What Makes A Great Aid Station

AJW's TaproomUltramarathon aid stations are one of the best things about our sport. Truly, for many of us, these extraordinary oases can be the difference between success and failure in a long ultra. Over my career in ultrarunning, I have spent time in, literally, hundreds of aid stations and along the way have made some observations about what makes a great aid station. This column is about four characteristics of great aid stations with 10 examples of some of the truly great American ones:

1. A Devoted Community of Volunteers 

Most ultras depend on loyal volunteers to perpetuate their events. And, for some of the most historic and iconic races, many of these volunteers return year after year to add to the allure of their events. In no aid station is this tradition of giving back to the community more prevalent than the crew that works the Michigan Bluff Aid Station at mile 55.7 of the Western States 100. Nicknamed the ‘Michigan Bluff Social Club,’ the crew that works this wonderful spot in the heart of California Gold Country represents the best of what we have in our sport.

A new example, but every bit is inspiring, is the group that works the Lookout Mountain Aid Station at the Grindstone 100 Mile in Virginia. This remote aid station, located at the mile 30 and 72 points of this out-and-back course and accessed only by a rough jeep road and not accessible for crews or available for drop-bag service, is staffed by a loyal group from the Charlottesville Area Trail Runners Club for an entire 28-hour shift. These club volunteers have become famous throughout the region’s running community for their friendly faces, deliciously prepared foods, and unwillingness to allow anyone to DNF in their aid station.

2. Going Beyond the Call of Duty

There is something a little extra special about those aid stations that seem to have done something a bit more significant than open a table, erect a tent, and throw together some supplies. In my experience, there are four incredible aid stations in which the volunteers have gone way beyond the call of duty. Atthe Leadville Trail 100 Mile, llamas cart supplies high into the Colorado Rockies to supply the Hope Pass Aid Station.

At Western States, a crew works for two days in advance of the race to create a beach, erect platforms, and span a cable across the American River to create the Rucky Chucky River Crossing.

At the American River 50 Mile in California, a team of volunteers uses a boat to supply the remote Buzzard’s Cove Aid Station.

And, perhaps most incredibly, the hardy team that staffs the Kroger’s Canteen Aid Station on Virginius Pass at the Hardrock 100 hauls supplies up to over 13,000 feet altitude to create a full-service aid station on a narrow 12-foot x 14-foot rocky pass in the heart of the Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Just getting to these aid stations alone is a success and a testimony to the commitment that makes our sport so great.

3. A Little Special Something

I always like surprises in the midst of ultras and two aid stations have been there to provide that little special something during my 100-mile slogs that have brought a smile to my face and even a little spring in my step. First, there is the Brighton Lodge Aid Station at the Wasatch Front 100 Mile, which is captained by a dentist. Each year, the bathroom at this aid station includes a large bowl of toothbrushes already applied with toothpaste. If you’ve never brushed your teeth at mile 67 of an ultra, you should, and Brighton is a great place to do it.

At the Sherman Aid Station at mile 28 or 72 of the Hardrock 100 depending on the race direction, each year the volunteers refurbish the National Forest Service latrine there and deck it out like a bathroom at a glitzy country club. Air fresheners, scented candles, sanitary wipes, soft toilet paper, and motivational quotations all greet the runner upon entrance into this wildland palace. Believe it or not, the last time I ran Hardrock, I spent 10 minutes in there (the first time I had ever spent that long in a pit toilet) and it turned out to be the highlight of my day.

4. Spirit of Fun

Many ultra aid stations add fun to their locales by dressing up in costumes, offering up unique products, playing loud music, or creating a cool party vibe. But two in particular do it better than anyone else, Duncan Canyon at Western States and Margaritaville at the Vermont 100 Mile. These two aid stations have, for years, epitomized the spirit of fun that is so much a part of the ultramarathon scene. If you ever have the chance to run either Western States or Vermont, I guarantee that coming into either of these wonderful parties places will bring a smile to your face.

There you have it, 10 examples of great ultra aid stations. Next time you’re out at a race, take a look around and see what else is out there in the wilds that makes our community great. Ultrarunning is a special place to be and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

Kane Brewing companySince I am heading out on my birthday adventure this weekend and iRunFar Editor-in-Chief Bryon Powell is joining me along the trail, this week’s Beer of the Week comes from Bryon’s native habitat, New Jersey. Kane Brewing Company makes an extraordinary American Porter they call Sunday Brunch. An Imperial Milk Porter made with coffee, maple syrup, and cinnamon, Sunday Brunch might be best eaten with a spoon, especially after a long night out running.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What has been your favorite-ever ultra aid station? Why?
  • Can you post a link to a photo of said aid station, if there is one, for everyone’s enjoyment?

There are 28 comments

  1. Liz Canty

    Mile 75ish? Of Pinhoti 100 – the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society Aid Station – man that group bumps music you can hear all the way down the climb and is ready with the tastiest grilled cheeses and Jack Daniels – I mean Coke :)

      1. Jon A

        That one was near the top of my list, too. Motivational signs as you approach, music blaring for miles, very enthusiastic… and I ate a bunch of bacon that kept me fueled for the next few hours.

        1. Burke

          Last time I was there, I ate a burrito at Porter’s Gap, which was totally unnecessary. So, I didn’t get anything up top. I won’t do that again this year. I’ll hold out for the egg sandwich and bacon.

  2. Andrew S.

    I thought this article was coming after your discussion on Trailrunner Nation! Glad Lookout Mountain got a shout out. They braved cold weather and never-ending pouring rain for the runners at Grindstone last year!

