Observations from 2011 Umstead 100 Aid Station

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The Umstead 100 consists of 8 laps of 12.5 miles each, with a major aid station that is visited at the end of each lap. This format provides an ideal opportunity for supporting the runners in the race and helping them with the issues they encounter. Due to problems with my skin (Epidermolysis Bullosa), I was unable to compete in 2011 and instead helped at the main aid station (#1) overnight. It was both inspiring and humbling to see the courage and determination of the runners. From running Umstead several times in the past, I knew there was a huge effort that went into organizing the race and supporting the runners, but spending the night in the aid station revealed a level of dedication I was previously unaware of. My role was to help the head aid station volunteer Guido, and the Red Cross folks. I checked the status of the runners coming through, offered advice and helped runners recover from minor problems. I was deeply grateful to have the more experienced medical staff available to handle the real problems and for their ability to discern the severity of the runner's problems. During my time at the aid station, I noticed several recurring issues.

  • Hypothermia. I saw a small number of serious Hypothermia which could have been dangerous without the intervention of the medical staff. I also saw a much larger number of minor Hypothermia issues in runners which impaired performance and causes a lot of suffering. I believe that in all cases the Hypothermia could have been easily avoided by taking sufficient clothing when the sun starts going down. The temperatures were in the 40s around sundown, dropping to the mid-30s overnight. This is a deceiving temperature, as people tend to wrongly associate Hypothermia with extreme cold. Even with the temperatures in the upper 40s, a runner who has been moving for over 12 hours has few reserves to help them stay warm. Combined with insufficient and damp clothing, runners can quickly became chilled. Any drop in pace, which is not uncommon around sundown, also causes a drop in body temperature. Changing into dry clothes, adding extra layers and carrying a spare top or jacket would have prevented these issues. For runners with pacers, the pacer can act as a mule and carry some extra clothes. (Some races disallow pacers, and some disallow pacers from acting as a mule.) Using a windproof and/or waterproof jacket is especially useful as it can be zipped and unzipped to regulate the runner's body temperature.
  • Blisters. I was surprised by the number and severity of blisters at Umstead, especially given them mild conditions. While things like Taping or bursting the blisters may help a little, they are the equivalent of splinting a broken leg; it helps, but prevention should be the focus. See Blister Prevention.
    • My dislike of duct tape for Taping feet was increased at Umstead. The duct tape seemed to keep the skin under the tape quite wet, the tape tended to form creases, and the adhesive was not strong enough for a good bond.
    • Several runners complained of blisters when none were evident. It appeared that the problem was localized swelling of the tissue under the foot or possibly some rubbing.
    • One runner who tried to adjust their stride to avoid pressure on their blisters had catastrophic muscle problems. It’s hard to dramatically change your stride for a few miles, and attempting it in an ultra is impractical.
    • Runners did not tie their Shoes well. Some runners forced their feet in and out of their Shoes without undoing them. Other simply pulled hard on the top of the laces and tied the knot, which changes the pressure on your feet. Instead, the laces should be loosened off completely down the length of the eyes, and then pulled back under gentle tension, working up to the top of the eyes. I find that pulling on the laces with the lace between the forefinger and thumb produces just the right level of pressure; wrapping the lace around a digit allows for too much pressure.
    • I noticed that many of the runners with blistered feet were wearing Drymax socks. This could be because most runners were wearing Drymax socks and therefore I saw them more commonly, or because runners who are susceptible to blisters are more likely to wear Drymax, or because Drymax socks were not working well at Umstead.
  • Nausea. Not only is nausea horribly unpleasant, it also prevents correct hydration and fueling. This seemed to be another remarkably common problem, and once nausea sets in, it seems hard to overcome.
    • Getting runners to eat only what appealed to them rather than what they believed was the right food made a difference in a number of cases.
    • Getting the runner (or the pacer if available) to carry a couple of cookies and/or crackers with them out of the aid station for later consumption if they appealed also seemed to work in a number of cases.
    • Most of the nauseated runners I talked to used Electrolyte Capsules, but it is possible that this just reflects the overall percentage of runners using them. However, I suspect that taking the Electrolyte Capsules without sufficient water could easily cause a concentration of salt in the stomach that would trigger nausea. I'm also concerned that in under some conditions, the Electrolyte Capsules will not dissolve quickly. I've heard of runners who have vomited and found undigested capsules, indicating this is not just a theoretical issue.
    • The other cause of nausea, overheating, was not much of a problem while I was in the aid station, as the conditions were cooler.
  • Gear. I was horrified to find that some runners did not have critical basic equipment with them. There were runners who did not have a hat, did not have a change of clothes, or only had one of an item and it was in their aid station #2 drop bag.
  • Organization. On a far more minor level, the level of organization varied widely between runners. A number of runners spent far too long rummaging through bags looking for gear and often wasting 5 minute or more. At Umstead, doing that at each aid station could easily waste an hour or more. Finding an item in a bag may not seem difficult, but after 20+ hours of racing, even simple tasks become monumental. Other runners had their gear organized into Ziploc bags, which worked better.
  • Crew. It was remarkable to see how effective a well organized and motivated crew was. There were runners who effectively delegated tasks to their crew, so they were not searching for things themselves. I saw runners who even had their pacers go ahead with a message to the rest of the crew about what was required so that it would all be ready and waiting. Having a crew that includes experienced ultrarunners seemed to be remarkably effective.

1 Next Year

I'd obviously like to run Umstead next year, but I also want to work the aid station again. The ideal solution is to race the 50, sleeping for a few hours and then working the night shift. This has a deep appeal.

2 Final Thoughts

Working the aid station proved to be hard work, but it was also rewarding and valuable. It has given me a deeper understanding of the sport, the people who compete and the people that support. I will always remember the lady who came into the aid station at 7:45 on Sunday morning, after nearly 26 hours of racing and covering 87 miles. She was in tears, exhausted, and had some of the worst blisters I saw that night. I helped re-tape her feet, and watched the look of pain as she put her Shoes back on. She was clearly aware that time was running out for her to complete last lap, but she got up and went out to continue her battle. Her courage was both humbling and inspiring. (Update: I've just found out that the lady finished with 15 minutes left before the race cut off. To me, this is the spirit of ultrarunning.)

3 See Also