Thursday, June 26, 2014

Volunteering at the OD, part 2

So, Saturday, June 14 started at about 6 am for me.  My lovely early-riser of a daughter had me up before my alarm, and I was on the road by 7:30, waving enthusiastically to my smiling daughter and my possibly not-smiling-quite-so-much husband:)  I had to stop for gas and snacks on the way back out to Orkney Springs and my goal was to be at the Laurel Run vet check by 9:30.

I'm terrible with directions, especially ones that involve phrases like, "and then turn right at the church with the logs piled by it, but if you get to the stop sign by the large field, you've gone too far."  I like directions that involve legitimate road names, because I have a tendency to not "see" landmarks when I'm in a new place.  The directions to the Laurel Run vet check definitely included some of the former language, so I wasn't sure if I would ever get there.  After what seemed like an eternity, though, I knew I was close.  I got really excited when I realized I was behind the supply truck for the vet check, so I figured I could just follow it in and not worry about some furnace-type landmark I was supposed to use.  What I didn't realize was that the truck was not going to Laurel Run, so I ended up driving an extra few miles and had to turn around.  Eventually I managed to get to the vet check, carefully park along a Forest Service road (not far enough off the road would lead to my truck getting smacked by a passing vehicle, but too far would mean a sudden descent into a ravine), and lug my chair and backpack of assorted food, beverage, and entertainment items into the vet check.

Unlike when I volunteered at No Frills, there was not a super obvious organizational structure to the proceedings.  I asked a couple of people where the Station Head was, so I could check in and confirm my responsibilities, but no one really knew where he was.  After waiting around for a while, I did manage to track him down. I confirmed I'd be working with the in/out-timer group and so I headed back to the in/out-timer station and started meeting the other volunteers.  Initially I thought there were just 2 of us, so I was surprised to discover that there were about 7 of us.  That seemed like waaaayyyyy too many people.  I thought that I might see if the crewing volunteers needed more help because, in my experience, too many bodies can make things worse.

A very experienced rider/volunteer was working with us, and thankfully, she seemed to have a vision for how we would be organized.  I guess the plan was to start out with more volunteers than we probably explicitly needed, which would allow new people to learn the ropes and help out during large volume times.  Also, at about 2:30, several people would be moving from the Laurel Run vet check to the Big 92 vet check, so our numbers would be thinning.

Things did start off pretty slow at first.  What we decided that I would do is help both the master timer and the out-timer keep track of information and also work with another volunteer who was inputting rider times into a master spreadsheet for all vet checks as a way to help ride management keep tabs on who was where when.  This master spreadsheet was accompanied by a large screen the width of an SUV backseat, and it was pretty cool to watch as riders started coming in and data was entered.

The Laurel Run vet check would be used as the 2nd and 5th vet check by the 100 milers and as the 2nd vet check by the 50 milers.  So, what started out slow got crazy busy as 100 milers started intermingling with 50 milers in late morning and early afternoon.  All of a sudden, it seemed like we just couldn't keep up with the influx of riders combined with the riders who needed out times and then the other riders who needed to actually leave the vet check.

I should note that the OD uses a slightly different system for assigning times.  I'm told it is to expedite riders through the in-gate, and it did do that, but I think it also caused some confusion later.  What we did was give the riders a yellow "hold slip" with their number and in-time as they came into the check, so they didn't have to get their rider card out.  Then, they'd pulse down and go to the P&R station to get a pulse time, where the P&R volunteers were supposed to write the pulse time on the rider card and hold slip.  Next, they would have to come back to the in-gate to get an out-time from us written on both the hold slip and the rider card, before going back to the crewing area (Laurel Run was an away check for the 2nd check for 100 milers and 50 milers).  Finally, they would have to give the yellow slip to me on their way out, so we could confirm they left at their appropriate time.

We had a volunteer who spent most of his time running the hold slips for the riders from the P&R station to the crewing area, but some riders didn't know that, so they felt they were wasting valuable time obtaining an out-time from us.  And, I can see why they would think that.  One lady in particular got very frustrated because she had to wait for 2-3 minutes because we had so many hold slips to assign out-times to that we had a bottleneck.  The hold was a 45 minute hold, but for anyone trying to be competitive and take good care of their horse, waiting minutes for an out-time probably seemed endless.

