Sunday, July 1, 2018

Western States and the Last Chance aid station 2018

For the eighth year in a row, I managed to worm my way into volunteering alongside the Stevens Creek Striders, at the Western States Endurance Run's Last Chance aid station.

A few basics about this aid station for those of you new to this:

  • It's the best. Always gets great Yelp reviews.
  • It's mile 43.3 - just long enough for the runners to get good and warmed up.
  • It's the aid station before Deadwood Canyon and Devil's Thumb. If a runner has not warmed up, this will do the trick. (Or totally break that runner.)
  • We have no crew access and no pacers at this point. As volunteers, we have the runner's full attention.
  • Since part of the course is the "road" to Last Chance, you have to either get there Friday night (recommended since you get to run part of the trail if you'd like!) or by 9AM on Saturday. And you can't leave until the aid station closes, around 5:30.
  • But if you leave before 6:00 or so, you can get to the finish line in time to see the winner come in. (Unless the winner sets a course record.)

This year, Bonnie and I hauled about 1200 pounds of ice to the aid station. This was way more than in previous years, but Superstar Lon at the WSER warehouse insisted we take more than we thought we needed, just to make sure. (He was wise - we went through almost all of it, and it was great to be super generous to the runners, who continue to find more places to shove ice.)

Breaking in the new minivan - I'm sleeping in style tonight!
600 pounds of ice in there, with room for a lot more!
There was one big change at the aid station - for the first time we had a water tank brought in. The spring that we have used for years has been declared to be in an environmentally sensitive area, so we are no longer allowed to use its icy cold water to cool the runners.

An amazingly large trailer for a relatively small 125 gallon water tank.
An advantage of the spring was that we didn't really have to know how much water we used for cooling the runners. A couple of years ago, just for fun, I tracked how many times we filled the four buckets we use. That data ended up being used to estimate how many gallons of water we would need, and we were all a bit nervous about whether we guessed right. (Spoiler alert - we guessed pretty well, but came closer than I would have liked.)

The trail of signs.
My first task was putting up all the signs. This is one of my favorite bits of volunteering here - being able to make signs for people I know, people that I don't know but was asked to make a sign for, and generic signs to try to make the runners smile a bit is a blast.

This is a lie. The dragons don't help at all with the mosquitos.
Eventually, it starts to get dark and the campfire is lit. It's not needed much for warmth, but it does seem to chase the mosquitos away. (Or at least slow them down a bit.)

Sleeping in the minivan was great, and left me fresh for race day.

Most of the Last Chance volunteers. It's amazing how many people come out to this remote location to spend a day helping the runners.
This race has 21 aid stations, which means there are 21 groups similar to ours (including 10 that allow crew access). There are about 1000 people along the course helping 369 runners. And that doesn't count all the people at the start and finish lines and doing other tasks. It always astonishes me how many people are involved in this event.

And, in case you missed it, Last Chance is the best aid station of them all.

Eventual winner with an amazing record setting time, Jim takes his shirt off to soak it good.
As has become the tradition, Jim Walmsley was the first runner in, well ahead of course record time and the other runners, but not as early as he had come in the previous two years. He was also a lot more relaxed and fresh - he is learning about the 100 mile distance and really seems to have the lessons down. Just about everyone I talked to hoped he could keep it together and get the win. (Spoiler alert - he did. And set a new course record.)

"Make me an ice burrito!"
Every year there seem to be new twists to the ice bandana, from the classic basic neckerchief to complicated things with multiple pockets/openings and space age material. (Those with one large opening were the easiest to refill. Anyone that has a way to fasten them without having to tie a knot is a genius.) One challenge is figuring out each one of them, and often involves trying to figure out the knot the last aid station used to tie it around the neck. Putting ice in neck buffs was not always easy, but was also fairly common.

Lucy smiling because her hat's full of ice.
One new trend was the use of top-loading hats with an enclosed ice pocket - these worked much better than just putting loose ice under your hat.

