Anyone who tells you that running an aid station at a 100 mile trail race is a thankless job is . . . well, wrong. I can't tell you how many times during the day and the night that runners (and pacers and crew) expressed their thanks to the 2011 Park Road Aid Station gang. And, let's face it, our little outpost isn't a bad spot to watch the unique drama of a 100 miler unfold, from the genetic freaks at the front of the pack, to the ultra-tough runners bringing up the rear - you get a front-row seat to the full range of human emotions: SHOCK ("dddd...damn, it's cold!"), DENIAL ("feeling good - this isn't going to be that bad"), ANGER ("son of a &*%, my hydration pack is frozen!"), BARGAINING ("okay, if I can just get back to the start/finish, I'll let myself sit for a few minutes"), DEPRESSION ("I've run 60 miles. I'm exhausted. There's no way I can run another 40 miles."), TESTING ("I can't run anymore. My legs are shot. But I can still walk and make it with plenty of time to spare, so that's what I'm going to do"), and finally ACCEPTANCE ("this was much harder than I thought, and I'm not going to finish even close to my goal time/at all, but I'm going to finish/live to run another day, and that's okay"). And it's compelling stuff.
Planning for this year's Park Road probably started as soon as we were tearing down last year's version. Making mental notes of what was good (traffic flow, Lynnor's generator) and what wasn't (stock of water scattered everywhere, poor lighting, cramped quarters at night with runners seeking a respite from the cold). A couple weeks before this year's race, Mariela and I hit Arne's for the Margarita/Tropic Paradise theme supplies - always a fun time. We discussed how chafing dishes would be nice this year, staffing issues, candles for the porta-johns, etc. Keeping the same team intact this year kept formal planning needs to a minimum, and before we knew it, race day was approaching.
Last year, I drove up to Huntsville on race morning to pick up supplies from Joe and Joyce and haul them to the aid station. Frankly, that sucked a great deal. This year I decided to take Friday afternoon off to pick the supplies up early and deliver the non-perishables to the tents the day before. Fortunately, Chris graciously agreed to come up with me and help. Braving the frozen highways & byways between Houston and Huntsville, we arrived in the park at about 1:00 and headed straight back to the Dogwood site. Joyce loaned out her pickup (cuz my Subaru wasn't going to cut it, even with the back seats down) and in no time we were able to ferry the supplies (including quite possibly the largest box of ramen noodles on planet earth) over to Park Road. Chris and I then spent another couple of hours doing set up work - organizing the 300 gallons of water, setting up tables, hanging the lighting, assembling and testing the propane heater, and generally trying to make the next morning as stress-free as possible. This year we also put up my EZ-up tarp and thought it might make a nice spot for the heater and cold, tired runners during the evening.
Saturday morning came much too early and the ride up to Huntsville was a bit groggy. As we approached the park, my car thermometer bottomed out at 19 degrees - YIKES, it was going to be a cold set up. When we arrived, we found Julie Monte (who brought a ton of awesome supplies) and a couple other folks already ready to roll, and a frigid set up began in earnest. Other volunteers filtered in, Lynnor arrived with the generator (HTREX is forever beholden to Lynnor for this annual gift of life) and it was rolled out, power cords were strung, and in no time, we had electricity! By 7:15 or so, all that was left was finishing the decorations, cutting oranges, making some pb&j sandwiches, and waiting for our guests. The Park Road crew was ready to rock. But first we had to enjoy our front-row seat to the race at the front.
(Anton Krupicka, approaching Park Road)
After an obscenely short amount of time, the Mutants started to fly by. Gingerich, Sharman, Krupicka, Koerner, Jurek, Howard . . . huh, what, Howard? Seriously, not a few minutes after Scott Jurek (Scott Freaking Jurek) cruises through, here comes our own (as in Texas' own) Liza Howard, bounding by like a deer. WOW. JUST WOW. If you haven't checked out her blog, you should. Wonderful, hilarious stuff: http://lizahoward.wordpress.com/ This is some sort of special runner. Some other top folks breezed by and then slowly but surely the actual humans started appearing. Unlike the X-(Wo)Men, they actually stopped and wanted stuff. Early on, it was mostly PB&J's and pancakes. A number of runners had frozen hydration pack tubes and needed them thawed. The early visits are always nice - people are happy, chatty, funny. Of course, the most entertaining part is that you know it's going change. But you don't say anything other than "good job" or "you look great." All the while your inner monologue goes something like this: "Yeah, smile and yuk it up now buddy, cuz in 20 or 40 or 60 miles, your existential crisis is gonna come."
By about mid-morning, the day had warmed up enough to melt the snow and ice that had collected on the tent, and inside the weather went from cold and dry to chilly and wet, as water began to drip everywhere: into the Cokes, the M&M's (which melted in the bowl, not in your mouth), the sandwiches, you name it). One of Joe's volunteers who had come by to check on our supplies suggested opening the southeast end of the tent to let the sun in - an excellent idea, as the combination of sun and air circulation dried things up amazingly fast. Our fantastic group of volunteers (about whom I cannot say enough) handled every rush with ease and good humor. Runners came and runners went, and as the morning moved into afternoon, a sizeable crowd of crew lined the course leading up to Park Road. The area took on the feeling of a small party or picnic. One of the best parts about our location is the accessibility and the buzz that the crowd brings.
Late in the afternoon, Mariela appeared with a bounty of wonderful Costco goodies: blueberries, apple pies, avocados - the nighttime runners were in for a treat. As my shift came to an end and the night shift got started, I knew everything was in good hands. My return Sunday morning confirmed that. The overnight traffic had put a dent in the tables, but there was still plenty of sustenance to go around. As the back of the packers straggled in, most beat down to their core (the best misery viewing is always Sunday morning), their needs continued to be tended (although often that meant a gentle prod to get going). Soon the last runner came through and the breakdown began in earnest. Once everything was packed away and Joe's crew had started disassembling the tents, Mariela and I stopped for a few minutes and enjoyed a couple of beers, some Pringles, and the now-mild sunshine. Another successful Rocky Raccoon in the books and a most gratifying way to spend the weekend. Let the planning for 2012 begin!