Sometimes an aid station is just that, a table with some liquid on it, with a couple of hardy volunteers handing out said liquid and offering encouragement. Some aid stations are much grander affairs. These aid stations become almost as famous as the course itself, like Mt Luxmore in the Kepler, the rolling buffet that are the Tarawera 100 km aid stations or the literal Shangri-La of Kroger’s Canteen at Hard Rock. Don’t even get me started about the bedrunkening Marathon Du Medoc, with it’s 23 aid stations dispensing wine, steak, ice cream and oysters (Think you are tough completing a beer mile, homey? The French do it right).
Have A Plan
Some people rely on aid stations exclusively, some people use them as a filling stations for bottles and meeting their crew and some people blow right through, especially if it is a shorter race. I fall into the middle category, I will only expect an aid station to have water. If it’s got water, I’m sweet. I will take everything else I need with me. That way, I’m in and out in no time, which suits me. And I’m not disappointed. I also would contend that 99% of everything on most Aid Stations is not really going to help. Honestly (the helpful 1% being made up of water melon, citrus and salted macadamia nuts). Sure this relatively Spartan approach is not everyone’s cup of tea, but It’s my plan, and I stick to it. And I suggest you have a plan too, which hopefully includes knowing what nutrition works for you and what does not. An ounce of prior planning may save a lot of hassle on race day. Of note, many races are going cupless these days. Sooo, get a reusable cup. Drinking electrolytes out of your hands is a hassle.
Know Where The Aid Stations Are
Have at least a cursory idea of where the aid stations are. Use them as waypoints for exertion, fluid and nutrition management. This is especially important if your race goes south, or if it is a long event and you know you will fatigue. Knowing that you’ve got X amount of kilometres to go before you see people, can recharge, refuel, and keep grinding is a useful psychological tool.
Be An Ambassador For Your Sport
Sure, some aid stations are stacked to the gunnels with other runners who are volunteering, friends, and people who you know, you know? Other times, most times, it’s volunteers from the Thinking Fellers Local 351 who are spending a morning earning some cash for their community organisation. This may be their first ever experience with trail runners. Be adult, flexible, mature and cool. Smile, even if you don’t feel like it, thank them for being out there, and if they’ve run out of purple gummy worms and only have orange, well, that’s what it is. Deal with it, senor. If your race strategy and psychological wellbeing for a challenging trail race hinges on the right colour of confectionary then I dare say you’re in the wrong place.
Thank the Volunteers
I can’t say this enough. These people are giving up their time to serve you. Sometimes in wonderful sunshine and stunning locales, other times in a dreary pocket of bush in the mud and pouring rain. For hours. On their day off. The NZFTMCSA (New Zealand Forest Themed Middle Class Sports Association) guidelines clearly state, “Courtesy is paramount in all interactions with those that volunteer to aid us in our forest themed athletic pursuits”. From a strategic perspective, you are more likely to get your needs met faster and more efficiently if you have a sunny courteous countenance. So be cool.
Soak It All Up
I would go so far as to say that the main thing that a great aid station provides is psychological validation. So open yourself up to the experience. Someone is clapping? Clap back. Smile. Rejoice in the pain and collective glory of your fellow runners. Take stock of where you are and use this to influence your plan to the next aid station. The memory of a kind word can sustain one and provide valuable comfort when the going gets tough.
THOU SHALT NOT
Come In A Hot Mess
There is usually always a “200m to go” sign before an aid station. Use it to unscrew your bottle caps, maybe loosen your bag to access a bladder and generally prep yourself for what you need. Wait in line if there is a queue and if you need to unpack your bag, move off to the side and do so quickly. No one likes a disorganised, emotionally dysregulated aid station explosion. Of course, if you are a hot mess because of some imbalance or high level of fatigue you may need to see a volunteer to help you out. Usually, on bigger races an aid station captain or medic is there for this purpose. Seek them out.
Rely on Telepathy
Communicate your needs to the aid station crew as clearly, concisely, and as POLITELY as possible. They do not know or care about your race strategy. Simple statements such as “Water, please” (sounds bonkers I know, but you’d be surprised) can go a long way to getting you in an out with no fuss.
Everyone does it differently, some aid stations may fill your bladder, or bottles, some may have been told not to. Ask politely, it avoids disappointment and saves time.
Honestly darling, it’s such an energy suck. It’s ugly, bums out your fellow competitors, upsetting to the volunteers, bad karma, more likely to get your bottle spat in and cop a serve from fellow racers. Don’t do it.
ABOVE ALL ELSE
Take responsibility for your own actions and the way you are feeling. Short of someone accidentally dumping a hot vat of soup on you (I’m thinking UTMB) nothing that goes on in the boundaries of an aid station means you get to act like a petulant child. Sometimes stuff doesn’t go right, sometimes aid stations run out of stuff. That is not the volunteers issue. Adapt. Your emotional response is all on you, champ.