What I learned from volunteering at an Ultra

Full page fax printUltrarunning is something I really love to follow. The big races every few weekend are as exciting to me as watching the Cardinals, Blues, or Rams *cough* play. I have my favorites and cheer for them. Typically folowing someone is simple to do also, just check iRunFar’s twitter feed and you can get a good grasp on whats going on.


However, about 2-3 months ago I signed up to volunteer at the St. Louis Ultrarunners Group (SLUGs) big race: The Mark Twain 50 & 100. The race is on a 25 mile loop and I was working the aid station at mile 20 (and 45, 70, & 95). Well, it happened this past weekend, and here’s what I learned:


  1. The trail running community at these things is like a small village of like minded people that have no self interest at all. So many people come through to make this stuff happen, it’s remarkable.
  2. Volunteering is NOT a thankless job. I cannot tell you how many times I heard “Thank you for being here.” & “You guys are awesome.” Seriously if you like to feel good about yourself and need to have a purpose in life, volunteer for an Ultra. You will be rewarded with endless praise for just giving someone a cookie you bought at a store.
  3. Ultra Runners like variety and Nutella. Most off the runners that were going for the finish and not trying to break any speed records would eat just about anything. For the first loop we made pancakes, then some butternut squash soup, and then some warm quesadillas with whatever we could find in them (like peanut butter & bananas). The theme also was to see what didn’t taste good with Nutella. Turns out, just about everything tastes pretty good with it. Especially Fritos.
  4. Just because the person that came through at mile 70 wasn’t coherent, doesn’t mean that he will be worse at mile 95. It was truly incredible to see people go from being on top of the world, slowly decline, until about rock bottom, and then have their persona reset in the span of 24 hours. The mental drain on these runners has to be substantial and for them to fight through the pain is just a testament to their strength and courage to overcome.
  5. Learn to sleep for increments under 1 hour. I got about 2.5 hours of sleep in the 30 hours I was out on the trail. 2 chunks came in 1 hour naps and then the 30 min came in 10-15 chunks on a chair. However, every time I woke up, I was pumped and excited to see what the next runner coming into the station had to offer.
  6. Your sleep/agenda is not more important than the runners and their goal of finishing.  See #2 above.
  7. There’s nothing like watching someone finish. Putting it into words is tough but its something like a small bonfire party in the woods meets neighborhood block party meets welcome home party meets zombie. You can watch a live stream of people doing it, but being there in person is awesome.
  8. People with broken ribs at mile 60 aren’t good breathers and probably shouldn’t be allowed to continue in a race. However, somehow the dude finished all 100 miles. The commitment that these runners have is simply amazing. Borderline clinical, but amazing nonetheless.
  9. Finally the runners. In most traditional races there is always a sense of competition. Can I beat my PR? Can I place in my Age Group? The complete opposite happens at an Ultra. The runners show up and accept they are just gonna be out on the trail for a while. They will finish, but there’s no sense of urgency or timing. Wait, I take the back, the one question I did hear about time was “When does this aid station close? I want to make sure I beat the cut off.”

Well, that’s pretty much about what I gathered. One day, perhaps I’ll try to get out there and try one myself but for now, I’ll just work towards a marathon and see what happens.


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