This weekend, I participated in a race in a very different way from how I usually go about it. Rather than lacing up my running shoes and actually running the race, I volunteered to man an aid station at the Lean Horse Ultramarathon. Definitely a different experience from what I’m used to, but it was a rewarding and interesting perspective on what goes on during an ultramarathon.
Lean Horse begins and ends in Hot Springs, SD, in the southern Black Hills. This year was the 4th year of the event and judging by registration numbers, word is starting to get out in the ultra community about this one. For the first three years it included 100 mile, 50 mile and 50 kilometer distances. The 50K distance, which I ran at Lean Horse last year as my first (and so far only) ultra, was dropped this year due to lack of popularity (there were fewer than 30 finishers last year). So, that left the hundred and half-hundred this year. Both races start at the Mueller Civic Center in Hot Springs, follow the bike path through and out of town before turning onto Argyle Rd. and, eventually, the Mickelson Trail. It’s an out and back course, so ends back at the Mueller Center. One of the draws of this race is that it’s considered to be relatively “easy” (as if running 50 or 100 miles is ever truly “easy”). Unlike many ultras, this one doesn’t involve any single-track, rock and stump laden trail with thousands of feet of elevation gain. The first (and last) 16 miles are rolling hills along a gravel road (once you get off the bike path). This is definitely the toughest part of the course. From there, it’s onto the Mickelson Trail, a rails to trails project that features a nice, relatively soft, well groomed running surface and very gentle grades (no more than 3%).
I had considered returning to Lean Horse this year to run the 50 miler. Actually, it was penciled into my racing plans early this year, but after I failed to qualify for Boston in Fort Collins in May, I decided to readjust and focus on the BQ. After I captured the BQ in Missoula in July, I thought briefly of running Lean Horse, but with only 6 weeks between Missoula and Lean Horse, I just didn’t think it would be feasible. I was sure I could cover the distance, it was just a matter of how much misery would be involved. And, honestly, after Missoula (my 3rd marathon in 3 months), I was just ready for a break and some recovery. When I mentioned this to Jerry Dunn, the Lean Horse race director, he asked if I’d be interested in volunteering. Now, here’s a little advice. If a race director asks you this, whatever you do, don’t say “Sure, I’m up for anything.”
I drove down to Hot Springs, about 2 hours south of my home, on Friday afternoon. Upon arriving, I helped out at the expo doing various tasks (including helping to eat the pre-race barbecue). After awhile, I took a drive out to my aid station location so that I would know where it was and wouldn’t have to search for it in the dark the next morning. It was easily located thanks to the cut barbed-wire fence and orange cone. Then it was back to Hot Springs to pick up the motor home that Jerry had arranged for me to use at the station. It was a nice unit, fairly new, although it took me an inordinately long time to figure out how in the hell to turn the interior lights on (of course, I didn’t try until it was dark outside, which only increased the difficulty).
I slept in the RV that night outside the Mueller Center and woke up at the early even for me hour of 3:30 so that I could squeeze in a 6 mile run before heading back out to my aid station location. I didn’t really suspect when my alarm clock went off that morning that I wouldn’t be going back to sleep until 9:00 Sunday night, some 41.5 hours later. Having never actually driven a motor home sized vehicle before I was kind of nervous, but made it out to my location without incident and went about setting up the tables, chairs and awning as I waited for someone else to deliver the food, water and first aid supplies. Those arrived shortly, long before the first runners did. We had what I suspect to be normal ultra fair (I haven’t been in the ultra scene enough to truly know) including peanut butter and jelly, turkey, cheese, boiled potatoes, pretzels, trail mix, chicken noodle soup, oatmeal, Hammer gel, Accelerade, Heed, chocolate chip cookies, saltines, grapes, bananas, and of course water.
Runners started filtering through at about 7:30, or 1.5 hours into the race. The first 50 miler was moving at a good clip (sub-8 miles) and already had a good lead on the rest of the field. The big rush arrived about a half hour later as a mix of 50 and 100 milers started arriving in packs. This would by far be the busiest stretch of the weekend as the field was still fairly close together. At this point, the runners were still excited to be out there and all very enthusiastic about how things were going (this would change later, as you might guess).