  3. Ron

    I am still amazed at the amount of gear, food, and supplies the people that work the Aid Stations between mile 30 and 50 at Bighorn 100 are able to hike in, or transport by horse! This year, somewhere along that stretch, I was handed a foot-sized cut of fresh moose steak hot off the campfire, salty and delicious. I felt like a caveman. The guy cooking them said he backpacked 33 pounds of steak to that AS.

    1. Mike D

      Bighorn always has great aid stations along with great, helpful people working them.
      Cow Camp’s bacon never tasted so good and a slew of meals always seem to be readily available at Dry Fork!

  4. John Vanderpot

    Like the bars when I was younger, I’ve been thrown out of so many aid stations for over staying my welcome I’ve lost track by now, and just like those bars, I’ve never really met an AS I didn’t like, but of all the ones I’ve been to, the one I’ll never forget wasn’t even part of the official course: San Diego 100, Inferno Year 2, Day 2 of 100+ degrees, Tropical John and Jakob Herrmann set up a tent about 4M from the finish, no food, no gels, nothing but Mt. Dew and Coke and ice and those big red frat house keg party cups and the best pitching arms in the business!

    I still smile to think about it, and if I never thanked you boys, well, thank you, thank you, thank you!

    JV

  5. Ian Torrence

    My favorite aid station(s)? All of those along the Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile course…they save my arse every year! The event couldn’t happen without these selfless volunteers. Cheers!

  6. Mike

    My votes would be for:

    Tunnel Creek at the TRT 100 – they have beer and I’ve personally benefited from it! Nothing like a beer to wash away the trail dust!!!

    Ant Knolls at the Wasatch Front 100 – nothing like cresting Catherine’s Pass and Point Supreme and looking down 1500 feet to see the glow of a aid station just a few miles away with all the goodies. Ant Knolls has to be a challenge to set up and supply

    Trailrunner Magazine needs another year end award … aid station of the year!

    1. Jason

      TRT has great aid stations period. The whiskey bar and smoothies at Hobart…the sherbert at Snow Valley Peak…the warmth and toothbrushes at Diamond Peak, and yes, Tunnel Creek. First class event all the way!

  7. Sarah W

    I also have to add a vote for Ant Knolls. The glow of that welcoming geodesic dome is the best, especially accompanied by the smell of cooking pancakes and sausage to someone that is struggling.

    Superior Sawtooth 100 has some great aid stations too. I forget their names but the 50 ish mile aid station had so much energy and reminded me to look up to see an amazing aurora borealis.

    Also, the unmanned aid stations at VT100 deserve an honorable mention. Nothing is better in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity than coming up on a table with water, a bag of ice, and a tub of vaseline.

  8. Amy

    You missed the best year-round aid station out there, which coming from Virginia you have surely witnessed? If not, you need to visit your VHTRC friends more often. The Q-baru. Supplying aid to VHTRC members around the year and at a variety of events–not just races, but training runs and fat-ass events, too. Q and his Q-baru definitely encompass #1 – #4 above, especially that little special something when Gary is around.

    1. Sarah

      Amy, thank you for mentioning Q. Bur deserves a shout out as well. And nobody, NOBODY, can bring a smile to your face when you are struggling like Gary can.

      1. Amy

        So true–my mind was on the Q-baru after being at Catherine’s in July, but you’re right. Bur is another VHTRC’er who’s dedicated countless weekends to serving others at any number of trailhead back-of-the-car aid stations.

  9. AC

    There was a whole load of liquor and smiles at the top of the nasty mountain climb at Camp Mowich, 175km into Fat Dog 120 this year. Those guys really helped me out of a rough spot.

  10. Brian M

    Top of Devil’s Thumb at Western States. Terrific blister treatment during the rainy year on 2012 and popsicles during the heat in 2013!

  11. Elliot

    Great article, AJW. Makes me want to do some of these races just to experience the aid stations!!! Side note … didn’t realize Bryon was from NJ (my current home state) … what part of NJ, Bryon?

  12. McDuff

    Also at Vermont silver dollar pancakes, warm usually, at Pretty House.
    Snow cones at Beast of Burden Summer.
    Home made mac and cheese at Beast of Burden Winter.

  13. Kate

    Leadership and loyalty make fore great aid stations. Tahoe Rim Trail 100 has both Tunnel Creek and Hobart – I think they are both top notch. Great food, support, and what makes them especially stand out is the clear logistics and leadership. They are both managed so well and the volunteers are 100% on it.

    Commitment is another giant factor. Bighorn blew my mind in terms of support this year. I thought all of the aid stations were amazing. Cow camp was welcoming and so much fun. I have to mention the awesomeness up on top of the hill at Bear Camp – I was covered neck to toe in wet cold mud and the folks up there made me smile and gave me hot soup. I would do that race no matter the conditions every year for the support alone. We runners are out there in the elements slipping sliding moving and here are these heroes in the middle of nowhere caring for total strangers.

    Storms like at Bighorn 2017 were tough on runners and I bet even tougher on the volunteers. At Sally’s some teenager came running over to help me wash my feet with a clean bucket and dry cloths while another guy held my chair from sliding down the hill in the rain/mud.

    I did not see our hear anything but encouragement and support from all the volunteers.

  14. Amanda S

    Giving a huge shout out to the Aid 2 Rolling Pass volunteers at the Silverton Double Dirty30 this weekend (all the aid station volunteers were amazing, but these people deserve extra kudos). 12,000 feet in a blizzard – they served me the best cup of hot miso soup ever.

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