Last Updated on January 21, 2020 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
About a decade ago, I was a happy road runner, traversing the paved streets of major cities while collecting new half and full marathon finishers medals. I remember thinking that a race had outdone themselves when I’d show up to an aid station, and in addition to water and Gatorade, they had something like orange slices available. Food ON course? How thoughtful of the race director!
Then, I ran my first ultra.
And when I stumbled (literally) up to my first ultramarathon aid station, approximately 11 miles into a 52 miler, I wondered if I was inadvertently crashing someone’s family reunion, because there was THAT MUCH food available. Potatoes, sandwiches, candy galore! Soda, soup, and even hot food was offered. I’m pretty sure I politely declined everything offered to me and tiptoed away with my GU gel, unsure of this new territory.
But now? I think ultramarathon aid stations are an oasis of happiness in the middle of a long day of (voluntary and welcomed) suffering.
How to Navigate an Ultramarathon Aid Station
New to the world of ultramarathons? Overwhelmed by the sometimes massive production of an aid station? I’ve got you covered. Here’s what you need to know when you roll up to your first ultra aid station:
First things first: if your race requires you to check in at an aid station, for the love of all things CHECK IN. Don’t assume the volunteers saw you and wrote down your number. Run- or walk – into the aid station, look the person with the clipboard or iPad in the eye, and say your bib number and/or name (whatever the RD asked for) out loud. SHOW them your bib if it’s easily accessible. Look for confirmation that they got you down on their list. Then thank them.
Now that you’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff:
Thirsty? You should be! Running really far requires a lot of fluids. Unlike a road race, you won’t find half a dozen volunteers standing there with paper cups of water in outstretched hands. Instead, you’ll likely find giant water coolers so you can fill up your own bottles or hydration pack. This is an ultra, damnit, fend for yourself! (Just kidding, the volunteers will absolutely help you refill your hydration pack if you ask nicely…or just look at them with the confused face of a someone who has already been running for 16+ hours).
Always ask what’s in the cooler before mindlessly refilling your bottles/bladder. Sometimes it’s water, sometimes it’s an electrolyte replacement drink, and sometimes the race director forgot to label them. While both are good, you’re going to want to know which one your taking, or be surprised about a mile down the trail when the ice cold water you were hoping for tastes like salty lemons.
Never underestimate the power of a shot of coca-cola mid race. But, unlike the water mentioned above, you’re going to WANT to look for tiny Dixie cups full of soda rather than pouring directly from the can or bottle. Carbonation can be your enemy mid race. Find the warmest, flattest soda possible, or spend the next mile and a half burping.
Yeah, ultras are notorious for having alcohol at aid stations, so don’t be surprised if you see a few bottles of bourbon sitting next to the Tailwind. It’s not necessarily encouraged, but it’s not discouraged either. Especially in a “this race really sucks right now!” moment. Hey, I’m not here to judge. But, definitely weigh your “distance left to go before I finish vs. how hard is this booze is going to hit me” ratios. Your liver and kidneys are already working in overdrive right now, so try to be smart.
At an ultramarathon aid station you may see the evil temptresses known as chairs. DO NOT SIT IN THEM! Chairs are a trap for your tired, sore body. Chairs will take you in and hug you with their comfort, and refuse to loosen their grip. Taking a seat for “just a minute” may seem innocent enough. But there is some sort of time-travel-spell cast over these aid station chairs, where “just a minute” quickly turns to five or ten minutes, and that shit adds up quickly. No one likes chasing cutoffs.
If you must sit, to do something like adjust your shoe or re-lube your feet, sit your sore butt on the ground. It’s far less comfortable, and you’re far less likely to fall into the trap of the evil chair.
Also, chances are really good the chair belongs to the helpful volunteers, and they don’t need to sit in your butt sweat.
Food, food, glorious food! Ultramarathon aid stations are a buffet worthy of a 6 year old’s birthday party. Brightly colored candies, 2 liters of soda, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cookies, pretzels, chips…you can practically feel your blood sugar rising just looking at the aid station food table! But, runner beware! Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Here’s a few things I’ve learned:
There is inevitably always watermelon available at aid stations. It’s an amazing, tasty, and refreshing fruit. You’ll want to devour multiple slices as quickly as possible, especially during a hot race. BUT – resist that urge, or you’ll find yourself chasing port-a-potties rather than cutoffs. Trust me. One slice is plenty.