And what seemed like a no-fail system when we had 7 people standing around doing nothing quickly became a jumbled mess of yellow slips, rider cards, timer sheets, and scratch paper as we tried to make sure we got all times recorded on yellow slips, rider cards, the master timer sheet, and the out-timer sheet.  Plus, we had to check that the pulse times were recorded on the rider cards because sometimes the P&R people didn't do that (probably because they were busy too).  Meanwhile, ride managers were insistent that we also communicate the times to the Keeper of the Master spreadsheet and we had a radio operator in the background with communications coming from other vet checks to add to the general information overload.

And then the "special needs" started to come in.  We had gotten information that one rider had turned around shortly after leaving the vet check because her horse was tying up.  We had an ambulance trailer on standby and we knew her number, but it turned out that she wasn't the owner of the horse.  The owner was back at base camp, so we needed our ham radio operator (other kinds of communication like cell phones were spotty and didn't work everywhere) to get in touch with base camp, have base camp find the owner, and then get the rider and the owner talking to get treatment authorized (the vets did start some immediate basic procedures, though).  Then, an irate hiker came in and wanted to know why she couldn't find a trail head.  I'm guessing it was because the directions she had sucked, but when I didn't have a map and the ability to help her get to the trail head in the middle of my volunteer responsibilities, she got quite upset.  Next, two riders had their cards held by the vet, who still wanted an out-time for the yellow slips, so we had to make a note to get the rider cards if everything worked out OK. (Note:  Everything did work out OK for these riders - to read their stories, hop on over to Liz's and Saiph's blogs.) Other volunteers and crew members also believed the in-timer tent should be full of maps and helpful people who knew how they could get to other vet checks or back to base camp.  We did the best we could, but there were a lot of confused people driving around out there...

Lunch time came and went and we used any downtime to try to make sure we had all the information recorded in all the right places.  Plus, we'd check to see if there were riders who should have left who hadn't, so we could make sure everything was going OK.  Eventually, around 2 pm, things started to slow down and I grabbed a sandwich.  We patted ourselves on the back, breathed a sigh of relief, and prepared for what I hoped would be a nice break while the vet check was closed from 2:45 to 6:15.

Once we'd gotten all the out-times reported to the master spreadsheet, we took some time to relax and chat, and the Station Head made burgers and hot dogs for us.  By about 4-ish, I was hoping to head to my truck to take a nap or read and get some alone time.  I'm a bit introverted, so I find that I need to be alone to recharge my batteries after a lot of interactions.

However, it was about this time that the drag riders for the loop were coming in, and they needed help with their horses.  So I stayed to chat with them and hold one of the horses for a rider who needed some food and relaxation.  Drag riding for the OD is not easy, and the trail to Laurel Run had some kind of crazy mountain climb that was pretty taxing from what I heard.  The plan was for the drag riders to load their horses into a waiting trailer and haul back to base camp.

That plan ended up with a bit of a wrinkle.  One of the horses loaded into the trailer, but as soon as the butt-bar was up, the mare freaked out.  She slammed against the butt-bar and bent it so that it couldn't be removed.  Meanwhile, she was still panicking in the trailer and slipping and kicking.  Her owner was in there with her, also in a state of panic.  I called for help because we needed something like a hammer I'd seen elsewhere in the area and somebody strong to use it to see if we could get the butt-bar removed.

But the mare would not wait and she somehow figured out how to lower her whole body and slide underneath the middle divider (about the height of a butt-bar) and out under the butt-bar on the other side of the trailer.  Her owner was hanging on for dear life, and I tried to let her know it was OK to let got of the lead (I was right behind the mare and could see she was going to clear all the metal with her body, but having her head and neck hung up with the lead would mean she'd slam the middle of her neck into the butt-bar on the way out).  Even though I don't think the owner believed me, she did eventually have to let go because the mare was committed to her exit strategy and thankfully, she managed to avoid all but some fairly superficial scratches on her legs.  Luckily, despite the vet check being officially closed, we still had one vet, who was able to treat the horse's wounds.

I ended up holding the uninjured drag horse while everyone focused on calming the panicked owner of the injured horse and getting some treatment for the horse.  Of course, the owner was not interested in putting her horse back on that particular trailer, so that meant lining up a new trailer to come.  The Station Head decided we'd keep the current trailer as an ambulance and see if we could catch another ambulance trailer coming from a different vet check.

