Sunday, January 24, 2010

Volunteering at the Mountain Mist 50K - 1/23/10

I've been looking at the Mountain Mist 50K for years, and I wanted to run it. However, wanting something doesn't necessarily mean that I should have it, lol. The intermediate cut-offs were too tight for me, and the overall cut-off of 8:30 was impossible for me on such a difficult course. The closest I would ever get to the Mist course was to volunteer for it. I could live with that.

After searching for a marathon/ultramarathon for this particular weekend and coming up with nothing that I could get to inexpensively, I decided to send Dink, the race director for the Mist, an e-mail to see if he needed any more volunteers for the race. He responded that they (he and his wife, Suzanne) would be in touch. Sure enough, a few days later, Suzanne sent an e-mail asking if I could work the 24.9 mile aid station. I replied that I would be happy to do that. A few days after that she sent out another e-mail with all of the assignments for volunteers. I was in there!

Early Saturday morning, I drove the two hours to Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville, AL. Over the past few years, I had run several races either on the roads or trails in this park. It was a beautiful park and relatively easy to get to from the downtown area. I wanted to arrive just before the 8:00 a.m. start to see several of my fast running buddies before they took off. The race had been sold out for months, and there were about 350 starters. It had rained all week. But today, it was just cloudy and cool, a perfect day to be out in the woods. I hoped that the trails were dry enough, but looking at the area around the lodge, I figured that it would be a very muddy day for the runners.

I saw Diane (TN) and talked with her for a while. She had been hampered by a stress fracture over the last few months, but she said that it was much better. Diane had successfully completed 8 Mists and was gunning for the 10-year prized Mist jacket. I credit (or blame, lol) Diane for getting me started in ultramarathons. Truth be told, she is such a strong runner and runs the more difficult courses. Her first 50 Miler was Mountain Masochist, and her first 100 miler will be Massanutten this spring. She finished the Masochist easily, and I have no doubt in my mind that she will finish Massanutten in the same manner.

As we headed for the start line in front of the lodge, I also saw Mona (AL). Mona is another strong runner. We met at the first Black Warrior 50K several years ago. She was working an aid station and swept the course for the last nine miles or so. Of course, I was the one that she was sweeping, lol. She kept me going, and we have been buddies ever since. I've yet to really "run" with her because she is so fast, although we've been in the same races several times over the years.

"I don't see why you won't run Mountain Mist," she told me at the start line. I hung my head. I wanted to run it, but I couldn't. It's hard to explain to someone as fast as Mona how difficult it is to battle cut-offs. It's not the course that gets me. It's the clock. I can't beat the clock on a whole lot of races that I would like to do. Embarrassed, I told her that I couldn't make the cut-offs. Being a friend, she smiled and said, "I bet that you could." I wasn't taking that bet.

And they were off!

My aid station wouldn't set up until 10:30 a.m., and we would close at 2:30 p.m. There was a strict cut-off at 2:20 p.m. (6:20 elapsed time for 24.9 miles). Everybody coming into the aid station after that time would be pulled from the race. I thought about that for a long time. I had been pulled from so many races for missing a cut-off that I've lost count. It's a miserable feeling. I hoped that I wouldn't have to pull anybody from the race, especially at the point when they had only a 10K to go to the finish. I had been told that runners would reach my aid station after completing the hardest part of the course, which meant crawling up Waterline on all fours in mud. To do that and still not make the cut-off would be devastating. I had made up my mind that they would all make it under the cut-off, and no one would be pulled at my aid station!

I listened in on a conversation that one of the volunteers that had been checking in runners earlier was having with crew members, explaining exactly where aid stations were set up. He gave me some good directions for my post, Aid Station #5-Monte Sano Blvd Road Crossing. I went back out onto the roads in the park to locate the area. No one was there, of course, so I went back to the lodge. I asked around to see if anyone needed any help, but it appeared that everything was under control. In that short amount of time, volunteers had covered the furniture in the lodge with plastic and covered the hard wood floors with rugs. The runners would be muddy when they finished, and everything in the lodge had to be protected.

