Friday, February 24, 2017

The black hole of ultrarunning.. called an "aid station".


Coming from a triathlon background - where type A dorks in spandex over-analyze every aspect of racing - I had no idea of the kind of smorgasbord that awaited me when I started running ultras. Most triathlons shorter than half iron distance will only offer water and sport drink at intervals on the run course; a half iron may have a bottle hand-up on the bike course and single-serve gels or flat cola on the run, but it's expected that you keep moving as you go through them. I'd always try to keep running through them, or at the very least walk. Even transitioning between sports is done while on the move as much as possible: people practice their T1 (swim-to-bike) and T2 (bike-to-run) in training to ensure that as little time as possible is wasted.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I see competitors at ultras hovering around the aid stations for minutes on end, chatting and partaking of the buffet that the race organizers and volunteers kindly provide. While the variety of foods is certainly one of the perks of ultrarunning, it comes at a cost: time.

"Hmm...what looks good?"

The average 50k will have at least 6 aid stations, so spending just 5 minutes at each will cost you an entire half hour - if there are more aid opportunities or you're racing a longer distance, you stand to lose even more time. While you're stopped, your muscles are stiffening up and making it even more difficult to get moving again. In some circumstances, it can't be helped - if you need to refill a bottle/hydration pack or fix a foot issue, you'll have to stop in order to do so. If you're really hurting and thinking of dropping, a few minutes of positive talk from some aid station volunteers (some of whom are statistically likely to be veteran ultrarunners, because the community is awesome about giving back) can make the difference between a DNF and a finish. If you're using the race as a training day, there's no reason to push the pace. If, however, you're out there racing then it's to your advantage to make every second count. By doing the following, you can maximize your moving time and your chances of seeing something on the clock that makes you smile when you come through the finish. This is literally FREE SPEED, there for the taking!

1) Determine whether or not you really need to stop

Course research and/or knowledge comes into play here. Do you absolutely need a refill of water? Do you need something to eat yet, and can your gut handle it at this time? If the answer to these is "no", just keep moving - you'll survive if you run out of water 5mins before you reach the next opportunity to fill your bottle, and you probably don't really need anything at all if you're 30mins or less from finishing. If you won't be through that aid station again, do say thank you to the volunteers as you pass by, though!

2) Be as self-sufficient as possible

Apart from having been shaped by the "if you want it you better bring it with you" approach to race nutrition that triathlon embraces, I have a stupid number of food allergies/intolerances. Both of these things lead me to carry my own fuel so I don't have to rely on aid stations, except for water. While this has led to missing out on some delicious offerings in the past - apparently there was guacamole on offer at one of the Seaton Soaker aid stations last year! - it also means I am less tempted to stand and browse/stuff my face.

Though I did love their Mexican theme!

Researching the event will often tell you what to expect at the aid stations so you can make decisions about what you'll need to bring - some provide a bare minimum (water and sport drink) so you can avoid disappointment if you were depending on there being salty snacks or solid fuel. I also bring a little more than I think I'll need, in case I end up being out there longer than I expect, or to offer to other racers. It's amazing how friendly the competition becomes when you offer to share your stash of cookies with them!

3) Prepare for a quick entry & exit

If you need a handheld bottle filled, have the lid off by the time you arrive. If your hydration pack bladder needs refilling, you can unclip and start shrugging your way out of it as you run in. If you have a bunch of trash (empty wrappers or bottles) to get rid of, have them out so you don't waste time standing there and rummaging in your pockets for it.

If you're operating out of a drop bag or cooler, try to keep it organized: use a bag with dividers/compartments, or add zip pouches or resealable plastic bags to keep your nutrition separate from your band-aids, body lube and spare clothing. If it's a looped course and you're dropping off empty bottles or flasks, shove them somewhere out of the way so you don't have to dig through empties to find a fresh one.

(Stolen from the site)

4) Enlist help

If you are lucky enough to have someone crewing for you, let them know what you need so they can have it ready for you as quickly as possible. If it's a looped race and you know you'll want a fresh bottle, change of shirt, poles or even a particular bit of fuel on your next trip through, ask your crew to get it out and prepped for a quick hand-off. This is especially important if you want something that will require preparation time, like a hot food or beverage, or poles that need to be unfolded and locked in place. If you can't anticipate, at least try to yell what you need to your crew as you come in so they can get to work as you're arriving - this is what they signed on for, but do still try to ask nicely.

If you're coming to an aid station with volunteers, ask them politely to assist you. If you need a handheld bottle filled that has a strap, ask if they can dump some cups of water in it while it's still on your hand - it's faster than taking the harness off, filling it from a tap or pump, then re-placing it on your hand. If there's something in particular you're looking for (banana chunk, ibuprofen, bandage, ice), ask nicely for it rather than standing there and searching for it when it might be out of view (or you may just be too addled to spot it). Remember to thank the volunteers for their assistance. If they don't have what you're after, say thank you anyway and get out of there!

5) Beware the chair!

If you can possibly avoid it, DO NOT SIT DOWN. Any sense of urgency you may have about reaching the finish will begin to dissolve the moment your bodyweight leaves your feet. Minutes can stretch into hours while your odds of getting back up and at it dwindle. If you need to change footwear, consider crouching to do so. If you must sit, set a deadline (even a timer on your watch) to get moving again. Get volunteers or your crew to yell at you if necessary! Noone ever regretted spending too little time stopped in a race.

After the race, though, anything goes!

Why bother?

One of the worst feelings in racing is missing a time goal or podium spot and realizing you could have made it had you not dawdled while the clock was ticking. The point is not to rush yourself - which may lead to forgetting essential tasks or items - but to move with purpose through the aid stations. With a bit of planning and forethought, you can get everything you need and be back on course in no time!

That said, if you're just out there for a fully supported training day, feel free to stop for a few minutes to chat and really savour the ultra buffet!


Oh, and a smooch from a loved one is always worth it. Definitely stop for those, but get right back out there - I'm sure they'll have an even better one for you at the finish!

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