Sunday, September 28, 2014

Volunteering at Mogollon Monster 100M

Call me The Mysterious Stranger.

After getting laid off my seasonal summer job for the Forest Service, I’m heading north, beginning my long road trip. I pass through Payson, and on up into the small village of Pine just north of there, around dinner time. Outside the Thai restaurant on the left there seems to be a large gathering of people outside on the patio. I think, ‘Hm, that looks like a packet pickup for a race.’

I continue on to a different restaurant and, parking, happen to look up at a banner saying, MOGOLLON MONSTER 100M, Sept. 27-28. Hey, that’s tomorrow! Hey, that was a packet pickup! I’ve heard of this race, too.

So, over dinner and think and think. I actually have a couple of days free until I meet some relatives over in Sedona. I’ve been wondering what kind of adventure I could have in the meantime, though I’d been thinking about some kind of camping trip. But, crazy as it seems, I decide to see if the race organizers would like a volunteer.

I’ve run many long-distance races and been helped by those unsung angels at the aid stations who make life for a runner so much easier, from refilling water bottles, to kind words of encouragement, to just pointing me in the right direction when I’m groggy. And, I’ve always thought that I should take my turn, to pass on the kindness I’ve recieved. So, I decide to try and be an angel.

I head down to the packet pickup area, just in time, as it’s dark and they look like they’re loading things up. One guy sees me coming and smiles, introducing himself as Jeremy, the race organizer. I offer my services, apologizing for seeming so weird to come at the last minute, but he loves it, he loves that someone would just be driving through and stop and volunteer for two days. I’m in!

Jeremy assigns me to Geronimo Aid Station, out by Geronimo Camp, which I’m familiar with, having worked on the Tonto National Forest many years. The only question is whether to head out there tonight and camp out, or stay and camp out at the Pine Trailhead where the race begins tomorrow at 6. I’d love to see the start, but am not keen on trying to sleep in a parking lot full of people and having to get up at 4, so, since I was going to camp out in the woods tonight anyways, I head out to Geronimo.

I find the Geronimo Trailhead, no other race folks there until tomorrow, though there’s a steady stream of boyscouts heading up to the camp for the weekend, despite the forecasts for thunderstorms.

Because, yeah, there are thunderstorms and rain predicted for this weekend. Sleeping in my tent, the rain starts, with thunder and lightning. I don’t mind, kind of pleasant actually, but I begin to wonder about tomorrow. Oh well, a little rain never bothered ultra-runners.

The next morning, about start time, the rain turns into a strong downpour. Uh-oh, I think. Brutal way to start a race, soaked to the bone.

I wait around in the small turnout at the Geronimo Trailhead. Much of the race is on the Highline Trail, a 30 mile-ish long trail going from Pine out to Highway 260 east of Payson. It’s a historic trail, which used to connect the early homesteads in the area, and it runs right under the Mogollon Rim, huge cliffs, where the Colorado Plateau officially ends. If Payson is about 5,500 feet, the top of the Rim is 7,000.

And, of course, no ultra race would just be level ground if the organizers could help it. So, along the way, runners will leave the Highline Trail to climb up to the Rim, not once, not twice, but three times! The course map is insane. The course itself is gorgeous. I’ve explored this territory, both above and below the Rim, and it’s maybe my favorite overall land in the US. It’s also, because of its unique formation, a place where storms tend to congregate. Every afternoon this past Summer I’ve watched clouds build over the Rim, usually brining lightning, and the winds can be strong.

So, interesting.

Support crews trickle in, though the first runner won’t arrive until maybe ten. This aid station is eighteen miles in (and will be the 90 mile stop on the way back) with the first climb up to Milk Ranch Point and down added in. The Aid Station organizer, Chris, arrives, with his pregnant wife Sierra and a rented mobile home. Chris is a friend of Jeremy’s, and claims to be the one to actually get Jeremy into running, and has been helping out on previous MM100s. He and I unload all the equipment, and some of the support crew folks help out, which is nice.

More volunteers show up, and we set up two tents, and tables with food. One thing I’d never thought about, but now find myself doing, is making the actual peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that are cut in bite size quarters for runners. Plus mixing the Gatorade, and pouring plastic cups of Coke so that is settles and becomes flat. Opening cans of boiled potatoes to dip in salt. Hanging garbage bags out around the area. Little stuff like this keeps us busy for a while, but then we’re done and ready and waiting, with still an hour-ish until the first runner.