I went back to the parking lot and sat in my car. I had plenty of reading materials to keep me occupied until time to set up my aid station. At 10:00 a.m., I drove back out to Monte Sano Blvd. A couple of cars were there, but nothing was being set up. I saw the bright lime green flags marking the trail from the area and decided to head down the trail just to check out the conditions. I didn't go very far. It was muddy, and I didn't have the proper shoes. I headed back to sit in the car to read and wait. It would be an interesting day.

It was now almost 10:30 a.m. and our aid station was still not set up. Several crew members and volunteers were in the area, but no one had seen a van or truck with our supplies. Megan, a volunteer from previous years, stated that someone would have usually dropped off the supplies by now. Another volunteer headed back to the lodge to see what the problem was. I looked at my watch. The elite runners would be coming through soon. We had to hurry. Just as I was beginning to panic, a van drove up onto the opposite side of the road. The two police cars that were conducting traffic had been set up minutes before. The runners would come off the trail, cross the two-lane road, get their aid, and then head down onto the next trail on our side of the road. Megan waved to the volunteer in the van to come across the road. We needed to set up the aid station at the trail head.

We quickly unpacked the van and started our set-up. We had two long tables, several large coolers of Heed and water, liters of Mello Yello and Coke, and a large tub of goodies: cookies, chips, pretzels, pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas, gels, potatoes and salt, and bite-sized chocolate candies. Dink came by to see how we were doing. He gave us our long-sleeve, technical Mist shirts and took our picture. He asked if we had everything we needed and reinforced our instructions. No one was to continue the race if they arrived at our aid station past 2:20 p.m. We should start breaking down our aid station at 2:30 p.m. The park closed at dark, and if anyone continued after 2:20 p.m., they wouldn't finish in time for all of us to be out of the park by dark. He was serious, and all I could think about was the mud that I had seen on the trail when I arrived at our aid station. The mud would slow the runners down. We were going to have to pull some runners. He thanked us for volunteering and moved on to his next job.

We felt we were ready. Cups were filled with fluids and plastic bowls were filled with goodies. We had cut up bananas and unwrapped the chocolates so that the runners could quickly pick them up and go. We filled pitchers with water and Heed so that we could top off bottles easily and quickly. Garbage bags were set up for disposables. A volunteer was positioned across the road to alert us of runners coming up the trail and would shout out bib numbers to the time keeper on our side of the road. She would record their splits, and another volunteer checked off their numbers. We wanted to make sure that no one was left out in the woods.

As we waited, I talked with Jaclyn, a young, professional dancer and very enthusiastic, new runner. She was training for her first half-marathon and was intrigued by this sport. She had been reading "Ultramarathon Man" by Dean Karnazes and decided that's what she wanted to be, an ultramarathoner. I was wearing my jacket from the Wild West 100K, and she asked how far that was. When I told her that it was 62 miles, she was in amazement. When she asked about my longest race and I told her it was 100 miles, I thought that she would jump out of her skin, lol. She exclaimed, "I want to do that!" Jaclyn and I would talk during our lulls in the action about running and racing. I gave her several things to Google when she had the time. She had a lot of energy, and she will become a good ultramarathoner. I just know that I will see her on the roads and trails soon.

Our first runner came through flying, of course, and didn't stop. Someone knew him as David. We watched in amazement as he continued on down the trail. We looked across the street, waiting and anticipating for another runner. It seemed like forever before we saw anyone and then we saw Dewayne (AL). He was smiling and also didn't really need anything from our tables, except someone to slow down David for him, he said. We laughed at his joke as he, too, continued on down the trail.

