Water Stop: A How-To Guide

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This article first appeared in the September 2011 (Issue #3) of our magazine. It was written by Kevin Balance. We thought republishing it during this current hot streak made sense. 

Many races have water stops.  Here in the 21st century, some 5K’s even have them (don’t ask me why).  Having gone through my fair share, I have scrounged around the innards of my brain to come up with my two cents.

First off, thank you.  Thank you to every volunteer who has ever (wo)manned a water station.  Runners are fickle and it ain’t easy.  Giving water to a passerby going some 10-12 mph can be quite the challenge, so let’s make it easier on both you and the runner.

The Location.  Where a race director positions a water station is of crucial importance.  For some reason an uncanny number of them are setup on the far bend of a curved road.  No good.  Sometimes dangerous.  Many runners aren’t willing to go out of their way for a cup of water; I now I’m not neglecting a tangent for a sip of water that may or may not enter the confines of my mouth.  Yet, unbelievably, not all my brethren feel the same way.  Some of them do b-line for the liquid gold.  What does that mean?  Clipped feet and jostled shoulders.  Some harriers are so determined to get refreshment that they cut off other racers in their path.  Sure, this happens on straightaway aide stations too, but the ones placed on a bend exacerbate the situation.  At least when the water stop is placed at the midpoint of a long straight line participants can see and plan for their libations.

Cup Size.  How many of you just thought about that other cup size?  Tisk tisk.  This is a running publication.  Anyway, I’ve been to races that use 16 oz solo cups at their watering holes.  Are you crazy?  I don’t want to play Beirut or flipcup in the middle of my 10K.  I want a sip of water.  Even worse, the solos are filled to the brim.  Now I’m getting a bicep workout in the middle of my race.  Gracious…The opposite end of the spectrum is the 2.5 oz Dixie.  I’m not brushing and rinsing here, I’m looking for a gulp of water.  If the Dixie is filled 2/3 of the way to the top and I’m spilling half of it on the transfer, I’m getting maybe a dram if I’m lucky.  Picking the right size cup for your water stop is a lot like Goldilocks looking for that just right bowl of porridge.  Instead of all that looking, let me be Goldilocks and tell you want I want: a 6-8 oz waxed paper cup that is filled a little more than halfway.  Here’s why: 1) the waxed paper allows me to pinch the top of the cup together to funnel the drink into my mouth as efficiently as possible, 2) the 60% full cup minimizes spillage and allows me to get one or two good gulps down.  I hate spillage, especially on cold days because it sends a chill through my hands and arms, and a cup not filled to the brim minimizes my dribbles.

The Transfer.  This is art in motion.  Some volunteers have perfected this delicate and precarious act.  They know how to hold the cup (by the rim or the bottom—never middle), and they know just when to let go.  A perfectly transferred cup of water produces a small wave inside the cup that aligns singularly with the runner’s momentum.  An experienced runner can use this wave to take the water without losing time on his current mile split.  It’s a thing of beauty.  Too bad not all transfers are seamless ones.  I have run through all kinds of water stops with all kinds of different “techniques.”  There’s the guy who seemingly doesn’t want to let go of the water; I have to pull it from his hands and lose all the water in the process.  Then there’s the gal who won’t stagger herself out into the road. She stands directly behind her fellow volunteer rending herself inaccessible.  And there’s the volunteer who stands on the wrong side of the table expecting the harrier to grab the water off the table himself.  This happened to me in a marathon once and it was devastating.  I ran by with my hand outstretched and  a look of chagrin on my face.  The guy actually said, “It’s not that type of water stop buddy.”  Yikes.

 The water stop was the first ever drive through, where perpetual motion is expected. 

The Approach.  As documented above, the approach can be difficult and this part is all on the runner.  Racers must make sure they have at least two strides on their competitor before darting over to the aide station.  Once there, please don’t come to a complete halt or slow considerably.  The water stop was the first ever drive through, where perpetual motion is expected.  So keep moving.  Once you have your water, you have to stay alert.  Getting the drink is only step one.  You now have to reintegrate yourself into the herd so don’t go barging into the middle of the road as if you were the only one on it.  Take a look around you before you get out of the camber.

The Intake.  The worst thing you can do is set your goals too high.  Don’t plan on taking multiple sips.  Go for one good gulp and get on with it.  Get a healthy swig in your mouth and hold it there and swallow in small doses.  Breathe through your nose for a couple of strides.  It’s better than choking and coughing and unnecessary oxygen debt.  If you’re lucky enough to have some liquid left in your cup, douse your head with it.  Sometimes water is more beneficial on you than in you.

The Discharge.  You have successfully quenched your thirst, but you are still holding the cup in your hands.  What do you do with it?  Throw it on the ground, of course.  Yes, easy enough but please do so tactfully.  Make sure you don’t hit anybody with it.  You don’t have to look back, but you can listen to “see” where your fellow competitors are.  This is, of course, unless the guy next to you is a real jerk.  If that’s the case, bop him off the head with it and feign ignorance.

Official article song: “The Water’s Edge” by Seven Mary Three

Read more from issue #3 here.

Read more from our current issue, #21, here.



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