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DamNation – Reflections from the Busiest Aid-Station at the Rocky Raccoon 100 Trail Run

Without the small army of volunteers an event like the Rocky Raccoon 100 (results summary) wouldn’t happen. One division of this ultra endurance army, is the aid-station crews. Food, fluids, a smile, motivation, a hug, and even medical help – the aid-station has been a running lifeline for many an ultra runner.

The DamNation aid-station is positioned in the heart of the main 20 mile (or 17 mile loop for 50 milers) loop, tucked in the corner of a 90 degree turn on the Triple C Trail. Runners visit this hot-spot at mile 6.19 and 12.20 (8.17 for 50 milers) for each loop. As the only aid-station that is double-dipped each loop while supporting over 500 runners, it’s a busy day!

The fearless leader of this passionate DamNation team was experienced ultra runner Lynn Ballard. Lynn was kind enough share a bit about this challenging yet extremely rewarding experience.

Lynn Ballard - The DamNation Chief...and Photographer. Photo: Courtesy of Deborah Sexton.

EB – My estimation is the DamNation aid-station supported athletes essentially 4000 times throughout the event, how are you able to keep this hot-corner running so smoothly?

Smoothly?  I suppose that is ONE way to look at it.  You know the feeling you have when you are leaning back in your chair and right at the very instant you realize you are going over backward… that’s how I felt from Saturday morning at about 6:30 am until almost 10:00 am on Sunday.

Seriously, I feel that a combination of ultra-running experience, a willingness to make a major time commitment to supporting ultra runners, and a desire to be a part of someone’s successful (on some level or another) attempt helps make the DamNation location successful.

Runners pulling up to the DamNation drive-thru! Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Ballard.

Your 4,000 estimate is a bit high, more like 3,772 if you are keeping count.  The numbers were down a bit this year as a result of travel issues due to the weather and that is probably a key to our being able to be as attentive to runners’ needs as we were this year.  We have a great crew, built around a core of volunteers who hold nothing back, nothing at all.  We get so much back from the runners and truly feel like we are a part of their extended crew… heck the 100 mile finishers come through DamNation 10 times and the 50 mile finishers see us 6 times!

EB – For those that have never volunteered before at an ultra aid-station, what is the general flow of the day? Are there shifts? Specific roles?

We are lucky to have several volunteers who come down before the race to help set up the aid station and then stay and work until the last drop bag is unloaded at the post-race breakfast.  In addition, we have quite a few who work from the start of the race on Saturday and then plan on pacing a 100 mile runner after dark on Saturday night.

Organizing drop bags in the pre-race hours. Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Ballard.

Others may have friends or family in the race and want to come out and work at DamNation rather than sit around for hours waiting on their runner to come through the start/finish.  We always seem to have a few unsuspecting volunteers who get conscripted into service… Oh, they act like they don’t know what to do, but before they know what hit them, we have them slicing oranges, filling water bottles, fetching drop bags, etc.

The hydration express lane for those that don't want to pull in and park. Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Ballard.

I try and make sure each of our “end-to-end” volunteers gets a chance to catch some sleep sometime during the afternoon/evening on Saturday or in the wee hours… There is no master plan, I just try and read the team and make a call to send someone to hit the sleeping bag for a few hours.  It seems to work great!

EB – Ultra aid-stations are often sugary and salty buffet tables. What were some of the most popular food items? Do preferences change throughout the day and night?

We have all the normal aid station fare.  I have to give credit to Henry Hobbs and Joyce Prusaitis for making sure we are stocked with a good supply of options.  Out at DamNation, we work hard to give the perception of variety to runners whose taste changes as the day/night progress.  Again, no magic formula… early in the day we look a lot like any marathon aid station (without the spandex…) with a particular focus on fluids.

As the day progresses, we will shift the focus to calories and keep the standard fluids within easy reach.  We see more interest in carbonated soft drinks as the day warms up and stomachs begin to turn sour.   As we shift to more of an emphasis on food, it is important that 1) we offer some hot food options, 2) we provide a variety so that in the possible 10 trips a runner may make through DamNation, they don’t get the same offerings each time (that would really get old). It seems important to have a chicken/noodle soup combination almost round the clock.  In addition, we found potato soup to be a very big hit.

Creating the ultra brew. Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Ballard.

Many runners have special diet needs, particularly our vegan or vegetarian runners.  The potato soup that Joyce provided was dairy/gluten free so many found it more appealing than the standard chicken noodle soup.  A heavy dose of salt made the potato soup a “hot” item for a few hours.

Of course we provide the all-star ultra food… PB&J sandwich quarters and grilled cheese, many runners yearn for something more.  THAT is when we have to get creative.  We put together a combination of grilled sausage and rice… funny, as when we would offer it most would make a face and decline (not politely in some cases), but after a couple of retching heaves, we could talk most in to taking a bite… then a cup… then another.  We watched as new life was breathed into some that were in major calorie deficit!

