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Taking my place on a blanket surrounded by bags and coolers, I immediately learned the most prevalent aspect of any crewing experience: waiting.
We played Uno. We checked the time. The sun set. Sean’s mom got nervous.
“Is that Sean?” she’d ask when a runner approached. “Do you think he’s O.K.?” she’d follow up when it was someone else. Alex, who would be pacing Sean from Foresthill to the finish line, grew anxious.
“I just want to go,” he said, fidgeting in his collapsible chair.
I hadn’t planned on being part of a crew that day. But when I met up with friends that afternoon at the Foresthill Aid Station (mile 62), they invited me along as they crewed their friend Sean, who was running his first Western States, which starts in Squaw Valley, California. It sounded like fun.
Then it looked like business. I had run a 100 once, and had paced three, but I had never crewed one, and it’s really different. I was immediately handed the 16-page booklet Sean had put together for his team members, which included Sean’s parents, his wife, his sister and my friends Alex (Sean’s pacer) and his wife, Alison. The booklet was stuffed with maps, supply lists, stats and directions, which included precise instructions for cutting a PB&J (in quarters), as well as a list of crewing “do’s” and “don’ts,” my favorite being: “Believe in me.” I wasn’t sure we needed that one, but it seemed like a nice touch.
Finally, Sean came into Foresthill, looking weary and withdrawn, but happy to see his crew.
There we waited under artificial light as the minutes ticked away, and tired runners found their crews.
We leapt up and buzzed about him. Sean sat with a vacant stare as his team darted about, offering food, reaching for clean clothes, changing shoes, lathering on anti-chafing cream. Sean had rolled his ankle twice in the last 62 miles, so a medic quickly taped him up and sent him back out for the next 38 miles, Alex by his side.
And with that, the little trailside pit stop returned once again to an inanimate pile of stuff.
Around midnight, our nighttime crew of five lugged our gear to the next stop: Rucky Chucky Aid Station, at mile 78. The narrow, rocky trail necessitated a shuttle service. As we prepared to board, I ran into a friend who was exiting the shuttle.
“Good luck,” he said, with a wink and a nod.
We soon learned what he meant. The weak frame of the bus rumbled down the S curves with a consistent creak and a chorus of thuds, like sneakers tumbling in a clothes dryer. Winding farther down the twisted, uneven terrain, the bus leaned away from the hillside to our left, and out toward the vacant expanse of darkness to our right.
After 20 minutes in that lumbering tin can, we staggered out in relief at Rucky Chucky. There we waited under artificial light as the minutes ticked away, and tired runners found their crews. Alison organized Sean’s gear on a blanket, carefully aligning and spacing each item to create a clear, orderly display … which sat unmoved for 45 minutes before Sean arrived, and again everything sprang to life. Surprisingly alert and in good spirits, he slammed some Coke, chowed down half a turkey sandwich, and topped it all off with a Gu Stroopwaffle—then was gone.
The next time we would meet him, if our shuttle made it there before he did, was No Hands Bridge, at mile 96.8. Now it was time to rest. Sort of.
Alison and I caught an hour of interrupted sleep in the back seat of my car, grabbed some coffee, and made our way to No Hands Bridge. I sat high above the American River, in the shadow of the canyons, watching bleary-eyed runners cross my path and wondering what they must be feeling at this point if I was this exhausted.
By the time he made it to No Hands, Sean was walking, hindered by a tsunami of negative thoughts.
“I am broken,” he muttered, refusing to make eye contact. We crew were concerned, but had also been instructed early on to “believe,” so we did. Alison and Tara pushed food, replaced liquids and showered Sean with encouraging words.
“Just keep going, Sean! You got this!”
By the time Sean was one mile away from the finish line, he was running again. And his crew was beaming.
Sean shared his last mile with his parents, wife, sister and friends. That last mile was everyone’s victory lap.
Claire Walla writes and runs in Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in the December issue of Trail Runner. To get great content delivered to your door, subscribe here.