Because it's not accessible by vehicle, volunteers must make the four-mile trek from outside Twin Lakes over intensely rough and unpredictable terrain, accompanied by pack llamas laden with supplies.
Vicky Foster has been a member of this llama crew, a.k.a. the Hopeless Crew, for 25 years, offering moral support, massage and her special noodle soup to runners ravaged by the race's many adversities. Here, she tells her tales of this critical spot on the trail.
Describe Hope Pass. Why is it a critical and sometimes dangerous place on the course?
The meadow where we camp and let the llamas graze after the hard trek up to the aid station is beautiful. It's fantastic. Like so many places in Colorado, the vistas are breathtaking and the wildflowers abundant. We often see sheep and elk, but thankfully no bear during the camp.
Hope Pass aid station is the only aid station not accessible via motorized vehicle. We are also the only aid station that sees the runners twice, meaning that we need tons of supplies and we work from early until late on race day. We are at mile 44.5 and Mile 55.5, so we see the runners on both the out and back from Winfield.
Hope Pass is above tree line and the highest point of the race (although the aid station is right at tree line for safety). The runners are totally exposed going over the pass and often very fatigued by the hard climbs they face to and from the pass. Not only is the terrain difficult, but if the weather is bad -- we have had rain, sleet, snow, hail and heat, sometimes all in one race -- the runners can be in bad shape physically, mentally or both.
We treat everything from cuts and scrapes in the aid tent to hypo- or hyperthermia, altitude problems, dehydration, disorientation, sprains, strains, hypoglycemia, stomach upsets -- the list is exhaustive. Although there is a strict cut-off time from Winfield we have runners who simply cannot make it down from the pass. These folks get to enjoy the hospitality of our aid tent.
What are "llama crews"?
The llama crews include everyone who comes up with us to work the aid station. We have folks volunteering from all around Colorado, a few from Kansas, and, more recently, the Golden High Track team and senior seminar, their coach and some very wonderful parents. These young folks have brought a special energy to the aid station. Most of the llama owners recruit volunteers. We involve everyone we can in our crews because we can use as much help as we can get. Every volunteer has contributed something special to the Hopeless Crew!
How is the Hope Pass aid station different today than it was 25 years ago?
Everything was much smaller and much more ad hoc. We started with fewer than ten folks on Hope Pass and fewer than 100 runners. We used all of our own equipment and supplies for the runners. I remember being huddled under a small tarp that blew down under a wind and hailstorm and my camp stove tipped over. Sometimes things got exciting. They still do!
Now we have an outfitter's tent for cooking, a large first aid tent, and a huge tarp for food and shelter for the runners. We also have an amazing battery-powered water filtration system that grew from a personal hand pump, then a bicycle pump.
One year we were looking back up the pass and saw a light at least two ridges over from the correct trail. Several of the crew hiked up, found a disoriented runner and brought her back to camp. Now we have sweeps and better tracking through our radio operators to keep up with the runners. There are still times when we are looking for that last runner to come down the hill and wondering about his or her safety. Making sure everyone stays safe is still a big part of what we do.
Are you a competitive runner? Why is it important to you to help these athletes?
I am a jogger now. When I first started helping out at Hope Pass, I used the trail as a training run. Nowadays, I just hope to make it up the hill and back. I have completed several marathons, but 10Ks are more my distance these days.
All my interests seem to mesh with the work at this aid station: I have been a competitive runner, my educational background is in exercise physiology, I was formerly certified as an Emergency Medical Technician, and I have pack llamas. Also, everyone is so very appreciative of the efforts we make to get the equipment and supplies up to Hope Pass and then run the aid station. It really is quite rewarding. Plus, Hope Pass is a beautiful place to spend time.
What's the most inspiring or most meaningful thing you've seen in your time as a volunteer?
Wow! Every race has something special and I wish I had kept a journal over the years. (Sigh!) The Hopeless Crew itself is inspiring. These volunteers come back year after year and form a natural team. These folks tirelessly haul water, purify water, massage cramps, fill water bottles, clean the latrine, feed runners, keep the radio contact going, track runners in and out of the aid station -- anything and everything. Egos seem to get parked at base camp for sure.
There's never been a time that I poked my head out of the cook tent and hollered "Cook needs a break!" that someone didn't step forward. That goes for every job or task on the crew. A natural team! I appreciate being recognized as a volunteer, but it's the whole Hopeless Crew that makes everything work.
Another equally inspiring part of the race is the caring, community spirit of the ultra-runner group. Every year, we have people who have selflessly interrupted their own races to help fellow runners make it to the aid station. We often get messages that there is a runner in trouble and they want to know if we can send help. We can and we do. The care that these folks have for each other is wonderful.
My own personal best is the Brit who fell into my cook tent, cramped up and hurting. I massaged out the cramp, got some of my wonderful noodle soup in him and sent him on his way, hoping he would make it to Winfield. He was back in the cook tent sooner than I would have thought possible, giving me a hug and telling me that I saved his race. Boy, was that a smiling moment. He finished the entire race and I still feel good to this day that I was able to help.
What advice can you give to first-timers?
Be prepared. Hydrate, fuel yourself, have some kind of clothing layer on your person and talk to everyone you encounter. Your fellow runners and everyone at the aid stations are there to help.
Where do you live and what do you do when not volunteering?
I live in Allenspark, CO. We are a small mountain community north and west of Boulder. I have 9 acres for the llamas and three wonderful "wranglers" who help me keep everything working when I travel as a monitor for pharmaceutical research.
Anything else you'd like to share or think the athletes need to know?
From the early years of the Hopeless Crew until today, we have had the support of race founders Ken and Merilee, and now the Life Time Fitness folks. This support is important for the crew and the runners and is very much appreciated.
Athletes should be smart and be careful! HAVE FUN! It is, after all, only a race. (Yeah, right!)