You spend a lot of time inside your own head during an ultramarathon, and entering an aid station sometimes feels like a brief and welcome visit to civilization. Most ultras now have such comprehensive race provided support that a runner doesn’t absolutely need his or her own personal support crew, but it sure is nice to see a familiar face. Having crewed, paced, and run dozens of ultras, here are the major bases a successful support crew as to cover.
Crews are nice to have, not have to have. Every single step of any ultramarathon must be run by the runner under his or her own power. Crews are there to help along in that journey, but they cannot magically propel the runner forward. So, organizing your crew begins with realizing that success is ultimately the runner’s responsibility. Your crew can get lost, get a flat tire, go to the wrong aid station or have a whole host of other things happen to them en route to delivering your 5 perfect gels, backup visor and ipod #3 with your favorite Taylor Swift song you can’t live without. When that happens, it’s no excuse for a race to derail. Take responsibility for your own success, adjust your plan and move on.
Get on the Same Page
The fine details of whether you like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or jelly sandwiches with peanut butter aren’t nearly as important as making sure everyone on your crew understands the overall goal. Are you trying to finish or going for a particular finishing time? Is your placing within your age group or overall an important goal, or not important? The crew has to know what kind of race day experience they are trying to support so they can make good decisions about how to help bring that experience to life. Having some lists or notes to follow might be helpful, but these should be reminders or provide context. Your crew needs to be able to observe, consider your input, and make decisions based on the big picture and what’s happening in front of them. There’s no list for that.
Minimize Stoppage Time
Moving forward slowly is almost always better than being completely stationary because it is very difficult to recoup time lost to standing still. Think about it. If you are maintaining a sustainable pace between aid stations, you’re giving back time you already earned by standing/sitting in an aid station. Put another way, how much faster would you have to go in the next segment to make up for the time you spend standing in an aid station?
There’s obviously a balance between minimizing time in aid stations and not rushing through them so quickly you neglect your health or safety or don’t get what you need for the next segment. Unless you are either trying to win or flirting with the time cut, be judicious with your time but don’t lallygag. Part of this is the crew’s responsibility, too. It may seem uncaring, but a crew’s role is to keep you moving, not still. Toward this end I don’t let a runner sit down in an aid station unless it’s necessary. And even in those cases, I will always give athletes a time limit ‘you have 3 minutes’ and a set of tasks to accomplish (change your socks, eat this soup) so that their time is spent deliberately. Once an athlete sits down, it’s much harder to get them going again.
Designate a Crew Chief
Leadership is a big part of getting on the same page, minimizing stoppage time, and keeping a runner in the race. Even when support crews don’t designate a crew chief someone often rises to the occasion, to the benefit of the runner. The lights, noise, and commotion of an aid station can be bewildering to a fatigued runner. It only gets worse when five crewmembers try to ask questions or shove food at you simultaneously. Instead, have one person the athlete trusts in this environment (sport-specific trust and knowledge can trump love of family here) greet the athlete, get the lowdown on how they are and what they need. The rest of the crew can then take action. This helps the athlete keep his or her head in the race instead of getting too drawn into the comfort of the aid station. As discussed below, even if the athlete is not concerned about a competitive finishing time, take care of the ‘needs’ first and then socialize with supporters and family. The crew chief then gets to/has to be the bad guy and break it up so the runner gets out of the aid station and back onto the trail.
Keep it simple
Here’s one of the ironies of crewing an ultramarathon: the more precise your plan the less likely it is to work. As mentioned above, some notes or lists can be helpful references but complex instructions for nutrition, hydration, or other logistics are often a recipe for frustration and failure. There are too many variables, the least predictable one being the runner. It is better to keep it simple. Have a moderate selection of go-to foods/drinks and a small selection of alternatives that have been used in training. General parameters for calorie and fluid intake are all you need. Stop worrying about exact calorie counts or macronutrient ratios; nothing out on the trail happens with that kind of precision, and that level of precision isn’t worth fretting over in the aid stations either. As racers and crews get more experienced, the comfort level with this inexact science improves.
Prioritize Needs vs. Wants
A lot of things can and probably will go wrong during an ultramarathon, even on a ‘perfect’ day. Working through the tough times and taking advantage of the good times is part of the game. The thing a crew has to get right is making sure a runner has what is NEEDED for the upcoming miles: water, food, and knowledge of what’s immediately coming up. While not ideal, a runner can forget almost everything else and still get to the next aid station. Everything else is gravy.
I mention this because it is an important perspective for athletes and crewmembers to take to heart. If you think you absolutely must have some particular piece of apparel, an all-important snack food, or that oh-so-special headband to be successful you are giving that thing way too much credit for your success. Likewise, if you think forgetting to put said items in your athlete’s pack is going to destroy their race, you’re taking on more weight than you need to. It’s a running event, not a Mars mission. We’re out there to push ourselves and to – most of all – have fun.