September 10, 2013

What you need to know about aid station volunteering

This weekend I took my oldest two offspring over to the Birmingham Track Club and Southeastern Runs' free trail race. Your eyes are not lying, absolutely free. This wasn't just a glorified training run. They had really great shirts (seriously, I love the shirts!), timing, three choices for distances, medals for finishers, awards for the champions, some magnificently (ahem) staffed aid stations, and a post-race cookout. Please tell me that if you came out to this as your first trail race, you fell in love with it. It made me relove it all over again, and I wasn't even running.

First to the shirts, I am absolutely biased because they are my favorite color on the earth. Bring it, orange. And they are Merrell shirts which, based on my love for Merrell shoes, I'm just going to assume will be decent. 



Thanks to the 8 a.m. start, it felt nice to be able to sleep in until 6:30 on a Saturday. We're talking after it gets light. I didn't have to wrench my eyes open to just have them drown in the darkness of persisting night. 

Good morning, trail racers!

But we weren't there to race that morning, we were there to nourish the herd at one of the aid stations on the course that day.

This was my first time volunteering at an aid station, and I have to say that it taught me a lot about the other side of things and made me infinitely more grateful for the people who eagerly take your sweat-drenched hydration pack/water bottle and fill it up for you during a race. If you have a sweat phobia, you might steer clear of this job or wear gloves. Nothing a little hand sanitizer can't resolve, right.

And here were my most important take-aways from the day: 

1. Stale chips taste better the longer you stand around them. 

We got to our post very early for setting up, so we did a lot of waiting and waiting and waiting for runners. The 4-, 8-, and 14-mile routes all went by our station. The 4-milers didn't require much, maybe a drink and a handful of M&Ms, unless they got lost and had been out a while longer. 

Somewhere in the middle of that first group of 4-milers, I tried a Kettle (my favorite!) chip that tasted a little bit stale because, well, we'd already been there for two forevers waiting for people to come to our station and it was really humid that day. Crispness of chips does not fare well in southern humidity. As the day slowly progressed, those chips that I thought were stale in the morning got more and more delicious and desirable to me. 

I like to equate this to a racer's general cleanliness deterioration on race day. You start of the morning laying out toilet paper on a public restroom seat to provide a barrier before you sit down to hopefully get your PRD (pre-race you-know) on. By the end of the day, you're willing to plop squarely down a sweat(or other liquid)-covered seat with no remorse. Heck, you don't even need a toilet. You could just find a spot slightly off the trail or go in your pants and feel perfectly proud of yourself. After all, that is why you threw a towel and baby wipes in your car that morning. 

And if you found a dirt-coated sandwich on the trail, you would eat that too. So, yeah, the same logic applies to aid station workers. The longer I stare at those humidity-soaked chips, the more cool I am with eating them. 

2. Make sure people run in the right direction after the aid station.

This adorable six-year-old runner flew right past our aid station as he grabbed a cup of water in a flash. That would have been perfect, except the flags were leading left, not straight. 

Back on track

Sometimes tiredness and the ability to navigate are not compatible attributes. 

3. If people aren't coherent upon arrival at the aid station, give them half a bottle of Coke and reassess. 

We had one runner come through who was totally in a zone and not responding when he first came to the aid station. I asked him about ten questions in a row with no response, but when I finally gave him some flat Coke, he started to perk up and ask for more and more and more Coke. I really thought he would vomit about .5 miles down the trail from the Coke overload, but I saw him in one piece and much less delirious at the finish. 

So Coke for the win. Or oranges, if you're not into high fructose corn syrup.

4. It doesn't matter how you stack the food, they will eat it. 

To stave off boredom while we waited for runners to come by, my kids organized and reorganized the stacks of bars and gels. 

Turns out that not a single person really noticed their organization, but it was a good waiting game for kid volunteers. 

5. Trail runners are extremely persnickety about getting their used cups into the trash can. 

And sometimes they refuse to use more than one cup. Refill, refill, refill. Reduce, reuse, refill.

