One of the great joys of ultrarunning is arriving at a long-anticipated aid station. It can be salvation, pure and simple. Friendly voices and helping hands reach out to you. Everything you need to replenish yourself is right at hand. You load up and you’re ready for the next section of trail. At least, that’s what should happen. Getting the most out of an aid station, however, requires some thought. And you sure don’t want to get a mile down the trail only to discover you forgot to take care of some critical business.
If you’re brand new to ultrarunning, the first time you see an ultra aid station will be a revelation. Aid stations in marathons are fairly simple affairs. Most of the time, they’re there exclusively to give you fluids and keep you speeding toward the finish. If you’re also offered some Vaseline smeared on a piece of cardboard, energy gel packs, or even cut-up bananas, you’ve hit the mother lode of marathon aid stations.
Aid stations in an ultra offer much, much more because they serve a larger purpose. In addition to the fluids vital to the runner, including water, soft drinks, and sports drinks, the aid station will have a rich variety of food: cut-up fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cooked potatoes, energy bars, chips, pretzels, candy bars, cookies, and other foods critical to supplying the calories necessary to maintain your energy level in an ultra-distance event. Salty foods will be available and usually an accompanying bowl of salt handy for dipping chunks of food in to help with salt replacement. More elaborate aid stations will also have soup, turkey and cheese sandwiches, breakfast items, and specialties like tortilla wraps or burritos. Ice is another ultra aid station staple, crucial on hot days for cooling off fluids and filling hats and bandanas to keep runners from overheating back on the trail.
The volunteers at the aid stations in ultras are often experienced ultrarunners themselves and are usually very helpful. They can assist runners with mixing energy drinks, adjusting clothing, or finding needed items; they provide information about the next stage of the run, and they can often administer basic first aid when needed. They also offer considerable moral support during the race. Some aid stations double as drop bag sites where you get access to your own supplies prepared before the race. In longer events, aid stations can be designated as crew stations as well, where you can meet your crew and pick up pacers.
With so much at stake at the aid station, it’s worth getting things right. But arriving at an aid station can be overwhelming and disorienting. The energy of the volunteers, the crush of other runners, the bewildering array of food out on the table, the sudden transition from quiet concentration to shouted questions, and the general hubbub can all conspire to wipe your game plan out of your mind. It can also be quite exciting and distracting to see your crew or family members at an aid station after the solitude of the trail. The key is to be prepared.
Before you arrive at an aid station, think systematically through what you need to accomplish. Your list might be something like this:
- Fill bottles with half sports drink, half water
- Eat a sandwich and some potatoes with salt
- Ask for some extra electrolyte caps
- Check the hot spot under the arch of right foot
- Put some ice under hat
When you see the aid station off in the distance or get some other indication that it is near – like voices, music, or generator noise – get your bottles out and loosen the lids. If you’re using a hydration pack, have it unstrapped and ready to take off. Take out your electrolyte drink mix if you’re going to mix your own fluids. The idea is to have everything ready to go for the volunteer to fill your containers or for you to fill them as soon as you arrive. You want your time at the aid station to flow efficiently. You’ll get a restful break from the running, but you don’t want to waste time.
Relax and gaze over the food choices with your checklist of concerns in mind. You might choose to chug some extra sports drink if you’ve been drinking primarily water. On a hot day you might focus on the salty foods and take advantage of the bowl of salt, dipping in a piece of potato. You might need to catch up on eating solid foods and opt for eating a whole sandwich. If you’re nearing the end of the race, a blast of sugar from a soft drink might give you just the extra energy needed to finish. While you’re eating, you can be asking a volunteer about the upcoming section of the course. The distance to the next aid station or knowing that you face a tough climb might help you decide to adjust your fluids. Be sure to deal systematically with each of the issues on your checklist.
Before you leave, double check you’ve got everything with you and make sure your water containers have indeed been filled. I’ve had to share water with a runner at Western States whose empty hydration pack was returned to him “full up.” Select some food from the table to take with you. Give everyone a hearty thank you and get out of there. Enjoy walking briskly and eating for awhile before you get back to the running.
The stakes get higher and processing efficiently through the aid station can be more challenging at one of the later stops in a longer event like a 100-mile run. Exhaustion, pain, and relief at arriving can all conspire to make you forget what you need to accomplish. It is more important than ever to focus on your list of issues and be sure you’ve dealt with each one before moving on. If you’ve prepared a race plan ahead of time with instructions on what needs to be done at each major aid station, follow it to the letter. If you have a drop bag, it’s not a bad idea to spread out a hand towel (packed in your drop bag ahead of time) and empty the contents right out on top of it. Seeing everything will help prompt you on what you need to do, for example, change into the long-sleeved shirt or take along the extra bag of electrolyte capsules and energy gels.
Meeting your crew will add another dimension to your aid station visit. An experienced crew member can shoulder a lot of responsibility in getting you ready for the next leg of your journey. On the other hand, well-meaning but less-experienced crew members can add to the confusion. Once, a crew member pulled a baggy full of electrolytes and painkillers, meant for use over the next 25 miles of the race, out of my running belt. Unbeknownst to me, he stuck it in the crew bag rather than returning it to my belt. I was well down the trail before I discovered I was going to have to do without my pills for the next several hours of the race. In the end, accept help graciously, but be aware that the final responsibility for knowing that you have what you need and are ready to leave the aid station rests with you.
There are two distinct camps on the advisability of actually sitting down and resting at aid stations, especially late in bigger races. Some caution “beware the chair” and hold that runners are tempting fate by getting comfortable. Others believe the rest is beneficial. Some runners can even take catnaps and wake up after a ten-minute snooze with renewed vigor. Sitting or not sitting seems to be an issue that each runner needs to learn about individually.
Getting the most out of aid stations will take some practice. Once you’ve mastered the art, though, you’ll find yourself experiencing a nice solid “bounce” after each aid station, and you won’t be kicking yourself for forgetting to fill your bottle or failing to sit down to take that rock out of your shoe.