Obviously, there were busy periods at the aid station alternating with not so busy times. I spent a lot of time reading or chatting with whoever was there with me (three others came and went throughout the day and night). Before we knew it, the 50 mile leader came back and actually stopped this time instead of sprinting through. He chatted briefly while he ate and topped off his fluids and then was off again like a shot. We learned later that he had crushed the 50 mile course record by nearly 50 minutes, running a 6:07 (that’s 7:20 pace!!).
Some other 50 milers filtered through, although none were anywhere near the leader. Long before we expected, the 100 mile leader and his pacer came down the road. He had set a blazing pace early on with aspirations of breaking the course record (15:24), but had run headlong into a brick wall just 3 miles before my aid station. We offered him a chair, which he gladly accepted, and various food, but nothing was sounding good to him since he’d been vomiting. Finally, he decided to try a saltine, ate about a half of one cracker and threw that up. Then, he took a couple of drinks of chicken broth and threw that up. After at least 20 minutes of sitting, he decided that food wasn’t going to stay down, so he might as well start walking and hope for the best. We offered him good luck and he was off like a herd of turtles. As it turns out, he had built such a huge lead with his fast early pace that he would end up winning and would miss setting the course record by only 17 minutes. That’s pretty incredible considering that, out of all the runners I saw come through the station, he looked to be by far in the worst condition.
Before too long, night fell and more 100 milers began filing through, headlamps bobbing in the distance as they arrived. I could tell by this point that most were hurting, but almost all of them were in good spirits and with only 11 miles left knew that they were going to finish eventually. To the best of my knowledge, only 1 runner dropped from the race in the final 10 miles….all other drops came before they came back through my aid station. My overnight volunteering partner kept suggesting I lie down and try to get some sleep, but I honestly wasn’t even tired until well past midnight and then it got to a point where I thought I’d feel worse if I laid down and just got an hour of sleep as opposed to just gutting it out. So, gut it out I did, minus a few 10 minute cat naps as I sat in one of the lawn chairs waiting for the next runner to wander in.
Around 7:00 Sunday morning the tail end of the pack (the rear of the Lean Horse, as it was) was coming through. I decided to change into my running clothes (I take them everywhere) and go for a short run up the course to try and find the back of the pack. I passed several runners right away, another about 1.5 miles out and found the last three, running together, exactly 3 miles from the station. I told them how far they had to go at that point and turned around and ran back there myself. It wasn’t too long before they arrived and were gone. Jerry just so happened to arrive at that time with the official race vehicle (an old school bus he bought for $900) and we broke down my station, loaded the supplies onto the bus and I was off.
Upon arriving back in Hot Springs, I transferred my gear from the RV to my truck, took a quick shower at the Mueller Center and watched a few of the 27 hour 100 milers finish (much different from a marathon finish….no finishing kicks were to be found). I had thought about sticking around for the awards ceremony, but it wasn’t until 1:00, leaving me with 3 hours to kill. So, instead I decided to just hop in my truck, head home, and maybe get in a nap (didn’t happen).
I guess that witnessing an event like this could lead to one of two possible results. The sane one is that I’d see the pain and suffering involved with covering such a huge distance and vow to never ever run anything longer than a marathon (or maybe a 50K). The insane one is that seeing an event like this from the sidelines, where you can really see the how things shake out rather than just the first person perspective you get when you are participating, would make me want to run a 50 or 100 miler even more. Ultra running is a different breed of running from marathoning. Kind of like how bulldogs and greyhounds are both dogs, the same in many ways but different in many others. For many, marathons are about accomplishing time goals, getting faster and faster until the goal (4 hours, Boston, 3 hours, whatever) is met. Ultras are, unless you are one of the few ultra elite, more about survival, just trying to cover the distance with time goals taking second fiddle. Having met my major marathoning goal (BQ) back in July and having witnessed Lean Horse, I find myself ready to jump into survival mode. So, it’s very possible that I’ll be back at Lean Horse next year, but not in an RV. After all, if I run the 50 miler, I’ll get MUCH more sleep than I ever would volunteering again!