Speedgoat trying for an interesting tan.
Another trend that was started by Walmsley a few years ago was cutting many small holes in your shirt, allowing it to breath better. I don't remember seeing a woman do this, but many men did. Speedgoat Karl said it worked very well, although he said he made the holes too big and wasn't able to hold much ice inside his shirt.

Lon rocking the crop top and Popeye arms!
Another trend was that MANY more people were putting ice in their arm sleeves. It looked really uncomfortable, but it real life, the ice melted quickly and it worked extremely well to get your core cooled.

Brazen Sam getting the works.
Almost all the runners took the time to get soaked before heading out. Some wanted to keep their shoes dry, but most didn't care, and welcomed the drenching. (The water from the tank was cool, but not cold. So we added ice to the buckets, which worked well.)

Cory, true to his "Nowhere Near First" book, being nowhere near first, but looking strong.
Each aid station has a card that lists four important times (with their Last Chance values):

  • Record pace: 11:17 (this will be updated next year)
  • 24 hour pace: 2:05
  • 30 hour pace: 4:20
  • Aid station cutoff: 5:25

The race cutoff is 30 hours, so it might seem odd to keep the aid station open for a bit over an hour longer than that projected 30 hour pace, but a lot can happen in that last 57 miles, so it's wise to let more runners through than the historical projections predict will finish.

Cory Reese was a poster child for that. He came in at nearly 5:00 - well off the 30 hour pace and seemingly doomed. But Cory has great 100M skills. He didn't panic, got iced up and cooled off, then headed off to the canyon. (A number of other runners coming in at a similar time were a bit panicked, and didn't feel they could take the time to get iced and cooled off - I suspect most if not all of these didn't finish.)

Here's some stats:

  • Runners in between 4:00-4:19 - 24, of which 18 finished (14 in the final hour).
  • Runners in between 4:20-4:44 - 22, of which 14 finished (13 in the final hour).
  • Runners in between 4:45-4:59 - 29, of which only 9 finished.
  • Runners in between 5:00-closing - 11, of which none finished.

We had five runners drop at our aid station, most due to missing the cutoff.

Once the aid station was closed and packed up, I headed down to the finish line in Auburn, but was too late to see Jim finish. My intent was to hang out until the race was over at 11:00 on Sunday morning, but I was kind of a mess. I think the heat really beat me up at the aid station, plus a couple of friends that I wanted to see finish ended up missing cutoffs and had to drop. In the end, I took a bit of a nap, saw a few friends finish, then headed home early.

"There's a guy in a crop top on the track!" Lon makes it look good though.
Mandie was the official Last Chance runner (each aid station is given a race entry), and got her second finish in a row! 
While it was good to get home reasonably early, it was sad to miss that golden hour - those runners that come in in the last 60 minutes before the 30 hours is up. An astounding 66 runners finished this year in that last hour. All of them had been pushing the cutoffs for many hours and had to spend a second day in near record heat (this was the ninth hottest year ever, and the second hottest since I started showing up).

Looking back at the Last Chance stats, Cory was one of the nine in that 4:45-4:59 group that finished. With over four minutes to spare (YIKES)! He was the last runner to leave Last Chance to get a finish, and only one runner finished after him. That's truly impressive!

Volunteering at Last Chance is a lot of work, but it's so cool to get to interact with both the elites and the mortals, to play a small part in their races as they all try to score a buckle.

Or at least Popeye arms.

That's it - move along…

PS: One of the most horrifying things that can happen at an aid station is for a runner to leave something behind. But it happens, especially when we get really busy. We try hard to avoid that, but we did have a few times where we had to chase down a runner to get them their sunglasses or a water bottle. We only ended up with one item that we couldn't get to the runner because he was long gone - an ice buff that was likely sorely missed. That's the first time in my eight years there that I remember this happening, but I suspect it's a bit more common than that. I really hope that runner made it and was able to use a backup.

PPS: Here are links to more of my pictures: The Signs and The General Shots.

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