Last week was apparently all about new perspectives. I have a race recap, but it’s not the traditional one. At the XTERRA Paris Mountain 15k on Saturday, I wasn’t a runner…I was a volunteer. (If all you’re looking for is results, you can find those at this link.)
It all started so simply. Following the 11k trail run last November, I received an email. “You ran the race, what could we do to improve?” Oh, boy. I love a good chance to toss in my two cents. “Well, there were a lot of people who got lost. It might be a good idea to try a new method for marking the trail. If that’s not possible, maybe there could be some ‘trail setters’ who wear a special shirt and help lead the way.” A few months later, a second email brought this exchange back to my attention: “Great idea! Do you think Scott would be willing to lead the front group?” After successfully volunteering husband for a 9 mile trek through the wilderness, I mentally prepared myself for some relaxing spectating.
A note: if you’re going to rope other people into helping with a race, keep in mind that you’re probably within lassoing distance yourself. The subsequent email contained a thank you for Scott and, “since you’re going to be there anyway, I’ll assume that you’re going to volunteer.” Oooooh, that was good. Is there a way to say to this without looking like a lazy, ungrateful, good-for-nothing runner…um, no.
So that’s how I found myself manning a water station in the wilderness. It was pretty fun…although I was a little nervous when a park ranger was required to show me the way (through back-back-back roads and eventually off the road entirely!) to the 5 mile mark. He nicely agreed to come back and help me find the main entrance to the park when I admitted that my subpar sense of direction was completely confounded. My co-helper and I set up the station, filled over 300 cups (for 140 runners) and took some time to enjoy the view.
I mean, wow. How pretty is that? 40 minutes later, we get to work. It was a lot of fun! It is amazing how polite and friendly runners can be even under duress. I’ve run these trails before—I know the climbs they’ve made to get to this point, and that they’re all too aware that there are still 4 miles left to run. Shudder. It’s also interesting to see the different approaches to the water stop. Those with camelbacks usually ignore it, some take a cup with their game face on and head back down the trail, but most smile at the sight of us (they were probably beginning to despair that there would even be a water stop!) and say something like: “Thank goodness!” “I’ve been looking for you guys!” “Oh, water.” “Hey, it’s the gatorade babes!” “Thank you so much for helping.” Many, many more than you would imagine were concerned about where to put their empty cups. Five miles into a grueling race, and they care about littering.
Because it’s a trail race, there are also the casualties. Many runners come through with a banged-up knee or scraped elbow. One woman must have fallen downhill—when she got to us, one leg and arm were covered in blood and she had a big knot on her cheek. I waited for her to request a ride back to the start (at which point I would have needed to call Ranger Jason to ensure that I found the start again), but she was almost cheerful as she took a few cups of water aside to rinse off her leg and arm. She finished the race, earning the unofficial “tough cookie” award from me.
As a longtime runner, I often think that I know everything that goes into making a race a success. As a volunteer, I got a glimpse at the complexity of race planning. For instance, I forgot to ask the director how long we were supposed to stay at the water station. As runners turned to walkers, and walkers began to be spaced further and further apart, I wondered…how do I know when to leave? I certainly don’t want to pack things up and leave someone on the trail without water. It was taken care of. Two ladies volunteered to walk the course behind the competitors, picking up the navigational signs and any other items that may have been inadvertently dropped along the way. Thanks to them, we left the trail the way we found it and the water station workers knew when to leave. Beautiful planning that I never would have thought of. I guess I need a few more decades of racing experience. 🙂
When I reunited with Scott at the finish line, I found that he had met the ground at some point between miles 5 and 9. Poor fella had a scrape along one forearm and an impressively bloodied knee (see the exhibit below). (Sidenote: It is a little funny that I chose only to take a picture of Husband’s battle scars. His adorable, smiling face while receiving his age group award? Nah. His nasty, bloody knee? Photo op!)
“I don’t even know what I tripped over,” he explained. “One minute I was running and the next I was hitting the ground.” I know what he means—this is the essence of trail running. At the start of the race, skipping over and around tree roots and rocks seems like a fun adventure. Compared with road running, it made me feel like a superhero. Able to leap small rocks, exposed roots, and other treacherously trippable items in a single bound! Once fatigue sets in, however, it becomes harder and harder to clear the obstacles. There’s always the risk of clipping a root from exhaustion or not seeing it altogether. “I hit the ground hard enough to stop my watch,” my favorite trail runner continues. This cracks me up. It appears that Garmin has little sympathy for the plight of a downed trail runner. “Anytime you’d like to rouse yourself, old chap, we’ll get back to business.” Always pragmatic, never sympathetic.