Volunteering at the Twisted Branch 100k
“Welcome to Patch!” we would shout to every runner who came into our aid station. At mile 34, we were just past the halfway point of the Twisted Branch 100k in the New York Finger Lakes. The trail ultramarathon race began at Ontario County Park near Lake Canandaigua in Naples and finished at Champlin Beach in Hammondsport. In order to get to the aid station to set up, we had to drive up an unpaved, very bumpy, wooded road, described the night before by one of the race director’s committee members as a place where cars had gone to die in previous years. I drove probably about 5 miles an hour or less with my car bobbing up and down like a boat in a violent storm at sea and hoped that my already suffering Nissan Sentra would survive.
After parking in our designated parking area, my friend Omar and I and a third volunteer, who we had met the night before, were the only ones there and we looked for some sign of where the aid station would be. We walked around and saw a cabin with an outhouse and another property but couldn’t find the course. We walked into the backyard and I finally remembered that the night before the same committee member told me that the aid station was in some guy’s backyard. The supportive gentleman had offered his backyard since the first year of the race and stayed there the entire time that the aid station was set up. This year he was there with his dog and elderly mother, so they hung out on the porch, but in years past he would play beer pong and other games on his porch during the race while cheering on runners as they approached the aid station.
When we first arrived at the backyard of the cabin, it was 8:45, we were on time, and we realized that no one else was there and there were no supplies. About 20 minutes later, a large pickup truck came with several 5-gallon jugs of water, large sports water jugs to mix the Skratch Labs drink mix, long storage containers with station supplies, folding chairs, a pop-up tent, and food.
A fourth station volunteer and a few race officials arrived and we all unloaded the pick up truck. As we were setting up the aid station, the first place runner came in ahead of the predicted time. Frantically, we offered him some water, Skratch, Coca Cola, Ginger Ale, and whatever food we had ready for him. He took his necessary items and quickly left looking fresh and full of energy.
We quickly finished setting up the station and became acquainted with each other. Over an hour passed before the next runner appeared. As the runners started to trickle in more frequently, we began to work as a well-oiled machine. After cheering the incoming runners, welcoming them to Patch Road, two of us would be in charge of pouring the drinks into the runner’s flasks or bladders and then sending them to the food table. Omar would rattle off the food items - chips, M&M’s, Swedish Fish, gels, chews, peanut butter and jelly rice balls, bananas, dates, watermelon, and a few other options. We offered ice as the temperature rose and runners were starting to overheat. It was important to call out the different drinks and food because our station was sort of an “express station” where runners were to get in and out quickly so they could get to the next one where they could meet their crews and pacers. Also at that point in the race, after beginning at 4 AM, runners were not only physically, but mentally tired and offering the different options made it easier to make decisions on what the body needed.
As time went by, the frequency of arriving runners increased as on a bell curve. At times it was busy and there were lines for the drinks. The runners were in various states - some sprightly (one young lady performed a cartwheel entering and exiting the aid station); some tired, but resolved; some joyful; some determined; and a few looking worse for wear. There was a male runner who we noticed not looking well. We offered him things, but he was unable to eat. He rested in the shade on a chair until he could eat and drink. He was there for over an hour. Finally, he felt well enough to continue on in the race.
While Patch Road did not have a cutoff time, as it approached 2 PM, the race committee member advised runners to keep going to the next aid station, but advised runners that in the past we have had few participants who have left our aid station at that time finish the race. He was very supportive of all of the runners who came in, as he checked their bib numbers in and out on his iPad. As the final runners arrived, the course sweepers walked in the final three runners. They would leave our station in a car accepting their DNF’s showing varying levels of disappointment.
After we packed up the aid station, a few of us went to the finish line to get food. We cheered on the first two runners - the first place finisher was the same one who was first to arrive at Patch. He completed the race more than 90 minutes ahead of the second place finisher! After resting for a bit and setting up our campsite just outside a baseball field at a park at Lake Keuka, we drove less than 3 minutes away to the final aid station - Urbana.
Omar and I worked with another team of volunteers at Urbana (mile 58ish) beginning around 5:30 PM. It was still bright outside and we saw many of the same runners (there were more than a few who dropped out at other aid stations.) They remembered us - “You were the guys from Patch Road!” and were extremely grateful then and now as we helped them refuel before their last segment. The male runner who had sat at Patch for over an hour was able to recover and was looking much better. He was extremely grateful for all that we did to help him get through his low point in the race.
The runners left our aid station almost tasting the finish line, but not without a daunting task. After running up the road a short distance and crossing another, the final 5+ miles returned to the trail where they saw their last climb - a 1,000 ft ascent up a mountain followed by a 1,100 ft descent to the finish.
As it got darker, we began to see the headlamps from down the road move towards us. We welcomed the last runner early in the 8 o’clock hour, well before our cutoff time of 9 PM. After breaking down the aid station, we drove back to the finish line and cheered on the finishers. The race’s “Golden Hour” was 11pm and we watched the dark shadow of a mountain with headlamps flickering down the switchbacks before the volunteer in the high visibility vest aided them in the final road crossing and they ran down the field through the finish line.
While a tiresome day (my feet were hurting from hours of standing), it was such a fun and rewarding experience to volunteer at an ultramarathon. Interacting with the other volunteers and the runners, we were a team who did everything that we could to help each participant achieve success. For those who have volunteered at the New York City Marathon, there are a lot of similarities - grateful runners, the feeling of being invested in their fates, and camaraderie in working together. But there are also differences that made this volunteer opportunity special - you experience the beauty of nature, the smaller race size (179 who began the race, and over 100 volunteers) and longer distance allowed for more personal interactions with the runners (sometimes very personal with a woman asking us to dump ice down her bra), and a really strong community feel to the whole race with many of the finishers and volunteers lounging on blankets or camping chairs while enjoying food and local beer and cheering on the remaining finishers. Next year I plan on running the race, but I am looking forward to the aid stations and being welcomed by the incredible group of friendly, ridiculous supportive volunteers who make this race so special!