I’ve never ran far enough to need a crew. Or, at least justifying to myself the need for a crew. The wonderful volunteers at aid stations have generally been able to provide the support and energy boost needed to get through everything from half marathons to 50k races. But this year I’m attempting my first mountainous 50 miler in Colorado, and a whole world of questions started filling my head related to support, crew, etc.
I imagine this is a combination of uncertainty of what to expect in a new distance, general self-doubt, and simply the fact that crew are now allowed and an option if you so choose. One option is to just rely on the aid stations and your pre-packed drop bags – lots of runners will do ultras without crew, whether it’s their desire or simply not an option for races away from home. But I have family that want to come be a part of the experience, so I want to figure out what’s they best way to get them involved. Are more hands and brains better than one?
I’ve paced other runners and worked at aid stations, but I’ve never been part of an ultra race crew. How do I prepare a crew? What mistakes should I avoid? So for my own curiosity (and hopefully your benefit as well), I decided to tap into the collective wisdom and experience of many of our Donner Party Mountain Runner members who been on both sides of the adventure. Here are some of the invaluable nuggets they shared – I hope you find it insightful and beneficial when making race or crew plans for 2022 and beyond.
What Preparations Do You Recommend Before the Race with Your Crew?
“Ask your runner up front what their priorities are. Such as: getting the right gear and support at the aid station. Or speed through the aid station. Do they typically want to sit down, or stay standing? Make sure you find out their preferences in terms of nutrition and hydration – food, gels, energy fluids, salt tablets. The best advice I can give here is to ask your runner to prepare a list of all the things they might need, and all the questions to ask at each aid station. In the middle of the night, after 85 miles, I often can’t remember what I need. Even for something I just thought about 5 minutes ago! So prep a list of questions/prompts for the crew to run through at each aid station.” – Steve Rowbury
“I make a habit of reviewing the aid stations the day before the race, and what I will theoretically want to do at each aid station. If the crew knows what to expect ahead of time, that will help them develop an idea of what to plan for. Things will change, of course, but knowing general specifics helps you to keep your runner on the right course and focused on the plan for the day!” – Adam Kimble
“One simple rule – if you think you might need it, put it in your drop bag.” – Diane Frederic
“Many races have rules the crew needs to follow (parking, timing, # of people allowed, etc.), so make sure you provide those to your crew ahead of time.” – Angela Stark
“Label all gear, such as poles, bags, bottles, etc. Aid stations can get crazy and you may put something down and then lose it.” – Dan Brounstein
“For the crew, get to know the runner and their needs ahead of time. Get out on the trail with them, and talk about the race and their goals.” – Alex Humenetskyj
“It’s the runners’ responsibility to plan for and educate their crew on these specific logistics. The runner should provide their crew, at the very least, the locations, driving directions and access to the Aid Stations they are expected to be crewed at with a pace chart giving a time window of when the runner is expected to arrive. Fortune favors the prepared and a prepared runner will set their crew up for success.” – Sean Flanagan
Other Key Logistical Points to Consider
“Give your crew bomb-proof driving instructions – maps of crew points; pre-program GPS points and confirm with crew; Drive the course ahead of time if possible; Plan for traffic/congestion and parking challenges – just from all the crew and race people, let alone the community.” – Diane Frederic
“Give your crew estimated times of when you will arrive at each aid station – both best case and worst case scenarios.” – Helen Pelster
“…and keep in mind, near the end of long races you could be looking at a 4-8 hour difference between those best and worst case scenarios.” – Steve Rowbury
“Make sure your crew knows your bib number, so they can retrieve your drop bag and track you, if available. And send your drop bag with the race coordinators, not your crew. That way, if your crew has a timing mix-up, gets lost, etc. you will still have your drop bag waiting for you.” – Helen Pelster
“Often, the crew has more than enough time to make it from Aid Station to Aid Station. That doesn’t mean there aren’t specific situations where a remote Aid Station may require a little more time due to a shuttle ride in or having to hike all the gear in. Hiking in a cooler, camping chair, foam roller, massage table or whatever you runner may or may not need could take some time. This needs to be planned for and discussed prior to the race day.” –Sean Flanagan
As a Runner, What’s Most Important to You to Get From Your Race Day Crew?
