Aid stations are totally awesome, as are the volunteers who staff them. Really, it’s the aid stations that make the whole ultra thing possible. You run almost completely unencumbered by equipment for 30, 50, or 100 miles in some remote wilderness, and at regular intervals, you come to a veritable oasis. There’s food, water, ice, care, helping hands, Vaseline, Band-Aids, pep talks, advice, chairs, cots, pills, electrolytes, campfires, sleeping bags and even a safe haven or an exit point should things go very wrong.
But how you handle aid stations can have a significant impact on how well your race goes. If you are speeding through a 50k looking for a PR, the emphasis at the aid station should be on how quickly and efficiently you can load up on food and water and get back out on the course. Taking the food with you, for instance, can save a lot of time.
For a late night stop during a 100-mile race, the emphasis is very different. You want to be sure you address all your issues while you have the chance, even at the expense of losing some time. Better to take off your shoe and get help with a blister, for example, than to have it become a major problem a mile down the trail. Or better to take the time to eat a sandwich and patiently sip a cup of broth than bonk from a lack of energy an hour later.
Make a habit of forming a mental checklist of things you must accomplish at an upcoming aid station.
You shouldn’t take it for granted that all the right things will just happen once you get to an aid station. After spending a couple of hours in solitude on a remote trail, it can be very disconcerting to suddenly be in the hubbub of an aid station. Energetic volunteers are shouting questions at you, there is a confusing array of food and drinks on the table, crew people are tugging you in different directions. It’s easy to get distracted and forget something crucial.
Make a habit of forming a mental checklist of things you must accomplish at an upcoming aid station. It will help to note how many items are on your list. For example, the list might be: 1. Mix a bottle full of energy drink.
2. Eat something solid like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or potatoes with salt.
3. Ask for more electrolyte tabs.
4. Put some ice in the bandanna around your neck.
Now you know you want to check four things off your list before you leave the aid station. And never run off without double checking that you have everything with you. No one wants to return for a water bottle or a flashlight left sitting on the table.
People argue over whether it’s a good idea to sit down and get comfortable at aid stations, but my experience is that the rest it gives your muscles is well worth the time. Just be prepared to overcome some serious inertia when you get back up.
Whether you sit down or not, be sure to relax as long as you’re at the aid station. Your time there should be a mental and physical break from the rigors of pushing through the run. Tick off your checklist, thank the volunteers and ace the aid station. You should leave with a noticeable “bounce” that will carry you well down the trail to the next oasis.