See that trash bag behind my son. People would go to great lengths to make sure that their trash went only into the bag -- not just around it or near it. One tired and, because of the exhaustion, less dexterous than normal runner was unsuccessfully fiddling with the trash bag for a while when I finally told him to just throw his cup down and I would get it in a minute. He hesitated, like it would hurt him to break the unspoken trail rule of Don't Be a Jerk and Throw Your Stuff on the Ground, but I insisted. Move along, son. You tried your best to not dirty the place up. 

Give trail runners a trash can, and they will use that business.

6. The longer you hang around runners, the more inspired you are to do the same -- run! 

The next day, the race director was hosting a 22-mile race in the same spot, and during our volunteer time, my son decided that he wanted to run it with me. He kept jogging around a loop near the aid station and timing himself to see if he could get faster. The more he sprinted around the loop, the more determined he was that he could race 22 miles with me. Hmmm, maybe next week, after you train for five more minutes. 

But it's seriously inspiring to be around people doing something that makes them so happy/exhausted/incoherent/sweaty. 


Note: working at an aid station is super easy when your race directors are so organized. They had all the perfect materials ready to go: food (obviously -- but lots of it and the good stuff), salt pills, knives, cutting boards, paper towels, hand sanitizer, written instructions on the Heed mix, first aid kit (that we used!), hand sanitizer, and more. 


Will we volunteer as a family again? Heck yes. My daughter voted her favorite part of the day when they took the water cooler and Super Bowl style splashed her with it during the aid station tear down. 

Have you ever worked an aid station? Which race? 

Do your kids ever volunteer with you? My kiddos got kind of bored because there is as much waiting as working at the aid station. They made up a game where they filled cups of water to make a human sprinkler out of when people ran through. Some runners loved it, and some runners hated it. Sorry if you were one of the haters.

What's your favorite thing that aid station workers do? On my race the next day, I asked for a caffeinated gel, and we couldn't find one. Because it was a double loop, when I came back around, they had the caffeinated gel waiting for me and threw it right into my hand, no bending, searching, or begging required. Now that's service! Oh, and ice cold water on a hot day is clutch.


  1. That's really cool! I am definitely going to volunteer at a race next year!

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. This looks like so much fun! It looks like the kids were super into it! I have a new interest in participating in fun trail races based on all your posts on how much fun they are. Hopefully I'll get the chance to explore once Baby Wilson is born. :)

    1. I'd be so interested to know what is out there trail-wise near Chicago. I can only picture city buildings in my mind, but I bet they have some beautiful trails around the lakes.

  3. LOVE volunteering at races, especially trail or other endurance races. My kids are great aid station buddies,too. They make me so proud.

  4. Aw looks like a fun day! Good for you for getting your kids out there!

  5. I was glad to see the kids there and I didnt get the human sprinkler, but I bet it was roadies that didnt like it. :) Thanks for working Lisa. It is always fun to have a spirited AS.

    You know I have brought Isabeau to 2 events now and she loves it. Only downside to bringing her is that she would rather you stop and have a 5 minute convo with her about your shoes or hair accessory. I have to remind her to just say hello, say something supportive and and then let them go.

    1. Oh my gosh, her telling me about some snail in the woods on my second loop totally made my day. She could have said anything with that adorable voice, and I would have loved it!

  6. Aww it looks like you guys had a great time manning an aid station.

  7. You crack me up with your writing style. I feel like we would be BFFs and my imaginary children can play with your real ones. If that's weird.. then I'm sorry. I have never volunteered at a race, but I'll definitely look into it in the future!

    1. Your imaginary kids can play with mine any day! They like to make things up anyway.:)

  8. That's so awesome that your kids volunteered with you! Sounds like it was fun all around.

    I hope you got the chance to run those 22 miles the next day, have a great week!

  9. Love that you all volunteered as a family! You guys are so awesome. This totally makes me want to volunteer at a race. I really wanted to volunteer at the North Face Challenge event at the end of Sept but it is the same weekend as my marathon. Dang it. Oh well I will have to find another one to volunteer at.

  10. Nice! I had the opportunity to work an aid station at a 50-mile trail race last year. It was a blast and won't be the last time I do that. Volunteers rock!

  11. AWESOME post for the clueless running supporters (POINTS AT SELF)



  12. That looked like a fun time volunteering, and great way to payback. Love the orange shirts. My hubby and I are going to volunteer at the Arizona Ironman in a few months, I can't wait.


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