The Ultra Crewing Playbook
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It’s 9 A.M. and already 85 degrees at Duncan Canyon, the first aid station where I’ll get to see my husband on his maiden quest to finish the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. With 20 pounds of gear dangling from various limbs, I wiggle into the crowded hillside just in time to hear a cowbell: the leaders are here. Most people ogle at the svelte specimens finessing their way down the trail, but I’m transfixed elsewhere…their crews.
They pounce with NASCAR-worthy precision: Crewmate A reports on standings while performing a four-second bottle change. As Crewmate B shoves ice into the runner’s hat, she takes advantage of the proximity to his ear and utters encouragement. Within sixty seconds, the runner is out of sight.
I look down at my drawstring bag, a jumbled vortex of supplies, and then at the cooler whose two measly ice packs are helplessly melting. If only my shirt had read “first time crew,” my look would’ve been complete.
There’s a playbook for running 100s: log miles, study the course, sit awkwardly in saunas with strangers. As I learned that day, crews need a playbook, too. As we approach the annual lineup of marquee 100s, here’s how to help your runner achieve the goal of a lifetime.
Runners, your crew is your lifeboat; if there are holes, you land on the wrong end of the metaphor. What you need:
Reliability: Steve Tucker, 35, of Chester, Pennsylvania, boasts an enviable 100-miler resume: Oil Creek in Pennsylvania, Grindstone (twice) in Virginia, Eastern States in Pennsylvania and Hardrock in Colorado. But his second 100-mile finish had a plot twist: ten hours before the start gun, his crew member and overnight pacer called…to bail. “I was distraught,” Tucker says. “If you’re worried about your crew, you might as well not have one…you will pay the price.” He gives candidates two options: 1) absolutely, or 2) I’m not sure. And where there is doubt, there is no doubt.
Desire: Crewing should be an experience, not an imposition. Diana Fitzpatrick, 60, of Larkspur, California, is a top-ten Western States finisher and many times crew. She can attest that crewing is a “huge demand on time and energy. I make sure the person really wants to do it.”
Organization: Crew’s brains must resemble Joey Chestnut at a hot dog eating contest: able to digest a lot at once. Driving directions, aid stations, rules and race plan are all critical. Chris Mocko, 32, of Boulder, Colorado, another top-ten Western States finisher, notes that travel logistics are especially key. “What may only be 20 miles of running could be an hour or more of driving, finding parking, etc. on roads designed for significantly less than race-day traffic,” Mocko says.
Mental and physical toughness: “Pick people who are more drill sergeant than nurse,” Tucker advises. Crew must stay sharp on nutrition, navigation and motivation, even when fatigued from hauling gear and lack of sleep.
Align on goals: Know your runner’s A/B/C goals, and what triggers a step up or down in goal mid-race. Agree on how to handle extreme circumstances, like if she starts to cry or vomit (yes, this happens). And for the ultimate call, have your runner choose a “safe word” that signals when they are truly, 100 percent done.
Pick meet-up points: In dark moments, knowing that crew is only a few miles ahead can be a runner’s lifeline. Agree on which aid stations you’ll be at, based on 1) need for gear or encouragement, 2) travel feasibility, 3) race rules. Then, BE THERE. Pre-map routes and compare drive time to your runner’s pace, print directions for every car, scour the website for parking and hiking times—whatever it takes.
Strategize runner gear and nutrition: Your runner wastes energy mid-race recalling and articulating needs. Do it for him: look ahead to race-day weather and pack the right gear. Understand his caloric and fluid needs per hour, and any issues encountered during training (blisters, cramping) to stock supplies. Bring extra mission-critical gear that aids won’t have: headlamps, batteries, special food. To manage this data, Laura Pryor, 31, of Berkeley, California who’s crewed the Rio Del Lago 100, Western States and Tahoe Rim Trail 100, laminates a table-sized map and infills aid-station distances, drop bag placement and cutoff times.
…And your own health: “Crewing is a slow ultra”, says Colleen MacDonald, 35, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, many-times crew and volunteer at Minnesota’s Superior 100. Pack quality food and weather-appropriate gear, and identify ahead of time where you can stop for backup supplies. MacDonald always brings a portable car charger, too: “Chances are your phone will die.”
Start a text thread: The runner’s family and friends will be hungry for news on progress (and safety). Get their numbers and introduce yourself. Tell them service is spotty, and silence doesn’t necessarily spell trouble.
Assign jobs: Watch five-year-olds play soccer; almost everyone swarms to the ball and exposes their net. Likewise, when everyone on crew goes for the water refill, a crack forms in the thigh-lube edifice. Avoid a painful oversight by determining who will manage what (gear, liquids, etc.) at each stop.
