Last updated: 04-Apr-19
By James Eacott
Ultra running is rarely a solo endeavour. It’s a team sport.
I’d be surprised to hear any of you say you partake in this sport with no outside support or assistance. For me, teamwork is one of the greatest aspects of ultra running.
Regardless of the distance, marshals, volunteers and event staff will likely play a part in ensuring you have a safe, enjoyable, successful ultra experience.
However, your own personal crew probably has the most significant impact on your experience. The longer the distance, the greater the bearing they have. Most could churn out a 50k without a crew, but as distances extend beyond this, the influence of a crew increases.
The responsibility of a crew is not to be taken lightly. In all likelihood, your runner has trained for months – if not years – and a not insignificant chunk of their success rests in your palms.
Don’t mess it up!
Photo credit: James Eacott. Nail the crewing and the result takes care of itself!
As race season approaches, I thought it would be handy to share some tips from my experience crewing. I’ve crewed my partner in many ultras over the years at races such as the Thames Path 100, Country to Capital, and the Ridgeway Challenge.
So, what have I learnt?
1. Know your runner.
Knowing your runner’s hopes and dreams and understanding the work that’s gone into getting them to the start line is crucial. At a previous race, I cringed at one supporter who was so busy faffing around on their phone that they almost missed their runner entirely. They certainly didn’t have any food and drink ready for them, and clearly held no real interest in their runner’s ambitions. It was tense watching the confrontation unfold and just annoyed both parties!
As I said earlier, chances are your runner has dedicated a lot of hours and made considerable sacrifices to stand at the start line. They’ve asked you to be part of their journey so give it the respect it deserves. Have a blast, of course, but ensure that they are front and centre of mind.
2. Research the route.
It should go without saying, but you’re going to need to know where you’re going to meet your runner. If you’re old school, get the maps out alongside the race route and work out your meeting points together.
I usually aim to pop up around every 8 to 12km – long enough for you to pack up from the previous meet, get to the next and prepare for your runners’ arrival.
Either plot the points on a map (clearly, in red pen), or use Google Maps and drop pins at each location.
3. Understand what motivates your runner.
A crew needs to be able to motivate their runner. Understand whether your runner gets a boost from a dose of “MTFU” or prefers a gentler approach. Do they like to know their position within the field? Do they take motivation from being an underdog? Does counting down the miles work for them?
Once you know this, you’ll find appropriate methods to boost your runner without irritating them!
4. Know your runner’s nutrition.
This is huge. Spend time pre-race chatting through your runner’s nutrition strategy. How much do they aim to eat each hour? What about liquids? Are you giving them plain water, electrolyte or energy drink? Does it change as the race progresses? Do they prefer savoury or sweet?
Palates change the longer one progresses, and it’s not uncommon at some point for a runner to become sick of their nutrition plan and just nail the offerings at the race checkpoints, but the longer you can give your runner their tried and tested nutrition, the better.
5. Understand their kit.
In the latter stages of an ultra, as your runner becomes a bit of a physical and emotional wreck, often unable to make use of their normally functional opposable thumbs, knowing how their equipment works comes in handy.
Have a play with their kit the day before the race. It sounds simple but knowing how best to slot their bottles into their pack or how to attach their poles to the back could come in handy and save some stress. Know where they like to keep their bars, and how to tighten various straps.
Photo credit: James Eacott. Crewing an Ultra is a family affair!
6. Look after yourself
I made the mistake of thinking it’s all about the runner on my first crewing experience. I was crewing a 100-miler and, in short, I was flipping knackered. I’m not sure how I made it through, but it was a feat of endurance I like to think not dissimilar to running for 20 hours!
I hadn’t thought to pack any food or water for myself and hadn’t pondered whether I would / needed to take any power naps along the way.
Take plenty of nutritious food with you, otherwise you’ll be visiting garage forecourts throughout the day, subsisting on donuts and energy drinks.
This is an endurance event for you too, remember. Put the good stuff in and good performance will come out – and that will benefit your runner.
7. Keep your cool and have a sense of humour.
Keep your emotions in check. Your runner will experience extreme tiredness and that can affect them in a range of ways. Sometimes happy, others miserable as sin. Sometimes ratty and rude, other-times overflowing with love for you!
Go with it, enjoy the ride and have a sense of humour. And definitely never bring your own emotions to the table if it means you’re going to snap at them.
8. Go the extra mile.
As the race progresses, do your best to pop up even more frequently than previously agreed. Even if your runner doesn’t need any extra nutrition, the boost in moral at seeing a friendly race will be more valuable at the pointy end.
9. Know when to give them a hoof.
They’re a motivated bunch, but even the most determined ultra runner needs a good kick sometimes. Considering the above and not letting your emotions get in the way, it’s also important to know when your runner just needs a good hoof.
Remind them of their mission, why they started and why you’re not going to let them stop. Build their confidence, instil belief and if they think they can’t go on just tell them to get to the next checkpoint where you’ll see them again. Eat that elephant, one bite at a time.
Photo credit: James Eacott. My runner at the finish – Pride personified!
10. Prepare for a wobble.
Expect a physical wobble, because their legs will be as useful as a new born giraffe’s. Have a chair to hand, park close to the finish line and – crucially – have warm clothes on you, including hat and gloves, because they’ll chill rapidly.
You’ll also need to prepare for an emotional wobble. Maybe they smashed their target, but they may be disappointed. Be an emotional rock and expect extremes of emotion as tiredness kicks in.
11. Don’t take it personally.
If you’ve messed up at any point during the race, you might be told! Maybe you won’t, but in the heat of post-race emotions frustrations can appear, particularly if your runner hasn’t achieved their goals.
Take it on the chin, don’t retaliate and if it needs addressing, do so tomorrow!
12. Know their vice!
They’re going to want to tuck into something special, so being aware of their favourite treats and guilty pleasures will win you a few extra brownie points.