Aid Stations

[Author’s Note: This article was coauthored with Jess Cawley.]

I’ve been in and out of aid stations my whole life. From Maryland, to Madeira Island, to France. From European electrolyte drinks, to bananas, to chocolate. From efficient transitions, to speed-eating chow downs, to chewing and chugging misery. From taking enough, to taking far too little. From finishing strong, to blowing up. I’ve seen a lot in my short time as an ultrarunner. I’ve lived and learned, succeeded and failed, struggled and triumphed. No matter the outcome, however, I’ve always learned.

In 2014, it was Les Templiers in France. With roughly 10 kilometers to go, I clawed my way up the second-to-last climb and into the final aid station. A fingertip grip on the lead, I feared getting caught. With a mere five kilometers or so to the finish, I thought my use of the aid station would be critical. In and out fast, is what my brain screamed. Grab some aid and book it! Swapping out my pack for a new one, that’s exactly what I did. In the heat of the moment, it seemed like a good decision. A few hundred meters later I found it to be anything but. As my fingers tingled and my body struggled, I slammed a gel with the hope of resurrecting myself. For a brief moment my body may have started to come back, but any such signs of hope were short lived. I needed way more calories, but my snack stash was tapped out. I had grossly underestimated what my body would need for the last five kilometers, and now I was paying the price. Over the next couple of miles I fell from first to fifth. In the final push to the finish I tried to run, and I thought I did, but live race coverage revealed a very ugly finish-line ‘march.’ It was a bonk of epic proportions.

Zach Miller - 2014 Les Templiers feature

Zach Miller gets some help from fellow Americans Alex Nichols (left) and Sage Canaday at the 2014 Les Templiers finish after bonking hard. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

In 2015 it was Madeira Island Ultra-Trail. It was right around daybreak when it happened. I had been running strong since the race start at midnight, but a short ways from an aid station that lay just before one of the biggest climbs of the day, I started to struggle. With all of my gels and liquids gone and a body crying out for calories, I was in trouble. Desperate to fix the problem, I pulled out a bag of GU Roctane powder and ate it straight up. Bouncing back to life, I charged into the aid station. Realizing that I would need far more than a bit of Roctane powder to get me through the rest of the race, I attacked the aid station like Joey Chestnut at a Fourth of July hot-dog eating contest. Chocolate, oranges, and soda flooded into my mouth with extras going in my pockets for later. For the next seven hours or so, I would climb and descend, eat and drink, hurt like heck, and press on nonetheless. I would find moments of need and acknowledge it, but unlike Les Templiers I would actually accept the help.

Earlier this winter it was Barr Camp. He wandered into the cabin sometime on a Sunday morning or afternoon. His name escapes me, but I remember the mannerisms. He was chatty, edgy, and unsettled. He exuded a vibe of something not quite right. The kind that generally makes you yearn for someone else to converse with or an outside chore to escape to. Fortunately I did no such thing. Instead, I sat right next to him and chatted away. He went on and on about his troubled life. He spoke of success and failure, getting his life on track and then derailing it. He talked of jail time, drugs, girls, bars, and his desire to be free of it all. The stories revealed a troubled soul, but also a person who longed to do better. As I lent my ears that day, I tried to be the aid station that this man so desperately needed.

Remarkably, I wasn’t alone. With me in the cabin that day was a man who had camped out the night before. Unbeknownst to me, this man had experienced some of the same struggles. He made a gracious effort to do what he could to help. Then, a good while later, dear Ann came walking through the door. A regular on Barr Trail, Ann is an absolute gem. Though I am unsure of her age, 70 would be a good guess. Kind as can be, she calls us the best tea house in the world, and always overpays. As sweet as they come, Ann bought the man a cup of tea and a snack. But, she didn’t stop there. Ann took the time to talk to the man, sharing not just her material wealth, but also her kindness. Eventually the man thanked me for listening and returned to the trail. Much like a runner in a race, he didn’t depart problem free. His problems and temptations would be waiting for him out there on the trail. What he did have was that breath of life that a good aid station can bring. Would it be enough to fix all his problems? Probably not. But maybe, just maybe, it would be enough to get him through to the next one a little ways up the trail.

Looking back, I now realize that each experience taught a different lesson. Les Templiers taught me the importance of recognizing a need. It’s hard to know at the beginning of a race how you will feel 20 minutes later, let alone 20 miles later. We expect the ascents and descents that naturally come, but some hardships sneak up on us out of nowhere, like a stomach flip that keeps you from taking in any calories. Some obstacles keep you from the things you need, like calories or good attitudes. It’s the kindness of others that can kick in during these moments. The Bill Doopers of the world. The fellow runner who doesn’t threaten your heart rate but latches onto your pace like a metronome and somehow creates more momentum. The aid-station rests that save you from the hours of regret. And yet, while the help is often there, oftentimes our recognition of our need is stubbornly absent. And so, in running and in life, we must learn to acknowledge our needs.

Madeira taught me the value of accepting help. As an independent person, I have a tendency to resist help from others. I clam up, hide, and stubbornly try to do things on my own. It is quite natural to not want to show our weaknesses. In junior high school I used to stifle my breathing to keep others from knowing how hard I was having to work, but don’t we all know how much worse that only makes things! More recently I have gone through a tough circumstance, but rather than stifle my breath I have managed to open up and accept the aid station. It has been a beautiful thing and makes the resisting look so foolish. Life is so much better when we choose to share our load and commune with others. It actually creates more solidarity and by normalizing our pain, it lessens its grip on our circumstance. As I experienced in Madeira, it is our acceptance of the aid-station community that helps us through.

Barr Camp has revealed to me the value of being an aid station. Not because it is a debt to be repaid, but because I recognize the immeasurable value of a smiling face at the base of a climb. In running, it’s good to give back by volunteering. In life, it’s important for us to stay attentive to those around us and offer support when needed. Sometimes this happens with people we know, our friends and family. Other times, like at Barr Camp, it occurs with complete strangers. And sometimes, planned or not, we team up with others and it becomes a communal effort.

Zach Miller and Jim Plunkett-Cole at Barr Camp

Zach Miller and Jim Plunkett-Cole at Barr Camp. Photo courtesy of Zach Miller.

And so, aid stations are multi-faceted, and we mustn’t forget the power that they hold. At aid stations it’s warm, inviting, and cozy. There is plenty of food on the table and friends laughing. Some people run through, failing to recognize their need. They often pay for it later. Others stop, choosing to accept the help before going back into the dark, cold moments of solitude. And further yet, countless folks act as an aid station for someone else. Whether in running or in life, we’ve been blessed by the provisions, friends, and family–the warm light and the laughter. We’ve filled up, left, emptied out, and returned once more. Some long to be self-sufficient, but the idea isn’t to figure out how not to need an aid station. The idea is to figure out how to be present and useful in one. Every person and every point in time is so unique–some to bring refreshment and aid, and some to go out and battle the dark. May we all learn the art of the aid station: the acknowledgment of need, the acceptance of help, and the power to lend a hand.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What aid stations have been noteworthy for you in racing? As in, do you remember one that particularly saved your bacon when you needed food, drink, warmth in bad weather, or a friendly face?
  • Do you have any stories from when you have volunteered at an aid station during a race?
  • And how about the aid stations of life? When has a person or place been a source of comfort and recovery in a time of need?
Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.