Behind the hi-viz – marshaling the White Rose 100 miler

This year, my time at the White Rose ultra was spent driving between checkpoints, sitting in the dark waiting for runners and helping anyone who needed it.

The White Rose 100 mile ultra last year was one of my favourite running experiences – my first (and only 100 miler) and a race local to me so having done the 30 mile race twice and the 100 it was time to give back and be part of the marshal team so this is a race report from the other side of the checkpoint snack table!

My wife Ally was in charge of organising what was ultimately a fairly small team of marshals – turns out not everybody wants to sit outside in the middle of the night in November – but luckily with of the 3 races (the course is a 30 mile loop so there’s a 30, 60 and 100 miler which has an extra 10 at the end) the 60 and 100 milers had trackers fitted as part of their mandatory kit so it was a little easier to manage who would go where on the course and when.

The start of a long weekend

The 100 mile race set off at 12:00 noon on Saturday with the 60 and 30 mile races not due to start until 08:00 on the Sunday it was going to be a long shift which Ally and I planned on splitting between us.

Reporting to race HQ at about 11:00 we wanted to see off the 100 milers and it was a reasonably slow start in terms of support, with 3 manned CP’s on the 30 mile lap (5, 15 & 25 miles) we could track the runners before heading out onto the course to see the marshals in place.

Our first stop was to see the runners come through 15 miles and as is always the case, there’s a few who go out fast – often too fast – and although the leaders looked good, the first two who built commanding leads on the first lap were both DNF in the end.

Brutal weather

Last year, the weather at the start of November was unusually warm – I ran pretty much the whole race in shorts and t-shirt. No such luck for the competitors this year with temperatures down around freezing and wind chill making it feel colder when the daylight went.

It ultimately accounted for a very high DNF rate in the 100 mile race (I think well over 50% didn’t make it past the 60 mile/2 lap mark) and it certainly made for some unpleasant standing around outside during the night even though I was well wrapped up in trousers + waterproofs, base layer, fleece, thick ski jacket and buff + hat & gloves!

It’s an exposed course in many places with a couple of moorland sections and a particularly tough 1000ft climb in the 4 miles to the 25 mile CP and many runners in each race reached that checkpoint looking a bit shellshocked for sure. It’s a good reminder to carry quality kit and layer up when it’s cold as you’re moving pretty slow in most ultras.

Night 1 – The retirements begin

As we followed the 100 milers around the course on the trackers, it was reasonably chilled because they were the only ones out on the course over the Saturday night and with many of them having done their first laps in the daylight they had the challenge of getting back to race HQ and then forcing themselves back out into the darkness (it’s fully dark by about 4.30pm at this time of year).

Not easy but after just the one lap, most people were still pretty fresh and we headed to the CP at halfway on the loop to check on the marshals there who were having a good time seeing runners through but at c45 miles and 8-10 hours into the race we were now starting to get a few retirements.

Luckily thanks to the location of the race HQ it was actually only a 10 minute drive back so chatting with one runner who I ran back (Julian?) he recognised me from this blog and previous WRU race reports. Always nice to meet someone who’s visited the site.

Most runners seemed to be making good progress but the cold and brutal course were obviously going to take a toll over the night.

The coldest spell

Marshaling for the most part involves a lot of hanging around – it’s great getting runners through but in a long distance race the field literally spreads out over miles and miles. It’s not unusual to run one and not see another competitor for long stretches so as Ally headed home around 11pm to get a few hours sleep I was buzzing so headed to the 25 mile CP where my Meltham AC club mates were marshaling and setting up their own party.

The CP is also 2 miles up the road I live on so it made sense to spend some time here after dropping Ally off and with it only being 15 mins back to HQ – looped courses make logistics a lot easier – I settled down for a couple of hours with Sam, Nick and Helen who put in a great amount of work while her boyfriend ran the 100.

In the middle of the night we were pretty toasty in Sam’s car with the heating on but getting out to see each runner through and help top up bottles, the temperature and conditions were without doubt going to take a toll on runners.

The CP on the second lap is at pretty much the highest point on the course (after that 1000ft climb for the second time) and on some exposed moorland where the wind and pitch black night drove temperatures down past freezing. With 5 miles back to HQ a lot of runners faces suggested they’d had enough already and there were a lot of retirements at 60 miles.

Who would want to go back out and do it again right?!

The 30 and 60 milers

The trackers for the 100 made monitoring the course very easy from our perspective. As the field spread out it provided some fascinating viewing. The 60 milers would also be tracked but those running the 30 were not (there is a cost per tracker) everyone was off at 8:00am on Sunday in those two races in dry but cold conditions.