“The importance of my expectations on race day for myself, but more importantly my crew, has evolved over the years. Unfortunately, in the early years of my running career, I had the misbelief that running was a solo sport. In some respects, I am not wrong, I’ve spent countless hours on trails in total solitude. But on race day, I am not the only one on a journey from the Start Line to the Finish, there’s almost an entire town following and supporting me along the way and doing everything with their selfless time to help me achieve my goals. Ultra-running is very much a Team sport and at the bare minimum, I want nothing less than for my crew to have fun, smiling and building memories along the way.” – Sean Flanagan
“If family is helping and they are not experienced ultra crew/runners, their most important role may be moral support. You can leave the rest to experienced crew members – retrieve drop bag and have it ready/open, mix drinks, have any additional items at the ready (shoes, socks, blister kit, etc.).” – Helen Pelster
“Later in the race, particularly if it’s dark, consider having someone come out a half-mile from the aid station and guide you in.” – Dan Brounstein
“Ask your crew to set up a chair and lay everything out for you, so you don’t have to dig around for stuff. And provide lots of choices since you won’t know ahead of time how you are feeling or what sounds good.” – Dan Brounstein
“If helping at more than one aid station, log the times your runner comes through, and then use that to estimate the next aid station stop and to help the runner remain aware of cut-off times.” – Angela Stark
“For me, I keep it simple. The last thing I want to do is over-analyze the day and stress out my crew. They are here to help, never forget that. Keep it simple. Have fun, be positive, take what the day serves up. The most important thing for me to get out of my crew is to enjoy the experience.” – Alex Humenetskyj
“The three biggest things I need from my crew on race day are positive energy and encouragement at aid stations, anticipation of my needs and what I might want whenever I see them, and giving me information about what is happening to the other runners I’m competing with. All of those things help me focus on my job of putting one foot in front of the other and successfully getting to the finish line!” – Adam Kimble
Any Tips or Advice for Those Crewing Runners for the First Time?
“I think the biggest thing that is overlooked for crew is that they are on their feet, moving from Aid Station to Aid Station just as much as their runner. This couldn’t be truer for the longer races that last through the night. There’s an overwhelming sensation to rush from Aid Station to Aid Station, stressing about getting there before your runner and having everything setup, laid out, only to be anxiously waiting with ample time, then repeating this process up until the Finish. The crew needs to be conscious of their own nutrition and stamina, just as much their runner if not more.” – Sean Flanagan
“Be prepared for anything! Aid stations are often more hectic and fast-paced than many people realize (especially if they haven’t crewed before), so it’s important to be on your toes. Your runner might tell you they want one or two things at the first aid station, but I would have everything all laid out in case they change their mind and want something else. I know that from experience because I usually ask my crew for the one thing they’re not expecting! The last thing you want is to be digging around in a bag searching for something that you could have had sitting out and available from the moment you arrived at the aid station.” – Adam Kimble
“Be ready for a long day/night. Running an ultra is hard. Crewing one can be just as hard, if not more so. Like the runner, you don’t get much sleep the night before. You’re up for 24-48 hours while they are running, and then the adrenaline kicks in afterwards and you similarly can’t sleep the night after. In that time it can be really hot and/or really cold, you’ll be in the car for hours of driving potentially, and you’re lugging gear into and out of often remote aid stations … all for a very brief encounter each time with your runner before they head off into the hills again. And, be prepared (for yourself, not just your runner) for all the above – bring gear for the weather/conditions, clothes, think about sleep/rest opportunities, set up a rotation system with other crew members if you can.” – Steve Rowbury
Any Clear Things Not to Do or Major Hiccups for Crew to Avoid or Plan Around?
“Beyond the sheer logistics, I propose that managing your “energy / anxiety level” is key for both the crew and the racer. The first time that I ever raced with a crew was at the boiling hot Inaugural Gold Rush 100k in Sacramento. My very experienced crew person was so amped up and excited for me, that I was overwhelmed when I came into the first crew station just as the temps were soaring. I couldn’t focus on my needs and forgot to get ice, a critical mistake. From that experience, I learned to manage my focus as a racer. It was also the start of my realization that my energy / anxiety level as a crew person (both before and during the race) has a big impact on the racer.” – Helen Pelster
“Do not be negative or say things like “wow, you’re so pale”, “you don’t look good”, “you still have a long way to go”. Even if your runner looks like total trash, tell them how great they are doing. Always be positive, even if your runner is not. Let your runner vent, don’t argue— listen and encourage them to get back on the course.” – Alex Humenetskyj
“As a crew member or pacer, know the course well. Runners get confused and often don’t think straight later in long races. In my first hundred, my pacer and I took a wrong turn right out of the aid station. I ran 104 that day. Thank you, Pete Broomhall. ;-)” – Alex Humenetskyj
“Plan for things to not go as planned – they eventually will. This should be true for both runner and crew. Crew may miss an Aid Station for various reasons outside their control and the runner should be prepared for this with their nutrition, but most importantly, mentally. It could be devastating for a runner to not see loved ones when expecting it after long hours on the trail. Crew is a morale boost and sometimes it’s what keeps a runner going if their day hasn’t been going as planned. Staying positive and offering words of encouragement can be a miracle to pull a runner out of a low point. Or sometimes it’s helping your runner refocus goals in a positive way. This could be the difference between having a memorable experience and one they may soon regret.” – Sean Flanagan
What Kinds of Things Should the Runner Keep in Mind?
