by Brandy Whisman

What I've learned from crewing ultramarathons.

First things first, what is a crew?  A crew is a an individual or team recruited by the runner to provide aid and support at designated points. Being designated a crew member is an honor.  It means that the runner trusts you to make it to each crew point with what they need. I’ve crewed Mike at a few successful runs and one not so successful run. So, I thought I’d share some of my successes and missteps.

The first race I crewed was Mike’s first attempt at Georgia Death Race. Notice I said attempt.  Unfortunately, Mike wasn’t a finisher that year and a lot of that came down to a couple of mistakes I made as crew.  I was able to meet Mike at two points during the race: at roughly 20 miles into the race and about 46 miles into the race.  My biggest mistake at this race was not talking to my runner beforehand. I assumed that I knew what he would want and I was very, very wrong.  At mile 20, I should have made him change socks and shoes. We had discussed this, but he thought his feet were fine. Fast forward to mile 46- when Mike got there, I didn’t have the things he needed. I forgot the chair in my car about a half mile away, so he had to sit on a cooler with his back leaning up against me. His feet were a complete mess, from not changing earlier, and he was in very bad spirits.

I let him quit. He started talking about quitting and I thought the right thing to do was to affirm his feelings (Hippie Brandy comes out). He was clearly hurting and it was so hard for me to see him in such pain. Rather than reassess and discuss how he could get back out on the trail, I convinced him that he was in no shape to continue and he quit. He was hours ahead of any cutoff. Hell, he could’ve taken a long nap and enjoyed a 5-course dinner with the amount of time he had. I’ve since learned that he needed me to tell him to get his ass back out on the trail.

I’m happy to share that Mike went back the following year and kicked the Death Race’s ass!  I should also note that he took a different crew. Jesse and Will did an awesome job and crewed Mike to victory!

Having failed and been successful at crewing, here are my top tips for successful crewing:

  1. Talk with your runner beforehand. Learn what they need and try to pack it in one easy to get to container. What hydration do they prefer?  What do they need to eat? What do they need ready for them when they get to the crew points? At his most recent race, Highlands Sky, Mike wanted a bottle of SWORD and a bottle of water ready when he got there. He wanted his phone and earbuds queued up for the last aid station.

  2. Know your crew access points. This is a biggie. Most trail races are in remote areas and it’s super hard to get a cell signal. Know where you need to go and when you need to be there. Most races provide directions for crew access points- print them out!  Ask your runner what time they think they will arrive at the crew point and get there at least 45 minutes earlier than their predicted time.

  3. Accept the fact that your runner may be a jerk at the crew access points. Remember your runner is punishing both their body and their mind.  They may be short when talking to you, they may yell, and/or they may act frustrated with you. Don’t take it personal.  They’re probably frustrated with their self and you are just the nearest target. That being said, remind them that you are there as a volunteer and should be treated with respect.

  4. Be a good support for your runner. As mentioned earlier, find out what your runner needs. How do they like to be motivated? Find out what you should do if your runner mentions dropping? Ask them what success looks like, as well as failure. Be prepared to be a jerk to get them back on the trail. This past weekend, at the last crew point, Mike sat down in a chair.  He rarely sits down when racing, so I knew it was going to be a challenge to get him going again. I told him several times to get up and get moving. I reminded him that he was only a little over 4 miles from the finish. I told him that he’d never forgive himself if he quit now. Finally, I told him that if he quit, he’d have to find another ride back to the finish line because I wasn’t taking him. Now, had he been injured or sick, I probably would have let him drop, but because we had planned in advance, I knew he had it in him to finish.

  5. You will probably have to use the woods for your restroom needs. This always seems to be surprising to new crewers.  It is unlikely that the access points will have a PortaPotty.  They are usually remote and hard to access. Be prepared. Pack toiletries. Be prepared to pack them out. Don’t litter.

  6. Take care of yourself. While the day (or days, depending on the distance) is all about the runner, remember that you have needs as well. Make sure to hydrate and eat. Pack your own food and drinks- again, these are usually remote areas, so you can’t rely on food being readily available. Slap on sunscreen and/or bug repellant.  Drive safely. Bring a book, or some sort of entertainment, because you’ll definitely be waiting a little bit.

  7. Have fun. Crewing is an awesome experience. Trail people are some of the coolest people around.  That goes for runners, crewers, pacers, and volunteers. You will make new friends, see old friends, and generally have a blast!  

Remember, you are awesome for taking on such a big task.  Your runner will thank you!


Brandy WhismanComment