2017 Runfest First Time Volunteer

I volunteered for the 2017 Runfest in Anchorage. It was the first time I volunteered for helping with an event as a ham radio guy. I was sent a spreadsheet, some documents, and I looked at the Runfest website. I was assigned to Westchester Lagoon #2. I had a vague idea of what was involved and where I was going to go.

On Sunday the Runfest hosts 5 races down the Coastal trail. All the races start and end downtown. They run an ultra-marathon (49K – about 30 miles), a marathon (about 26 miles), a marathon relay, a half-marathon (about 13 miles) and a 5K. During the whole weekend there are about 2,600 participants and 800 volunteers.

The ultra-marathon heads out to Kincaid Park, a turnaround, then up the Chester Creek Trail, a turnaround, and back to downtown. The marathon follows pretty much the same course, but the turnaround is before Kincaid Park. The half-marathon turns east up the Chester Creek Trail and uses the same turnaround as the other 2 races. The 5K turnaround is before the tunnel to Westchester Lagoon.

I have a Baofeng handheld that I hadn’t touched in months. I wanted to make sure that I had the repeater programmed into it, so that there was no way I could mess up the configuration when I was down at the lagoon. I was messing around programming the Baofeng on Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t hear myself on my base station radio. I was getting stressed. I wasn’t sure that I was set up properly, but there was someone on the repeater that told me that I was getting through OK. Big relief. I charged up the regular batter and the big battery.

The spreadsheet said that my location, Westchester Lagoon #2 at mile 2.2 was “50 yards west of the intersection of the Coastal and Chester Creek trails”. Isn’t that out in the mud flats? The description of the location works out to be right over the railroad track.

I went down to the lagoon on Saturday, and I thought that Westchester Lagoon #2 aid station was the wide spot in the trail just in front of the hook shaped boardwalk south of the Coastal  and Chester Creek trails intersection located over the outlet of Westchester Lagoon. Maybe the “50 yards west” should have been “50 yards South”.

The weather forecast called for rain all day. I packed up my rain jacket, umbrella, boots with thick socks, extra baggies, hand held radio, extra battery, snacks, and a free standing rain shelter.

I got up early on Sunday morning. I am not a morning person. A bit before 7:30 AM, there was a crew setting up an aid station just across the trail from the Westchester Lagoon parking lot. I walked out to the Coastal and Chester Creek trails intersection. Nothing. I went down to where the boardwalk heads out to the west on the west side of the lagoon. Nothing. I kept walking South, and where Woodworth Circle dead ends at the Coastal Trail, there was a 2 mile race marker sign, right around where “mile 2.2” was on the map. I continued walking south to Fish Creek and didn’t see anything else race related.

Anyone else have a radio warning sign and a Frankenstein sized spark gap?

When I walked back, about 50 feet south of the Coastal and Chester Creek trails intersection, there was a group of high school kids and a Downtown Partnership pop-up tent was going up over a table with water and cups.

At the main aid station I set up my rain shelter. It’s a lightweight model, nylon tarp with aluminum poles, great for rafting or canoeing. We put it over the back of the Gatorade table. It was nice to have, but I didn’t spend much time under it. It was usually full of teenagers.

This was an interesting station because of all the activity. The ultra- marathoners and marathoners went by 3 times each, and the half-marathoners went by twice.

The ultra-marathon (green bib) and the marathon walkers started at 8 AM. They got down to my area around quarter after 8. Half of the racers had an extra layer on, so sometimes you couldn’t even see a bib, never mind trying to read the number. Lots of runners.

After the big pulse of marathon runners (orange bib) went by, around a quarter to 10, the water only aid station on the Coastal Trail was shut down. At first the big question was how do you move over a hundred paper cups half full of water from one aid station to the other one? The answer was you just pick up the table and walk it the two minutes to the new location.

There was an interesting mix of people on the trail. In addition to all the runners, there were the regular daily users of the trail and the tourists, running, walking, pushing strollers, and on bicycles.

I was trying to pay attention to the radio, but sometimes it got real noisy. At one point there were a dozen teenagers at the aid station playing music on a Bluetooth speaker, runners going by, people cheering the runners on, the guy with the cowbell, floatplanes overhead, a polka band further down the trail, not to mention the train. I was looking for a runner with a new bib color.

At times it was a three handed operation. First, it was raining. I needed to hold the umbrella. I needed to hold the radio. I needed to write down the sex and bib color and the bib numbers of the first runners going by. When it was busy, all of us were reporting where the leaders of 5 different races were, separately for males and females, and sometimes it was a couple of minutes before you could get through on the net. I think I did OK. Didn’t trip over my tongue too often. Remembered to ID every so often.

It was interesting seeing the wide variety of people running by. Most of the runners looked like they were doing okay. There were some runners that didn’t seem to be really enjoying themselves but they were doing okay. Then there were runners that seem to be having a miserable time. Some of them looked like they had joint problems. Rather than going at a comfortable running pace, they seem to be clomping along like Frankenstein.

Then every so often you would hear a conversation going on. Two runners, in a marathon, having a conversation while they were running along the trail. No big deal.

The tourists were interesting too. One of them asked where the “moose breeding grounds” were. I had to have him repeat the question a couple of times because I had never heard of the “moose breeding grounds”.  Apparently the guy that rented the bicycles said that there were “moose breeding grounds” down near Kincaid Park. Once I heard Kincaid Park I was able to point him in the right direction. Some of the tourists would ask which trail they should take to get to where they wanted to go. I had to ask what their destination was so that I could give them directions.

