Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Making the magic happen: How volunteering, pacing, and crewing can make you a better runner

Pacing my Mom to her first 50K at FANS 12 hour!
This is a piece I originally wrote for the INKnBURN blog. Excited about volunteering after reading this? Wild Duluth and Surf the Murph are still looking for volunteers this year!

Volunteering, pacing, and crewing. We all know they're critical components of any ultramarathon -- and volunteering is critical to any race of any distance. Doing them is certainly good "karma". But more than that, I'm convinced that spending time on the "other side of the table" can help make you a better runner. Here are five ways I've benefited from spending hours at races without a number pinned to my shorts.

1. Dip a toe into the world of trail and ultrarunning.

Considering signing up for a first trail race, or a new distance? Volunteering, pacing, and crewing are all opportunities to learn what you're in for. It's difficult to imagine what it's like to run all night, run xx (or xxx) miles, or run when you've already been running for many hours. But spend time at the mile 72 aid station, or pace a runner from mile 85 to the finish, and -- BAM! -- a quick education. It's not the same as running all those miles yourself, but spending time helping those who are running all those miles is a great way to begin getting a clearer picture of what it's like, and what it takes.
Much more excited than my runner at mile 85 of
last year's Superior 100.

2. Give back to the running community.

Okay, it's the obvious reason to volunteer, right? Maybe it even sounds trite. But look deeper. First of all, when you work an aid station or pace a runner, you're helping people who share your interests, goals, and values. Friends and potential friends. Second, volunteering/pacing/crewing models the actions and ideas that make our running community positive, supportive, and fun. (Check out this recent Ultrarunning article for a nice articulation of this idea). Finally, your mere presence can provide a huge lift. What's better than running into an aid station, deep into a difficult race, and seeing familiar faces behind the table? An encouraging word from a friend can be as much a lift as a slice of ice-cold watermelon. 
The volunteers at Voyageur last summer absolutely made my race!
Yay for Stephanie, Amy, and Maria!
It's an open secret that my kids volunteer with me at the
Endless Summer Trail Races just for the free Coke.

3. Quality time.

Time spent on the trail with another runner passes in a different way from time spent anywhere else... or so it seems in the middle of the night, while navigating rocky trails or the emotional ups and downs of 24 hours of running. It might not be what you expect: lots of talking, no talking at all, laughter, silence, inexplicable highs and intractable lows. But however it plays out, it's an amazing shared experience. And whether you're pacing a 5K or a 100 mile race, there's a thrill to crossing the finish line with your runner, especially if you can do it with a shared smile. 
Mom and I on our way to a half marathon PR...
... and Janet and I getting 50K done at Icebox 480.

4. Be part of the running community even when you're injured.

When you're injured, missing out on connecting with friends at weekend runs and races can hurt as much as your plantar fascia. It's easy to feel isolated from the running community and quietly withdraw until you're back on the trails. Volunteering and crewing are opportunities to be in the running community, whether or not you can run a step. Working an aid station or crewing a runner is a way to stay engaged, excited, and connected.
Irresistably delicious aid station food at Superior 100.
It looks even better in the dark!

5. Vicarious thrills.

The Western States lottery only accepts 400 runners per year. Want to run that course? If your number doesn't come up, your best chance might be to pace a lucky friend. Along similar lines: I've got no plans to run 100 miles at this time. But I want to understand more about what it's like. Short of signing up for a race, what better way is there to learn more than to support a runner who's living the dream? 

Ultramarathoners often say that as your time on the course lengthens, the highs get higher and the lows get lower. But in my still-young pacing career, I can say that it was still a pretty amazing high running out of this aid station...
Last stop before the finish at Superior 100!
... and finishing the last technical climb of Zumbro 100 with this guy:
Bad picture, happy runners
And the feeling of bringing my runners into the finish line? I'm sure running 100 myself would be amazing... but the contact high was still pretty awesome.

The bottom line

Looking for a chance to make a fellow runner's dreams come true? Think about opportunities for volunteering, crewing, and pacing. Not only will it make you a better runner, it just might make you a better, happier person.

Monday, September 14, 2015

2015 Superior Fall 100, 50, and Marathon: Volunteer Report

This weekend was the Superior Fall 100 mile, 50 mile, and Moose Mountain Marathon trail races, on the North Shore of Minnesota. It's one of the highlights of the local running calendar: point-to-point races on the Superior Hiking trail, almost 100% singletrack.

