Captaining an Ultrarunning Aid Station

Handing out water at a road marathon station – not much planning to do! But not nearly as fun as manning an ultra aid station!

Does the ultrarunning scene interest you? The trails, the crazy people, the friendly, less-cutthroat competitive atmosphere? Does any of that do it for you? If you’re like me, it does. But also, like me, running 30 or more miles on trails isn’t in the cards for you right now. So what’s an ultra-curious girl like you supposed to do? You can still be involved in the always-way-more-fun than road race scene of ultra races by volunteering at an aid station. And if you really want to help out, you can captain an aid station; this means you basically are an aid station manager – working with all the aid station volunteers to make sure the aid station runs smoothly. It just so happens that this year while Clove was busy preparing to run 100 miles, I was getting ready to do just that: I was busy preparing to serve 300+ runners, including Clove, on their way to completing 100 miles!

As a member of the local ultra community since my first 50K at YUT-C years ago, it is no surprise that I have done my fair share of ultra volunteering. Ultrarunners are some of the most fun people I have ever met and it is awesome to give back to them while they are off running in the woods all day trying to achieve their crazy goals. If you have ever considered running an ultra, volunteering for one is a great way to see what it is all about and meet and talk with the people that do them regularly.

The Burning River 100 mile celebrated its 6th year, and this was my 5th year captaining an aid station for the race. It pays to be friends with the volunteer coordinator 😉 I’ve worked my way from mile 91 to mile 17 this year, with most of the years working a double hit aid station around mile 60. Over time, I have developed a method to the madness of coordinating a team of volunteers to get runners through our aid station quickly and efficiently, while hopefully having a bit of fun, too.

Pedro is my go-to aid station mascot! He has donned fiesta gear, pirate gear and luau gear over the years!

This is a very different task than running an aid station at a marathon. You not only need to be handing out drinks, you need to be prepping and serving food like PB&Js, soup, cookies, fruit etc. You aren’t just giving out water in cups, you are filling bottles and camel-backs too. If your station offers gear bags, you will be retrieving those for runners, helping them find a seat if needed and taking care to preserve their belongings after they are done with them. If it is hot, you may be helping runners put ice in their hats, their bottles and even their sports bras! There are many tasks at an ultra aid station!

One of many great volunteer teams at the BR100!

Despite the madness, there are several keys to running a successful aid station, and I have picked up tips from the best in Ohio, and perfected them to make them my own. There’s nothing better to inspire you than helping people, fast and slow, cover many many miles.  When you do decide to give back, here are some tips to help make your aid station the best! (Yeah, Pepper is even competitive when volunteering, no real surprise there!)

1) Bodies! Let your volunteers know way in advance that they are needed. Use email or Facebook and get a group of willing people organized to help. Check with your local running club, cycling or triathlon clubs, your family, your church or work! I have been very fortunate to always have enough volunteers.

2) Delegation! Prepare a list of all jobs volunteers will need to perform ahead of time. I have a list I email out to my volunteers a few weeks ahead of time and I repeat the email a few days before the race.

Jobs at aid stations include serving drinks, prepping and serving food, organizing and grabbing gear bags, checking in runners, helping runners fill bottles and really providing runners with whatever they need to keep moving forward! As the captain, you will deal with a lot of problems. By delegating the tasks clearly, your team can do their jobs flawlessly so you can focus on any unforeseen issues.

3) Logistics! You want to be sure your team knows what aid station you are, what mile you are at, and how far it is to the next aid station! I do my best to ensure my volunteers know all of this before they show up on race day. And you reinforce it with signs!

Fitting all the aid station gear in your trunk can be tricky!

4) Organization! This is key. Not only do you need to be organized ahead of time with spreadsheets of your volunteers, their jobs, their shirt sizes, their phone numbers, their work shifts and what items they need to bring, you also want your aid station to be organized.

It is important to have a path designated for your runners to travel easily through your aid station. I try to set up the food and drinks so that runners can get food while handlers are filling bottles for them and their crew can access them out of the aid station area. This means scoring runners before they reach the aid station and setting up a flow that makes sense. Not all locations are created equal so this can be tricky!

Organizing your drop bags is key to efficiently getting runners through the station!

