Escarpment Trail Run: Volunteering To Be A Beast of Burden

Gabriel TambungaStruggling over a rock ledge, carrying an unwieldy pack, I lifted one knee up high and heaved myself to my feet.  As I rose, the load in my pack shifted, and I did a hula hoop move while grabbing a sapling to maintain my balance.  Rain pelted me. Such is the lot of a Beast of Burden – a volunteer at the Escarpment Trail Run.

The Escarpment Trail crosses no roads, so volunteers mule water, food, first aid supplies and anything up to each aid station.  At 3430 feet, Stoppel Point isn’t the hardest or steepest of the mountaintop feeds, but the way in is the longest, at nearly four miles.

Although my stress fracture is healed, I’m building mileage and not ready to race a technical 30 k.  Instead of starting work on my 200 Mile Club membership, I volunteered to work an aid station at Sunday’s Escarpment Trail Run.  At 7:30 Sunday morning, I met 12 other hardy souls ready to haul food and water to Stoppel Point, the last hilltop before the punishing four-mile descent to the finish.

It had already been raining hard for 30 minutes as Paul Piastro doled out gallon jugs of water to the various volunteers.  Since we had Laurel, I haven’t done any backpacking; only day hikes.  But there were plenty of backs to share the load.  Three gallons went into my big Lowe backpack, plus my own food and water, plus extra clothing.  How hard could it be?

I hadn’t reckoned on this load being so hard to carry.  Lighter than the 60 pounds I took up Mount Rainier many years ago, it was more unwieldy.  Ideally, one should load heavy items in the top of a backpack.  But with only a fleece pullover, a vest, two hats, my own water and lunch, there was nothing to pack.  The jugs of water went to the bottom of the pack like stones sinking to the bottom of a lake.  The easy grades were fine, but I lagged at the back of the group.  Every rock step was a considered effort.

At North Point, a lone volunteer laid out gallons of water from his rucksack, and I gratefully left him one of my gallons.   I didn’t catch his name, but I didn’t envy him.  On the open ledge, he had zero shelter from the weather.  Remember the 2008 race?  Storm cells stalled overhead with tongues of lightning lashing the ridge every minute for three hours?  The runners at least could move.  The North Point volunteers were probably the most exposed that year.

Within a mile of departing the parking lot, I was soaked.  Packing in a hurry on Saturday, I forgot gaiters, which might have kept my feet dry for another hour.  The rain jacket worked as advertised, except that I was sweating with the load.  One way or another, I was gonna get wet.

Last in line, I straggled up to the clearing.  Those who arrived before me had already rigged two tarpaulins.  One volunteer put up a small tarp for his golden retriever to shelter under.  Our cold fingers fumbled adding Gatorade powder to jugs of water.  We broke energy bars in half.  Then we waited.

I regret that I can’t recall the names of the other volunteers at Stoppel Point.  Paul Piastro was the coordinator.  Walter owns a 300-mile shirt, having run the race 17 times.  His body doesn’t want him to run any more, so he hikes.  Another is the rental department manager at Hunter during the winter.  They and the other volunteers have all done this multiple times, and they have it down pat.  It’s not just gallons of water and food.  There was a boom box, Gatorade® drink mix, a big banner that screamed “Stoppel Point!  4.1 miles to go!”, a little table to hold cups of water.

As we finished setting up the feed, I got darn near hypothermic.  In late July, the temperature was probably only 60 degrees.  Shivering, I traded my sopping wet technical top for a dry fleece pullover and a wool hat, and put my parka back on.  At that point, bailing out back to the car and a complete change of dry clothes was a distinct possibility.

Jacob Loverich around 11:15.  He looked comfortable, like he was out for an easy run.  He took a cup of water and kept going.  A minute later, perennial favorite Ben Nephew arrived.  Plainly stressed, Nephew grabbed a quick drink and took off.

The next runner was several minutes later.  Although I recognized faces from races past, I don’t know all of their names.  They all had stories.  The sixth runner to show up sauntered into the feed as though he was strolling casually down Main Street after church on Sunday.  He was plainly bonked and spent several minutes there, chugging a quart of water and eating an energy bar.  Sometimes they came singly, otherwise in twos or threes.  Mt Tremper local and Twitter bud Tony Fletcher passed through on his way to a new personal best.

It’s amazing how one can dry out and warm up just by handing cups of water to racers and then pouring more.  Everyone who passed through had a smile and a kind word, despite being in the middle of a race.  For sure, some were in more of a hurry than others.  The backmarkers may not have been going as fast as the guys off the front, but being out in the woods longer, they were suffering just as much.

Around 2:30, the last two runners passed through, accompanied by sweepers.  It had stopped raining an hour earlier, but we were still fogged in as we broke down the feed station and hiked out.  By the time we descended to North Point, the sun was out.  The finish area was empty by the time we arrived there, with bagels, watermelon and water remaining from the post-race feed.  Virtually all the racers had gone. I chat with Dick Vincent before driving home.

It was a long day, and it was well worthwhile.  Sure, I would rather have run, but it was great to give others the opportunity to have their best race.