“As a runner, don’t ever forget that you choose to do this. Your crew are helping and supporting you achieve your goal. Treat them well. Take what the day serves up and enjoy the ride.” – Alex Humenetskyj
“I’ve seen runners act rudely toward their crew – I hate that! The crew makes a huge sacrifice to be out there.” – Jenelle Potvin
“Don’t underestimate the power of having your people there to support you. If you hit a low, their positive energy will be crucial in moving you forward.” – Helen Pelster
“In this day and age, it’s rare to find a race that doesn’t have enough drop bag and aid station support to justify actually needing crew. My recommendation to runners is to prepare yourself so that you don’t have to rely on your crew. Make sure everything you need is in the drop bag. If your crew actually shows up, that’s the cherry on top, and you should be ready to smile and show gratitude and appreciation toward them, no matter what they remembered to bring! Trust me, you’ll get a boost from seeing someone you care about. If you smile at them and they smile back, it’s going to make those next miles a lot more enjoyable. But don’t count on them – anything could happen. They could get a flat tire, be stuck in traffic, or have any other emergency to deal with. This should NOT make or break your race.” – Jenelle Potvin
Any Additional Insights from your Past Experiences as a Runner or a Crew Member?
“For me the biggest thing about a crew is friendship and support. I love seeing their faces, getting the hugs and high-fives, and I find it hugely inspirational the amount of effort and time they put in to support me. All of which is a huge boost as I run through each aid station. Similarly, I want them to enjoy the experience – so I REALLY try not to be a jerk. I hear stories of runners taking it out on their crew. I get it, sometimes after 75 miles you’re in a bad place, but these people have given up their weekend to support me!” – Steve Rowbury
“Ensure that your crew has the gear they need to take care of themselves, including food, water, chairs, weather-appropriate clothes and footwear, flashlights, entertainment while waiting, to name a few items” – Helen Pelster
“One of the best things my crew did at the last TRT 100 was ignore me. At Diamond Peak, mile 79ish, I looked at Alison (my wife) and said “Go, get the car”. I repeated it several times and was dead serious, I was done. Steve Rowbury, Sean Flanagan, and Alison completely ignored me and my request. They flat out ignored me. Steve Martelli spoke some words of wisdom which was pretty much that I only have one option and “one way to find out”. In my low state, I didn’t have the energy to argue so I just did what my crew said, which was get out of the aid station and go climb Diamond Peak. So, I did… all the way to the finish.” – Alex Humenetskyj
“Find out all the idiosyncrasies – the weird stuff. Every runner has them! A former board member insists on PBJ sandwiches, sliced diagonally, and with the crusts cut off! For me it’s marmite on toast, and hot tea…with milk. The closest I ever came to losing it with my crew was at States at Michigan Bluff, when they forgot the milk for my tea. Bizarre, small things…that may push you over the edge!” – Steve Rowbury
“I like to refer to crewing as the “hurry up and wait” game. Depending on how spread out the aid stations are, you can end up running around all day just to get there to see your runner for a handful of minutes. Expect your runner to get everywhere faster than you think, because waiting at an aid station is better than potentially missing them!” – Adam Kimble
“A common theme I’ve seen both in my experience as a runner being crewed and when crewing a runner is the crew typically has everything the runner may need, but nothing the runner wants! The community of runners is a wholesome one, and this should be leveraged. We want nothing more than for both runner and crew alike to succeed. The journey from Start Line to Finish Line should be an enjoyable experience and crewing a runner to successful Finish is just as rewarding as running the race yourself.” – Sean Flanagan
Is Your Crew Ready? Are You?
There you have it – a big download of wisdom born from the experiences of our amazing members. So much great advice to take note of and decide how you want to create your own race and crew experience. Thank you to everyone who took the time to share their stories!
Do you have other recommendations, learnings, or questions that you didn’t see covered above? Please leave a comment below and keep the conversation going!