Since I didn’t get to run at Run Woodstock this year, I figured that I might as well volunteer at one of the ultra aid stations. I know that I’m always grateful to see a smiling face in the middle of long races, and I wanted to be that face for everyone in the lowest, toughest miles.
I got to the race around 8 to watch my parents finish the 5M and half, respectively, and hung around the finish for a while before I had to check in for volunteering. I could watch finish lines for hours. Everyone from the winner of the half and the first 100-miler to come through to people finishing the 5M in two hours, looking incredibly proud and pleased with themselves – just seeing everyone’s reaction to crossing that line, meeting their friends and family… everyone gets that same feeling of accomplishment no matter how long or short the race, how fast or slow their time. That’s one of the beautiful things about running: it’s so incredibly close and personal to everyone, but at the same time, everyone watching the finish feels connected to each and every other runner no matter what level. We’ve all been there, the good races and the bad. And the downright terrible. It’s that shared experience that helps make races, especially fairly large (for trail) ones like Run Woodstock, so special.
After watching a steady stream of runners for about an hour, I donned my bright red tie-dye ROADIE shirt and drove off into the woods to my aid station. It was right around lunchtime and the 50k, 50M, and 100s were in full swing – and they were hungry (that would change later in the day), so I jumped right into the hectic swing of things, churning out PBJ squares and cutting bananas like nobody’s business. Most of the runners were still relatively fresh and, for the most part, took a minute or two to grab food and replenish fluids, then headed back down the trail and into the green forest. In the down time, as we restocked the table, I got to know the people I was working with, trail runners and fastpackers and a triathaloner. We talked about racing and plantar fasciitis and fastpacking, as well as some of the less savory aspects of distance running. That’s another thing about runners – the age difference doesn’t matter. 20-year-olds can befriend 40, 50, and 60 year-olds, no problem. We’re all just runners anyway, it doesn’t change that much.
After a couple hours, the next wave of runners came through. These were the 50k stragglers, the 50 milers, and the ever-plodding 100-milers. This time, they were looking more worn-down and trail-weary. It was hot and humid and it was getting to them. This, oddly enough, was the part I was most looking forward to. I knew where they were and I wanted so badly to help them through it. I asked everyone how they were doing, how they were holding up, if they were having fun. (I only got one “Great!” response, and it was from a 100-miler on the middle of his 5th loop.) I tried to share my positivity and happiness without being gratingly cheery, since that can easily do more harm than good on a suffering runner. I think the best way to go about this part is through a few little stories.
There was apparently a turn just after our aid station that could be confusing to a tired mind; we got four or five runners come back through just an hour and a half or so after they’d left, and then we’d hear the dreaded words: “I took a wrong turn.” It was roughly a six-mile detour. Now, six miles on their own is nothing. Six miles in the middle of an ultra is an entirely different story, and one that changes vastly from person to person. Several of those unfortunates, who were still feeling strong, shrugged it off as an extra six miles and carried on. A couple were feeling a bit defeated by the fact that they’d wasted the time and energy, but carried on.
The last one to make the wrong turn, however, had already been struggling through her last lap of the 50k when she’d come through earlier. She didn’t want to keep going, but with some water and gentle urging, she walked away from the aid station to finish the remaining 8.5 miles – or so she thought. A little under two hours later, she stumbled out of the narrow, bushy singletrack into the opening of our station, dropped her pack, laid her hands on her knees and starting sobbing, just sobbing, so hard that is wracked her body. Her struggle, her pain, her utter despair was so apparent. We all felt it. It ripped right though everyone there, runners and volunteers alike. The lowest of low points. And I didn’t know what to do; I struggled to keep my own eyes from tearing up. We refilled her pack and got her a chair but she didn’t want to sit, couldn’t. She just sobbed. I don’t remember her exact words, but they were devoid of hope. Utter defeat. She didn’t want food, she didn’t want ice, she just wanted to be done. Out of the woods. But it was so far away…
And yet, after a few minutes, her breath calmed and she stood a little taller. Without saying anything, she donned her pack, took a single pretzel, and walked slowly down the hill into the woods.
