Everyone Loves A Volunteer (and Peanut Butter)

“It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience.” – Julius Cesar


After years of running all kinds of races, I finally found myself on the other side of the table. The North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain holds a special place in my heart – not only was it the site of my first ultra-marathon ( 50K ) but it’s also my home town ultra. The lessons learned that day moved me from just an avid trail runner to something a bit more gnarly. I was excited to give back to a community that has given me and others so very much. For those that have never gone this distance, here’s an open secret courtesy of Sunny Blende: ultra-marathons are really just “eating contests with some running thrown in”;  it’s time to see how all of the peanut-butter sausage is made.

Me. Trying to get some perspective.


Trail culture is something special. Running a race exposes you to elements of this 13116513_10154025571825821_7336487140453099450_oculture, but manning an aid station pulls back the veil even further and shows you the reasons why the culture is special. It’s clear that if we want the sport to sustain both it’s unique qualities and community spirit, volunteering needs to be less of an optional activity. Many premier races have a requirement for volunteer hours, however, it wouldn’t hurt if more races did this – especially ones that tend to fill up fast. The sport is changing and increasing in popularity – this is an easy way to ensure the community continues to survive as well as thrive.


The day started with a pick-up on the upper west side at 530AM. Not only was I able to hitch a ride with a runner ( including a hitch back to the city ) but was able to stay long enough to see the final runners come into our station at Arden Valley ( mile 14.2 ). But more on that later. The full timeline was up at 430AM, pick up at 530AM,


Preparing for battle.

volunteering from 630AM to about 3:30PM – back into the city by 6:30PM. A full day – almost as exhausting as the 50K itself ( minus some blisters ). Be prepared to do the work – you’ve been in these runners shoes yourself and they need you to bring your A game. Some volunteers got there even EARLIER.

They say if you stand in one place long enough, you’ll see the world go by. This race runs the Marathon, 50K and 50 mile distance at the same time so we saw almost 1400 runners come through Arden Valley over the course of 9 hours – if there was a NY-based ultra-runner that had legs, they seemed to pop up.

Finer Points

  • Front Runners. Seeing all of the front runners was sup13130882_10154025571625821_115243727843950579_oer cool. Saw Timmy Olsen and a few others. Man, the lead on the rest of the field was just enormous – like 20+ minutes enourmous.
  • Small World Confirmed. I finally met in person this Indian guy I’ve been passing on the East River for over 3 years. We’ve been nodding to each other for years and I could even tell you all of the shoes he’s been running in – forever and we’ve never met. Finally, I saw him and was like “Dude. East River”. He’s like “yeah, nice to meet you – I moved to the suburbs that’s why you haven’t seen me around for a while.”
    • Also reconnected with someone I met at mile 43 of JFK50 last year. Small world, indeed.
    • Got to see my buddy Shawn and his Long Island crew killing it on the hills. Great to see him make the move to trails and ultras, though I think he’ll be back on the roads before too long.
  • Cowbell. We needed more cowbell. Noted for next time.


    Shawn,wondering what idiot told him the race had snakes and wild hogs on the course. Whoops.

  • Thanks. I always make a point to thank every person at an aid station when I’m running. That cultural norm seems to be definitely above 50% which is really amazing. When’s the last time you thanked someone at a road race: never?
  • Clean Up. You’re not done when the last runner comes through. You’re done when you LEAVE NO TRACE. Clean-up for 1400 runners is no small job but the crew killed it and the organization was killer.
  • Scope. The interaction between race directors, search and rescue, table captains was first rate. It’s down right complicated to track this many people in the woods. And everyone has to work together to get it right. If you don’t get someone’s number, and they wind up missing – that’s a really big deal.
  • Community Is Contagious. Amazing how many people DNF’d at mile 14. The race is no joke but what was really nice to see is that many drivers were more than happy to give stranded runners a ride back to the start.
  • Arden Valley Rockers – Our station wasn’t your normal station ( or was it ). Most of the people there were very seasoned ultra-runners and knew exactly what people needed. Our crew was STACKED with 100 mile racers and up/below. They’ve been there. It just never occurred to me that the station people would be so qualified and when they ARE everything just works. These are the pe

    Charge, Motherfuckers!

    ople you need at your tables.

