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Volunteering for the Great Savannah Endurance Challenge (GSEC) Ultra run

Updated on June 1, 2014
Ultra runners preparing for the start of the Great Savannah Endurance Challenge
Ultra runners preparing for the start of the Great Savannah Endurance Challenge | Source
The Westin
The Westin
Cool running as best you can
Cool running as best you can
Runners alternate between running and walking to conserve energy throughout the day.
Runners alternate between running and walking to conserve energy throughout the day.
Lara Zoeller ran over 130 miles in 24 hours, a new record for women in her age group
Lara Zoeller ran over 130 miles in 24 hours, a new record for women in her age group
sara Maltby placed first in the six hour run for women
sara Maltby placed first in the six hour run for women
Man in kilt
Man in kilt
Sara finishing the six hour run
Sara finishing the six hour run
A great way to spend a Memorial Day weekend
A great way to spend a Memorial Day weekend
Volunteers at the aid station
Volunteers at the aid station
Tents set up along the route
Tents set up along the route
The setting sun left the bridge with a pink highlight
The setting sun left the bridge with a pink highlight
Crew members watching for their runners to pass by to offer aid and assistance
Crew members watching for their runners to pass by to offer aid and assistance
it's a family affair
it's a family affair
Dawn running backward with dogs
Dawn running backward with dogs
Westin lights at night
Westin lights at night
Tent city
Tent city

You don't necessarily have to be fast to run an ultra


I would never classify myself as a distance runner. The most I have ever run in a competition was 15.5 miles and I hurt, very badly. After the event, I was walking like an old lady and having to take the steps to my house one foot at a time, barely being able to lower myself on the toilet and wondering if I would be able to get up once seated. It was not glamorous by any means.

On my own I have hiked about 30 miles in one day and that nearly killed me, and I was much younger then. I just could not imagine running 100 miles in 24 hours, but that is exactly what a number of my friends did this past Memorial Day weekend as I volunteered to help with timing by recording runner’s numbers as they came through the chute near the finish line, only to keep on running the 2.213 mile loop around the old car race track on Hutchinson Island.

The race was divided into three groups; 6 hour, 12 hour and 24 hour runners. There were a few relay teams as well with up to six different runners doing laps and then tagging out for another runner to take their place. I had wanted to do that, but couldn’t find anyone who wanted to do it with me, so settled on volunteering instead, hoping to get through early enough to run a few laps with friends.

Early morning start yields fresh faces, nervous laughter and a lot of runners bouncing up and down at the start line like Tigger in a time warp

The race started at eight and by the time 10:30 rolled around a few runners are looking bad, sweating profusely and undergoing stomach cramps that make their faces grimace. A few stop to vomit and crew workers encourage them to slow down and drink more fluids and wrap cold bandannas around their heads and necks to keep their core temperatures from rising.

About thirty miles into the run for some, or about ten miles for those less accustomed to longer distances, many ultra runner's strides begin to change from fluid and ground covering, to short and stilted. Their eyes begin to glaze over as if they are tuning out the world around them and going to some deep inner place, where even offering a smile or a hello seems to be too much effort and yet, when they become of aware of their distant stares, they come back to reality they take time to ask if their fellow runners are okay, nod a thank you to their crew leaders, and stop to ask their lap time or distance, while popping a Popsicle in their mouths and toe tapping painful steps back out on the track to put in more miles, making non or casual runners, wonder about their sanity.

The GSEC race raised over $1200 to aid the Challenged Athlete's Foundation, which helps provide prosthetic limbs for injured athletes and provides funds to send them for training and races

At the Great Savannah Endurance Challenge (GSEC) track on Saturday, May 23rd, the sky is slightly overcast and a cool light breeze blows off one of two rivers surrounding the island that separates the northern coast of Georgia from the southern coast of South Carolina. Natives joke that it is one of the few states where you have to drive north to get to South Carolina.

Tents and campers line the grassy strip surrounding the track on the west end facing toward the Westin Resort and the Talmadge Bridge, more commonly referred to as the Savannah River Bridge with it’s twin cabled peaks and never ending traffic at all times of the day.

You can see cargo ships traveling down the Savannah side of the river and hear rustling palms and thick tall grass clacking in the wind on the South Carolina side. It feels as if you are somewhere far more tropical and mysterious than Georgia and the twin Arabic looking towers of the Westin reflecting in the canal and the palm lined drive with it’s lemon sweet Magnolia flowers in full bloom, wafting perfume through the warming air, make the whole atmosphere feel “vacationy” and ripe for celebration.

A screened canopy with the Savannah Endurance logo and its black and white checkerboard flag pattern marks the timing tent where laps are counted with runners calling out their bib numbers as they pass.

Dan Hernandez, who organized the race is wearing a matching black and white checkered bandanna and worried that some of his volunteers have not shown up yet to work the aid station, but as more people arrive they step in where needed and things appear to be running smoothly.

Eventually the timers begin to recognize the people and their numbers before they arrive and call out the numbers as the runners repeat them and a second and third timer repeat the numbers again, echoing back like a cashier to a short order cook and reminiscent of bird song or dogs barking in a rhythmical pattern that gets a bit addictive, like the coda of a pop song.