The weather is better. The rain has stopped, though the sky is still overcast, and the clouds are just hauling ass north, so I’m not sure we’re in the clear. Otherwise, the temperature is perfect for running, in the 50s. I learn more facts, like that 78 people total signed up for the race, but that not all of those showed. Chris doesn’t have total numbers, but says that the start did not look like 70 folks.

But then! The first runner! At 9:30! He comes in just wearing shorts an shoes, skinny as hell, with a beard, glistening with sweat, but not looking tired at all (!). He knows what he’s doing, doesn’t f— around to much, though talks to his crew person about how it went up on top, and says, “Well I didn’t do too well on the roads. You know, I don’t run roads very well.” Which, I don’t even know how to take that statement. But then he’s off!

A minute after, the next incredibly skinny guy comes in, this one at least with a shirt. He’s gone soon too. This looks like an epic fast competition between these two, though soon after three more guys come through.

After that, there seems to be a pause. The gods have passed through, now the mortals will trickle in. Though not quite true, the first female runner comes in, a goddess. And another about five minutes later. All total, I don’t think I’ll see more than six women in the whole pack. Also, interesting observation: All the super runner males are all skinny as f—, with no body fat, whereas the super runner females are all ripped. No body fat, but with big muscles, arms and legs. But as the race goes on, the body types seem to switch: the ‘slower’ (a relative term) women tend more to skinny and the ‘slower’ males get bigger, both in muscles and/or fat. Are those fact only correlations? Or causes and effects?

Another observation: The fast runners don’t f—— around at stations. They maybe fill  up on water and grab some food to go, and get the hell out. The slower runners come in, and just hang out, mostly adjusting footwear and making adjustments to their feet.

Because my dog, their feet: they take off their shoes and soaked socks and their feet and shriveled pale pieces of meat, with blisters and shredded skin and hotspots. It’s just horrible. The more stuff they cover their feet with, the more terrible shape their feet are in. And some men, slower ones, have these new ‘trail shoes’ that have super thick soles, like monstrously thick soles, which don’t seem to be doing any good at all, just heavy and soaking wet. What a waste. I have to hold myself back from saying stuff like, “Ditch your shoes!”

The runners come in fairly steadily, though by the last ones, I think back and realize that there’s an two hours and a half difference between first and last. Though over 18 miles with a huge uphill, I’m surprised there are more stragglers. The cut-off time for this station (or, the first one) is either 1 or 2, no one really seems to know, though it’s moot really, since everyone has made it. by noon-ish. No dropouts. There is only the 100M, no shorter distances, no mere 50 milers allowed. 18 miles is nothing to these people.

With all runners now through, they won’t return until much later, when this becomes the Mile 90 aid station. Inspired, the only thing I want to do now is go for a run! I change into my shorts and head up the Highline trail after the runners, except there is a new development: One of the other volunteers is a 15 year old girl, who’s cross country coach is in the race. She’s getting volunteer hours for some kind of honors program at school for doing this, and she’s come up with her whole family, who have been just hanging out all day. Except her 13 year old brother decided he wanted to run after the runner a while back, and no one noticed for a while, but he hasn’t come back. No one’s seen him for a couple hours.

So shit. So, I’m going that way anyways, so I keep an eye out for him. I’m sure he’s ok, just misplace, and as I run up the trail, I just don’t think a 13 year old would have come this far, because it is mostly up hill. Nice trail though. Awesome area, in the pines and piñon-junipers, with red dirt and rock and sand. After three miles I finally top out on a mesa, with a huge upfront view of the Mogollon Rim to the north. And south down over the forest and hills. Lovely. I even catch a glimpse of the last runner.

No kid though. On the way back I run into the Sweeper for this section of race. If the kids still farther up the trail, he’ll find him and may even at that point walk him to the next aid station 1.5 miles farther on, which might be easier. I just don’t think the kid came this far though. Doesn’t seem possible. But when I get back to the trailhead, he’s still not back. The race is using the services of an amateur network of HAM radio operators, and they’re on the case, because cell service, and even regular radio service, are both sketchy in this territory. Search and Rescue has been notified and are on the way. The mother, is now breaking down and crying, the father is doing what father’s do, and about to head out on the trail on his own, even though he won’t get as far as I did.

Chris and I go up to Geronimo Camp, in the chance that the boy wandered over there and is playing with the boyscouts, though that seems slim. I decide to make another excursion up the trail, just to check some side trails, though the main trail is super obvious, there just doesn’t seem a way that someone could go off-track. I don’t find anything, but when I get back, the boy has been found: he actually did run all the way almost to the next aid station, and was found crying. He apparently thought the trail would loop back around somehow. So, just shows how being out in the woods can be confusing so some city folks.

