Belated Aided

This morning I was late. Very, very late. I'm (almost) never late. I despise being late. But my chronic sleep deprivation finally caught up to me, and a 4:30 am wakeup just wasn't going to happen.

I have a vague, dream-like memory of my phone alarm sounding, me turning it off, and thinking, "I probably should've hit snooze..." Next thing I knew, I was drifting awake, with an idly irritating sense that I had to do something. As soon as I saw the time (6:38), I leaped out of bed. I was scheduled to volunteer at an aid station for a 50-mile race, at a regional mountain park a little over an hour away.

View from the aid station

My shift started at 7. Needless to say, I was not punctual.

We're having an unseasonable cold snap, so the temperature was around freezing. I threw on as many layers of clothing as I could in a handful of minutes, including hat and scarf and mittens and other wintry accoutrements that we don't have to resort to often around here. I stopped for caffeine but nothing else, even though I was running low on gas. After checking in at the registration table and driving another couple of miles into the park, I was at my assigned aid station... at almost 8:30.

Luckily, the other volunteer had arrived on time and done all the setup. There was plenty of water, of course, and a pitcher of Gatorade, as well as bottles of Mountain Dew and Coke. There were cut up bananas and watermelon and oranges. Little plastic storage containers offered up peanut M&Ms, pretzels, gummy snakes, and candied ginger. Salt (for dipping or sprinkling) and electrolyte tablets were there for the taking. It was quite a spread, and most of the runners coming through took advantage of at least one or two of the items on offer.

Our station, which stood at the beginning of a side loop of the course, marked the 5- and 11-mile point in the race. I had missed almost all of the outgoing runners, seeing only the last three or four stragglers before they headed out to make the circuit down, around, and over the nearby ridge. We were also a drop bag site, so some people took a moment to swap out some layers (especially on the way back through) as the weather became--well, not warm, exactly, but less frigid--or grab some of their own snacks. As the racers arrived, my fellow volunteer and I filled water bottles and hydration packs, urged them to eat or drink something to keep up their energy for the five miles to the next aid, and dispensed electrolyte tabs like communion wafers.

There was a lot of standing around, of course. About 35 runners had set off on the 50-mile distance (there were other, shorter courses available as well, but none of them came our way), and they spread out quite a bit as the race progressed. That meant lots of time to chat. Which was fortunate for... Dave, we'll call him, who was in a loquacious mood. I learned all about his brilliant and athletic college-age daughter, his other daughter's marriage to a very successful commercial-fisherman-slash-adrenaline-junkie in the Pacific Northwest, his ex-wife's problems with credit card debt, his engineer's distaste for the "60's hippie spirituality" that some trail runners espouse, his running career that began in 2008 as an attempt to lose the weight he gained after quitting smoking, and his other passion of whitewater rafting.

Despite the chill, and the rather tiresome soundrack, it was a beautiful morning. I enjoyed being able to help out, offer some words of encouragement along with the table goodies, see the runners on their way to achieving a goal. Most of the pack were pretty seasoned athletes, also because the course was particularly challenging: about halfway through, they had to go up and down a steep 2,000-foot mountain. Word on the trail from those who'd run it before was that the aid station workers at the foot of that climb are exposed to a whole lot of swearing. (Not directed at them, thankfully; trail runners tend to be a polite bunch on the whole. Almost everyone who came through our station thanked us not just for helping them but for coming out to volunteer.)

The two women bringing up the rear were accompanied on the outbound path by the course sweep, who hung out with us for a while to give them a head start before he ran the trail to remove the course markings. Not long after his arrival, the first runner came through on the return loop (he had quite a lead over the rest of the pack, and ultimately won the race). Several other people came by, but the sweep was confused that two of his friends weren't among them. They are among the strongest runners in this crowd, and they'd run the course before, so it was strange we hadn't seen them. He waited around for almost half an hour, then set out to clean up.

Eventually, the mystery was solved: somehow, despite being familiar with the course, they'd made a mistake. Gone straight when they should have veered right even though, as one pointed out, "there were two HUGE arrows showing the correct path. Which only we noticed on the way back." Instead of being at mile 11, they were at mile 19 by the time they made it back to us. "Our race is over," one stated flatly.
Even strong runners can have a bad day.

Once everyone had come through, we packed up the food, threw away our trash, and stowed the bins and drop bags in the back of Dave's jeep. He was off to another aid station, committing to the whole day. My (er, shortened) shift was over. Sure, I was late, and it wasn't exactly strenuous work, and it didn't exactly cure cancer. But I felt pretty virtuous, anyway, as I drove home. I even remembered to stop for gas (running out would probably have tarnished my angelic afterglow). It was a good way to spend a cold late-semester morning.