We had a few friends in each race and it was nice to see them coming round the course at various points but having now been on the go for the most part of 24 hours (had a couple of hours sleep at home after seeing the 100 mile winner come in just over 19h) ourselves it was back out on the course for us.

With a lot more runners out course – most of the 100’s would take over 24 hours, the 30 and 60 milers were “enjoying” their own races in the bitter cold and at some points the rain swept in and even turned to sleet/snow on high parts of the course.

Checkpoint stocks

The checkpoints this year were stocked a little differently to last – there were still the normal snacks like crisps, chocolate, flapjack etc but the race was cupless this year to save on waste (a move I wholeheartedly agree with) so competitors topped up their bottles or had small plastic cups for water. That made it a lot easier from our side for sure.

As runners came through, it was often our goal to get them back out on course as quick as possible so taking bottles and topping them up as they get to the CP. The cold weather meant stopping would for most people be very unhelpful as they’d cool off very quickly.

The checkpoints aren’t as well stocked as some other races – it doesn’t bother me as a runner – but I know some people turn up and expect to be fed soup, tea and coffee, gels and all manner of treats!

As we spent the bulk of our time at the 25 mile CP our priority was topping up bottles and getting people out on the road to the finish/HQ because it was only 5 miles from there and having just climbed 1000ft up Wessenden Trail in the last 4 miles people needed to keep going.

To their credit, I don’t think a single runner DNF’d at this CP – certainly I didn’t take anyone back.

Another long day

As the day went past and darkness once again came around at 16:30ish, runners in the 30 and 60 mile race were still coming through 25 miles in varying states but pushing on to the finish. The cold weather continued and as my day 2 stretched into the night I headed back up at about 8pm to take over from Ally’s mum and dad who’d been manning the station.

The last of the 30 milers had gone through but there were a number of 60 milers still to come through but we were able to track their progress and so at least I could sit in the car and just hop out when their headtorches appeared on the trail.

It’s a lonely spot at the top of Wessenden Trail at night and a lot of the runners had been alone for a couple of hours at this point so I tried to be a friendly face and keep them moving here. The end was almost in sight for them.

The weather again really hit hard, it’s a race that has a lot of running in the darkness and this year was bitterly cold – last year I was so lucky running the 100 as the weather was unseasonably warm and I got sunburn! The Yorkshire Moors in November are a mixed bag.

As 10pm rolled around, the last runner came up the trail and while hiking at this point was actually in good shape and met by her other half who was crewing her so I was happy to see her moving on to the finish knowing she was going to be fine.

Wrapping up

I know from reading some of the feedback about the race there were some issues with organisation and logistics but overall it looks like the big majority of runners had a very positive race whether they finished or not.

I’ve taken a lot from this race over the years (running the 30 twice and the 100) and TeamOA are good personal friends so it was definitely time to give back and even though it was a two day stretch with only a couple of hours sleep I very much enjoyed my experience marshaling this one.

The amount of time and effort people put into training and running is seldom questioned and often praised but once again the amount of effort and time those people staffing the aid stations and monitoring the course/HQ was amazing so thank you from me to my fellow marshals. I know TeamOA and the competitors also had many positive things to say too.

Want to be a marshal?

Marshaling a long race is a tough challenge due to the hours involved sometimes but it’s great helping keep the runners moving. Some are taking a step up in distance or doing their first ultras while other have trained for months to beat a PB so everyone needs that bit of encouragement.

Here are some things I learnt that might help if you want to help out at an event:

  • Commit to being a marshal early – it helps the organisers schedule and plan.
  • Stick to that commitment – Obviously plans can change but many people are relying on you so try to stick to it as much as possible.
  • Take clothes for all conditions – you’ll be stood around for hours and the weather can change so have a rucksack with a variety of clothes and waterproof gear. If it’s cold like this year, you’ll just wear it all!
  • Have some good food with you – we were given packed lunches but it’s always good to have something you have prepared too which helps avoid nibbling at checkpoint for hours on end.
  • Entertainment is always good – whether it’s your car radio, an mp3 player, book or whatever – you’ll find in many races there are big gaps between runners so you can get bored.
  • Know the race – for those at the front racing, it can be very helpful to know how far ahead (if you’ve got trackers) they are from the next runner or how far behind they are from the one in front. For those further back, telling them it’s not too far to the next CP and encouraging them is usually appreciated.
  • Be the friendly face – Some runners are well and truly in the pain cave when they hit your CP, some can be miserable as sin (been there myself!) but try to keep them going by being nice.

Next year

I might just run the 30 next year, it’ll be a lot quicker :D