Anyways, with that out of the way, and hours before the runners return, I head into Payson to fiddle with internet at the one cafe, and get something to eat. While I’m there, the rain returns. And stays. And is strong. Usually most rains in Arizona come in for an hour and go. This one does not let up. And I think of the runners, now up on top somewhere, maybe running around in hail, or even snow. Just brutal.

Get back to the aid station, and everyone is gone. Just Chris and Sierra, and two HAM radio dudes. And it’s raining. I just sit in my truck and listen to the radio, working myself up to going out to my tent and maybe sleeping until midnight, if possible.

But then one of the HAM guys gets out of his vehicle in a hurry, running over to Chris. Un oh. I get out and go over. The HAM guy takes off in his vehicle. Chris looks glum. “The race has been called, due to weather.”

Wow. So that actually happens. Il y des limites, even in ultra-running. The idea is that the rain is not going to stop, really, because there’s another big mass of storms on the radar, heading north. Which means people would be running around up on the Rim in the dark, in wind and low clouds and cold and wet. Apparently there’s already been one case of hypothermia.

So, bummer. I feel for the runners, some of whom I bet don’t want to stop, but maybe some of whom are grateful. I also feel for Jeremy, the organizer, who had to make the call, and who now has to deal with the logistics of getting everyone off the hill.

And thank goodness for the Ham radios, who are now invaluable for those logistics. Chris and I break camp, in the rain, while our remaining HAM liaisons gives us updates about what we can do. Can we help shuttle runners out? At first yes, then no, then yes again. Finally, once everything is packed up, we get the word to go stage out on the Control Road, the main dirt road through the area, that parallels the Highline Trail basically, and wait and see if runners need rides.

So we head over south of Washington Park, the main aid station, and kind of in the middle of the route. We try to be patient, but can’t help speculating about what’s going on, wanting to head up to the station to get tired and cold runners back to Pine. Finally, we do get the call, and some runners are shuttled down in four wheel drive vehicles. I take three in my truck and we all head back west.

The runners with me aren’t too bummed. I think just tired from having to wait around while things were decided about them. It’s dark now. My group had all made it to either high 40s or on into 50 miles. One guy explains that he was actually just going to pace his brother the last 18 miles only, but decided at the last minute to run the whole race, without having trained for an ultra at all in the last year. (!) His strategy is one I’ve heard variations of: that with 36 hours to run the race, if you do the math, technically if you just maintains 3 miles an hour the whole time (ie walk almost) you should make it. So, he says, he’s basically been mostly on a hike versus a run. And, it seems to have worked up to this point. Which makes me think that I may still be able to do a 100M, that one doesn’t need to devote lots of time to training, at the expense having a life. Hm....

Back to Pine, drop off the guys, wait for one’s wife to come get him. Many runners and crew are lost, cut off from commo. For example, some guys have left their cellphones in their finish bags, which are lost somewhere in the U-Haul truck Jeremy has at Washington Park. But my guys and Chris’ guys all connect with their folks. No one knows what to do with equipment or drop bags (we have bags from the Geronimo station). People come and go, mostly go, runners just happy to get to a warm hotel room. Chris and I and a couple other volunteers hang out and unload stuff at the Pine community center. Some people’s drop bags are bulging with food and clothes, but apparently the word comes to just leave it and people can pick up stuff tomorrow, though some runners just want to leave and go home to, say, Phoenix.

Jeremy finally arrives in the U-Haul, and he is seriously bummed, maybe on many levels, the most immediate one being logistics, like how do be get all this shit back to people? But we at least load all the race materials in the truck, and unload any drop bags. Some aid stations didn’t even see runners. Some volunteers are trapped up on the Rim for the night, though all runners seem to be accounted for, somewhere. Weirdly, the decision is made to just leave people’s drop bags out under a picnic veranda thing for the night. But, it’s Pine, a small town, probably nothing will be stolen.

Kudos to Jeremy for the organization of both the race and the calling of it. There’s just nothing one can do, except protect people from, like, freezing to death or something. But, Jeremy seems to be doing this race out of pure love, he’s not making money at it, for sure. And it’s nice to hear runners thank him, and us volunteers, saying that despite the weather this is a really well run race, that they felt taken care of.

At around 10:30 everything is done which can be done. I say goodbye the rest of the hardcore who stayed to help, and Jeremy, and finally take off, down the road back to the Pine trailhead, to spend the night in the back of my truck, exhausted. I finally did it, finally helped at a race. So fun. So interesting. So awesome to help people, to help runners achieve goals and push themselves.

I immediately fall asleep.