5) Make it Fun! We try to have a theme each year that is entertaining for runners and their crew. These runners are in the woods all day, a good laugh can’t hurt them every 6 or so miles! We’ve had Fiestas, Luaus, Pirates and this year was the Wild Wild West. If you are a night station and you have a generator, make sure you have fun lights and glow sticks. Make it fun for your volunteers and the athletes!

Themes aren’t mandatory at an aid station, but they sure are fun!

6) Gear! The race doesn’t always provide you with everything you need, so you need to be ready and have quite a bit of gear for a seamless aid station experience. Plan to serve something hot? You need camp stoves, propane and pots and pans. Don’t forget knives for slicing fruit and cutting boards for prepping sandwiches. I load up with Tupperware so all food items have a space and are easy for runners to grab without getting those grubby fingers in everything. I’ve also used long Tupperware bins with a drain to keep food on ice when working a station in the sun. Those big aluminum pans are great for storing fruit like watermelon. You need tables and tents if they aren’t provided and camp chairs for volunteers and runners. You’ll need food prep items, food storage items, coolers for ice and any extra items that might help runners,  like a shoe horn, blankets or old long sleeve shirts especially if you are a night station.

Volunteers prepping food. I use the long Tupperware to put the food on ice at hot summer stations!

7) Be the boss! Sometimes being in charge means you have to enforce rules. Do it kindly, but be prepared to enforce race rules to keep crew and spectators out of your aid station. Although it is fun much of the time, the aid station isn’t a place to party. It is a place to get runners nutrition and aid. All runners should get an equal opportunity at the aid station and should not be hindered by those not racing! I’ve had to turn away crews’ kids from eating our aid station food. (It’s for the runners, and I am not here to babysit your kids!) and I have had to inform runners who missed race turns that they do unfortunately still have to do the race course, even though they added mileage. I’ve also had to tell runners their race was over when they were beyond the cutoffs. Being the boss isn’t always fun, but sometimes being the bad cop is necessary.

Babe. In. Total. Control. Of. Herself. Had to laugh when I found my volunteers’ shirts presented to me in this bag. Our Volunteer Coordinator has a sense of humor!

8) Be ready for anything! I’ve had years where I had to have volunteers go get drink mix mid-race as supply trucks were nowhere near my aid station. Once my dad had to purchase water jugs. Another time we had to call the nearest running store to get gels. I’ve also had to locate runners lost in the woods in the dark, and we have almost always had to drive a runner to the finish or another aid station due to injury. You just never know what might happen. Having a good team to help keep you sane while you manage all the unexpected is priceless!

Ultra Runners love fruit! Especially on a hot day! I recommend any captain buy a few of their own to share, since you will run out!

Not up to the tasks of aid station captain yet? There are plenty of other ways to give back to your local ultra! You can volunteer on race day. You can help with course marking and tear down. You can work the race expo or even help with prepping materials. There is a lot of background work that goes into a race and help is always needed! Contact your local Ultra Race Director and see what you can do to help out. Although it was an amazing experience, my Burning River aid station supplies have been washed and stored for another year and my remaining 2012 volunteer duties will not involve being in charge!

Have you ever volunteered at an ultra or even captained an aid station? Have any tips I didn’t include?

A gal on a mission to save Cuyahoga County streams one storm water facility at a time. An ex runner of many facets including marathons, pacing, ultras and more. Chronic left side issues have me cycling more than running these days but I'm attempting to get back to my running roots.

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  1. This is a great, very comprehensive list! I will say that I think shorter races are probably a little easier, since it sounds like we were working with a lot less than you at the Bear Mountain 50 mile and we were the very last aid station. We didn’t even get close to running out of anything (and we munched on ultra food all day too!)

  2. Always have more ice than you think you will need if the day is hot. The runners at the back of the pack need it even more than the faster runners and it’s not fun to tell people you’re out of ice. This has also happened to me as a runner and it was a huge disappointment to leave the aid station with lukewarm water in 95 degree weather with miles to go.

  3. Don’t make blanket invitations to people you don’t know. I’ve done that and wound up with some volunteers who had personalities that didn’t gel well with the rest of the aid station. Know your workers!
    Great article. Keep it up.