July 22nd was the third running of the Never Summer 100K, a 64-mile footrace that climbs 14,000 feet while traversing the mountains near Cameron Pass. I’ve run the past two years, but with recent knee surgery I had to drop from the race and opted, last minute, to volunteer at an aid station. This was the first time I’ve seen an ultramarathon from this angle, watching the evolution of the runners, their mindsets and their needs from one point in space.
I woke at 5am to watch the racers off, partly sad that I couldn't run the race this year because of a knee injury, and partly excited for the 289 racers who started the race to enjoy this amazing course through the Colorado State Forest State Park.
Racers signed in, shivered slightly in the cold, and prepared to run all day and then some.
Volunteering at the aid station for the race was going to be a family affair this year. We loaded up the kids and supplies for the day and headed to towards Ruby Jewel Yurt.
We arrived at the aid station for the day at 9am, which was at the 29-mile point, roughly half way. At this point the runners had already endured brutal climbs, stream crossings, hot valleys and many even a little bushwacking. The goal is to have enough food, water and shade to help the runners bounce back onto the trail, ready for the next 35 miles of mountains, dirt, rocks and streams.
We were newbies for volunteering at the aid station, with some folks having worked this same station for their second or third year. Everyone quickly got to work and set up the station to prepare for an onslaught of runners and crews.
Normally, runners will stop if they don’t feel right, and might experience the ethereal “runner’s high” occasionally. In an ultramarathon, the racers must self-triage frequent and repetitive pains and will cycle through emotional lows and highs often every few hours throughout the entire day.
The lead racers to come in looked great. Their minds were in a good place and many were jovial and gregarious. The questions revolved around the most efficient way to get them refueled and on their way. They knew what they needed and were gracious for the help.
Some of the mid pack runners were happy and looking fresh while some were paying the price for having pushed too hard too early. Our questions were not about if they wanted food, but how they wanted it. Our role at this point in the race was partly assistant, partly consultant, and partly electrolyte pusher. The highlights for this group were potatoes and pickles dipped in pure salt, cold popsicles and having ice water poured over their heads. Most carried on their way, freshly optimistic about the path ahead.
The later runners to come in had a mix of goals for how they hoped to finish the day out. Our questions were about their pain points, trying to help them understand if it was the right thing to do to carry on. Some were fighting physical battles but virtually all were fighting psychological challenges of how to balance what they wanted do with how they felt. All of us who have run long races have been there at one point or another, and we had true sympathy for the pain and frustration of the last few that decided that 29 miles was the end of their day.
The amazing part to me was that this was only one of the eight aid stations spread throughout the course, each with its own station captain, medic and staff to motivate the almost 300 racers to reach their personal goals and ambitions. Each successive station watched a similar but more intense progression, some well into the next morning. The volunteers that helped brought unique skills and knowledge, but all brought the same sense of caring for those crazy enough to embark on the journey.