2010 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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OUR VOLUNTEER PERSPECTIVE OF
THE BANDERA TRAIL RUNS
(1st of two pages)

SUNDAY, JANUARY 10

 
"Welcome to the Texas Hill Country and thanks for choosing the 8th annual Bandera Trail Run . . .
It is our intention to provide the very best Texas hospitality. All our stations are staffed
with experienced trail runners, as they will best understand your needs. They will provide more encouragement than sympathy. Our volunteers are the heart and soul of this event, so don't be
surprised when they treat you like family. We intend to take care of you as best we can."
~ introduction by Race Director Joe Prusaitis in the Bandera runners' handbook
 
 

That was right after the paragraph where Joe said, "My goal [in 2003] was to create a long distance trail race that was as difficult as possible, yet still runable, so it isn't easy, and it isn't intended to be."

Mixed message re: taking care of the runners?

Not really. Volunteers are there to provide the runners with basics like fluids and calories so they don't get depleted over 50K-100K distances. Encouragement can help most runners psychologically, but no one can run the race for them. They still gotta traverse that gnarly course on their own.

And as in any difficult ultra (oxymoron??), completion is sweet reward for all the effort expended.


Dunno if the horse sweeps picked up any struggling runners or not . . .

I know now that I've run my last ultra marathon event. I still need to write an entry called "Once a Runner, Always a Runner?" to describe that big transition in my life. My heart and soul want to continue competing until the day I drop dead but my knees no longer allow me to do that. The only ways now that I will be participating in ultras are as a volunteer and as Jim's crew. Since Jim's been plagued with plantar faciitis and not training regularly for several months, he's doing more volunteering now, too.

The Bandera course through the Hill Country State Natural Area, which I described in the last entry, is rocky and steep enough that it would not have been a good course for me to run in the last couple of years. I found it a challenge to hike here the last few days. So I wasn't feeling as sorry for myself as Jim was when I volunteered all day yesterday during the race.

RACE LOGISTICS

In addition the the 50K and 100K ultra distances, Bandera also offers a popular 25K (15.5 miles) race. Everyone starts at the same time but the 25K course is only half the distance of the 50K loops the ultra-distance races cover (the 100K runners do the 50K loop twice).

Bandera started with 179 starters in the three races in 2003. Last year there were 504 starters. Like some other trail races with no or fairly high limits to the numbers of entrants allowed, Bandera saw an increase of about a hundred more runners this year.

Jim watched as the list grew every few days as the website was updated, hunting for names of runners we know. Unlike the 100-milers we attend, there weren't a lot:  Annette Bednosky, Marcy Beard, Dan Brenden, Deborah Sexton, Lynnor Matheny, Angela Ivory, Diana Widdowson, Olga Varlamova, Scott Eppelman . . .

We shook our heads over all the names we didn't know, even in the 100K.


Runners (L) and volunteers (R) at Crossroads

Well over 600 runners were registered for the three races this year. My count from the results indicate that 599 started237 in the 25K, 179 in the 50K, and 183 in the 100K. Runners in the 100K could elect to drop down to the 50K and get credit for that race; 35 of the 183 original 100K runners chose that option.

I've been running ultras since 1992 and I can tell you this is one of the larger ultra events in this country! In the last few years there has been a significant increase in the number of ultra runners, ultra events, and size of fields at many of those events. Popular races like the Western States and Hardrock 100-milers with strict limits to the numbers of entrants are seeing almost-impossible odds of gaining entry through lotteries. Others like the Umstead 100-miler fill up within seconds or a few minutes after online registration opens. Wait lists are common.

Fortunately, there are still some races like Joe's Tejas Trails series in Texas that have high (or no) entry limits and sometimes even race day registration is permitted.

It's critical nowadays for runners to consider their race options many months in advance and closely scrutinize race websites to learn the drill for the events they're considering. Even in races like Joe's series, it's important to watch the entrants' lists periodically to make sure they don't fill up before you plan to enter. E.g., Jim has been looking at the Rocky Raccoon 50- and 100-miler (another one of Joe's events) to see if it's getting close to its 750-runner limit; he's still considering that one in a month but wants to wait until the last possible minute to decide because of his foot injury.

COMPLICATED COURSE

There are five aid stations including the start/finish area along the convoluted Bandera course, which you can see on various course and elevation maps on the website. There are also links to the text descriptions of the three courses.

This link features a good map of the course configuration and shows details of some of the aid stations, including Crossroads.

Crossroads is a double aid station, with runners coming in from one direction (below),


Runners easily found their way TO the aid station . . .

going out for a five-mile loop, and returning through the other side of the aid station.  25K runners came in once and in one direction only. 50K runners came through twice in each direction (i.e., four times through our aid station), 100K runners four times in each direction (i.e., eight times there).

