Note: This is going to be long and, for a lot of you, ridiculously detailed and boring. No grandkid or Mrs Notthat pictures. My feelings won't be hurt if you run away now.
When I first joined San Jose Fit in 2009, there was this old guy (who looked like he could whip me in just about any contest, except maybe making a bathroom scale say "uncle") who gave a little "Tom's Tips" talk before we went out on the trail. These were always entertaining and useful, but there was a puzzling one where he tried to make it sound fun to spend a day in a very remote corner of the Sierras, supporting runners that were trying to cover 100 miles in a day.
I couldn't for the life of me fathom why anyone would run 100 miles in the mountains or why anyone would want to spend a day filling up water bottles and cheering on runners that must surely be demented.
But then I started running trail races and clearly understood both why a runner might be attracted to a 100 mile race and how it could be fun supporting those runners at an aid station.
So, a year too late to be there with Tom (you can read what I wrote after his party last year here), I took him up on his offer to help at the Last Chance aid station at mile 43.3 of the 100 mile Western States Endurance Run. For you non-runners, just like golf has its majors, so do trail runs, and the Western States for a lot of people is THE major. It's absurdly hard, often including having to deal with show for the first 30 miles or so (it starts at the Squaw Valley Ski Area, which this year has so much snow they are going to be open for the Fourth of July weekend), and filled with many challenging sections of trail as you head to the finish line in Auburn.
This marked the 30th straight year that Stevens Creek Striders, a South Bay running group that Tom also was part of, had run the Last Chance aid station. So they chose to give a Hawaiian theme to the area this year. Curt, one of my coaches from San Jose Fit, joined me in heading up to this aid station on Friday afternoon, where we would camp out and be fresh on Saturday morning.
Curt looking for signs of the aid station on Friday as we were driving out to it. (Actually, while it's extremely remote and requires you to drive on bits of the actual Western States Trail, the directions we were given were perfect and we had few doubts about which way to go as we navigated a maze of roads that would have made Google Maps crash.)
We passed a surprising amount of snow as we were driving to the site.
After we arrived and set up our tents, a Volvo station wagon pulled in. It was bursting at the seams with drop bags for the runners. Last Chance was the first aid station after the snow that you could prepare a drop bag for, with fresh shoes and socks being a welcome change for a lot of the runners.
The way these bags were organized, and even better, how they managed to make it to the station's entrance as the runner pulled in (there was a spotter up the trail a bit that would radio in bib numbers so they had time to find the bag and hustle up to the entrance) was amazing and a perfect example of how well run this aid station was.
About 100 feet from the aid station there was this spring (note the pipe with water pouring out of it into the wooden square on the left). This provided cold water for the "Car Wash," where runners could get cooled down with a wet sponge or have ice put in a variety of interesting places. The Car Wash was very popular.
The downside of this spring is that, well, mosquitos REALLY like marshy areas like this. Friday evening was spent doing our best to not be carried away by them.
But once the campfire started up, the mosquitos went away, and it was a very pleasant evening. Lots of stories about past events (some of these people had been doing this aid station for a LONG time) and the roasting of the biggest marshmallows I have ever seen (think super burrito size) made this a nice break before the madness of the next day.
Curt peaking out his tent on Saturday morning.
The morning started with a bonus early morning six mile hike on one of the most challenging stretches of the trail - the exact same trail all runners would be going over once they left our aid station. The goal was to get down to the river for a memorial of sorts for Tom.
Tom ran this race three times, finally finishing and earning his belt buckle in 2002. That is a picture of him at the end, plus his bib from the race. Tom's son Eric ran this race for the first time this year (spoiler alert: he finished on his first try!) and this is what he was going to see as he careened down this trail.
This is the bridge over the river. I love that five runners equal three horses (presumably, each with a person leading them). I'd love to see someone down here trying to enforce the five runner rule, but the runners are spread out enough that it probably rarely comes up.
This is the view the runners had as they approached this aid station. In the front-left are the radio people. Straight ahead of them are the medical people.
Note the scales. The first thing each runner did as they came in is shed their water bottles, backpacks, and belts and got weighed. Too much weight gain or loss is a bad thing and could point to serious health concerns. This happened multiple times along the course.
The porta-potties even got their own special touches.