I'd been planning all season to volunteer and maybe pace this one again. I had an amazing time doing just that last year (reports here and here), and I knew I wanted to be part of the biggest race of the season again, one way or another. But I've spent much of the summer recovering from a hamstring/knee injury that dates all the way back to Spring Superior 50k, and while my running has been going well lately, I'm not quite back in ultra-shape. I was going to pace Arika, but when she decided not to start the 100, I didn't seek out another runner to pace, and instead just upped my volunteer commitment. I ended up working two aid stations, from Friday afternoon into Saturday afternoon.

Here is my recap of 21 hours of volunteering.

County Road 6 (Friday, 3:30-11 pm)

- Arrive at my first aid station, at mile 43, carrying two extra jackets, a headlamp, and a Burrito Union burrito the size of my head. The aid station captain is Leslie, a previous year's top five finisher, an engineer, and an all-around excellent person. She's already got the place jamming.
- A runner comes in after a fall on the trail with a bleeding gouge in his hand. Lisa, a nurse and ultramarathoner with vast race medical experience, hauls out her field kit, which is comprehensive enough to perform minor abdominal surgery or deliver a baby. She rather gleefully announces that she's never used the sterile saline wash before. 
Lots of crews and pacers awaiting their runners.
There was a bit of a party vibe.
- We fill hydration packs, hand out PB&J, make quesadillas. A few runners drop with injuries. One or two who probably should drop decide not to and gimp off onto the next 7.7 mile section of trail.
The clouds cleared and we got an hour of beautiful sunshine. 

Even the random roadside sloughs are beautiful around here.
- The sun sets and we all start piling on more layers. The temperature is headed into the high 30s overnight. A runner tells us about an injured runner three miles up the trail, moving slow and getting cold. One of his crew heads up the trail with a jacket and a blanket.
- "I've been peeing blood," a runner tells us. After discussing with our race medic, we sit him down and push beverages to see if rest and hydration will clear things up. After an hour and a half, things aren't clearing up and he reluctantly drops out of the race.
Sun is down, but the aid station is rocking!
 - Bill comes in, collapses into a chair, and refuses to move. He's had problems with salt balance leading first to GI distress, then to cramps. Lisa, his crew, his pacer (who is a psychiatrist), and I all work on persuading him to get out of his chair and onto the trail. He is having none of it.
- We tell him, "Your pacer is a doctor. You'll be in great hands!"
- (I turn to him and say, "Psychiatrist? I'm a pathologist!" We shake hands. Lisa rolls her eyes and says, "So I really AM the most qualified person here, aren't I?" Without hesitating, we both reply, "OH YES.")
- I leave Bill to his crew and go make some more PB&Js. When I next look over, he's on his feet and heading for the trail with his pacer. His crew can't quite believe it either. We all congratulate ourselves vigorously.
- Susan Donnelly strides into the aid station, working on her FIFTEENTH! Superior 100 finish. She's a legend.
- She browses the food table. "Quesadilla?" I offer.
"Vegan-ish," she demurs.
"We've got some vegan soup," I tell her. "Made with real vegans," I add. She snorts. "Organic, free-range vegans!"
She's playing along. "Where do you get the vegans from?"
"We just use the ones who hang around at the aid station too long," I tell her. Leslie the aid station captain adds, "You've got three minutes!"
- The aid station is winding down as we approach cutoff time. I spend a little time with Rick, who is dropping with persistent vomiting. I help pack things up and take down tents and tables. At 11 pm I say goodbye to the crew and head to my next aid station.
- On the walk to the car, there are thousands of stars, anad a streak of faint green Norther Lights paints one quadrant of the sky. It is breathtaking.
Runner headed into Finland aid station.
Credit: Kelly Doyle

Sugarloaf, night (Friday, 11:30 pm - Saturday, sunrise)