When you multiply the number of runners in each race by the number of times they came though our aid station PLUS the number of pacers in the 100K who came through four times -- somewhere near 3,000 total appearances -- you can see why I had some apprehension about how a dozen volunteers could possibly keep up with them all!!!

Turns out, the aid station was pretty well laid out to accommodate even the "bubbles" of runners in each of the races as they entered and exited the tents during the morning. As the day wore on the runners were spread farther and farther apart and we could relax more.

The main problem was directing the runners the correct way out of the tent (one way is shown above) after they'd come inside from either direction on the loop. They didn't get confused coming into the AS because Henry marked the entrances and exits very well with yellow tape extending for several hundred feet. However, once inside the runners got "turned around" and had difficulty knowing where to go next.

Jim and Henry added some signs as the race progressed to try to make it less confusing for the runners but it was still a chronic challenge for them and the volunteers. I don't know how to fix that either, unless the two Crossroads aid stations are kept completely separate. That's impractical in terms of labor, equipment, or supplies.

I never heard if runners got "lost" on various parts of the complicated course. I know there were tons of signs and ribbons on the sections that I walked. This race organization reportedly does a good job of course marking at its events. Some folks manage to get off-course in races anyway, mostly due to inattention.

10F. -- OH, MY!

As noted (emphasized!) in the last entry, it was officially a bone-rattling 10F. on Saturday morning when the race began. That is definitely not typical southern Texas weather! I thought more runners would weenie out and not come but almost everyone who registered showed up. Ultra runners are a tough bunch!

So are ultra volunteers. Maybe more so, because we weren't able to generate the body heat to keep warm that the runners did. Even the big propane heater in our tent wasn't adequate to keep some of us warm. We had our tactics, however.


Jim (L) and four other Crossroads volunteers inside our aid station on Saturday morning

Jim and I got up about 7AM and walked all of about 75 feet from our camper door to the entrance of the Crossroads Aid Station half an hour later -- very convenient! That also ensured we'd work our butts off for over 12-14 hours during the day . . .

The races began at 7:30 but the first 25K runners didn't reach our AS until about 8:40. That gave us time to get the aid station in pretty good order before their arrival. We rolled up enough of the tent sides to allow ingress and egress while trying to keep as much protection for the volunteers as possible. We erected more signs, filled cups with water, Heed and Gatorade, made sandwiches, cut up fruit, put out little bowls of standard salty and sweet munchies, heated up water for coffee, hot chocolate, tea, and oatmeal, and generally got as much done as possible before the initial onslaught of runners reached us.

Other volunteers delivered a gazillion 50K and 100K drop bags (above), which Jim and I didn't handle. Even the AS captain had trouble deciding where they should go. It was clear they had to be outside the tents but directional ribbons caused some problems with access throughout the race. Volunteers ended up organizing the 50K bags at one end of the tents and the 100K bags at the other end. That turned out to be almost as confusing to the runners as which direction to go when they left the aid station each time.

There weren't enough volunteers at Crossroads to give the runners their bags each time they came in. They were on their own in that regard. All we could do was point them to the correct pile of bags the first time they came through and let them hunt for their own bags. Runners still got confused where their bags were located on subsequent loops. In addition, the bags were in numerical order at the beginning of the race but soon became disorganized as runners left them hither and yon.

With so many runners, it will take several more volunteers at this aid station to keep on top of the drop bag situation in future years.

WELCOME TO CROSSROADS!

Yesterday is somewhat of a blur in our minds because we stayed so busy for so long.

The flow of 25K runners was heavy and steady. Because of the way the courses are configured, they were the first to arrive around 8:40. They came in only the "OUT" side of our aid station (the side farther away from our camper).

The main job I chose at that point was keeping the fluid cups full. I had problems keeping warm and quickly tired of standing. It's easier on my arthritic joints to run and walk all day than it is to stand relatively still for an hour.

Then I saw an opportunity to help with timing. I've always enjoyed that job so I quickly volunteered to sit and record the 50K and 100K runners as they came in.

Bandera has chip timing but there was no mat at our aid station. That meant volunteers needed to manually record numbers and times of the 50K and 100K runners into each side of the tent. I volunteered for the job on the "IN" side, the side the runners entered the first time they came through our aid station on each loop. The "IN" side had the advantage of facing our camper, so I could watch Cody when he was tied up outside. There's a photo of this farther below.

Another woman sat a couple hundred feet out on the course where runners turned toward the aid station after doing the five-mile loop on their way back to Crossroads. That was called the "OUT" side.


Other timer (L, above) records numbers and times on "OUT" side;
larger perspective below is from the aid station.

Don't feel bad if you're confused. So was the race staff member who initially gave me the wrong notebook in which to carefully record the numbers and times! I didn't know about the "IN" side and "OUT" side yet. I was confused why my book said "OUT" because I'd clearly been told not to record the runners as they left the aid station (to me, that was "out"), only when they came in. Turns out, that wasn't even the same "in" and "out" the timing folks meant.

