Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Working the Aid Station

I just got back from a trip to San Diego (to watch my daughter's beau graduate from Marine boot camp--impressive).  First of all, let me say I LOVE that city.  Not in the way I have loved other cities I've traveled to, but in a "I-could-see-myself-living-there" kind of way.  Some cities I've been to I've loved as a tourist, but I felt very comfortable and at home in SD.  Not to mention the weather was HEAVENLY!!

While I was there I had the opportunity to volunteer for the AFC Half marathon.  One of the seven aid stations was directly in front of our hotel.  I had attempted to officially sign up on-line, but the check in was going to be all the way across town so I decided to be a spectator instead.  When I got downstairs it was OBVIOUS they were severely understaffed so I jumped in and started passing out water.

The sold-out race looked fun with 8,000 runners.  The routed looked fantastic, running alongside the San Diego Bay for a good bit of the race, and down-town the remainder.  The weather was PERFECT (maybe a tad warm for west-coasters, but absolutely divine for this southerner).  The aid station I worked....not what I've grown accustomed to having in my local races.

Most of what I'm about to say will sound very picky....and I know that.  I think the truth is I've been spoiled.  Maybe another factor is that when I'm in the middle of a race I probably don't pay as close of attention to what's going on at the aid station and some of my perception is skewed.  However, I did notice several things about the aid station that I would have changed if I could have.  ((Following all my "knocks" will be all the things I loved about this aid station and about my experience of working it.))

First of all...and this is really picky...but the water was warm.  Really warm.  I don't expect ice water, but at the same time, this water was directly out of the spigot (literally).  I came down a little over an hour into the race (at mile 10).  The elites had all gone through, the front of the packers had all been through.  Maybe it's possible they had gone through all the ice already, but from the looks of it, they never had any to begin with. 

When I got there they were filling cups as fast as they could and yelling at runners to "grab the water off the table".  There were spectators every where and no one was helping pass out cups.  My guess is they saw how wet the few volunteers were getting from sloshing water and decided against helping!!  Although there were three tables set up, naturally everyone was trying to grab cups from the first table.  Gatorade was set up at the last table (but I was told they ran out not long after I got down there).  Since no one was telling the runners I saw some grab up 2 cups of water only to throw them down when they got to the Gatorade table.

The cups were "huge" and they were filling them up to the very top.  I'm sure they thought they were helping, but runners can't guzzle that much water while they are running.  It would have been better to have smaller cups or (probably better yet) have the same cups but only filled 1/2 way.  Filling them all the way to the top only helps in getting everyone wet!!  (Not to mention all the water that was wasted, but that's not my campaign...)

I THINK the races I've been to which offer water and aide of some kind (Gatorade, Powerade, etc) have had some kind of signage or people yelling at the runners as they are coming up to let them know what's being offered.  I stressed "I THINK" because I don't think I've ever really cared that much about Gatorade before so I can't say that it's been that way for sure.  I do remember several times being told.  As I said earlier, I saw the importance of this after seeing so many water cups being tossed to the side once the runners realized there was another option for hydration.  My optimizing brain can't help but think of all the cups, water, time and effort that were unnecessarily wasted.  Having someone yelling out that Gatorade was up ahead, having signs, having the tables set up on different sides of the street....any number of things could have made this situation better.

Now, here's my biggest observation.  From my perspective...  Yelling at runners to grab cups off the table was just wrong in my opinion. Ideally there would be enough volunteers to help PASS OUT water, but failing that, just not saying anything would be better than yelling at them.  I think if I were running an aid station and I couldn't round up enough people to work, I would recruit spectators.  Now...I can already think of a couple reasons that's not a good idea, but there are solutions.  First of all I know there are liability issues to consider; just have forms printed for people to sign at the table.  As for the wetness factor, you could either warn them they might get splashed on, or pass out trash bag "rain coats".  (((If you've never been around an aid station....let's just say there's a lot of water sloshing out of those cups--someone's going to get wet!)))

I don't want to harp on this too much, but having enough volunteers really is the key.  From filling up cups ahead of time, to having enough people to pass them out, to being able to keep some semblance of order (namely raking up discarded cups)...it all takes PEOPLE willing to be involved.  More than that sometimes it takes someone willing to be in charge and let people know how they can help.  Many of those spectators were most likely more than willing to help.  I'd venture a guess that most of them are not runners and therefore have no awareness of what they could do, or what is needed. 

