Ultra Marathon Aid Stations For Dummies

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The aid station is a table of relief filled with supportive volunteers, food and drinks for replenishment, along with a few other odds and ends to aid you along the way. After running hours through the night, staring at the debris of the dirt trails ahead, sometimes it’s just nice to see and communicate with another human being.  Aid stations can be your best friend and they can be your worse enemy. Become too comfortable too often, and you may fall victim to the lore of its temptations and quite possibly never move forward again. So if you’re new to ultra running and are wondering how aid stations work, here are some of the most common questions answered.

What exactly is an aid station?

An aid station is a place, typically made up of a tent and tables, set up systematically throughout an ultra marathon to supply aid to runners participating in the event. Ultra marathons are made up of extreme distances where food and supplies are required for replenishment. Between the various races, aid stations are stocked differently but they all have one common theme: aid.

What is supplied at an aid station?

Food, food, and … did I say food? Most importantly the aid station will be stocked with food, water, sports drinks, and energy gels. The most common food found are potatoes, oranges, bananas, trail mix, candy, pickles, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, as well as salt, energy gels, almond butter, and sometimes even pizza.  Some say jokingly that an ultra marathon is nothing more than an eating and drinking contest with a little exercise and scenery thrown in. In addition, there are typically two or more fluid holders containing water and sport drinks. On hot days you might find coolers of ice and cold nights may include an ignited a fire or two. The rest of the supplies are sprinkled throughout the tables with sunblock, petroleum jelly, and first aid kits. Oh, and did I mention food?

How many aid stations are there during an ultra marathon?

Not enough! Well at least on race day you will think so. Running those long endless miles may bring one to wish for a replication of aid stations. Unfortunately, the wish never comes true. And every time you wish the next station was one mile closer it feels two miles farther. Anyway, the number of aid stations per race will vary from scarce to several. I ran an ultra marathon over 100 miles in length with nothing more than a few checkpoints and a cold bean quesadilla.  And on the other side of the spectrum, I ran an ultra marathon under 50 miles in length with an aid station every 4-5 miles containing a wide array of food. The number of aid stations varies between distances and is ultimately up to the race director. Personally, I prefer less aid but if it’s your first ultra marathon I’d recommend running one with an aid station located every 4-5 miles apart. This will also assist in staying on coarse and help when the unexpected occurs.

Where can I find information on aid stations for my race?

Every ultra marathon I’ve ran or contemplated on running was complemented with its own individual website containing information on their aid stations. Also, as race day commences the director will release informational emails in regards to the event and what to expect. Here you may find information on the aid stations especially if they are lacking in numbers. If all else fails, be sure to send an email to the race director and ask your specific questions.  No matter what people tell you, race directors are expecting a million and one questions, so ask away.

What if the aid stations do not stock my fuel of choice? 

Well, what can I say? If ultra marathons were easy everyone could do them.  As ultra runners, we are resourceful and if there’s a will then there’s a way, an extremely long and grueling way, but still — a way. Another answer is the utilization of a drop bag.  Most races will allow a drop bag where you can pack extra fuel and supplies. In addition, determine if crew members are allowed at aid stations. This way, if you have specific fuel requirements you may strategically plan to meet your crew throughout the race.  Finally, if all else fails just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward, in this manner the finish line becomes inevitable.

Can my crew meet me at an aid station during the race?

Typically, the aid stations are deep into the trails and accessing them from the outside is prohibited. Also parking issues arise from the towns’ local authorities. Each race will have its own rules.  I’ve ran ultra marathons with one repetitive loop using one aid station, a point to point with all different aid stations, an out and back hitting each aid station twice, and just about everything else in between. The point is to do your research, read the rules, and plan accordingly.

How long can you stay at an aid station?

As we approach an aid station through a long stretch of seamlessly infinite running it provides a small glimpse of hope, a small light through our darkest hours and can be just what the doctor ordered to bring us back from the dead. An aid station provides comfort but too much comfort is harmful. There is no time limit at an aid station, but the key is efficiency. Personally, I try to grab whatever I need quickly and keep moving forward adjusting and refueling on the fly.

As we push through the stand storms of each race day desert, the aid station is an oasis of relief assisting us through each painful step along our journey as an ultra marathon runner. It puts our broken pieces back together through our brutally beaten lows and provides a jump start of movement creating momentum through our plentiful energetic highs. The aid station is there as your friend but take advantage of it and your quickly become a victim of its seduction. Get in, get out, and get moving along with what you set out to do. To run those miles, to keep moving forward, and to cross that finish line!

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