How to Crew a Trail Ultra Like a Pro
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Most people who finish ultras don’t do it alone. “Your pacers and crew members are like your handler, focused 100 percent on your needs and providing support to help you meet your goals,” writes former Western States 100 champ Hal Koerner in his book, Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning.
Indeed, depending on how stocked the aid stations are, you’ll depend on your crew for everything from food and water to extra clothes, dry shoes and first aid care.
But there’s a lot more to crewing than simply driving a gallon jug of water between aid stations. We’ve talked to the experts to find out how to avoid common pitfalls of first-time crews and how to go above and beyond for your runner.
Know before you go
When Lyssa Duncan crewed for her husband, Jeremy, for the first time, she didn’t have a map, instructions or food. Jeremy just handed her a handful of salt tablets and told her he’d meet her at the first aid station.
Inevitably, Lyssa got lost and, in the process of trying to turn around, lodged her car in a sand pit and had to run several miles to get help. Miraculously she made it to the aid station before Jeremy got there, but by the end of the race, she looked more tired than he did.
Moral of the story: give your crew all the information they’ll need about the race, including directions for how to get to each aid station.
Brad Bishop, who is an aid station coordinator at the Hardrock 100, offers these three points as the most important for crews to keep in mind: know the mileage, know the conditions and know your runner.
Know the Mileage
It may sound elementary, but have a course map and map of the surrounding area. Know the ins and outs of the course at each stop. How many miles in is the runner? How far is the next aid station, and what is the elevation gain and mileage on the upcoming section of trail?
If you know these logistical details, you’ll be able to pass valuable information on to your runner and help prepare him/her mentally and physically for what’s next.
Know the Conditions
Know the weather conditions, as well as the physical condition of your runner and fellow crewmembers. “Consider the last time you saw [the runner] and how the weather and trail might have affected them since the last aid station,” says Bishop. Be ready with appropriate clothing, nutrition and water. If the weather is warm but the runner is about to gain significant elevation, have another layer ready. If it’s particularly hot or dry, prepare some electrolyte drink, or a hot drink if it’s cold or dark. Have everything laid out in the order that the runner will need it, to make for a smooth transition.
Having up-to-date weather information is key. If that rainstorm is approaching faster than anticipated, your runner will really appreciate the laid-out shell.
Also keep tabs on how the rest of the crew is faring. “Having been on both sides,” says Koerner, “I can tell you that crewing can be almost as tiring as running the race!” Avoid crewmember bonk by eating, drinking and resting enough to be alert to take care of your runner.
Go above and beyond
“Like a cold strawberry smoothie on a hot day, unexpected care goes a long way,” says Bishop, recalling a time when it started to rain and his crew had not only prepared new clothes, but also a dry place to change.
Know the racer and pay attention to what he/she would appreciate, be it a quiet talk, a quick dance party or a Taco Bell burrito. “My mom almost passed out packing a Taco Bell burrito down to the Rucky Chucky River crossing at Western States,” says Koerner. “I’ve since scaled down my inner diva.”
Kaci Lickteig, who won first female at the 2016 Western States 100, also emphasizes the importance of positivity. “A smile and good attitude is very infectious and can change a low point to a high point in an ultra,” she says. If a runner is despondent—perhaps on the verge of a DNF— he or she will look to the crew for encouragement and support.
What to pack
If it’s absolutely essential, like food between distant aid stations or extra headlamp batteries before a nighttime section, the runner should have it or it should be in a drop bag. It’s common for crews to get lost between aid stations, bottlenecked in traffic or even fall asleep. Rule of thumb: Make-or-break? Runner take.
For the crew to pack:
- Prepared food – for long runs, food should be ready to go when the runner arrives. Stick to real, easy-to-eat-and-digest food. Ask your runner what he/she prefers ahead of time and have it ready.
- Water – refill the runner’s bottles/bladder for him/her and have water/electrolyte mix to drink at the station
- Sunscreen – apply for the runner
- Chafing stick
- Complete first aid kit – check for blisters, cuts, excessive chafing and provide medical assistance
- Antacid tablets
- Camping chair (off the ground) – a footrest is helpful as well
- Blankets, sleeping bag, mittens, fleece clothing, hat and hand/feet warmers (for cold races)
- Ice (for hot races)
- Change of clothes (several)
- Change of shoes and socks (several if conditions are wet)
- Extra plastic bags (always come in handy)
- Updated weather information
- Specific mileage and route information