Witnessing Grit: A Volunteer Report of Lone Star 100

Our very first runner was a Tarahumara. He was dressed in a T-shirt, a traditional thigh-length skirt, and was running in huaraches – thin sandals that are made from tires. When he rolled up to our aid station, he immediately took out a water bottle and I asked, “water? agua?”

“Si.”

As I was filling up his bottle he started to ask for something specific.

“Yellow?”

Unfortunately I couldn’t understand his request. We thought perhaps he wanted Gatorade, but it became clear this wasn’t want he wanted. The grizzled runner continued asking for “yellow” about a half dozen times as he took the bottle back, threw back two small cups of coke, and grabbed some oranges. Then he cut his losses and took off flying down the trail. The three of us felt foolish for letting him down, and after some research, we figured out that he was asking for ice.

In Spanish, ice is “hielo.”

Making matters worse, I figured out that this Tarahumara runner was actually Arnulfo Quimare, the legendary athlete who out ran Scott Jurek in the Copper Canyon race which is detailed in the popular book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. Upon discovering that I had let down a legend like Arnulfo, in my first gig as an ultra volunteer, well, I felt sheepish.

Arnulfo coming down the finish. Photo: Anna Blanch Rabe

The Lone Star 100 ultramarathon is a 100 mile race in the picturesque Franklin Mountains of El Paso, and it was hosted by Trail Racing Over Texas (TROT), a company that organizes almost 20 different trail races throughout Texas. This year was the first edition of Lone Star, and it also featured a 100K and relay races comprising a series of brutal loops on technical and steep terrain.

We had a number of friends racing. Matt and Cindy Preslar, of Cloudcroft Runners and a talented local power couple, were running the 100K relay. We recently became friends with Katherine Yager, a Canadian who was travelling across the U.S. with her husband Callum in a sleeper van, and they travelled to El Paso for her to run the 100K. And our friend Miguel Perez, a beast of a distance runner who has finished about 16 different 100 mile races including UTMB, was racing the full 100 miler. To be able to support and cheer them on added to our excitement.

Day 1

The first day was the hottest February day on record in El Paso.

I worked with Rueben and John at the isolated West aid station serving everything from Gatorade to oranges to gummy bears. As tired runners rolled through they would generally feast their eyes on our fueling spread, and take whatever they craved.

After figuring out our supreme failure to provide ice for Arnulfo, I doubled down on helping runners with ice and soaking. When a runner came through, I would ask what they needed, they would pass me a bottle or a complicated hydration bladder and ask for their fluid of choice. Every single runner also asked for ice.

Following my shift, I was able to run south to the start/finish area to meet my wife and hang out while runners were coming and going from their loops. We did have the chance to watch Matt kick down the hill of his 50K loop and win the 100K relay with his wife Cindy.

But Matt was the only runner I saw finish as the carnage of runners dropping out gained momentum. For example, the 100 mile leader Mark Hammond, last year’s second place finisher at Run Rabbit Run 100, took off from the camp for his third loop and within 20 minutes retreated back with a strained leg muscle which forced him to drop out. As Anna and I retreated to our campsite, more carnage amassed throughout the night.

On a positive note, our friend Katherine was able to finish her 100K race at 4:30 AM which was good for second overall female capping a really stout day for her and her husband Callum who paced her for parts of the course.

Katherine with husband Callum and mother Beverly. Photo: Anna Rabe.

Day 2

On the second day, the weather got more real.

Changing course from the blistering conditions of day one, a cold front moved through the desert and created gale force winds which flowed over the mountain crest into the race area. By the time I made it out to the West aid station to resume my second shift, there were only eight 100 milers remaining with a scattering of runners left in the other events. After standing in the open tent trying to find shelter from the wind, we migrated to a truck where we waited for runners to come through.

Matt paced Miguel the last 30 kmAlthough sitting in a vehicle was brilliant for escaping the elements, we witnessed the brand new steel framed tent covering our aid station begin to buckle. So as deliberately as possible, the three of us dismantled the tent and secured anything that was loose, turning our aid station into a series of crates and coolers.

Somehow, the 100 mile runners pushed through these conditions to the finish. Apparently, Miguel would take nearly an hour just to cover the very last mile on a jagged rolling ridge without very much room to maneuver. But it was amazing for us to know that all these runners pressed on to the finish, with Edward Sousa and Julie Koepke winning the men’s and women’s races respectively.

Although I love trail running, there is no way I could have run 100 miles or 100 km on this course. But I was eager to volunteer at Lone Star for a host of reasons. Being someone who enjoys organized races, I’ve long wanted to volunteer to help other runners and connect more with the community. I also really wanted to understand the logistics and challenges of hosting a successful racing event, let alone a 100 miler. And I wanted to witness the triumph of the human spirit in person, to personally see what people go through to finish such an incredible challenge. And if I could actually help them succeed, then I knew it would be a fulfilling experience.

These are some of the big lessons learned from witnessing the story of Lone Star 100…

  1. When running a 100 mile race, slow and deliberate pacing is beyond paramount.
  2. The Franklin Mountains are no joke! Trail running on this terrain takes serious grit.
  3. Successful 100 milers have a whole new level of fortitude. The last two finishers were behind on pacing to make the 36 hour cutoff, but they bypassed our aid station and pressed on into the oppressive winds to get to this finish line. Working together they made it, and it was really impressive to see them finish.
  4. Volunteering is an amazing experience which I recommend to anyone. Watching other people tackle an amazing and hard adventure, and being part of that journey made this experience really memorable.
  5. TROT provided some serious perks for volunteering: free camping, a volunteer shirt, lunch on both days, and race credits! It was worth it.
  6. When working an aid station for a high altitude desert ultra, ice is power.

Holding the fort