Marathon & Ultra Marathon Aid Station: Setup Like a Pro

Andrew Dodson /// 10/13/2021

As a race director for a marathon or ultra marathon, it's critical you line your race route — from the start line to the finish line — with aid stations that provide essential fuel to runners as they push their bodies to the limit.

If you’re new to this, though, you may not know what good race aid stations look like and what volunteers should hand out.

As a manufacturer of heavy-duty pop-up tents, TentCraft knows a thing or two about an effective marathon aid station. It’s important that aid stations not only stand out so runners don’t miss them along the way, but also that aid station workers know what to serve and how to serve it.

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Difference Between a Marathon & Ultra Marathon

Since the first organized marathon at the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, a marathon has been a 26.2 mile race. So, what makes a marathon an ultra marathon? Well, literally any distance over 26.2 miles.

Typically, ultra marathons start at 50 kilometers, or about 32 miles. An ultra event can climb to a 100 mile race or more, like the Hard Rock 100 or the Leadville 100 in Colorado. Often, these races are a combination of trails and paved pathways. There's typically some serious hills to deal with as well. The Zane Grey HighLine Trail 50 Mile Run, for example, features 7,500 feet of elevation gain to deal with across rocky trails. In other words, ultra running is not for the faint of heart.

In terms of aid stations, it’s easier to plan each particular aid station in a marathon because it’s a shorter distance and it’s typically held on a paved course.

What Exactly is a Marathon Aid Station?

Marathon aid stations are established points on the race course that provide water, sports drinks and easy-to-eat food that delivers energy quickly. There are multiple aid stations in a marathon due to the length of the race. A 5K race may only have one or two aid stations.

Marathon aid stations can also feature paramedics for runners who are depleted of energy or sustained an injury on the course.

The best marathon aid stations are clearly marked so tired and sweaty runners can easily identify where they need to go for water or a quick energy-boosting snack.

What Do I Supply at a Marathon Aid Station?

Water is a given, but marathons and ultra-marathons have evolved to include essential drinks and snacks that help runners successfully continue their race, in addition to first-aid items. Here are some must-serve items for your aid station workers to hand out:

  • • Water. All aid stations need water. Everyone — from first-timers to professional runners — needs to drink water during the race to finish a marathon.
  • • Sports drinks. Drinks like Gatorade and Powerade give tired muscles an alternative source of glucose, which allows runners to actually conserve its existing glycogen supply. Most marathoners consume a mix of water and sports drinks throughout the race.
  • • Fruit. An orange or banana at mile 18 is a great source of sugar to give a runner's body a boost as you close out the race. Dates don't taste as good, but they are an ideal source of energy.
  • • Peanut butter. Filled with unsaturated fat, protein, and fiber, peanut butter is a popular choice for marathon runners. Since it's so sticky, eating a spoonful from an aid station can temporarily take a runner's mind off how tired their body actually is at the moment.
  • • Pretzels. Really any salty food is a good thing to have at particular aid stations. Runners are shedding salt as they sweat and that needs to be replenished.
  • • Vaseline. As runners sweat and their skin rubs against clothing or other parts of their body, chafing is inevitable. Vaseline can help cut down on any chafing.

Ultra Marathon Aid Station Food

If you’re hosting an ultra marathon, runners demand more robust food in addition to some of the items listed above. It’s not uncommon to see energy gels, almond butter, jelly sandwiches, and trail mix. Near the end of some ultras, you may even see pizza being served.

How Many Marathon Aid Stations Does My Race Need?

Major marathons, like the TCS New York City Marathon, offer aid stations that serve water and Gatorade every mile beginning at the third mile of the race. Those major marathons typically include a separate medical aid station at each water station as well.

Because budgets can be tighter for smaller-scale marathons, shoot for an aid station every other mile beginning at the third mile. Not every station needs to be as elaborate — some may only include a table with water cups, for instance. But you should have at least five “major” aid stations dispersed throughout the course that serve water, sports drinks, food, and first aid items.

Aid stations for your 26.2 mile race may look like this:

  • • Mile 3: Water
  • Mile 5: Water + Food + First Aid
  • • Mile 7: Water
  • • Mile 9: Water
  • Mile 11: Water + Food + First Aid
  • Mile 13: Water + Food + First Aid (half marathon)
  • • Mile 15: Water
  • Mile 17: Water + Food + First Aid
  • • Mile 19: Water
  • • Mile 21: Water
  • Mile 23: Water + Food + First Aid
  • • Mile 25: Water

Choosing a Pop-Up Tent for Your Marathon Aid Station

While fold-up tables will get the job done at your basic water aid stations, you’ll likely want some kind of shelter for your volunteers since marathons go rain or shine. Custom, heavy-duty pop-up tents come in a variety of sizes and are a great solution for a marathon aid station, in addition to stations for a drop bag.