“Two sixteen,” shouts a runner who is on the relay team, as the woman on the ground with the clipboard repeats, “Two One Six,” and the man on the computer yells, “two sixteen,” and the man on the chart and the other clip board sound off in turn.

They keep this up for six hours straight as the runners come by, some more quickly than others. Some pass by like the hands of a clock, every twenty minutes or so, making you worry if they are off by a few minutes and others get slower as their mileage increases.

Many runners run together to keep each other company, while some run alone. Those who run alone seem distant and withdrawn and even though pairs may not talk, they still seem to communicate and share each others struggles.

Some runners run in pairs. Twenty four ten is running with six ten, so the timers must sound off quickly to get both in as they come past.

Eventually, runner six ten, a female, demands half jokingly that she be referred to as sexy ten while her male counterpart is labeled as teddy bear ten.

Runners numbers, outside of relay runners wear bib numbers that correspond to the number of hours they will be running: six, twelve and twenty four.

The event begins at eight a.m. on Saturday and ends at 8 a.m. on Sunday, though most are done by 4:30 am., some staying to cheer on the last of the diehards, and others heading home; hot, tired and sticky, hoping to score a shower and a quick nap, followed by a long afternoon snooze.

By noon the cool breezes seem fainter and the hot sun begins to rise directly above anything that might provide residual shade.

Runners come in from the back side of the track which runs along a stretch of the river and a manicured golf course, complaining that it is really hot out there.

Volunteers fetch more ice and water and buckets with wash cloths so that runners can dip them into ice water and wrap them around their necks or heads. There is plenty of ice and water and strawberry flavored Heed and blue Gatorade and crew workers continually remind runners to stay hydrated while making sure they are sweating and urinating and not feeling nauseous or light headed.

Lara Zoeller and Bren Tompkins who have been running with each other all morning are both starting to show signs of fatigue and stomach aches and are encouraged to take Endurolyte, salt and water, as much as they can handle.

Lara is being crewed by husband Alec Zoeller and Bren by Masumi Herota, both going to heroic efforts to keep their runners safe and comfortable, even running laps with them and racing them down to offer them drinks or cold packs to keep them from succumbing to the rising heat, which is beginning to effect some ground crew as well, with the standard greeting of the afternoon sounding something like, “How are you feeling? Are you sweating? Have you peed yet?”

As night time approaches, runners breath sighs of relief from the beating of the sun on the hot asphalt track that slants to one side to allow race cars better traction on turns, but requires runners to stick closer to the center to avoid running lopsided.

Once five o’clock arrives it doesn’t take long for the sun to begin to set. Three or four more laps around and the faintest of stars can be seen overhead and the sun forms a low hanging golden globe over the bridge with a unique thin pink cloud that appears to be hanging dead level with the roadbed on the bridge as if someone highlighted it for some higher purpose that none of us were privy of understanding and yet it seemed to be a gift of sorts all the same.

Pizza arrived for the evening meal and there was still plenty of snack food including boiled potatoes, pretzels, hummus and peanut butter sandwiches and fruit chopped small enough to eat on the run.

Aid station workers took thin blue glow sticks and placed them inside of balloons to form eerie glowing orbs, giving the food table an almost party atmosphere, while small colored Christmas lights were plugged into the generator and placed along the side of the road near the finish chute, more for mental stimulation than to guide runners in the dark.

Rounding the bend home, runners could see a faint outline of the bridge with its blinking lights and the welcome site of the twin towers on the Westin with their red lights glowing as a warning to keep low flying planes at night from running into the building.

It was dark on the interior of the island and it was hard to see the road without a headlamp, though a few brave souls ran without them. When the sun began to disappear , there was only a pale glow and distant stars and no moon in sight, but one could listen to the sounds coming from the pond with the frogs, the doves in the trees by the open golf fields and the palms on the water and know where they were even with no light.

There isn't much to see at night on the far side of the track, but the smells and sounds alter the feeling of the run and provide a welcome change while making runners feel even more alone, even when running with friends. It is as if the deep of the darkness causes deepness of thought and reflection on the reason why runners run to begins with.

Some runners had seen a snake and a turtle on the road earlier in the day and others imagined maybe there were deer or other wild animals lurking nearby, but if they were there, they remained hidden; probably fearing the runners more than the runners might fear them. Though some sort of creature made a snorting sound off in the woods, though in fairness it could have been a wayward runner stopping to take a leak.

A few brave souls spent the night in tents while crewing for runners while others slept on blow up mats on the ground and some stayed awake the whole night and into the morning.

In the end, Lara Zoeller ran the most miles (133 and also a record breaker) and several others put in 100 miles or more with Bren Tompkins running 101.8 kilomesters and breaking the Georgia State Open Male record with a time of 9 hours 41 minutes and 8 seconds for 100 K and his personal best distance and time.

Sara Maltby took the women’s six hour race running just under 40 miles, while Andrew Snope took the men’s six hour running just under 49 miles. Sara ran that morning and Andrew ran that evening as six hour runners had their choice of when they wanted to start.

