Learning how to crew for an ultra

11953177_10155967387835403_2611597914857615123_nSo, now i’m learning how to crew for an ultra. The story goes that I entered him a half marathon without talking to him first, and then he won the race. These days, we talk through the schedule of races and training together. I can’t always be with him for every race, but part of the adventure of Running Man’s foray into longer trail and road races is my own learning curve in understanding what it means to be an effective support crew.

As Geri Kilgariff is quoted on Running Times:

Handlers are your personal slaves during a race. They sacrifice their entire day (or weekend, depending on the race) to wait for you for endless hours at aid stations, and cater to your every whim. They’ll also kick your ass out if you linger too long and talk you out of dropping when you’d rather just quit and have a beer … A good crew can make a race for you.

To crew, as a verb, is a new experience.

Over the last year, I’ve learned some hard lessons – we both have. But, as he looks toward longer races – both marathon and ultra marathon distances – I have some things to learn too, about being an effective support crew.

I’m still learning the basics, like remembering a chair so that I don’t end up sitting on a curb or a rock. I haven’t yet remembered one so i’m not exactly an expert.

I have learned to estimate roughly how long before Dwight will come into a particular aid station or the finish. I often find that I get nervous waiting for him to arrive, especially if he is taking a bit longer than hoped to arrive.

I’ve learned about how to prep his recovery hydration drinks and which clothes he will want to change into at the end of the race. As we get to longer races, this will become increasingly important.

We’ve discovered the hard way that many races will not have “clean food,” so we come prepared with quality food to refuel following the race. By this, I mean he’s going to avoid eating ice cream, chips, hot dogs, and sugary energy drinks, and focus on protein, fruit, and quality electrolytes.

The job of the Crew

  • Change out water bottles
  • Organize changes of clothing based on temperature
  • Check gear and organize any changes as needed.
  • Give Nutrition/food
  • Treat blisters, injuries, or stomach upsets
  • Emotional and psychological support
  • Provide Race information
  • Plan and prepare for contingencies.
  • To be organized, optimistic, and nurturing
  • To offer tough love when necessary.

Learning how to crew for an ultra

There’s some things Dwight will learn too, like how to prepare me for races. According to Trail Runner Magazine:

While race-day organization is the responsibility of the crew, pre-race-day planning falls to the runner. Like a dress-rehearsal, this meeting will help ensure that your crew handles things in the manner you want them handled.

“Have a detailed race plan and a list of what you are going to need at each access point,” says Halekas. “Go over it in advance to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

We may well end up with additional members of Team Rabe for future races – it is going to be a learning experience all the way around. One of our most important challenges is to build Dwight up and make sure he believes that he is a rockstar out there. This doesn’t come naturally to him, but we will do everything we can to keep his head high and his heart pumping.

Some runners talk about the value of also having a motherly influence in the mix. We’ll have to see what works well for Dwight. Turns out the learning how to crew for an ultra is a learning experience for the athlete as well!

We’ve also been talking and thinking about how to make the culture of Team Rabe something that reflects our values as a family. For us, riro i te ora is key: winning at life is more important than the place you finish. Trail Runner Magazine offers this advice:

Treat them well before and after the race.

Halekas stresses, “Thank them profusely. Treat them to dinner. Buy them presents. Being a crew person is thankless work, but the right crew can save you minutes or even hours in a race.”

So here’s where I’m learning more about what is really involved, practically:

  1. Preplanning for the trip:The planning always begins with race entry and then accommodation and transportation. As we start to incorporate more people into the team, there will also be meal planning and packing.
  2. Preplanning for the race: figuring out what will be needed when. There will be spreadsheets and notes. I will be learning about appropriate ratios and the foods that he will need, when. We will also work with his coaching team to make sure he is fueling at the right level. I will likely do dry runs prepping everything needed for a race, with packing lists for each stage and contingency. This includes collecting Aid Station maps and directions. While I do use GPS, this isn’t always helpful in rural and remote locations. We will probably do a combination of drop bags (containing the nutrition and hydration and needs).
  3. Organize: I am usually the one who packs the vehicle for a trip, so it makes sense that it’ll be me that will systematically pack the vehicle for race day. There will be labeling because who doesn’t like a good labeling. We will be exploring what to pack the gear in and what will be bag dropped at aid stations. For warmer races, there will be coolers. Bags will be packed with gear needed at different stations, nutrition, and a small first aid kit. I will likely carry a more extensive kit on me. One of the challenges is being prepared for all possible scenarios: rain, snow, wind, nightfall, cold and heat. I will have to learn how to communicate efficiently and effectively with each crew member so they also know where things are located so that everybody can retrieve the necessary items quickly.
  4. Projected Times: In advance there will be estimates written up so we can figure out when to expect him at each station. As the event progresses, there will likely be a need to reassess those times and re-estimate. This is not always as easy as it sounds.
  5. Pre-race briefing: I will attend the briefing for last-minute updates and information from race management. I initially didn’t think this was something I needed to be at, but I’m learning how important this can be.
  6. Keep aware: In addition to the timing for the running, I will have my own schedule to keep – when to arrive at each aid station (taking into account traffic, weather, etc). There’s also some good advice that suggests that the crew also needs their own kit to ensure they stay healthy, clothing for variable conditions, food and liquids to stay fed and hydrated, and lights. The idea being that if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of the runner. I suspect I will also add a book or two, and my ipad and phone, and camera in order to document and stay connected with our supporters during the downtime.
  7. Aid Stations: Laying everything out at the aid station so that he can choose what he needs in addition to what he has planned for. Over preparation and planning is better than being underprepared.

I haven’t talked about pacing here, largely because if and when Dwight employs pacers it won’t involve me. Even at his slowest he will still be faster than me.

As I mentioned earlier, we will likely use drop bags in addition to a small crew. EnduranceJer explains in Trail and Ultra:

Using drop bags, you can put all your favorite stuff on the course in strategic locations. I like to take the organization one step further with a little paper list of information about the aid stations, course profile, and drop bags. I laminate the information and slide it into my arm sleeve. As I leave the aid station, I take a look at the profile and distance to the next aid station.

This sounds like something Dwight might find helpful. But, we will wait and see.

I can forsee that the race reviews and roundups I write will focus on the lessons learned as crew, and the process of learning how to crew for an ultra.

Listening. Observing. Participating. Writing. Photographing. Reflecting.

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Anna Blanch_Gill Gamble_blogAnna Blanch Rabe is an Australian-born writer and photographer currently living in eastern New Mexico. She is an attorney (non practicing) and the former Executive Director of a non profit. You can follow her adventure on Not A Pedestrian Life, or Facebook