About 4 am, we started grilling pancakes!  Now those sold like hotcakes (I know, sorry!)!!!!

EB – Anyone ask for pickled herring? What was the oddest food request (if any)?

I don’t really think of any requests as odd.  We really didn’t get too many requests for things we didn’t have (except for potatoes with salt, but the potato soup was a really good substitute for that!).

You have to keep in mind that although the temps may have reached the upper 40’s during the day, we started out at 19F according to my truck thermometer and dipped way down in the 30’s on Saturday night.  We saw plenty of runners who were in a zombie state that would stand across our aid station table with a blank stare… we would have to talk them through some options and really encourage them to try something before we would actually get a request.  We may have missed a few, but I believe our volunteers were able to get some runners back out on the course with a little more clarity of mind and focus on the task at hand.

DamNation - An oasis to reflect, regroup, and then continue your journey. Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Ballard.

That said, I have seen Rocky Raccoon’s very own RD go for hours with a sour stomach… heck!  He climbed Handies Peak on an M.  No not an M&M, just an M!  I thought he was toast, but when we got to his drop bag hours later, he pulls out a can of sardines packed in mustard and proceeded to eat them like it was the best meal ever prepared!

EB – Did you serve any “special” food items this year? (Items that may be somewhat unique or non-typical)

Probably the most non-typical thing we served was grilled hot dog wieners we had quartered up and served on a tortilla with mustard.  Nope, I don’t get it either, but there were times when we couldn’t keep them on the table.  This is at least the second year we have seen that item sell.

EB – Were there any serious injuries you had to address?

This year was a bit more challenging than what I have experienced in the past. We started very early when runners began telling us of a woman that had hurt her leg pretty badly.  After checking with Joe, we determined that DamNation was in better position to get to the runner than anyone else, so I asked two of our volunteers to go see what they could do.  The got to the runner and confirmed her injury was pretty serious, then literally carried her out to where we could get a vehicle close and drove her out to the highway to meet the race doc (sorry, I am not sure of the name… Shannon?).  The doc confirmed the injury was likely a broken leg and asked the guys to take her to the hospital in Huntsville.

Not long after that, I heard one of the volunteers calling me to check out an injured runner who had fallen and dislocated a finger.  Having an older brother, I was well versed in the “pull my finger” routine and was able to reset the finger to a natural position.  As a precautionary measure, I halved a tongue depressor and taped it on either side of the man’s finger like a splint.  He seemed satisfied with my diagnosis and moved on down the trail.

Creating happy feet at DamNation! Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Ballard.

Later in the evening, we began to get reports of a runner down on the ground, unable to move.  Once again, I asked two volunteers to make the trek to the runner (on a single track section, so not accessible by vehicle).  They took a couple of blankets and did what they could to get the runner warmed up (I believe there may have been “spooning” involved in rehabilitating this runner enough to bring him out on a 4 wheeler).

I cannot count the number of feet we treated for blistering.  I suppose the sandy soil in Huntsville penetrates shoes and creates friction with which many are unaccustomed.  We peel off nasty shoes/socks, wash feet, assess the damage and maybe even perform a small surgery to drain a pocket before applying ointment and duct tape to enable the runner to get out for “that &%$#ed six mile loop.

EB – What are some of the biggest or strangest issues runners faced during the nighttime hours when they visited DamNation?

DamNation is located in a remote part of the park and we are there round the clock.  My answer on this ranges from sleeping outside in 19F degree temps to insisting runners not pee on our tent!  Night time brings out the demons.  Zombies on the prowl, guttural moans and groans… walking with their eyes closed into DamNation.

By nightfall, any inattention to hydration and/or nutrition will manifest itself in the form of anywhere from slight disorientation to full on hallucination.  If a runner is behind on either hydration or nutrition, we see them losing their ability to keep their core warm and many come in shaking uncontrollably… so much so that they cannot hold a cup still enough to take a drink.

Our veteran ultra runners are quick to spot the 1000 yard stares and to move to get the patient to start taking on calories.  With high humidity in Huntsville, even moderate temperatures can be absolutely bone-chilling, particularly when a runner cannot maintain a pace that helps them generate core warmth.

EB – What specific moments do you most recall from all those runners that gave it their best on the day?

Not so much a specific moment as much as watching the drama of the race unfold.  I don’t recall being as caught up in the race itself as much as I was this year (versus focusing on the operation of the aid station).  With so many talented runners, we knew we had a great perspective on the race with their coming through DamNation 10 times, and boy did they not disappoint!

The race went from “who is that guy out front” and “he’s got to fade and the chase pack will blow by him” to “Ian Sharman, who is he?” and “wow, Tony K seems pretty collected and certain that Ian will come back to the pack”.

In the end, we were cheering for all of them each pass through and totally caught up in the competition. By the fifth loop, it was clear that Ian would have to have some major issues if anyone were going to catch him… wow, what fun it was to watch.