What ended up happening is that our distress call brought two trailers.  One of the trailers already had a horse on it, and because we needed room for two horses, I directed the driver through the vet check area so she could get turned around and headed to base camp.  The second trailer driver had no idea what was going on (she was just told to head to the vet check) and she parked on the side of the road near the vet check.  I think that worked well because the road was fairly level there.  I tried to be encouraging as the owner of the injured horse worked up the courage to load her horse onto a new trailer.  In fact, the mare did just fine.  I actually think the reason she flipped out earlier was because the trailer she loaded into was parked on an incline and had wet hay as bedding, which made the floor slippery.  I think she just didn't feel safe.  The new trailer was much newer, with shavings on the mats, and probably seemed safer to her.

Anyway, after all that excitement, it was getting close to 6 pm, and my plans for a nap were set aside.  There were only 3 of us left for the various timing functions, so I was taking over as the official out-timer.  We made sure we had fresh copies of the rider list and re-coordinated our roles.  We no longer had crew volunteers because the vet check would only be for the 100 milers and with less crowding, we had more space.  It would have been nice if someone had told me that before the first crew arrived...

Also, it would have been helpful if someone had told me what to do with the crews that were arriving in giant dually pick-ups, or even semi-trucks.  I ended up making the call to have them park on the road and lug their stuff in to the crew area.  We had lost the ability to use the crew area as a drive-through to turn around because somehow in all the ambulance/drag horse trailer mess, we'd ended up with two ambulance trailers that needed space to park near the area where the horses would be, and the thought of 10 giant trucks, plus crew, plus all the crap they were lugging in, plus riders, and horses was too much for me to see my way to sanity.  I was later questioned about this decision by a ride manager, but by then it was 10:30 at night and I was possibly less-than-receptive about people telling me what to do:)

Things worked a lot better now because we had fewer horses coming in and the riders were too tired to be fussy if getting a time took a little longer than expected (except for the lady who was still mad at me from the first time she'd been through - you'd think that another 50 miles of riding would have taken that spunk right out of her, but she was hanging on to it).

One really cool thing about being at the Laurel Run check was that I got to see the 14-year old girl who would eventually set the record of being the youngest rider to win the OD 100 mile ride.  I kid you not, her lovely horse looked as fresh as if he'd never been ridden when she came through at about 7 pm, with a little over 20 miles to go before the end.  Her dad was her only crew and while she looked pretty serious, she also had her sh*t together.  She headed out for the next vet check over an hour and a half before we saw another rider.

It's possible that the finish would have been more competitive, but the two riders behind her ended up taking a wrong turn on the trail.  The Station Head actually sent a Search & Rescue team out to look for them because we knew the time they'd left Bird Haven (the previous vet check) and they were very overdue.  And it was getting dark.  One really useful piece of information that I learned is that if you are lost out on an OD trail after dark, you should expect to find your own way, or hunker down for the night.  They will not send S&R teams out after dark because the trails are so treacherous.  (This information might also make a non-endurance person wonder why any horses and riders would be on the trails after dark...).  The S&R team did not find the missing riders, but they did eventually come in, mad at themselves for missing a turn and going TEN miles out of their way.  They got vetted in and released OK, and I think they managed to finish the ride.

Anyway, we had riders trickling in until around 11:30 and with the vet check scheduled to close at 12:30, we had a ride manager stop by to go through our list of riders and confirm all pulls to make sure we were waiting for the right people.  By midnight, we confirmed that all riders that needed to be at the vet check were there and we just had a couple still waiting for the end of their hold time, so we started taking down the lights, tents, and assorted stuff that had accumulated throughout the day.  By 12:30, all riders were back out on the trail, the vet check was taken down, and I was on my way home.  Traffic was luckily great (I know, who would think you would need to worry about traffic in the middle of the night, but I-81, which is part of my way home, is a major trucking route, so can jam up at any time), and I was in bed by 3 am.