Be there: An absentee crew is not just useless, it’s a liability, because your runner goes without. Don’t have a sit-down meal or book a hotel unless you have many hours to spare. You’ll wait at aid stations, so embrace it: befriend other crews, loan supplies, help make PB&Js. “Be there” not just for your runner, but for the ultrarunning community.
Prep for arrival: Chefs practice “mise en place,” (everything is set up in its place) and so should you. When you get to an aid station, make the relevant supplies visible and in arm’s reach. If your runner has nutrition choices, lay foods on a towel so she can simply point. Set out a camp chair for short rests and shoe changes, but know that chairs create a temptation to linger; keep your runner going.
Manage time: Ask the aid station captain when the leaders arrived, and calculate your runner’s ETA based on his time back. When he arrives, report his actual pace vs. goal, and distance to next aid. Ask about calorie and fluid intake, and make sure he leaves with enough to meet his hourly needs (even if he objects). Update the text thread, pack up and hit the road.
Be relentlessly positive: “The emotional part is the far more demanding role for the crew,” says Mocko. Crew must be both energetic and calming; differentiate between dark spells and injury risks and show care while being firm. Tune exact tactics to your runner’s personality, but lean heavily on the universal tool of positivity. When your runner enters the aid station, make noise and smile. Tell her she looks better than she really does. Give nicknames to the climbs, and when she conquers “big hairy effing hill,” celebrate it.
Practice self-care: If your own health and safety are shoddy, your whole team is in for a bad day. Stay fed and hydrated, nap when possible, regulate body temperature, apply sunscreen and bug spray. Runner’s needs come first, but crew is mortal, too.
Kickoff recovery: The body shifts to repair mode almost immediately post-race. Get the runner to take in quick glucose calories, preferably liquid form which is more digestible. Help them change into dry clothes (congrats, you get to handle the stinky race gear). Have a chair ready and put their feet up for ten minutes to facilitate blood flow. Continue replenishing calories with high-quality nutrition, focusing on carbs and protein.
Manage gear: Keep track of small items like clothing, shoes and headlamp. Leave the course and crewing areas cleaner than you found them. Make sure you leave with all possessions, and enough food to keep the runner refueling on the ride home.
Get home safely: Hallucinations, blurred vision and fist-sized blisters are part of ultra lore, and reasons the runner should never drive himself home. Play chauffeur or arrange transportation. Help take his belongings inside. If he’ll be alone once you leave, stay until he can care for himself. Bonus points: call the next day to check-in and congratulate him on a monstrous feat.
And runners, this last one is for you:
Say thank you. Your crew has sacrificed significant time, energy and personal hygiene to get you to the finish. That’s more than worthy of a handwritten card or a small personal token (check out some of Trail Runner’s favorite gear here).
Reality will deviate from the plan. You will get dirty, smelly, sticky and soggy. You will hurry up only to wait for hours. And if you do it right, when your runner has crossed the finish, you’ll be asking when you can crew her next one.
“The mosquitos are ruthless, so bring bug spray. My runner got over 50 bites on his arms.”
“Aid stations can get very dusty—bring moist towelettes to keep clean, and beware of wearing white.”
“Worton’s Market in Foresthill is well-placed to restock ice and food…and might have the best deli-counter view in the state.”
“Layers and Sunscreen! You’re high up the entire race so it’s important you dress properly.”
“It’s really important at high elevation to stay hydrated and take in enough carbs.”
“Two vehicles is key…the turnaround is much farther than other aid stations. We parked at Twin Lakes and saw our runner out and back, while the other vehicle drove to Winfield to drop off the first pacer.”
“Camp at Turquoise Lake, which is right on the course. It’s very scenic and fairly cheap.”
“One of the best supported 100s, most people get away with a large bottle or pair of soft flasks in a vest.”
“A lot of running is done on dirt roads, so road shoes can be worn unless it’s a wet year.”
“There are quite a few smaller B&Bs in the area. Camping is readily available on site of the start/finish. The closest hotel is Mount Ascutney Resort in Brownsville.”
“There’s a rumor that Margaritaville aid station will make you any drink you ask for…”
“VT100 is also still a horse race! It can be odd to share the course with horses, but the riders are motivating and positive.”
Rio Del Lago
“Be prepared for heat in the day and cold at night; bring ice, extra jackets and rain gear.”
“Parking at aid stations can be super hectic, so always plan for more time than you need.”
Race tip contributors: Laura Pryor has crewed Rio Del Lago, Western States and the Tahoe Rim Trail; Samantha Terry, 28, of Carrboro, North Carolina has crewed the Leadville 100; Sean Murphy, 24, of Cambridge, Massachusetts has crewed the Vermont 100.
—Lisa Chapello lives in San Francisco, California, where she can be found playing with kitchen gadgets and romping around trails in the Marin headlands.