Crewing an Ultra

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Here I'm crewing Charles at the Grindstone 100.

Having a crew to support you on an ultra can make a huge difference. This list of tips comes from my personal experiences, and observing other runners in ultras. The value of a good crew goes up proportionally with distance, so they are most important in 100 mile races.

  • The responsibilities of your crew are
    • To keep themselves safe. While the focus of crewing is the runner, if the crew does not look after themselves, they cannot look after you. One of the biggest problems with crewing is sleep deprivation, which causes impairment. This is particularly dangerous if your crew has to drive. Crewing an ultra is itself an endurance challenge, so the crew must have time to rest and eat. It's easy for a crew to forget their own needs when they are focused on their runner. Crew members may benefit from having their own bags of supplies, especially if they are doing any pacing.
    • To keep you safe. Some aspects of this are simple, such as ensuring you have all your gear when you leave an aid station. Other parts are tougher and require experience and good judgment to understand how impaired you are.
    • To get you out of the aid station as fast as possible, but no faster. It's easy to burn time in an aid station, and a good crew will focus on getting the job done quickly, but without missing anything.
    • To help fix problems that can occur during an ultra.
  • If possible, have experienced ultrarunners on your crew. They understand better what you will need and when, they can empathize better, and most importantly they won't freak out at what you're going through.
  • Having a crew with a positive mental attitude is almost as important as having experienced ultrarunners. You will need people who are cheery and have a good sense of humor.
  • Having people who love you act as your crew is a mixed blessing. On the positive side, you will look forward to seeing them, which provides Motivation, and their genuine care for you can be uplifting. The sight and touch of your loved ones is also a powerful pain killer[1]. The downside is that an ultra can be brutal, and having your loved ones see you suffering so badly is hard on them.
  • Make sure your crew understands that the act of crewing is a tough challenge in itself. It may involve going without sleep, hanging around for hours in uncomfortable conditions, being too hot, too cold, driving vast distances and putting up with a runner whose personality is radically different from what they expect.
  • Whatever crew you have, spend time with them preparing for the race well ahead of time. Discuss the types of things you are likely to need at each aid station, agree which members of the crew will focus on particular activities, etc. Plan for contingencies, such as wet weather, unusual heat or cold, blisters, nausea, etc.
  • Near the race time, make sure your crew knows all of your gear. They should be able to quickly find anything you need in well organized bags. (Ziploc bags are great for organizing gear.) It's also important for your crew to know what terms you use for your gear, such as "the white fleece neck thingy".
  • Actually use your crew; don't spend time rummaging in bags to find gear when your crew could be doing it.
  • Have your crew do as much preparation as possible before you reach the aid station. Gear can be laid out for easy access and key supplies such as gels and batteries, can be gathered. Instead of refilling your bottles or hydration pack when you arrive at the aid station, your crew can pre-fill spares so that they can be swapped.
  • If you have both a crew and pacers, an effective option is to have one of your pacers go ahead to the aid station to let the rest of the crew know what you need ahead of time.
  • Multitask your crew, so that one person it getting you food, another is refilling your bottle, another is finding warm clothes, etc. Assigning responsibilities ahead of time makes this much easier.
  • Your crew and pacers should monitor your mental state and understand the warning signs. Simple things like raising your blood sugar with some gel may help bring you back to reality, but they also need to watch out for hydration problems, especially Hyponatremia. Heat related illness (Hypothermia, heat stroke) can also be seen in an altered mental status. If you crew is inexperienced, make sure they know to ask for advice from the aid station volunteers, as many of them are experienced ultrarunners.
  • Agree with your crew the situations you think would cause you to drop from the race. It will help them to know when to push you and when to encourage you to drop. This may require some "doublethink" as most runners need to avoid any thought of dropping. However, most of the time, the things that would cause you to drop won't require prior discussion; they will be dramatic enough to be obvious. The discussion should cover injuries that you want to avoid making worse, or specific medical issues like diabetes.
  • Giving your crew a written checklist is useful. This checklist will prevent important activities being missed, as things can become confused and rushed. The checklist should be double checked before the runner leaves the aid station to prevent anything being missed. I would recommend reading the book The Checklist Manifesto. Here's an example checklist I used when crewing at Grindstone:
    • Replace hydration bladder
    • Restock gels
    • Replace batteries in lights and check spare batteries
    • Fill doggy bag (quart Ziploc bag) with solid food from the aid station
    • Check if clothing needs replacing
    • Check if feet feel okay (inspect if needed)
    • Apply lubrication
    • Ask if hands or feet are swollen, urination is okay
    • Do The Morton
  • It can help the crew to know the course and to monitor your pace so they can predict your arrival times. I used a spreadsheet on a tablet PC to automate this prediction.