And then the runners started trickling in. One or two at a time and some times four or five at a time. We scrambled around and found our groove. I was on water detail, filling bottles and offering words of encouragement. I asked how they were doing out there. I received various responses: "okay," "fine," grunts, or smiles. I helped with their camel-backs. I opened packets of gels or other goodies for runners whose hands were stiff, cold, or swollen. I poured magic powders into water bottles from little baggies that the runners had with them. I took care of their trash. They were all in various states of being. Some were covered in mud from taking falls. Some looked good; others looked as if they wouldn't make it. Some were able to talk and joke with us. Some got what they needed and headed to the trail head, seriously contemplating the next section of the race. Others looked lost, as if they had seen a ghost, a demon, or a deity. We learned to ask specific questions. Water? Heed? Coke? Salt and potatoes? Gel? We reached for their bottles to refill instead of waiting for them to thrust them forward. Some knew exactly what they wanted. For some, "water or Heed" was one of the most difficult questions they had to answer in their lives. Some times the answer was a question back at me of "half and half"? Sure. Anything to keep you going. One runner wanted Coke in his bottle. I've done that. It fizzes up too much for me and splatters everywhere when I sipped, but I'm sure he knew that and didn't care. When you need caffeine towards the end of a race, you want it consistently.

Several runners wanted new legs. I offered to screw mine off and give them away, lol. They smiled and grazed at the tables. "I want a tall, Asian, red-haired woman that can cook fried chicken," came one request. Megan was on it. "I'm everything you want except Asian," she responded. She was on Heed detail and kept them going. We had several requests for alcoholic beverages. We jokingly told them that it was at the next aid station, 4.5 miles away, even though we all knew that aid station was a water stop only. Some times we said that the faster runners had consumed it all, lol.

As volunteers, it's important to know how far to the next aid station, how far to the finish, and cut-off times. When we were asked (and it was often), we were always ready.

Our first casualty came early. He had to have been in 14th or 15th place. He announced that he was done. He had all the time in the world. He could walk it in to the finish, but he refused to go on. I offered him water or Heed or some food maybe. He wouldn't take it. He went off to himself and sat down on a rock. When we had a break in action, I walked over to check on him. I knew that I was disturbing him, but I wanted him to finish. He could do it. No broken bones were showing. There was no bleeding. There wasn't anything visibly wrong with him. Yet, he couldn't go on. We didn't know what was going on inside, and he wasn't offering an explanation. He could have been in great pain. He could have been unbelievably tired. He could have been just mentally out of the race. Whatever it was, he knew, and we didn't, that he had to drop from the race. My heart went out to him. Usually when I drop from a race, it's because I can't make a cut-off. I did not understand not going on when there was plenty of time on the clock. I offered to get him anything he needed. He gave me a blank stare, one that cut through my soul. "No," he responded flatly. I left him, feeling stupid, wondering why I had gone to him in the first place. He was indeed done. I felt I had failed as a volunteer because it was my duty to keep him going. Runners were steadily coming in, and I had to stay the course. Water? Can I top your bottle off? How's it going out there for you?

Another runner came in with a tight hamstring. He laid down on the rocky ground and stretched. His face grimaced in pain. His crew came to him to help in any way they could. He would find the strength to go on. We cheered for him as he left our aid station.

Being a volunteer, I had the pleasure of seeing fast runners that, even though we've been in the same races, I never get to see because I'm in the back of the pack. As they came through my aid station, I made an effort to call them by their names when I offered them aid and encouragement. Byron (SC), Rich (GA), Christian (GA), Bruce (TN), Gary (FL), Andrew (GA), and Yikena (GA) are just a few.

Susan (TN) is a fast runner, too, but when she came in, she gave me a hug. She looked good. She is such a strong runner. Rob (TN) was somewhere behind her. She gave me a message for him. "Tell him I'll come back out on the course when I finish, but he needs to hurry up." I laughed and told her that I was on it. She had her bottle filled and ate some potatoes and salt, saying that we were the only aid station that had them. Several more runners told us the same. We were happy that our aid station had something the runners really wanted and needed.