We were still about an hour from when the first runner was expected in, and I was helping someone put up bright yellow signs they had made for friends in the race. I had one friend doing it, and felt bad that it had not occurred to me to make him a sign. And then inspiration hit - this is the back of my van that just happened to be parked about 200 yards beyond the aid station. I hoped Sam would see it, but there would be no way to know. Probably.
The pre-race pep-talk. Most of the people working this aid station had done it many times before, but there were a number of us Last Chance virgins.
There was another memorial of sorts for Tom (shown in the poster wearing the cook hat - he was famous for making grilled cheese sandwiches at this aid station).
We each wore these shirts that helped identify us to the runners (it would be a little unnerving to have some random person approach you and take your water bottles). Curt's a little bummed that it's going to clash a bit with his pink lei.
Making grilled cheese sandwiches. There was also soup, PB&J sandwiches, and tons of other things for the runners to eat and drink. I'm sure some runners lost valuable time while perusing the selection.
And then the first runner hit - about 15 minutes ahead of when anyone expected him. From this point (about 11 AM) until the cutoff at 5:30 PM, we were all hopping. There would be some slow periods, but they never lasted long.
A cool thing was that there was always a line of greeters, waiting for runners to come in. You'd hustle over (often knowing the runner's name thanks to the advanced notice of the radio guys), welcome him or her to Last chance, take the runner's water bottles, backpack, and anything else that would affect weight, ask what should be put in the bottles and such, and point them to the scales.
While the runner was weighed, the greeter would go to the hydration station and get the bottles filled. You would then escort the runner through the station, encouraging them to eat, sit if they needed to, help them go through their drop bag if they had one, show them the car wash, and generally give them a ton of positive encouragement. "Well, yes, the trail is a bit dodgy up ahead, and well, a bit steep, but the trees provide a lot of shade and the views are wonderful and nobody's been eaten by a mountain lion yet!"
I had looked at the entrants list the day before and was stunned to see a runner from Pagosa Springs CO. - my old hometown! I was hoping to see the guy as he came through, and managed to spot him as he was getting ready to leave. The look on his face when I called out "Go Pagosa!" was priceless - the chances of running into anyone else out here in the middle of nowhere that had even heard of Pagosa was very remote. We talked for a few seconds and then he took off.
This is Tom's son Eric taking advantage of the buffet. He was looking great for this being his first time.
This was known as the MASH tent. We had two doctors and half a dozen nurses working at this aid station. Any blisters or open wounds caused by the effects of gravity and the ground were all dealt with quickly - all of these medical people were also runners, and they understood how important time was. We ended up with three people dropping from the race at our station - I had expected more, and was impressed that one guy, who arrived in pretty bad shape, was able to keep going after a bit of a rest (one of the doctors even ran with him for a few miles, just to make sure the runner really was OK).
And then Sam showed up. He looked great but was dragging a bit due to the after effects of a flu bug that had hit him a few days earlier. He ended up getting in 78 miles before missing a cutoff, which was stunning given the circumstances.
And yes - he did see my dusty note.
Just after the 5:30 cutoff, the course sweepers arrived on horseback. Their job is to ensure no runners are still on the course or injured once the cutoff happens.
And that's about it. Tom knew what he was talking about (naturally) when he said how much fun it would be to work at this aid station. It was a BLAST helping all these runners get through this place.
This guy, David from Slovenia, was one of my favorites. He came running up holding a camera, shooting a video of the aid station. He was bubbly and hardly seemed tired at all. And like most of the runners, was very appreciative of all of our efforts.
I'm hoping to get to work at this aid station again next year. Even better, I'm hoping to get a fuller experience by, after heading out from here, spending time at the other accessible aid stations and such further on down the course, watching the runners go through, and then being at the finish line.
The winner finished in 15:34:00 - an astonishing time to cover 100 miles on foot. The cutoff is 30 hours - 310 of the around 400 runners that started the race beat that cutoff.
This is a tough race to get into; you have to prove you can do a long race (50 miles in under 11 hours, for example) and you have to get through a lottery. Sam lucked out and got in on his first try. I'm sure he will try again next year, and hopefully he will luck out again, and even better, hopefully I will get to cheer him across the finish line in beautiful Auburn.
A huge thanks to Lina and Peggy and the whole Stevens Creek Striders group for putting up with Curt and I as we rode on your coattails and worked this event. It really was a blast!
That's it - move along...
PS: There are a bunch more pictures here.