NoviceRunnerNik's Top Tips On How To Crew For An Ultra Runner
Our NoviceRunnerNik, who’s been running for quite a few years now (we probably ought to give her a new nickname!), has crewed for her husband and other friends competing in ultra marathons and here are her words of wisdom about supporting your ultra runner.
What is an Ultra Marathon?
Ultra marathons are any running races over marathon (26.2 miles) distance. 50k, 50 miles, 100k and 100 miles are all common distances but some races are even longer: The Spine, for example, is the length of the Pennine Way - 268 miles.
Who Are These Ultra Runners?
Ultra runners are a curious breed. They will pay a lot of money to run ridiculously long distances all in one go, through daylight, night, daylight and night, with little or no sleep, often in terrible weather conditions and usually over very tough terrain. They will spend hundreds of hours running hundreds of training miles, often alone. They will also spend a lot of money on running kit: taped seams jackets, anti-chafe running underwear, ultra light-weight hydration vests, tens of pairs of running shoes. During the actual ultra race they may hallucinate, dehydrate, vomit and cry. After the event they are likely to lose toe nails, sleep and eat for England and never stop talking about their epic race. Their lives are running!
And Crewing for Ultra Runners?
Some ultra events allow for runners to have crews to support them throughout the race (normally friends or family who drive around the route feeding, watering and generally tending to a specific runner). This helps both the runners as they can carry less food, water and gear and it helps the organisers as it means the welfare of many of the runners is managed by other people.
NoviceRunnerNik's Top Tips On How To Crew For An Ultra Runner
If your friend / partner / colleague asks you to crew for them for an event you need to be prepared for all of the above, so here are my top tips for crewing:
As always, preparation is key. Ensure you have a meeting with your runner and co crew to talk through what your runner’s expectations are. Look at and agree locations for crew support points. If your runner is very information driven, make sure they prepare the information for you so that you have it to hand on the day – this could be expected arrival times at crew support points, distances between crew support points, distances between official check points etc. Print several copies – you’ll run into other crews and they’ll love the information too, you’ll lose a copy out of a window at some point. Guaranteed. Don’t be tempted to just wing it, unless your runner is very, very laid back.
Use the largest vehicle you can sensibly drive around the route. A camper van would be ideal but a van, estate car or similar will give you lots of room for kit and for having a lie down/sleep if you or your runner need it.
Have a second crew member if you can, particularly if your runner is also your partner – you have company, help with navigation, you can sleep in shifts and a third party might mean that you and your runner are on your best or at least better behaviour.
Pack your kit for all eventualities. Your runner will have thought long and hard about their kit for the event and you should do the same about yours. You could be out in horrible conditions for 36 or more hours. You might not sleep. You are probably more likely to get cold / hypothermic than your runner. For me essential UK kit includes thermals, full waterproofs, walking boots, full change of clothes, waterproof gloves and hat, head torch, sleeping bag, sleep mat, blanket, food, drink, a kettle, phone, phone charger, music, books, binoculars, paper maps, change for car parking, a deck of cards, first aid kit, running kit (I always try to get out for a run in between stops if I can) - be prepared for boredom!
Keep your kit and your runner’s kit separate then there’s no way that you’ll accidentally eat the very thing they are craving at Mile 90. But be prepared to give your runner (or another runner or their crew) anything from your food or kit store. Pack things into separate plastic crates or boxes so everything is found easily and doesn’t roll around the back of your van. Have a bin bag or crate / box ready for wet clothes and shoes.
If you can’t always get your vehicle right up to where you’ll meet your runner, for example at checkpoints, get your runner to pre-prepare a kit bag with all the essentials they might need – spare clothes, powerbank, spare socks, extra food etc so that you can just grab the bag and arrive prepared.
Have a spare waterbottle filled and ready to be swapped out when your runner arrives to make restocking them simple. Knowing what your runner will need when they arrive at your next meet point speeds things up.
Keep cheery but avoid too many questions that require decisions being made by your runner. It’s really obvious but your runner is going to get more tired as the event progresses, as are you. Get on and do stuff without them having to ask.
Sleep if you can and set an alarm on your phone if you need to make sure you’re awake. I’ve been in check points where runners have come in and their crews aren’t there. It’s devastating for them.
Mobile phone / data reception can be really poor in areas so don’t rely only on Google maps for directions and bear this in mind if you’re following your runner on a tracker website.
Be prepared to do some grim jobs, such as cleaning your runner’s feet or applying BodyGlide…
Make sure your runner supplies you with fish and chip (or other takeaway of your choice) money! Check that your expected fish and chip shop is actually open. I’ve learned this the hard way!
Plan your journey home from the event. From someone who has both crewed for and run ultras: you’ll get as tired crewing as you would do running but you’ll recover more quickly than your runner and keep your toenails. If you’re driving home after the event this could be just as dangerous as if your runner drives home (and runners are normally required to have a driver to get them home) so make sure you’ve taken this into consideration.
Don’t get carried away and enter an ultra yourself the day after you’ve caught up on your sleep! Give it quite a bit of consideration before you commit. The hours and hours lost to training, the cash lost on kit and race entries, the toenails lost to the god (or other deity) of running. Remember the bad as well as the good!
Words and images by NoviceRunnerNik.