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The Volunteers: Overnight at Check Point Five

The Volunteers: Overnight at Check Point Five

All volunteers ask for it, some get what they are asking for and more. The volunteers assigned to checkpoints late in a long race expect long working hours and are ready to cope with emergencies. But mud is rarely on their checklist.

This race has been unrelenting in terms of weather. The cold snap has ruined the winter harvest, impoverished thousands of farmers, and created a brisk market in down jackets and gumboots. In the highlands of Lao Cai Province, the temperature has hovered around freezing with rain and snow, turning the ground into mush.

For the volunteers, it has meant coping with extreme conditions, often with the wrong kind of gear. The right kind of gear is low tech – rain ponchos and gumboots for the mud, down jackets for the freezing cold. But even with gumboots, few could be prepared for a night in a swamp.

The way the checkpoints are structured, the checkpoints later in the sequence of a lengthy stage stay open the longest, since they have to wait for the “rear guard” – the slowest competitors who are yet determined to stay the course. Stage One had seven checkpoints. From Check Point Five to Check Point Seven, the volunteers had to stay up all night waiting for the last runners, who are often injured or suffering the most from exhaustion.

To get a look at how this works, take a look at Check Point Five around midnight on Monday. By that time, the leaders had already crossed the finish line. But competitors would arrive at Check Point Five steadily through the night, with the last arriving around 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

By this time, the plastic sheet on the ground of the medical tent at the campsite was thick with mud, from the shoes of competitors as well as the volunteers. Mud was everywhere. The only chairs were tiny plastic stools and chairs that frequently broke. Thick snores emanated from two adjacent tents, set up for the contestants who needed rest. Outside, the fog was so dense that the tent would have been invisible from the road if not for luminescent glow sticks. The temperature is freezing, and the only warmth came from a propane fire heating a hot water kettle.

Team CBRE Blister Busters came in just after midnight – Jennifer Hill, Jason Parry, and Michael Russell, all Hong Kong residents. Check Point Five medic Dr. Jeannie Tyan lingered longest over Hill’s feet, with multiple blisters. Russell refused to take his shoes off, while Parry, a footballer, bravely pulled off his mud-caked shoes for Dr. Tyan to have a look, meanwhile trading Kiwi insults with Russell.

Simone Turner, another New Zealander, joined in (as in, “What happens when a Kiwi moves to Australia? It raises the I.Q. of both countries”). Check Point FiveCaptain Don Keliher, a four-time veteran as a RacingThePlanet volunteer, joined in with Irish jokes (“God created the Irish to make the English look good”). When Hill Parry and Russell leave, they look a little brighter.

Frank Alvarez, Linda White, Kazuo Isomura, and Terry Zmrhal, the last to arrive, were exhausted and had to sleep. The rest tents for competitors were already full, so Keliher spread a drop cloth on the muddy floor of the medical tent to make room for them. Isomura, who speaks only Japanese and was bitten by a dog along the way, looked particularly exhausted but was frantic that he would miss the cut-off time if he stopped walking. Keliher soothed him and persuaded him to get some sleep, and Isomura drops like a stone to the plastic. By 6 a.m. on Tuesday, he is cheerful and ready to keep on going.
In his 60s, Keliher, a cigar-chomping Irish American doesn’t feel the urge to join RacingThePlanet as a competitor, but he loves the volunteer work. “How else could I see the world and have this kind of adventure?” he asked.

The art of volunteering is subtle and involves people as well as camping skills. Keliher works hard to keep people laughing, which is one way to keep spirits from flagging in tough conditions. He works just as hard to keep the other volunteers motivated, and has Turner and Dr. Tyan in giggles as they work. Around 2 p.m., the rear guard went to bed. Keliher ordered Turner and Tyan off duty, while he kept watch. He promised to wake them up – but doesn’t keep the promise.

After the rear guard marched off around 6:30, Keliher and his team broke camp, arriving at the Ben Den Campsite around mid-day. They have spent more hours on Stage One than most of the competitors, and the physical demands, minus the running, are much the same.

The real test for competitor and volunteer alike is mental, keeping a positive attitude and focus under stress. And that was just the first day of RacingThePlanet:Vietnam.

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