I have to say that this experience was so educational for me.  It wasn't fun in the way that crewing at No Frills was fun.  At No Frills, I had a shorter day, a smaller set of riders to work with, and I felt more tied to the riders because I was so directly helping them.  At the OD, things were more overwhelming at first, and it was a long, long day.  I discovered that being a timer is probably viewed more as a necessary evil than a true help, but that's OK.  There are certain practicalities to running an endurance ride, and not everything can be for the sole purpose of making a rider's life easier.  Sometimes things need to be done because it is an organized, sanctioned, competitive event.  The jury is still out for me whether the yellow hold slips were more beneficial than not having them, but they did end up saving our behinds a couple of times when a piece of information was missing from the master time sheet.  Because I personally pulled every single yellow slip, we always had the "official" pulse and out times for every rider.

Plus, all the volunteers were such hard workers.  There were several young people (ga! I'm so old now!) who were work horses and even us old folks were able to keep up a steady pace.  I enjoyed getting to know the ladies I was working with and I now understand the ins and outs (ha, pun intended) of how the times work.  But, my absolute favorite part was seeing the riders leaving the vet check when they were smiling ear-to-ear, even after they'd ridden nearly 80 miles and it was dark.  While I strongly suspect I will be more serious and possibly super-whiny at the rides I do, I am now going to make an effort to smile on my way out of the hold, because it was so motivating to know that there were riders having fun, and it made my long day so very worth it.


  1. As a rider. Without a crew at that check. Those yellow cards are WHACK. Do not like! lol

    May have been better had they explained it AT THE RIDE MEETING. But they didn't. So I was confused major all day. Le sigh.

    Thanks for your service! Necessary evil and all. =) And mostly, thank you for being a familiar face when all else seemed so lost and glum when we came off that loop. You were JUST what we needed to get our spirits up.

    1. I hear you, Liz. I can definitely see why they were confusing for the riders and it was another piece of paper for the time to be written on, so there were some drawbacks to using them.

      And you're very welcome! I'm glad that I served a purpose:)

    2. What a long, long and exhausting day. The whole thing with the drag rider's horse in the trailer sounded terrifying. I'm glad the horse was ultimately okay.

      As a rider at an event this huge, you figure that there is a ton of work that goes into running it, but it was really cool to read exactly how everything is done, especially when it comes to keeping track of so many riders through so many holds and checks. Hopefully other riders read this and are appreciative of the work done by ride management and volunteers at endurance rides!

      Thank you again for volunteering and for being there, Gail!

      Ditto what Liz said about the yellow cards. It makes perfect sense now after you explained their purpose, but I wish they had explained it like that at the ride meeting. They weren't mentioned at all and we were so confused!

  2. Having done the timing at 1-2 AZ rides for the past three years or so, I definitely have a love-hate relationship with it. We employ a similar time slip system and despite fiddling with it every year, it's still a major source of frustration for us timers.

    I also think that all riders should volunteer at some point, preferably early on in their career, because it makes you so much more conscientious of how you treat the volunteers when you're riding! I've always tried to be courteous to the volunteers (I save my snark for other riders who are being idiots), but after spending the last few years doing the volunteering I've been doing...even more empathy for them.

    Totally agree with you about what seeing happy, smiling riders does...makes the long day so much more worth it.

    And don't ya love the non-participants that intrude on the checks? I always end up yelling at mountain bikers every year to quit riding their bikes right through the P&R an organized park with signs posted everywhere telling other trail users what areas to avoid that day...*sigh*

    Volunteering ain't for the feint of heart, that's for sure, especially a position like timing. :)

    1. It's good to know other rides use the same system, but I think there is probably some room for improvement. What would be nice is if there was some way to electronically log the riders in that would be faster and use no paper, but I think that kind of technology is in the distant future...

      And I'm so thankful that I'm doing some volunteering now - I know that I'm going to be a better rider because of it.

  3. I think the out timers get the worst of it. I've had pushy people wanting to leave before time "I'm just a minute early," like you dealt with crabby tired people that complain the line is too long, random people asking questions while I'm trying to keep track too. You did an awesome thing, I learned so much about how to be gracious even when I'm the tired and crabby rider.

    Amazing how much they have to deal with at OD, paperwork, making sure everyone is off trail, etc. Totally agree that too many people can be useless. Thanks for volunteering, that was one very long day!

    1. You're welcome! And actually not a single person tried to leave early and all the riders were remarkably well-behaved. What I couldn't believe was how many volunteers are needed to really make everything work even sort of well. Especially without cell phones and even walkie-talkies, communication was such a challenge.