Monday, April 9, 2012

How to Take Full Advantage of Aid Stations

This one is going to be a little difficult.  I still haven't really mastered Aid Stations.  It seems no matter how much advanced planning I do, no matter how many cue sheets I have, no mater how carefully I have packed and labeled zip-lock baggies, I still make mistakes, sometimes serious mistake, in almost every ultra I run.  So why do ultrarunners have Aid Station Meltdown?  Well, in my case it is almost always being in too much of a hurry.  I don't Think ahead and I don't follow my plan when I reach the aid station.

If the ultra is short, like a 50K, then you probably don't have drop bags to worry about.  There you just need to think through your stop as you approach the AS.  Get out the electrolyte tablets or take the top off the water bottles.  Decide what food you want, if you need Gel's, if you want a sandwich or cookies.  Decide if you want to take some food with you.  I usually grab a sandwich and a banana as I am leaving.  I eat the sandwich as I walk away from the aid station or while I am getting back up to speed.  I usually take the banana with me to eat a little later.  It is a lot easier to eat a banana on the run than a sandwich.  The key is to know what you need and want at the aid station and take the time to follow your plan.

Drop Bags:
It is important to have planned what you think you will need at each aid station and pack it so it is easy to access.  This can be accomplished is any number of ways.  I use a lot of zip-lock baggies.  I pack the supplies in individually labeled baggies, sometimes baggies within baggies.  Some people use various type containers and have items laid out in compartments in a box.  If you have a crew member meeting you at drop-bag aid stations they can lay things out on a table or towel.  The latter option is the by far the best.  Your crew can ask questions to help you think through you needs.  However, you cannot always depend on the crew making the aid station.  Many aid stations are very remote and difficult to find.  Sometimes other things can happen, like another runners crew picks up your bag by mistake with the car keys to your crew's car in the bag.  (That happened to Marye Jo at Leadville in 2009 at Turquoise Lake aid station at mile 87.)

All this is important, but all the planning in the world is worth nothing if you don't think ahead and plan your aid station stop as you approach the AS.  Look ahead an listen.  If you know the course, you will know when your approaching an aid station so you know when to start getting ready.  If you are not familiar with the course ask the people you are running with if they know the course.  Generally, you can tell as you approach aid stations.  You hear cheering or clapping, at night you see lights ahead where there should not be lights.  You may know, from studying the race course maps, that an aid station is at a particular location and you can usually tell you are close.  Out west, where you can often see for miles, you usually can see the aid stations long before you reach them.  I have rarely had an aid station just appear out of nowhere without warning.

The point here is, as you get close to the AS, stop the conversations and start planning.  Do a quick inventory of things like electrolyte caps, GU's, etc.  If you have a cue sheet, get it out.  If you are using an electrolyte additive like NUUN tablets, go ahead and get them out and drop them in the bottle before handing it to the Volunteer.  If you are running with a carb mix like Carbo Pro, as I do now, go ahead and get out the next bottle to fill.  (I carry four, 10oz Nathan bottles in a belt like the one to the left.)  This is one of the most difficult things for me to remember for some reason.  I forget to refill them.  If the last bottle is empty, just throw it in the drop bag and be done with it.

As you reach the aid station it is a good idea to drink a reasonable amount of the remaining water in you water bottle or hydration pack.  That way you will not need to waste time at the aid station drinking water.  If you are carrying bottles, go ahead and remove the lid before reaching the aid station.  I wear shorts with pockets when racing and when I remove the lid I put it (or them) directly in my pockets.  Several times, in the confusion at aid stations I have lost the lid to my bottle.  It can be a little frustrating wasting time looking for a lid you lay down without thinking or dropped in the dirt.  I have also left an entire water bottle at an aid station and had to go back a couple of hundred yards to get it.  If you are wearing a hydration pak, remove it as you approach the aid station.  Open up the pack and get the bladder out and open it for the AS volunteers.  There are so many different types of closures for hydration packs, sometimes the volunteers have trouble figuring out how to get into it.

It is very important to know exactly how far it is to the next aid station and how long it will take to get there.  If you are running a flat, easy trail, six miles to the next as may not take long at all.  For me, that could be as little as one hour.  All I would need is one full 20oz. Nathan Quick-Draw. That same six miles at Wasatch or Hardrock or many other races could take 2.5 or 3 hours.  Throw in heat and a section like that could be a disaster.  Two full 20oz. bottles might not be enough.  If the next section is going to be particularly long or grueling and you have a limited amount of water (as with two 20 oz bottles,) the you will need to drink extra water before leaving the aid station.  You should also carry a cup of water and walk until you have finished it.  In my case, with an extra 10oz bottle in the belt, I could add an extra 10oz.  What ever  you do, don't run out of water.  This could be a disaster for you.

Twice, in an ultra, I have run out of water on very long climbs.  The first was at the Katcina Mosa 100K in Utah in 2008.  From the Big Spring Aid Station at mile 23.84 runners start a 6.1 mile, 3,000 foot climb to the top of Windy Pass.  (Now they have added another aid station.)  The climb is totally exposed to sun and the temperatures hit 100deg. that day.  I ran out of water half way up.  I really was not sure I would make the top of the pass.  I did reach the top and I got some cold water and sat in the shade and drank for about 20 minutes.  Unfortunately, the next aid station was over 9 miles away and there was no way to get there except run.  When I did finally arrive at Little Valley AS at mile 38 I was totally wiped out.  I just sat in the shade and drank about everything they had.  That was the end of my race.  