When Rob came through the aid station, he immediately asked about Susan. "Did she fly through here?" I told him that she had, and that she wanted me to kick him out of this aid station quickly. He laughed and had his bottled refilled. I relayed her real message, and he went about his way.

Fast Mike (TN) seemed surprised to see me. But I knew he would be here. I had scanned the entrants' list before coming so that I would look for all of my running buddies. He looked tired, but he was still strong. He stated that he thought he was the last one. I told him that he couldn't be and that I hadn't seen Mona, Graham (AL), and Diane. He nodded, but we were both thinking about the time. We were getting close to the cut-off for our aid station. We had been so busy that the time had just flown by, and I hadn't realized we were approaching the end of our shift. Where were they? They had to make the cut-off. They had to hurry.

Sarah (GA) came in with a full camel-back of an orange fluid. She said that it had started to bother her stomach, that she had been barfing for a long time, and that she needed to dump the liquid. I helped her rinse the bladder and filled it with water. She thanked me and continued on. I met Sarah years ago on the morning of my first ultramarathon. I was much too bubbly, talking and running with whomever I could keep up with and maintain a conversation with. She was very subdued and warned me that I should run my own pace. I knew she was right, but I had waited so long to run my first ultramarathon that I went with my energy and ran the early parts of that race with much faster runners. I eventually slowed down, and she passed me, probably saying to herself "I told you so." I finished the race with badly blistered feet from the heat of the day. It had been a while since I'd seen her. I never saw her in races that we were in together because she was so much faster than me. It shocked me that she even remembered my name. She is tough. With a fussy stomach or not, she would finish.

Mona came through the aid station looking well. She said that she would hug me, but she was too dirty. I hugged her any way, hoping that it would push her to the finish line just a few seconds faster. Bless her heart! Her hands were swollen like Italian sausages. "Too much salt," she said. Experienced as she was, she was in and out in no time.

Several more runners came through. One at a time. The clock was ticking. The timers were looking at their watches and checking the list. There were runners who would not make it. Where's Graham and Diane?

The time was 2:20 p.m. And we saw Graham emerging from the trail on the other side of the road. He was walking. I started yelling for him to get into the aid station. We all did. I looked over at the timer. He's a good runner, I said. He's strong. He'll make it. We have to let him go on. She looked doubtful, but when he made it to our aid tables, she nodded that he would be the last one to leave. I was so happy I couldn't contain myself. You made it, Graham! He looked at me and said matter-of-factly, "No, I didn't."

Water or Heed? We had to get him what he needed and get him out of there. We filled a bottle with water and another one with Heed. He grazed at the food table and then continued on. And now we started the sad part of our day, packing up the aid station and waiting for the runners that hadn't made the cut-off. And when the two sweeps that were behind them came through, our duties would be officially complete.

Diane came in, followed by her friend Heather. As always, Diane was still upbeat. She commented about the mud, but having finished this race 8 years in a row, she had seen worse conditions on this course. She now had to run 2 more years before she could get her 10-year jacket, instead of the planned one year. She would be back. She had been fighting the cut-offs all day, but she still looked good. If we could have let her go, she would have finished the race with no problem. She could have gone the distance, if not for the clock that she had no control over. I offered her food and fluids. That was my job. I wished that I could have offered her more. I'm sorry, Diane.

Heather was crying. How many times had I been pulled from the race, crying, knowing that I could go the distance if not for the clock? She stood stark still. I watched her, wanting to go to her, wanting to hug her, and lie to her that it would be okay. She could come back next year and finish. She had put in a valiant effort and 24.9 miles on this course was nothing to beat herself up over. It was hard today, with the cold and with the mud, not to mention the rocks, covered with leaves, and the steep climbs. None of that would have mattered to her. I knew all too well that nothing a volunteer said mattered at times like this. I watched as another volunteer went to her. Heather commented that when she had fallen, getting a gash in her forehead just above her right eye that had been bandaged at a previous aid station, she had lost so much time. She cried again, just thinking about it. Who knew what other demons she had been fighting out there?

