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How to create the best aid station

Aid stations are more than gels and water. Find out how to make a difference for trail and ultrarunners in a race.

For trail and ultrarunners, aid stations are more than just gels and water. Other than electrolytes and pretzels, they can be moments of inspiration, humour, and onesies. Aid stations provide refuge, encouragement, and delicious beverages and treats. In tough races, aid stations can save us from our physical and mental struggles on course. They are the reason many of us have successful races, and have the power to change a runner’s race from awful to amazing.

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Photo: Yvonne Naughton

In our incredible sport, aid stations often go above and beyond mainstream expectations. Volunteer aid station captains and their crew spend weeks and months brainstorming ways to ensure runners have the best day ever. These days, you can find everything from decorative themes, costumes, homemade burgers, bacon, and beer, to shots of whiskey in the middle of the forest.   

Photo: Becky Bates

Aid station three at the 2019 Chuckanut 50K pulled out all the stops. Irish trail and ultrarunner aid station captain Yvonne Naughton alongside Alicia Jenkins, Sabrina Houck, Ali Riecke, Jeff Hart, Michael Webber, Philip Kast, Katherine Morgan, Matt Tiscornia, Gavin Browder, Doug McKeever, Maria Yazzolino, and her husband Dan and daughter Daphne demonstrated what it takes to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of runners at Chuckanut. Due to the this year’s weather, the crew had to relocate their aid station. Nevertheless, they still executed an incredible pit stop for everyone running by.

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Yvonne with Jello-O shots. Photo: Becky Bates

Five tips for aid station success:

1. Plan well in advance. Especially if there is a theme to your aid station. Naughton explains, “this gives volunteers a chance to come up with costumes, decorations and other fun ideas. We decided to make the Irish theme the annual tradition as [Chuckanut 50K] is always around St. Patrick’s Day, and well of course, I’m Irish! Having the same theme every year is nice as we reuse costumes and decorations and have started to accumulate a nice supply of aid station items. Many of the runners are so focused on running that you have to go big with decorations and costumes or they won’t get noticed.”
2. Always have enough volunteers to delegate specific tasks, and a few extra volunteers for cheering and encouraging others. “People find a task they like and stick with it or rotate between tasks as needed.”
3. Bring a portable speaker and play music. “If you volunteer with us you better be ready for a lot of great old Irish music from The Chieftains, The Dubliners, Thin Lizzy, The Pogues to newer Irish music like U2 and Glen Hansard. One of these years I want to have some live music and Irish dancing! I suspect there’ll be a high DNF rate that year as the runners will end up hanging out with us as the aid station!”
Pro trail runner David Laney checking runners in. Photo: Alicia Jenkins
4. Serve food and beverages in relation to the theme. “We like to provide some Irish food and beverages! While the front runners who are race focused really don’t partake in this, we have a lot of fun with the rest of the runners who end up stopping with us for a little longer. This year we had Guinness and beef mini pies (with vegetarian option) that myself and my daughter Féile made. We got a lot of compliments on them so I think we’ll do it again next year. We also offer a selection of Irish beer and Jameson whiskey. Many runners really enjoy having a small cup of beer or a baby shot of whiskey. It’s really just a novelty factor. We get such smiles from runners when they see the beer and whiskey served from our ‘pub.’ I think it lightens the mood for them, even if they don’t take a drink, and helps them get through the race!
5. Don’t drink on the job. “Of course, none of the volunteers actually drink alcohol on the job but once we’re done and packed up I like to offer a beer to celebrate a job well done!”
Photo: Instagram

Instead of racing Chuckanut 50K this year, Jenkins decided to volunteer at Naughton’s notorious Irish aid station. Jenkins produced the following film highlighting their 2019 volunteer experience: 

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