Anything that’s not wet or sticky, or that you would easily pick up, dust off, and consider “still good” if dropped on the ground, is, in my opinion, considered a pocket snack. Pocket snacks are exactly what you think they are: snacks you can put in your pocket and eat a few miles down the trail when suddenly you need a pick me up. Pocket snacks include, but are not limited to:
- mandarin / clementine oranges (still in the peel)
- fruit snacks (still in the pouch)
When writing this post, I turned to my husband and said “what are some of your favorite aid station pocket snacks?” to which he replied “anything is a pocket snack, if you use your imagination.” Touche.
Point being, grab some pocket snacks. You never know when they might come in handy, and save you from a bonk, later on down the trail.
Hot food may seem unappetizing at various points of an ultramarathon, but I’m telling you, it has the potential to warm your soul and save your race. A few sips of hot tomato soup in the middle of the night can instantly pull you out of that “woe is me, why do I pick such ridiculous hobbies?” sufferfest mindset. A bite of pizza or a burger can instantly save your stomach when you are absolutely OVER eating all of that sickly-sweet endurance fuel.
Running a race where it feels like you could reach up and actually touch the sun? I feel your pain. Ask the volunteers if they have any cold food – like popsicles. They may be hidden in a cooler somewhere, and the volunteers forgot to offer them while chasing delirious ultra runners around the aid station.
A Note on the “Nothing New on Race Day” bit…
We’ve all been around the running block, and we’ve all heard the “don’t try anything new on race day” advice. For the most part – it is good advice. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to walking into an aid station at 4 am, desperate for something to make me feel good again, and trying whatever the aid station volunteers handed me out of desperation.
That said, when you walk up to the incredible buffet that is an ultramarathon aid station, the variety available to you is going to be mighty tempting. So if you’re feeling GOOD, stick with what you know. If you’ve never run long distances fueled by beans, I’d advise you stay away from the burritos since you don’t know how your gastrointestinal system is going to respond.
Feet / Lube / First Aid
This is the place to address any “niggles” you may have going on. Not only will the aid station likely have some first aid supplies (though it may simply be some Vaseline on a tongue depressor and some band-aids..) but chances are good you’ll be able to find either a volunteer or another crew remember who is well versed in taking care of blisters/chafing/whatever issue you have going on.
Fun fact: the ultra community is one big family. We love helping one another, and we all want to see each other succeed. If you need help: ask. I can 99.9% guarantee you someone will gladly step up to assist.
The aid station is where you will likely find your on-course restrooms. If I need to use one, the first thing I do is check to see if the port-a-potty is occupied. If it is, I continue getting my hydration/nutrition/whatever else I need to do situated. If not – get in there ASAP. Do not dilly dally and assume someone else won’t lock themselves in the port-a-potty in the next minute or so while you’re trying to find where you shoved your baggie of Tailwind. Tons of time can be lost here, so plan accordingly.
We all know that races cannot happen without the selfless help of volunteers. But ultramarathon volunteers? They are in a league of their own. Often, they are holed up for half to full days at a time in remote places with no cell phone service, suffering through the same weather conditions you are experiencing. They also skip full nights of sleep, shiver, sweat, and do it all with a smile on their face to help you reach your ultra goals.
Please, please, please, be kind, and thank them for what they do.
Have a Plan
On a serious note, the best thing you can do at an ultramarathon aid station is to show up with a plan. KNOW what it is you need, what you’re going to change out (shoes, water bottles, food, etc.). Do not be afraid to ask for help if you need it, that’s what the volunteers are there for and they are happy to help you (if they aren’t busy with someone else / another task).
Aid stations can be a huge time suck, and you’d be amazed at how quickly five, even ten minutes or more can slip by while you are in the comfort of volunteers, chairs, and oh so many delicious snacks. Be as efficient as possible, and get back on the course as soon as you can.
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.