A few others came in, dejected. Volunteers checked them off the list, gave them food and fluids, and then ushered them to cars to be driven back to the lodge. When our two sweepers came in, we packed up the remaining items, dumping any fluid left over, and collecting the trash. The police were gone, and the rescue team that had been hanging around for the last hour or so (just in case) went about other business. It was now just as quiet and deserted as when I first arrived for my volunteer duties. It was so different when it was lively with muddy runners and volunteers helping them out. I drove back to the lodge with a heavy heart.

I wanted to see those last runners finish. I wanted to see what it looked like to be tough and fast enough to beat the clock. I wanted so much to be like them. I wanted so much to will my body to do what my mind knew I could do and what my heart wanted to do if . . . . So many "ifs".

I sat at the finish line at the back of the lodge. The timers were removing the tags from the runners' bibs as they crossed the finish line. A volunteer wrapped them in a mylar blanket to keep them warm. Another volunteer handed them a finisher's card to be filled out to receive their finisher's plaque. I had heard several runners say that at the bottom of the mountain, it had become warm, but once they finished up on top of the mountain, it was windy and cold. I don't believe we ever reached the promised 55 degrees from the weather reports. All of the runners had to remove their shoes and socks before entering the lodge. All I could think about was how their poor feet must have felt walking over the cold concrete that led inside the warm lodge. Hot pizza was waiting for them if they made it in successfully.

I saw Rob finish. He has completed about 600 ultramarathons, and he's only 48 years old. He came through the finish line with another one in the bag. Susan had indeed gone back out onto the course to run with him. She sat beside me just as he crossed the finish line. I asked if she had finished second female. I had heard Dink announce her name for an award when I arrived at the lodge. "No," she said, "It must have been second in my age group." Wow, that was an awesome accomplishment!

Rob gave me his finisher's card, and Susan told me his age and race number. I took the card inside the lodge, filled it out, and picked up his finisher's plaque. When I got back to the finish line, they were ready to go. It didn't take long after finishing that the runners would become cold. I gave Rob his hard earned finisher's plaque, hugged them both, and then sat again on the stone wall waiting for others to finish.

Mike, Mona, and Sarah all finished well. Sarah's stomach was better, but it was hard finishing without being able to keep any food or fluids in her stomach.

I watched the clock. It was getting close to the 8:30 elapsed time, the final cut-off for the race. Graham was still out on the course. If he finished under the cut-off, he will have finished the Fleet Feet Grand Slam (Dizzy Fifties 50K/50M, Huntsville Marathon, Recover from the Holidays 50K, and Mountain Mist 50K). He was going to do it. I just knew it. The crowd was dying down. Everybody was heading home, but I waited. Mona had cleaned up and changed into warm clothes. She came out and waited with me.

And then we saw his signature yellow Marathon Maniacs shirt coming up the last hill through the finish chute. He crossed the finish line in 8:28:40, looking tough, like I aspired to be. We cheered loudly for him, the last finisher. Grand Slam Graham is what Mona called him. Indeed he was! Everyone wanted to take a picture with him. We all gathered around at the top of the mountain in the cold wind, nearing 4:30 p.m. to do just that (see above). It would be getting dark soon, and we had to leave the park. We had to get him inside, get his finisher's plaque, and his Grand Slam finisher's jacket.

I said my good-byes to Mona and Graham. I will see Graham at the Black Warrior 50K next month, but Mona said that she wouldn't be able to make it because she had to work that weekend. I went out to my car to make the 2 hour drive back home.

Tough. That's what best described all of the runners in the Mountain Mist 50K, whether they finished or not. I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to be tough. Now how do I do that?