Heavy-Duty Pop-Up Tents for Marathon Aid Station

A rendering of a 10x20 MONARCHTENT with custom shelves.
This rendering shows a custom MONARCHTENT equipped with counters that could be used for water cups.

Weather is unpredictable come race day, which is why a heavy-duty pop-up tent is your best option for those “major” aid stations.

A 10x20 or 10x30 MONARCHTENT is the perfect solution for several reasons:

  • • It uses a thicker anodized-aluminum frame for ultimate durability and strength.
  • • It’s battle-tested for lifetime use and comes with a lifetime warranty, so you don’t need to reinvest in new tents each year of your race.
  • • It includes a peak flag that can be custom-printed to identify an aid station and be seen by approaching runners.
  • • It can handle all sorts of accessories, including shelves, which are helpful when handing out race fluids.
  • • It’s manufactured and handcrafted in the U.S.

A MONARCHTENT can be completely customized to include your race’s logo. We recommend printing “AID STATION” on the valances to make it easy for runners to identify the station. You could also customize large feather flags for runners to see as they approach the station.

We recommend including weighted footplates with MONARCHTENT to ensure the tent doesn’t move and potentially harm any runners.

Medium-Duty Pop-Up Tents for Marathon Aid Station

An example of two black, Nike-branded mightyTENTS outside the tentCraft headquarters.
Here are two Nike-branded mightyTENTS outside the TentCraft headquarters.

If you need a custom-printed pop-up tent to match your race’s brand, but don’t need the best-possible solution, mightyTENT is a solid option that still delivers on quality and durability, but at a lower price point.

A 10x10 mightyTENT is a good medium-duty solution for basic water stations — especially when it comes to keeping your aid station workers dry in inclement weather.

Plus, the frame comes with a 5-year warranty, which gives race directors confidence in the structure lasting for many, many races.

Inflatable Tents for Marathon Aid Station

Emergency personnel care for a patient inside an inflatable medical tent.
Inflatable tents make great first aid stations during marathons and ultra marathons.

A customized GYBE inflatable event tent is a fun and easy-to-install option to make your aid stations really stand out.

An inflatable tent can be set up by one person in about five minutes, and because there’s no rigid frame, it can be easily stored.

If you need a larger footprint, GYBE inflatable tents can be connected. You could also place an inflatable tent on each side of the course at the aid station and identify one as serving water and the other as serving a sports drink in order to disperse runner traffic.

Inflatable tents are also great as mobile medical tents when purchased with privacy walls.

Tips for Volunteers Running a Marathon Aid Station

A well-run marathon aid station can make a world of difference for your race. Follow these tips to have the best possible aid stations.

Have an Aid Station Captain

Each station needs an aid station captain who can instruct volunteers to appropriately distribute drinks and food. This leader should have some previous experience volunteering at road races and be comfortable directing volunteers on what to do.

Tell Runners What You're Serving

When runners are 10 or 15 miles in, it doesn’t matter how well-labeled your station is, you need to yell out to runners what type of drink or food you’re holding in your hands. Runners are focused on their race and aren’t typically reading signs. Instruct your volunteers to shout out “Water!” or “Gatorade!”

Don't Overfill Water Cups

Ever tried to drink a cup of water while running at 7:30 mile pace? It’s not easy. Runners are conditioned to squeeze a cup to create a smaller opening, making it easier to consume water while running. If you overfill the cup, the runner can end up wet.

Keep Trash Out of the Way

Instruct a couple of people on your aid station crew to make sure empty cups and any other trash is out of the way of oncoming runners. During busier parts of the race, this is unavoidable, but when you get a break, clear those cups out of the way. A push broom can help with this. Once they’re cleared from the course, the cups can be thrown into garbage bags.

Train Your Crew for a Successful Marathon Aid Station

Marathon aid stations may seem simple on the surface, but they do require careful planning in order to have a successful race. If you need help determining which custom pop-up structures are best for your race, contact TentCraft to learn about all of your options.

About TentCraft

We’re more than just custom pop up tents — TentCraft is a premium fabricator of all things experiential marketing and outdoor advertising. If it combines metal, fabric and print our team of skilled craftsmen can transform any napkin sketch or wild idea into a fully realized project. Serving the biggest brands on the planet as well as your local High School, if you want the perfect blend of quality and American craftsmanship, we’ve got you covered.