Ultramarathoners can be a needy bunch on a race day. Let’s face it: tired people in the middle of intense physical and mental exertion aren’t always the most rational beings when it comes time to make important decisions, such as eating and drinking, or deciding whether or not they should keep going.
That’s where having a good crew on your side can come in handy. A supportive crew can be a critical component to good decision making on race day and can help increase the chances of a positive ultramarathon experience. Being a crew member requires having a thick skin and selfless devotion, so if you get the call from your ultrarunning friend or family member to help them out on race day, here are five things you can do to lend support:
1. Interview them before the race.
A week before race day, sit down with your runner and learn what they expect of you. There’s nothing worse than having the person you are assisting arrive at an aid station expecting something from you that you didn’t bring. Create a pre-race checklist together, says Meghan Hicks, the 2013 winner of the grueling Marathon des Sables and a senior editor at iRunFar.com. Hicks suggests preparing a list of questions that you should ask in this interview, such as:
—How do they want their gear laid out?
—Do they want you to ask certain cue questions or will they arrive and tell you their needs?
—Will they want a change of shoes? If so, where?
—What kinds of food do they want?
—What drinks do they want and where?
—Will they change their clothes?
—Do they need more layers?
—When will they need a headlamp?
—Do they like ice in their packs or bottles?
The more thorough you are in this interview, the better prepared you will be for any situation you might face on race day.
2. Pack some emotional support.
Hicks suggests asking your runner before the race how you can best help them emotionally. “Find out from them how they like to be emotionally addressed in the throes of a long race,” she says. “Do they like tough love? Abundant kindness? Emotion-free directness or something else?” Hicks also recommends being attuned to how your runner is feeling when they come to you. “Kindness goes a long, long way in the depths of a long ultramarathon,” she says. “Running so many miles is difficult, the terrain is challenging, a runner’s body might be responding roughly to the rigors of the race. When everything feels hard, soft emotions go a long way.”
3. Take care of yourself.
When you’re so consumed with taking care of someone else, it’s easy to fall into the trap of ignoring your own needs. You can best support your ultrarunner by keeping yourself hydrated, fed and warm. Jenny Jurek, who recently crewed for her husband Scott Jurek when he set the Appalachian Trail speed record, spent 46 days crewing him over the course of 2,200 miles. “Bring lots of food and snacks for you to eat throughout the day and night,” she suggests. Hicks concurs, saying, “Crewing often involves standing out in the elements, little to no sleep, driving to strange places, and more. When you pack crew gear, make sure to pack the food, drink, clothing, chairs, headlamps, and other gear you need.”
4. Be flexible and embrace the chaos.
Stay as calm as possible and be prepared to make changes on the fly. Ultramarathons can be chaotic affairs and your runner needs you to stay calm and be flexible. “Don’t let on that you’re stressed or irritated. You can vent after the race,” says Jurek. “Your runner needs to focus on his/herself for the time being.” Hicks cautions preparing yourself for all sorts of eventualities. “You’ll get temporarily lost,” she says. “You’ll get a flat tire driving on a dirt road. You’ll forget something your runner wants back at the car. Your runner will show up sick and vomiting. Your runner will show up wet and cold. You’ll become so sleepy it’ll be hard to keep your eyes open. The crew who best adapts to changing needs will be the most successful.”
5. Remember: You work for them.
Know what you’re getting yourself into before committing to help your friend or family member during their ultramarathon. You work for them. The last thing you want is for your runner to feel helpless when they need it most. Emotions can be all over the place, especially late in the race, so be sure you’re ready to deal with whatever gets thrown at you. “Make sure you really like that person!” says Jurek. “It’s going to be a long day of putting your runner first. It’s a lot of sacrifice and waiting around. So just be sure you’re committed to helping them have the best day possible and know that you are making all the difference!”