By the time Andrew was several laps in it was dark and he was running without a flashlight, leading some to say that it was kind of spooky to have him dash past them in the dark and disappear like a stealth glider a few hundred feet past.

Later someone loaned him a headlamp, but even with a light, the line of sight was still limited except when running near the golf course and in route back to the finish when the glowing lights of the Westin welcomed runners back toward the strip of tents and generators running lights and camp lanterns.

While volunteering was fun, it was nice to be set free to actually get out and see the track and the runners and socialize with friends without fear of becoming so distracted that you forgot to count the lap of passing runners.

I stuck with the timing tent for just over six hours when reinforcements arrived and then it was off to move the truck closer, take a bathroom break in a real bathroom inside the Westin and then back to help Michelle Daniels pick up more ice and water for the troops.

Later in the day I debated going home, but it seemed like kind of a cop out with everyone trying their hardest to put in their miles, so asked a friend if she minded if I tagged along with her. She had already put in over thirty miles, so I had no problems keeping up with her, one of the perks of running with ultra runners late in the day, when early on they usually blast past you and leave you in the dust!

After two laps I took a break and ate some food, jog walked a few more laps and realized that my shoes were too loose and the lack of socks meant there was too much friction and my heels were burning.

After stopping to put on socks and fill my water bottle with ice, which melted by the time I had gone half way around the track, I caught back up with Pam and walk/ran at least five laps.

We talked about everything; past boyfriends, school, future plans and dreams, taking chances in life, pushing yourself beyond where you thought you could be, being bold and doing things you normally would be too cautious or fearful to do.

We agreed on a lot of things and disagreed on others. At one time the conversation got a little heated when we discussed morality and God and following rules, but we put that aside and talk turned to what drives people to do what they do and whether we are truly in control of anything other than our attitudes (if that) and whether change of diet cures type two diabetes or merely makes the symptoms less noticeable but does not reverse the damage already done.

Pam’s right foot was cramping up and swollen and she was struggling to maintain pace. She wanted to do two laps in an hour but we were barely doing one in 40 minutes. I didn’t have high hopes for her, but didn’t want to be a Debbie Downer, so tried to be supportive. My feet were burning so badly I didn’t think I could go another trip, but I ended up doing three more and then decided to call it quits.

It was midnight when I left and Lara and the other Pam and Bren, dressed as Spiderman, as well as several others I knew well and vaguely were still at it. Lara’s husband Alec had started his six hour run as well, putting in 37.62 miles total and then staying on to run with Lara and support her into the wee hours of the morning.

I must admit I was glad to come home to a warm shower and a comfortable bed and I did think about going back the next day, but I had a graduation to go to of a young man I had taught in Sunday School and who’s parents and grandmother owned a bakery and were kind enough to provide free cakes, cookies and bread to many of our youth events. It just seemed wrong to skip it and despite being tired and sore, I was amazed that the pastor, who gave the commencement address mentioned not one, but nearly all of the controversial topics Pam and I had discussed on our many laps around the track!!!

God works in mysterious ways and apparently the pastor agreed with Pam on many points and with me on others, so it was a good learning experience all around and maybe I do need to step out of my comfort zone and be more outgoing, using the gifts God gave me rather than hiding them under a basket for fear that if I shine too brightly, I will blot out other's light or draw too much attention to myself and feel awkward having the spot light turned on me.

It’s odd, because, even though I did not run the ultra, I feel like I discovered a lot about my own abilities and about the people I run with all the time, but don’t really know that well.

I met a few new friends, including a four legged one called Violet, and reconnected with old ones and maybe, just maybe, can be convinced to try another ultra, this time maybe a 50K, but we shall see. After running seven miles with the Savannah Striders one week later, my butt was so sore and my hip flexor so tight, that I wondered if I would end up limp walking again; a punishment from God for setting my hopes higher than they ought to be... (yes, Pam is right, I do need to stop thinking that way!)

The funny thing is, you never know what your body or the world is going to do to you. You may not have a choice in what happens, or maybe you do, but if you are willing to go with the flow and let life take you where God wants you to be, whether kicking and screaming or following willingly, chances are you are in for some awesome adventures that are sure to make you a better person or a better athlete or hopefully, both.

Of course there is always that chance you won't make it, but if you never try, you'll never know. As Bren reminded us, in the famous words of Yoda, from Star Wars fame as he is training Luke to be a Jedi warrior, "There is no try. Do or do not."

I think in the grand scheme of things it is better to do, within reason of course, than to regret not doing something because you didn't think you had the skills or ability. Again, it never hurts to use common sense and think about what you are doing is doing to others, but dare to step out of your comfort zone and focus on the possibility that there is some greatness in you and that's okay, as long as you don't let it go to your head or put others down because you think you are better than they are, you can use your greatness to pull others up to that level with you, and if you can do that, if you can endure the long miles of life, then you can go beyond what you ever imagined possible for yourself and for others and that's a pretty good goal to aim toward no matter what your mileage.

For a list of everyone who participated in the race and how far and fast they ran, you can visit: http://ultrasignup.com/results_event.aspx?did=27100

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