. While my body drew back in protest and my mind still screamed words I didn’t want to hear. I let the water take me and laid in the stream until the cold quieted my thoughts.

By the time the sun set, I was laying in the stream for some twenty minutes. The cold disappeared after some time and the water and its gentle touch were comforting. Like a soft blanket, the water wrapped my body and my mind in its arms and didn’t let go until the world was fully beautiful again.

A Ride in Rhonda

After I taught a few runners how to make ice hats from buffs on Friday evening and everyone said their goodbyes on Saturday, Sam the co-founder gave me and two other people a ride back to London. It was nice to spend a bit more time with the people who made me feel so welcome, so… part of something again. His car, Rhonda, carried us and all of our baggage bravely on the small country roads and big freeways.

I managed to make my way on a few London trains and the underground to the right bus station and all too soon, I was waving goodbye to the ivory cliffs near Dover, headed for the mainland. The air was cold, the wind nipped at my cheeks and yet, I couldn’t convince myself to take my eyes off the coast of the country that so many people who have become my friends call home and go inside.

I didn’t even write about Sam the photographer, who, so matter-of-factly, announced he was my friend. I didn’t write about how he then proceeded to prove that to me the whole week. I didn’t write about all the kind things everyone at the event did for each other. Maybe I will, one day. But these experiences are so precious and still pull so strongly on my heart it would be impossible for me to write about them.

Once again an Ultra X event gave me a semblance of a home. Once again, it was a heart-mending experience. The whole time, I felt nothing but gratitude that I could be there. Just like in Slovenia, the week was nothing if not wonderful, magical, and transforming.

Thank you, Ultra X.

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