  • I Will Be Your Hero Baby – I was able to help a woman who came off the trail with a sprained ankle. Our station was at the top of the hill, and although she certainly could have made it – it was nothing for me to run the .25 mile down to meet her and help her up the hill, grab her
    some ice, etc.  She was a tough cookie. She didn’t even take my offer to give her a piggyback to the station ( the true definition of muling ).
  • Station Favorites: Peanut Butter and Jelly and Water were the most taken. Lots of people were carrying their own mixes.
    • Mountain Charge!!!!!!!!!!!
    • Comforting Trail Dog ( Samson ) – just repeat after me while petting: “It’s all going to be OK. It’s all going to be OK. Shhhhhh…. Shhhhh….”


      Crew Chief Samson

  • Numbers, Numbers, Numbers: Capturing numbers is really not easy. Seems like a small thing but really important for safety.
  • Humor Cures – Calling out numbers is fun but man it can be tough. It’s great though to see someone struggle up a hill and lift their spirits with a simple joke or words of inspiration. Good vibes given, good vibes taken away.
    • Best joke of the day – you’ll notice that some people have sequential numbers. If they’re running together that means they are either (a) a couple or (b) friends. “It’s going to be fun, she said. Just a walk in the park, he said. I want a divorce, she said.”
  • Carpel Tunnel Pouring – You know it’s going to be faster if you just pour the fluids into their bottles. So you do that. A thousand times. My wrists are still recovering.
    • Salomon Bottles. Perfect for racing. Horrible for re-filling.
    • Always Ask Again: Double check what they need. You do NOT want to pour Tailwind into their bottle only to find out they need water. That would suck if it was you so don’t do it.
  • Tailwind – People unfamiliar with tailwind are people who are just getting started in the sport. Side note: a table with tailwind and water cups does no good because all of the TailWind flavors look like water.
    • I recommended to several people that they snort the TailWind. More than one person was into it. Honest.

A Word on DNFs


Are you sure you want to DNF? You look great from up here.

There really is no shame in not finishing a race. This one in particular is very technical and lots of people don’t finish for all kinds of legitimate reasons. However, seeing the end of the race for the first time it really dawned upon me just how much variety there is in the reasons WHY people don’t finish:
  1. Injury – When you sprain an ankle, you stop. That’s just smart. Not talking about falling down, mind you. There were plenty of people with scrapes and blood on their faces, legs, etc. That’s not an injury.
  2. Not Making the Cut-Off – If you miss the cut-off, you may decide to stop. Because we’re at mile 14 you really don’t need to, you just give up.
  3. Not Making the Sweep – just too slow.
  4. Major Bonk – This happened a lot. A number of people said “I give up” – as a volunteer, I think our job is to tell them that they have enough time to replenish their calories and then keep on going. Amazing how many people think that just because they bonk hard it means they’re done for the day.
  5. Saving Up For an A Race – Saw this a lot too. A number of people were training for an “A” race and just wanted some trail time. I get this but do wonder if it’s fair to other people who might have otherwise taken the spot.

The final batch of runners to come into our station were seriously impressive. They really didn’t want to give up. So much so that one person had to be convinced that they couldn’t go on. We did the math and even if they were to run an hour faster in the back half they still wouldn’t have been able to get back in time to see a medal. Or anyone at all. This mother/daughter team was interesting. I’m inferring a lot but it looked like the mother wanted to give the daughter a meaningful experience  – it makes me wonder where that line is between “leading by example” and forcing a tough lesson so they’ll grow stronger. Maybe when I have kids one day I’ll figure that one out.




Just a quick shout out to Pudding, Elaine, Juerg, Shannon, Kat, Shelly, Trail Whip Ass, Matt and the rest of the North Face team for putting on such a professional event. My only recommendation for next time is that volunteers should get at LEAST two free beers. Obviously.

We cleaned the SHIT out of Arden Valley.




Categories: Off Road, RunningTags: ,

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