Mike Wolfe, Anton Krupicka, and Scott Jurek in the early miles. Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Ballard.

On the other extreme, I can clearly remember the wave of runners trying to beat 24 hours to get that special buckle.  It seemed like 3-4 am was particularly busy with the 24 hour hopefuls.

Beyond that, there are individuals I won’t forget.  Folks that came to conquer and although they would not complete the 100 mile race, they DID conquer new personal bests in distance.  I bore witness to the potential for what human spirit can do to exceed expectations for what is possible.  I saw volunteers become part of the conquest, working feverishly to get another runner to the finish line…

EB – What do you enjoy about volunteering at ultra events like the Rocky Raccoon 100? What keeps you coming back for more?

I love the fact that I can make a difference.

The DamNation volunteers can all say that they were part of some runner’s success at Rocky Raccoon.  I love it when I get an email or letter after the fact recognizing Joe as a freak of an RD and recognizing Joe’s volunteers as what sets this sport apart from others.

I love the camaraderie of the runners, the banter of the competitors, the smiles of triumph, and the timid, sometimes apologetic smiles of runners feeling they may let a volunteer down if they don’t complete the mission… God I love this!

As you can see, volunteering at an ultra is an epic experience that creates memories not soon forgotten. Every ultra runner should give it a try…at least once. I know I will never forget my experience at Red Ant Pond aid-station (Grasslands 50 2010) that included rain, wind, sleet, clay goopiness, and a huge display determination and smiling faces. Talk about epic!

A very special thanks to Lynn for still having enough energy to give some more by sharing his thoughts with us.

A huge thanks to all those that volunteer!

Be active – Feel the buzz!

David –

About the author

David Hanenburg David Hanenburg is the passionate dirt-lovin' creator of Endurance Buzz and has been playing in the endurance sports world since 2000 after knockin' the dust off of his Trek 950 hardtail thanks to a friend asking to go ride some local dirt. In 2007 he ran his first ultra on the trails and fell in love with the sport and its people. For more information on David's endurance sports journey, check out the About page.

12 Responses to “DamNation – Reflections from the Busiest Aid-Station at the Rocky Raccoon 100 Trail Run”

  1. on 10 Feb 2011 at 1:21 pm Mike Wilen

    Great writeup!

  2. on 10 Feb 2011 at 1:38 pm sophia wharton

    I loved that potato soup! And all you folks at Damnation, which I fondly refer to as Purgatory.
    Thanks for making my first hundred possible!
    Sophia –

  3. on 10 Feb 2011 at 2:59 pm Leslie

    Wonderful report!

  4. on 10 Feb 2011 at 4:46 pm Lynn B

    Thank you for making space to recognize the backbone of ultra races… the volunteers. Joe Prusaitis is a phenominal RD, which means he knows how to get the right volunteers in the right places for the runners. I had an added challenge this year of an international business trip the week of the RR races and flew in from Russia on Thursday night to load up and drive through the ice down to Houston on Friday… that said, the Dave and Paula Billman and Fred and Char Thompson REALLY stepped up and handled a lot of the scrambling I normally do during race week in order to prepare for DamNation duties.

    Lynn B
    DamNation Captain

  5. on 10 Feb 2011 at 8:27 pm Michael D

    I agree the potato soup was awesome! That really helped me out on the 3rd loop of my 50, and the volunteers were great too!

  6. on 11 Feb 2011 at 2:45 pm Chris R.

    Great interview with the Capt of arguably the busiest Aid Station of any 50 mile or longer ultra in the U.S (excluding 24 hour circle races)! You should submit this to UR mag. Great behind-the-scenes perspective.

  7. on 11 Feb 2011 at 3:06 pm Olga

    Lynn is not only one of the bestest volunteers of the sport, he gives bestest description of the sport from the bestest view point – behind the serving table. Thanks for bringing it up!

  8. on 12 Feb 2011 at 2:12 am John M.

    It has always amazed me that you could train that many independent minds to work that tirelessly and unselfishly.
    On the other hand, Texans are very hard to herd.

    Great job, fun to follow from a distance.

    Thanks to all.

    Run gently out there.

  9. on 12 Feb 2011 at 8:52 am Liza

    What a great post. Really interesting about the food choices and rotations. Those people at DamNation are amazing and wonderful. As much as I despised that 6 mile loop, I looked forward to seeing them. Thank you again to them and the other aid station volunteers.

  10. on 14 Feb 2011 at 9:53 am David Hanenburg

    Thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts or experience with DamNation. 🙂

  11. on 14 Feb 2011 at 12:37 pm Beth Simpson-Hall

    This is why I keep coming back! Thank you all so much for your help along the way!

  12. on 17 Feb 2011 at 10:54 am David Hanenburg

    Hey Beth – Awesome! Thanks for sharing. 🙂