crewing at western states endurance run

What Ultrarunners Can Learn From The Biggest Crewing Operation At Western States



By Cliff Pittman
CTS Coaching Development Director
with CTS Coach Jim Rutberg

We named the planning folder for our biggest ultramarathon race support operation to date “CTS Storms States”. I haven’t experienced anything like it since my Army days as Team Leader for B-1-142nd in Iraq in 2005-2006. It had hallmarks of a military operation, with distributed responsibilities, operational redundancies, and united commitment to the mission. On the athlete side, there were remarkable stories and experiences from the front of the race to the back. In addition to Katie Schide, Fuhzao Xiang, and Eszter Csillag sweeping the women’s podium, Jia-Sheng Shen and Jon Rea finished 8th and 9th overall, Kaci Lickteig earned her 1000-mile buckle, Mike Fakler was the last finisher to earn a sub-24-hour buckle, and other athletes persevered to become Golden Hour finishers. And we’ll tell those stories in time, but for now here are some practical lessons you can use in your upcoming races this season.

Kaci Lickteig finishing her 10th Western States 100 with Coach Jason Koop at the finish line.

CTS Athlete Kaci Lickteig earned her 1000-mile buckle for finishing her 10th Western States 100!

Align your crew with your personality

Western States can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for athletes because of the difficulty of getting an entry. An athlete’s friends and family and training partners often want to be part of the action. That’s awesome, but that much attention and engagement might not fit your personality. And sometimes you must learn this lesson the hard way. CTS Athlete Dakota Jones, who finished 18th in the men’s race, used complex crew setups previously at WSER but pared it down to a minimalist approach this year. In contrast, Fuhzao Xiang’s aid station stops resembled NASCAR pit stops (see Instagram post below). Minimalist or maximalist approaches can work equally well, the key is to avoid peer pressure and create the crew environment that works for you.


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A post shared by 向付召Xiang Fuzhao (@xiang.fuzhao)

The attitude and communication style of your support crew and pacers should match your as well. CTS Athlete Mae Barker benefited from a very calm pacer who matched her energy. Together they were very matter of fact in aid stations, communicated well, and kept the vibe efficient, cool, and collected. Sometimes athletes experience a mismatch, as we witnessed across one aid station with a very calm athlete paired with an over-hyped pacer who created stress for his runner.

Pacers may not always be helpful

Katie Schide ran the 2024 WSER nearly an hour faster than her pace in 2023. Her 2024 and 2023 times are the second and third fastest women’s finishes, respectively, in the race’s 51-year history. Katie ran with a pacer in 2023, in part because it was her first time at the race. This year she opted to race without a pacer.

In her post-race interview (video below) with Corrine Malcolm and Dylan Bowman, Katie explained, “I had so much fun running with Topher last year and I think it was a great way to be introduced to the race. And in Europe we’re not allowed to have pacers, so it was my first time running with a pacer. While I had fun, I knew that was not what I normally do, and I felt confident enough that I would be able to push myself, maybe even harder, if there wasn’t anyone watching.”

Running with a pacer is a great choice for some people, probably most people. But if having someone by your side is more stressful than running alone, reconfigure your race plan to run alone. This may mean different crewing and aid station strategies to ensure you’re adequately prepared for long stretches by yourself.

Don’t Dally In Aid Stations

Mike Fakler finished the 2024 Western States Endurance Run in 23 hours 58 minutes and 56 seconds. After 100 miles he reached the finish line with just 64 seconds to spare and was final athlete to earn a coveted sub-24-hour buckle. How easy would it have been to fritter away 65 seconds across 20 aid stations? Just a few seconds here, a few seconds there, and the 24-hour finish would have been out of reach.

Mike Fakler Western States 2024 ice water

CTS Athlete Mike Fakler getting doused with cold water during the 2024 Western States Endurance Run.

At the pre-race meeting with CTS Athletes, we told them, “We’re going to be nice as long as we can, and then we’re not.” What we meant was that we were going to make sure they were taken care of, had their needs met, and felt supported, but we were also there to make sure they kept moving. In the back half of an ultramarathon, crews sometimes need to be assertive with athletes to help them achieve the goals they said they wanted from the beginning.