At the Big Spring Aid Station, I did not check to make sure the bladder in my pak was full.  I have no idea how much water the volunteer added but as he was filling it, in the back pack, I looked in and said that was enough.  He asked me if I was sure, and I said yes.  Always, Always, take the bladder out and be sure there is enough to get you to the next aid station.  ALWAYS!  Can I make it any clearer that that.

At The Leadville 100 in 2009 I make a similar mistake with almost the same result.  I was carrying two Nathan Quick Draws.  At the Twin Lakes aid station, I was way ahead of my schedule and in a hurry to get to our room, just about 100 feet off the course in Twin Lakes.  I grabbed a cup of soup and nothing else and headed over to the room to get my supplies which Marye Jo had all laid out on the floor.  I changed shoes and socks for the water crossing  about half way across the valley floor, before the start of the climb up Hope Pass.  I refilled both water bottles and picked up a few GU's for the climb and was off.  Within 200 yards as I started across the valley, I realized I was really thirsty and that I had not drank anything at the aid station or the room.  I had run this section of the course in the training run just a little over a month before and I knew how far it was to the Hopeless Aid Station at timberline on the climb up.  I knew right then I would not make it without running out of water.  I considered going beck to the room and getting more water but decided to go ahead and try to make it.  It was hot crossing the valley and there is no shad at all until you reach the other side, over two miles away, and start the climb.  I had almost finished off one bottle before I ever reached the other side.  I had also started rationing my waster so I would not run totally out.

By the time I finally reached the Hopeless Aid Station, about 1000 feet below the summit of the pass, I was wasted.  I was moving so slow, I was sure I would not make the cutoff at Winfield, the 50 mile point.  I sat down and drank a lot and ate what I could, but I felt awful.  Finally, I got up and headed for the top of the pass.  I slowly make my way over the top, knowing there was a 3+ mile descent just on the other side and maybe that would give me time to recover.  I walked all the way down the hill to the road, then had to walk the3.5 or so miles up to Winfield.  This was a very gentle climb that I should have been able to run at least part of, but I couldn't.

Marye Jo make me sit and take time to eat and drink a lot at Winfield.  I was there about 20 minutes.  I left with about 20 minutes to go before cutoff.  I had to walk all the way back down the road to the start of the climb back over Hope Pass.  By then I knew I would not make the cutoff back at Twin Lakes.  I stared the climb.  Strangely enough, the higher I climbed the better I felt.  I fell in behind several others and just used them as pacers.  By the time I reached the top of the pass the sun was setting and view of the setting sun on the mountains behind us was beautiful.  I wished I had a camera.

I began to run a little on the way down and once past the Hopeless aid station I ran most of the rest of the descent.  When I finally reached the valley floor I was able to run about half the time.  I reached Twin Lakes, changed shoes after the water crossing, gathered up supplies and ran up to the aid station.  I was out with 10 minutes to spare.  The climb up from Twin Lakes to the Colorado Trail was the toughest part of the race for me, but by the next aid station I was feeling good and running.  It took me hours to recover form the dehydration the resulted from not following my plan through the Twin Lakes Aid Station.  I eventually gained almost one hour back on the cutoff and could have run most of the final 5 miles (uphill) to the finish.  I didn't because I was running with two people that I had followed around Turquoise Lake and up the beginning of the long climb and I decided to stay with them to the finish.

More recently, at Rocky Raccoon 100 in February of  2012, I had similar experience at the Dam Nation AS.  Dam Nation is located at mile 6.19 and 12.2 of each 20 mile loop.  The next aid station is the Park Road AS at mile 15.61 or 3.4 miles away.  On the second lap, passing through Dam Nation AS, I was out of Carbo Pro in the bottle I had mixed.  I picked up a bottle at the aid station, put it in my belt, went on up to the tent and grabbed a sandwich and what ever else I wanted and headed out.  I never filled the bottle of Carbo Pro with water.  I figured I could make 6 miles without carbs OK and did not worry about it.  I ate a Honey Stinger waffle along the way and figured I would just fill the bottle on the next pass through Dam Nation.  Well, I once again forgot to fill the bottle, and again had no carb drink for the next 3.5 miles to park road aid station.

This time I was concerned.  It would be 45 minutes or so until I reached the next aid station and I did not have any extra water to mix with the Carbo Pro.  That meant no carbs again.  I would end up being without my Carbo Pro mix for 10 miles.  (1/10 of the entire race.)  I did add some of my water to the Carbo Pro, figuring it was better to have a little carbs than none at all.  I hoped I would not now run out of water.  This shows just how poorly my brain was functioning and I was only 35 miles into the race.  It really doesn't matter whether the water you dink has Carbo Pro, Perpetuem, or any thing else in it.  It is still water, and still keeps you hydrated.  Instead of just mixing it correctly and treating the mix like water, I mixed it way to strong and forced myself to drink it.  I did the same thing again at Cheaha.  I am not sure which AS it was, I think the second one, but I just did not fill the Carbo Pro bottle, again!  I will get this down some day.

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