My final "criticism" would be one of preference I'm sure.  Most of the volunteers who I saw were trying to hold onto the cups as if they were drinking from it (see the person in the foreground in the picture to the right).  In my opinion, this is the best way to get wet!  Especially when the cups are small (like the ones in the picture) it's awkward to grab them from the volunteer. 

Now take a look at the volunteer in the middle.  See how she is holding the cup from the bottom?  That's a little better, but the best way for a volunteer to hold a cup out for a runner (again, in my opinion) is pictured below.  I have no doubt there are many runners who would disagree (namely the ones who don't like the idea of a volunteer touching the rim of the cup from which said runner is about to drink!!)  However, I think it allows for the most efficient and smooth hand-off with the least chance of water loss (meaning the least chance of soaking either the hander or the grabber!).

These fairly minor "faults" were balanced (even maybe outweighed) by all the things which were done right.  First and foremost...the MUSIC!!  There was a DJ at this aid station (from what I understand, it was the only one with music) who had a fantastic playlist of moving and shaking songs that got the volunteers, the crowd and most importantly the runners MOVING!!  It was loud enough to make a party scene but not too loud.  

However, I'd say at least 75% of the runners I saw were wearing headphones.  The AFC website says:
For your safety and the safety of your fellow participants, you are encouraged NOT to use iPods, MP3 players, or similar devices during the race. However, if you chose to use such a device, it is recommended that you keep the volume at a level at which you are aware of your environment and any emergency situations which may arise.
Let me tell you....some of those people probably couldn't have heard an ambulance if it was on top of them!!  I'm not sure why the ban was lifted, and I'm not sure how it is they are able to get insurance coverage for a race that allows headphone usage, but I personally would like to see them disallowed completely.  I don't want go off on a tangent here so that's all I'll say about that for now....

Thanks to the great music, most of the volunteers were happy and dancing around and having a great time.  I can't say that's crucial because when I'm running a race I don't really pay attention to what they volunteers are doing per se, but when there's a festive scene going on it can certainly put a boost in my energy level.  There's a party house on the Cotton Row route that I look forward to passing.  They have music cranked up, and are dancing around on the sidelines.  It's incredibly fun.  Last year at the Huntsville Half there was an AWESOME aid station at about the 1/2 point.  Since I'm such an extrovert, those kinds of things "fill my tank"; it's like a shot of pure energy!!    Getting water from someone who is smiling and dancing is much better than being yelled at to "grab water from the table!!"

The other thing this aid station had that was so great....SHADE and a mister tunnel!!  I didn't think it was hot out there, but had I been running in the sun I would have LOVED to run through a mister tunnel to get cooled off.  It was perfectly located just before the shaded water tables too!  (I'm not sure how all those people were wearing headphones kept their players dry...just another reason not to wear them!)

AND....one facet I haven't decided if I liked or not...there was a race photographer located just before the aid station crouched down in the middle of the street.  I liked that he was in the middle, but at the same time I didn't think he was in the best place.  Runners rounded a corner.  They most likely saw (and heard) the aid station and would have been focused on making it there....and then would have had their picture taken by someone they may not have ever even seen.  Bummer.

Overall, I'm thrilled I had the chance to volunteer.   The best part of it all (other than all that I "learned") was getting to encourage the runners who were struggling at the end.  There was one lady who was limping pretty badly.  She said she had a knot in her calf.  She was one of the last "runners", and most likely was not going to make the cut off.  I leaned down and rubbed out her calf.  She just about cried as she told me how much it had helped.   As much as I love running races, I love helping others do it as well.

What do you think??  Do you agree with my observations?  Do you have any aid station stories or suggestions of your own?  I'd love to hear what you have to say.  As always, thanks for stopping in, come again soon!!


  1. Love San Deigo!
    Yikes! I totally agree about the aid station. That was definitely an aid station FAIL.
    I have been to several races where they had awful aid stations...makes me thankful for the well organized races in North AL!

  2. I just linked this entry on my blog, Dana. I think a GOOD water station is so important in a race. You nailed it when you mentioned water temperature, amount of water in the cup, and how the cup is held by the volunteer as being important details. These little details can be very important race day!


    1. Thanks Katie!! I hate that there's no link to your blog so I can't find you! It's funny because since that experience I have noticed more and more about aide stations at each race I've done. I think the best aide stations I've seen in any race I've done was in NOLA 70.3. Tons of volunteers, everyone was happy and dancing, I knew exactly what was where and could easily get to it. Very well done. Thanks for checking out my blog and for linking me! :D


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