The aid station was staffed mainly by cross country runners from West High School. They were helping out and having fun.

My wife loves the Food Network on TV. So I get to see a lot of shows about restaurants. One of the food service basics is: never touch the rim of a glass with your hands. I had recently talked to some people that went into a new place in town, and the water glasses were upside down on the table. They thought about the same bar rag used to wipe down the bar, the tables, the seats, a bacteria spreader. They got new glasses.

But… How do you hand a cup to a runner? You have to hold the cup by the rim so that the runner can grab the bottom of the cup as they run by. If you have a bunch of teens next to hundreds of empty paper cups, it won’t be long before there are walls and towers and castles made of paper cups. I decided to not worry about it. If you were that scared of cooties, you wouldn’t be running along a trail in Alaska where moose are being seen and reported over the net along both the Coastal and Chester Creek trails.

There was one older lady that looked out of shape, she didn’t look like she was having fun, she didn’t appear to have an efficient gait for running. But, she was in the ultra-marathon. She had skipped enrolling in the marathon and went for the ultra-marathon! I couldn’t believe it.

On the net there were some philosophical discussions. Was it proper to cut the zip ties on the doors of the porta-potties without explicit permission?

One of the advantages of being on the lagoon was that you could see how hard it was raining by looking at the water. You didn’t have to rely on just the sound of the rain falling.

There were runners that were dragging their feet the whole way. You could hear the scrape, scrape, scrape from down the trail. Like someone in a pair of scuffies heading from the bedroom to the kitchen. These must be the people that need to replace their shoes every two months because they wear out the tread on the bottom. One of the odd things was that you can see and hear these people clomping along like Frankenstein, or someone else dragging their feet, and then in back of them would be someone smiling, light on their feet, having a great time. And then you have to wonder how is it possible that this person that seemed to be running fast and comfortably was still in back of the people dragging their feet and clomping? I could never figure that one out.

I was minor player in a goat rope search for a runner that might have needed some aid. There were some reports that there was a runner with a dark hoodie that looked like he was doing bad on a hill somewhere up near 2nd and Christiansen. Net control relayed the request down to Westchester Lagoon. I went over to Team One’s tent to talk to them. One of the paramedics headed out with a large, heavy backpack of gear. It was a huge backpack, as large as something you are going out into the bush for a week with. She hopped in a vehicle and tried to track down this mysterious runner that needed help. She went to 2nd and Christiansen, didn’t find them and then back tracked to the finish line. She had fun with the crowds and the blocked streets. She found a spot between two police cars where she thought she could park for five minutes while she tracked the hoodie runner down. She didn’t want to sneak up on the police car from the back and knock on the driver’s side window, surprising the cop, so she circled around the long way so that the cop would see her coming. She was able to park there and then continued on foot to the finish area. She found the other medical group downtown with doctors and a group of 8-10 people staffing it. Why did they send one of the two paramedics at Westchester Lagoon to check it out when they had all these people downtown? They said that they had briefly glanced at the guy with the hoodie. He was fine. The paramedic made her way back to Westchester Lagoon.

When most of the half-marathoners had gone back through Westchester Lagoon, three of the women half-marathoners took a 90 degree turn off of the course. I thought that they were going to head back to the porta-potties, but they went over to the playground equipment. 11 miles into a 13 mile race. They were playing around on the equipment, taking pictures with cell phones and there was a lot of laughing. After a few minutes they walked back to the course, smiled, waved, and started running again.

Things were really slowing down by 2 PM. The teenagers were released from the aid station. The radio was really quiet. Then a weird thing started happening. It was over two hours after the race was over. There were still people on the trail, but the race was done. The people way back in the back of the pack would smile, wave, and thank us for volunteering!

Around 2:30 we were waiting for the sweep bicycles. I was expecting to see a group of about three bicycles with everyone wearing reflective vests and maybe some kind of official run fest sign on them. Over the radio I was told that “Loki” cancelled out as a sweeper. Wasn’t Loki the bad guy in the Marvel movies? Didn’t he have the long horns?

One guy showed up with a fancy cargo bicycle that was imported from the Netherlands. He had a stack of race milepost signs in the cargo pod. I talked to him. He said that four out of five of the sweep bicycles canceled out. He was the only one left. He didn’t know who Loki was either. He deserves a lot of thanks and a beer or two.

The aid station people left, and it was me and the two paramedics.

Close to 3 PM net control called and said that the course was closed, thank you for your help, and you are free to go home. I told the paramedics that the races were officially over.

Westchester Lagoon at 3 PM on an August Sunday, in the rain, only 5 cars in the parking lot, only about 3 on the street. Like a ghost town compared to earlier in the day. Still raining, couldn’t see the bases of the mountains to the east.

The Downtown Partnership Suzuki utility vehicle came down 15th Avenue. It’s larger than a golf cart, but smaller than a small pickup. The Downtown Partnership guy started taking down the pop-up tent and picking up the folding tables. A small garbage truck showed up. I headed back home to warm up under a blanket.

That’s it. I’m amazed at what it took to put on these races. With all the rain I can’t quite say that it was fun, but I’m glad I did it and I’ll probably be back again next year.

Walter Yankauskas – KL7WY – Runfest 2017 – Westchester Lagoon