- Sugarloaf aid station is at mile 72. By the time I arrive, the two front runners are hours further on, but nobody else has come through yet. (The winner ends up crushing the course record by a 90 minute margin.) It's near midnight now, and crews are quietly talking or sleeping. It's quiet and mellow after County Road 6.
- The early runners through here are generally fast, feeling good, and well crewed. I get a two hour nap in aid station captains Jan and Joe's tent, emerge around 3 am, and start alternating black coffee and bacon. After a couple rounds of this, I am ready for anything.
- Temperatures are down to the high 30s and I'm barely keeping warm in two wool shirts, two jackets, and a wool hat. Kevin is volunteering here with me and burrows under a blanket when he's not busy. It's not his first aid station rodeo, but it's his first overnight gig. He's 17 and has been running ultras for two years. I invited him up because I thought he'd be great company, and so that he could see how much of the world there is beyond high school. He is rising to the occasion and is a great addition to the aid station.
- There's no medical person at this aid station, so I cruise around and look for runners with a thousand yard stare, or who come in and look blankly at the food, mumbling, "Nothing looks good," or the ones whose water bottles are still ominously full after 9.4 very difficult miles from the last aid station. We have terse, bluntly worded conversations about puking, pooping, cramping, and bloating. I push hot soup, bananas, and reassurance.
- A runner comes in wearing a tank top and armwarmers. He's cold, and his extra clothes are at the next aid station, 5.7 miles up the way. I hand him one of my buffs to wear around his neck, and say, "Just leave it by the drop bags at the finish line." Incredibly, that's where I find it, 18 hours later.
- Shawn stumbles in and announces, "I'm very sleepy. I fell asleep on the trail. I think I need a nap." I lay out my Thermarest pad and a blanket. She burrows in and I set my watch for 15 minutes. Then, another 10. Finally, I return with a cup of coffee and a pep talk about the effect of sunlight on cortisol levels. (She's a doctor, the sun is rising, I don't know, it made sense when I was doing it.) She gets up and head out with no further problems.
- I explain to Kevin the difference between civil twilight, nautical twilight, and astronomical twilight. He accuses me of making it up. I point out that it's now civil twilight regardless. We all begin to warm up and awaken as the sun rises.

Sugarloaf, day (Friday, sunrise - 1 pm)

