“It will be low-key,” my friend said as the four of us pulled up to the volunteer registration table. We checked in for our 9:30pm to 5am shift at an aid station for the 2014 VT 100 Ultra-marathon. As the volunteer coordinator checked us in she explained the specific details related to our aid station and shift. We were at mile 83.3 of the race, at a place called “Cow Shed,” and filling the shoes of a family who had volunteered for the past 13 years at this aid station who had recently lost the driving force behind their commitment to the race to cancer. As we spoke to the coordinator, sprinklings of racers came into the tent (which happened to also be the medical tent) for various ailments that come with running 100 miles. As we departed for our shift, my friend was gleaming with excitement to volunteer. She, an ultra runner herself, was strongly considering another go at the VT 1oo in 2015. Volunteering was one way to ensure a spot at the following years race (you might be surprised to hear how quickly they fill up).
Some background for the unfamiliar. Ultra marathons involve anything over a standard marathon distance of 26.2 (a hearty feat in its own right). Traditionally the races involve 50K, 50 Miles, 100K, and 100 Miles. Some go beyond even 100 Miles and are in some of the harshest landscapes in the world. Most Ultras have a strict cut off time for completion as well as aid station cut off times and medical weigh ins at strategically placed spots. Generally if you lose more than 10% of your body weight you are asked to stop until you regain it or drop from the race for medical safety. You also have the option to drop out the race at any point in time of your choosing by letting a race official or volunteer know. Throughout our night at least 10 people dropped out under their own choosing. “Masochistic” tends to be a common phrase muttered around Ultras and if you are sitting here wondering why anyone would want to choose to do this to themselves, then you are joined by a healthy crowd of others.
We arrived early and within 20 minutes we were quickly ushered to our post to help relieve other volunteers. Introductions were made, positions were explained, and supplies were organized. That is when the first runner went down. She was slouched in a chair, having arrived while we were being trained, motionless. She seemed to be staring out into nothing and looked hallow. We would have hardly noticed her had it not been for another volunteer offering her some warm soup, no response. Quickly she faded. In the next two minutes she was on the ground laying face up, unable to hold here own weight and the race radios squawked to life: “we could use some medical help at aid station 25, we have a breathing but non-responsive female racer.” Within moments of the call another racer arrived, stumbling she managed to sit in a chair. She was shaking violently; visibly hypothermic. Unable to speak without shivering interruption one of our group found a blanket to help warm her. He proceeded to chat with her over the next few moments until the first medical response person arrived. He exited his vehicle and quickly went to the non-responsive person and determined she was hypothermic, diabetic, and in a non-responsive state. He then spoke to the visibly hypothermic yet responsive woman and determined that an ambulance was needed for both racers. 20 more minutes passed and two ambulances arrived moving the dropped racers to a medical facility nearby. I looked at my watch: 9:45pm, we had not even truly started our shift.
Luckily that was the most eventful part of the night. As the night wore on, countless racers came through our aid station. Some dropped, others continued, and all of them had a single focus on making it the next 5 miles to the next aid station. It was about 3am when it dawned on me the significance of their arduous journey and led me to this thought: As a Student Affairs professional, why do I chose the battles that I do? What is the significance of them? and really does it matter? I realize that my following reflections will likely strike a chord with some folks and I would like them to recognize that it is not my intention to offend but to merely share my reflections from the VT100.
So I sat there and wondered about the conversations that occur around me at work and their significance. I wondered about the times when we seem to get so stuck on a topic that it feels like we cannot move forward (this often happens around topics of social justice). When colleagues are so caught up on a minor detail that it impacts the greater cause (for instance “hey guys” instead of “folks”). I wondered about when something is said in “jest,” and it automatically becomes something more, something harsher or with a hidden meaning (What does camaraderie look like in your workplace? What does it look like with your friends? Is it the same? or are you different in each setting?). I wondered about the fact that our field attracts “feeling” types and how that impacts our field (does this help us or hurt us? Does this prevent us from moving forward because we are so preoccupied with hurting someones feelings? or needing to get validations for our own?) I wondered about the hypocrisy of the curriculums we teach (particularly regarding healthy living) and how we often preach about balance and yet lack it ourselves.
And I watched as runner after runner came through, joking with one another (jokes that in our field we would cringe at), talking about meaningful things without feeling or offense, pushing themselves physically and mentally. They were united in the camaraderie of this single race and nothing else mattered but the significance of making it to the next aid station. They were moving forward with each footfall no matter how slow and it hit me hard: Are we doing the same in our field? In our departments?