Mike Fakler and Coach Adam Ferdinandson with Western States buckle

Mike Fakler and Coach Adam Ferdinandson with Mike’s well-earned silver buckle for a sub-24-hour finish at Western States.

Ice, Ice, and More Ice

At Western States, athletes can only receive assistance from support crews at a limited number of aid stations. The rest are manned by incredible volunteers and medical personnel. CTS had more than a dozen coaches and staff members stationed and leapfrogging athletes across six aid stations. All told, we distributed approximately 300-350 pounds of ice to more than 20 CTS Athletes, plus additional athletes in need.

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Western States 2024 icewater

CTS used between 300-350 pounds of ice to keep athletes cool at Western States.

Managing skin temperature and core temperature are essential during ultramarathons in hot environments. We filled hats and arm sleeves with ice, doused athletes with cold water, and placed ice-filled pouches on athletes’ necks and shoulders as they departed the aid stations. Obviously there are times when temperatures drop and ice is not needed, but when it is hot, don’t get skimpy with the ice!

Commit beforehand to digging deep at some point

Even before the 2024 WSER began, Coach Jason Koop’s advice to Eszter Csillag was that to have a shot at the podium she needed to commit to running every step of the climb from the Rucky Chucky river crossing to Green Gate. It’s a hard climb at a critical point in the race, so Koop’s rationale was to remove any doubt of what needed to be done. The commitment had already been made, so there was no thought or decision necessary in the moment. Csillag crossed the river in fourth place, made up seven minutes by running the climb to Green Gate, and went on to claim the final step on the podium!

Eszter Csillag 2024 Western States aid station

Eszter Csillag made a strategic move for a podium finish on the climb to Green Gate.

No matter the race, athletes benefit from committing to the idea of digging really deep and being severely uncomfortable at some point in an event. You can’t dig that deep for every mile, but when the going gets tough – either because of the course or sleep deprivation or bad gut – it helps to call on your pre-determined commitment to fighting through it.

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Race to your strengths

A Western States competitor who is an Auburn, California local and not coached by CTS provided a great example of this point. Historically, he knows that he struggles at altitude but excels in the heat. The race starts in Olympic Valley (elevation 6,200 feet) and climbs Emigrant Pass (elevation 8,750 feet) before gradually descending to Auburn. This athlete started slowly, out of respect for his known weakness and was chasing time cutoffs early on. But once he descended into the heat of the canyons he began thriving and ended up finishing in just over 27 hours, nearly three hours ahead of the final cutoff. In training, work on your weaknesses. On race day, respect your weaknesses and race to your strengths.

Stay in touch with your “why”

CTS Athlete Wayne Chan finished the 2024 WSER in 28:42:00, a solid finish but not exactly the race he was hoping for. However, even when things went awry, he remained calm and steady, worked the problems and kept moving forward. Sometimes it’s going to be your day. But when it’s not, it’s important to be prepared and equipped – physically and psychologically – to handle adversity. The first step is connecting to the reason continuing is important to you. Once you have the ‘why’, you can figure out and endure the ‘how’.

Other examples from the 2024 WSER included Sally McRae (@yellowrunner) and Lyndsey Yang. McRae won the Moab 240 and created a huge fanbase from books, documentary films, and podcasts. At the 2024 WSER she was running with her daughter and had support from fans on-site as well as in the chat on the Western States Youtube Livestream. Nothing was going to stop Sally from reaching the track at Placer High School.


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A post shared by SALLY MCRAE (@yellowrunner)

Lyndsey Yang may not have started with a big fanbase, but she made fans of us for showing tremendous grit and reaching the Pointed Rocks Aid Station (Mile 94.3) with seconds to spare before the time cut. She continued on, and although she missed the time cut at Robie Point (Mile 98.9), she and her coach, Sarah Scozzaro, walked that final mile together because Lyndsey hadn’t come that far just to stop before reaching the track.

Congratulations to everyone who embarked on their Western States journey in 2024. Whether you won, accomplished your personal goal, got eliminated by a time cut, or dropped for other reasons, you made it to the start and shared a special experience with a select group of fellow athletes. We hope to #seeyouatstates again next year!

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