- I glance over by the bonfire and see a runner huddled in a blanket. H has developed worsening fogging of her vision over the last few miles, and removing her contacts and flushing her eyes hasn't helped. Her husband and pacer is helping her problem solve, but she's understandably worried.
- After getting some details from her (no pain, no headache, photosensitive), I suggest she face away from the sun, put on sunglasses, and rest her eyes, while she keeps warm and eats. It could be ultramarathon-related visual impairment, which is benign and reversible, but I want a medic's opinion. Our ham radio operator gets on on the wire and we discuss. She recommends that H drop.
- H has been listening to this conversation. I tell her, "You're still three hours ahead of the cutoff. You don't have to decide yet. Why don't you hang out a bit and see if it gets better?" I'm really sad for her. It's a sucky reason to drop, when everything else feels good. I tell her she's doing everything she can right now to fix it. Her vision clears a little over the next hours, but not enough, and she drops. Later, at the finish line, she tells me it resolved about six hours after she stopped. She'll be back. She's very strong.
- Another runner huddled in a chair. "What's going on?" I ask. J tells me, "I'm really nauseous and I'm going really, really slow." (It's still three hours before cutoff).
- "We're going to fix you," I tell him. I learned from Joe Hegman that nausea can be worsened by anxiety, and that it can be a vicious cycle. Being calm can sometimes make a huge difference. "First thing I'm going to do is bring you some ginger candy. Take just half of one. Chew on that. i'll be back in a minute."
- (The bag of Gin-Gins I brought and put on the table is going fast. I grab three.)
- A few minutes later, he's looking a little better. "Okay, now you need something that can sit well in your stomach. Can I make you a peanut butter banana?" He thinks that sounds all right. I hand him the extra ginger candies for later.
- After the banana, he looks nearly human again. "If that's working for you, remember, they can make that for you at any aid station. That can be your secret fuel today. You look good. (He does.) Ready to go?" In fact, he is. He heads out, looking strong. I punch the air and announce, to nobody in particular, "I LOVE fixing runners!" Hours later, I'm at the finish line when he comes in, still looking strong.
- Susan comes through again, still looking like she's out for an easy jog. I introduce her to Kevin. She says, "I wish I'd known about ultramarathons when I was 17."
- We're running low on Styrofoam cups; everyone has wanted hot soup and hot coffee. On the other hand, absolutely nobody is eating the Mike & Ikes. I begin to suspect our race director bought them to generate leftovers for himself.
- We get word that Bill dropped at the next aid station after his miraculous escape from County Road 6. I'm glad he got the chance to get in 50 miles, but I wish it had gone differently.
- As the sun rises, it rapidly warms up and we begin shedding layers. We all quickly go from completely bundled up to short sleeves in 60 degree sunshine. I eventually remember to put on sunblock. We even hand out ice to a few runners. The soup sits, suddenly unwanted.
- Around 9:30 am, the first 50 mile runners come through. The tempo of the aid station changes suddenly. It's been very mellow, with slow moving, tired 100 milers. By comparison, the 50 mile leaders look like clean, well dressed gazelles.
- My friend Mike comes in among the 50 milers. He's doing well today, if a bit slower than he wanted. After food and water refills, he asks for some lube. I squeeze Vaniply ointment onto his fingers. Without missing a beat, he shoves his hand down his pants to apply it. All I say is, "Don't look at me when you're doing that!"
- As cutoff time approaches, word comes up that there are a couple of injured runners on the trail coming our way. Our friend Bob has fallen and possibly broken a few ribs, and a woman has fallen and hurt her shoulder. We briefly imagine the trail strewn with bodies of the fallen. It's kind of funny, on two hours of sleep.
- All the 100 milers have passed us now. The last 50 milers come through and we troubleshoot nausea, cramps, injuries, and just plain moving slow. But everyone wants to keep going. I feed peanut butter bananas to anyone who looks like they need something extra.
- Two minutes before the cutoff, Bob shambles into the aid station. Kevin marches him to a chair, sits him down, and starts filling his hydration pack. He's walking decently, breathing and talking okay, I notice.
- "I fell. It hurts to breathe. I threw out my back. I can't keep doing this," he tells me.
"Bob," I tell him, "broken bones are, in fact, one of the very few legitimate reasons you're allowed to drop at my aid station. On the other hand, you probably won't make things worse if you keep going. So you need to decide."
"I don't think I can make the cutoff," he says, as I put an ice bag on his back and he dives into a plate of bananas and cookies.
"You're hiking really well. You trained for this. If you want to, you can hike all the way to the finish and get your 50 miles." He looks doubtful. "Bob," I go on, "You fell a mile after the last aid station. But you kept walking this way instead of going back. What were you thinking then?"
"I was thinking I wanted to keep going if I had any chance."
"What are you thinking now?"
"I don't know. This is hard."
- Without much further discussion, Kevin comes over and says, "Time to go." And damned if Bob doesn't stand up (on the second try), put on his pack, and start for the trail.
- At the last minute, Kevin says, "Um, maybe I'll go with him for a ways. To make sure he's OK." He takes off in his street shoes, without any food, water, or gear. I later learn he goes the entire 5.7 miles to the next aid station, jogging to keep up with Bob's very effective speed-hike, then turns around and comes back to get his car.
- (I later accuse him of leaving partly for altruistic reasons, and partly to avoid aid-station teardown and cleanup. He doesn't deny it.)
- Bob makes it to the last aid station at mile 43, five minutes ahead of the cutoff. He's endured several additional falls and now has persistent dizziness and light-headedness. He drops at mile 43. We're impressed, especially when we learn it's his first run ever on the Superior Hiking Trail.
- 20 minutes after cutoff, the runner with the injured shoulder is in, accompanied by another runner who gave up his race to help her. "Thank you," I tell him. "That was a good thing you did." He tells me, "It was the right thing," but I think he's pleased to have it acknowledged.
- There are still four 50 mile runners on the course. They trickle in, the last arriving over an hour after the cutoff. We break down the aid station, bu keep a few drinks and snacks out for them and the trail sweeps. One runner sites down in the shade and declines offers of food, saying "I don't deserve it." I carry over a plate of cookies and inform him that that's bullshit. I don't leave till he's taken some.
- At last we're done and the supply ruck has taken our aid station. What was a thriving little oasis in the woods is once again just a wide spot in a gravel road. It's fantastic and weird and I love it.
- I change into running gear and head out for a solo long run. It's time to decompress, before a shower, the finish line, and a very, very good night's sleep.

I'll be back soon, North Shore!