The problem was solved when the staff member returned, scratched out the big "OUT" on the cover of my book, and wrote "IN" on it. He did the reverse on the other volunteer's notebook and all was well with timing . . .

Why does this remind me of the classic comedy routine "Who's on First?" with Abbot and Costello?

ARE WE HAVING FUN YET??

My post was right at the entrance to the aid station. I was very happy the sun was on that side! It was still in the teens. I started out in the shade (duh!)


Sue with one of the communications team members

but discovered very quickly how much warmer it was in the sun. All I had to do was keep moving my chair a little bit as the sun's position changed during the day. Unfortunately, it set again about 6PM and got very cold very fast again.

The first 100K runners started coming in about 9:40 at a more moderate rate than the more bunched up 25Kers. Soon the faster 50K runners appeared. It never got so busy that I couldn't keep up with my task. I wrote down each bib number (asking for it if it wasn't visible) and time (hours and minutes, not seconds), then read the numbers off periodically to the ham radio guy assigned to my side of the aid station so he could report them to headquarters.

It was fun to see friends as they approached the aid station and to give encouragement to all the runners. That's why I like a job with a lot of runner contact rather than one behind the scenes. It's less like work and more like fun.

I stayed at my post until 8PM, with occasional trips to the camper (which was only a few feet away) to stretch my legs, eat, go to the bathroom, and tend to Cody -- ten and a half hours, mostly in that chair! I enjoyed it a lot more than some other jobs I could have had. Jim relieved me for a few minutes every couple hours when I needed to loosen up or go over to the camper.


Our camper (L), radio antenna and equipment (center), and my timing chair (R)

The only downside was how cold I was most of the time because I was so sedentary. Even keeping the chair in the sun didn't completely help. The wind blew in on that side of the tent and, well, temperatures in the teens and low twenties are doggone cold, even in the sun! I'm just not acclimated to temps that cold. It was better in the afternoon when it was in the low 40s. Still, that's at least 20F. lower than normal.

I had my ways of trying to keep warm, including running in place, adding layers of fleece, wraooubg myself in a fleece blanket, drinking hot beverages and soup, and finally, after the sun went down, putting a small propane heater two feet away from my chair.

I was still shivering.

RENAISSANCE MAN

Meanwhile, Jim kept busy inside and outside of the aid station all morning, afternoon, and evening, astutely seeing what needed to be done and doing it. He's very good at that. About the only jobs he didn't do were cooking and drop bags. He mostly helped serve and take care of the runners inside the aid station.

He found lots of other useful diversions, too. He modified the signage to lessen confusion of the runners re: which way they were to go, adjusted the heater and tent sides as the day wore on, drove into town for more propane and light bulbs, kept the generator going (those things take as much care and feeding as propane heaters),


Dinty (L) and Jim maintain the generator.

strung up lights when it got dark, relieved me when I needed a short break, and cleaned up two bloodied runners. On short "rest breaks" he went over to our camper to adjust the heat, turn the generator on when the batteries needed recharging, and took care of Cody.

By moving around more than me, Jim was better able to stay warm. As cold as our hands and feet sometimes get, you'd think we both have Reynaud's Syndrome, but we've never been diagnosed with it.

Jim got to spend some time with the four ham radio operators, who were set up on our side of the aid station. He had already committed to working the aid station before finding out that hams worked this race. By then enough hams had volunteered and Jim's assistance was needed more in the aid station. He enjoyed learning more about the communications process at Bandera and specific equipment the hams were using. Each race does communications a little differently.

Jim handles my timing duties during a brief break; radio guy on right.

Jim finally wore out about 10PM and returned for good to the camper. I was already in bed, trying desperately to get warmed up. I had been so cold for so long that it took a while to get comfortable again. It was also difficult to get the camper as warm as we wanted it.

Many of the 100K runners and their pacers were out part or all of the night. The last ones didn't finish until near the 7:30AM cut-off on Sunday. I imagine some of them got pretty cold as they walked the course; temperatures got down into the upper teens and low twenties in the natural area, depending on the elevation and exposure.


Crossroads was a welcome sight for runners during the long, cold night.

The cut-off time for Crossroads was 3AM. There were several volunteers left at our AS to take care of them when Jim went to bed. Dinty and most of the other volunteers disappeared for several hours during the day Saturday to take breaks and/or naps, or they worked shorter shifts and left. Since Jim and I worked straight through we had no guilt stopping after putting in 14 and 12 hours, respectively.

We were pooped. We probably slept better that night than any of the runners who finished before midnight! Volunteering can wear you out as much as running an ultra. We know that from many years of both running and volunteering at these events.

Continued on next page . . .

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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