That is the spirit of running. Tenacity and toughness don’t come close to touching it. It’s so much more. The sheer will it takes to finish a terrible race, to push through the lowest imaginable points and cross that line, dammit. Because no matter how dark it seems, the finish line is always still out there, waiting for you, beckoning through whatever pain and doubt you’re going through.
Another runner who stands out is a guy, a 100-miler, who was sitting in one of our chairs. He was hurting pretty badly, but he was going to finish. It was either his 5th or final lap. His wife had come out to meet up with him, and she had brought their two young kids – which is nice, but it was evident that they had no idea of what their father was doing. They knew that “Daddy is running 100 miles!,” but being five years old, they had no idea what that entailed. They ran around the open area and picked up sticks and yelled and laughed while their mom spoke in a low, gentle, encouraging voice to their dad. “Come over and say hi to daddy,” she called a minute later. They ran over and grabbed his legs. A visible grimace instantly appeared on his face. “Don’t grab daddy’s legs right now. Don’t touch daddy.” They backed away, still happy as… well, happy as five year olds who had no idea what running 100 miles is like. After a few minutes, he stood up, said goodbye to his wife, and jogged off into the woods. His kids didn’t notice that he’d left.
I offered whiskey to some of the runners who seemed to be in good spirits. They liked that. (Too bad I didn’t actually have any.)
One of the things that struck me the most was the vast difference in how the 100-milers were faring at certain points of the race. I know that there are a lot of factors that go into how someone feels – training, previous injuries or issues, stomach things, etc. – but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. We got the full spectrum, from men and women still feeling strong, steady, and fairly upbeat on their last lap, through the runners who were feeling “Okay, considering…” (most of them), to the few towards the end who you could tell at a glance were in a complete daze, taking a long time to respond, faint voices, unfocused eyes. Surprisingly, I saw very few 100-milers who were feeling totally dismal; most of them had a “Keep calm (sane) and carry on” sort of attitude, which is good to have, obviously. Just an interesting note.
One last guy who stood out was a 100M virgin. It was his last lap, with 8.5 miles to the finish. He was going to make it under the cutoff unless something went terribly wrong (which, you know… you never know). He was going along at his own pace, enjoying the ride as much as he could. Racing against himself, he said. That’s all that matters. He was clearheaded and happy. He was the most reasonable runner I’d seen in the last lap. He sat for a few minutes, eating and drinking a bit, chatting with us, then said, “Well, I guess it’s time to finish this.” Got up and jogged down the trail. I was so happy for him, the fact that his first 100 was going so well and looked like it would be a good experience overall. I hope to be like him when I’m at 92 miles.
Oh, speaking of 92 miles – there was a woman doing her first 100 as well. She too was on her last lap, sitting down and trying to wrap her head around the fact that she was in single digits… and the fact that she had 8.5 between her and the finish. I said, “Well, it’s just eight and a half. Compare that to the 92 miles behind you and it’s nothing!” She just shook her head and said, “92 miles… wow. I can’t even think about that. I can’t believe it.” People surprise themselves in running, and it is good.
So after the last runners were off the course (we waited for one hypothetical 50-miler who, we found out, had been taken off the course earlier), I drove back to the main staging area and checked out. The music was still going, campfires were burning, runners were massaging tired, aching legs… all in all, the perfect post-race atmosphere. I plan to spend the whole weekend there next year. This was my first volunteering experience at a race, and it was – although it’s a cliche, and I really don’t want this post to be about me – rewarding. It was such a great way to be involved in the race and in the running community without actually running. Maybe it’s just because I’m super empathetic, but it was a really emotional day for me too, and I feel reconnected to running just through watching these amazing runners do what they do and getting to help them in some small way.
peace love and running,
PS. I just signed up to volunteer at DWD Hell… will I see you out there?