|First tip: You should always make use of drop bags in a 100 miler, even if you have a crew.|
While this crew report will largely refer to this specific race, the Thunder Rock 100, this crew (Jerry Abbott, Scott Bell and Martin Schneekloth) and its runner (Sir Fartsalot aka Hot Wing Runner aka Cary Long), many of the topics discussed and issues encountered would apply to other races as well. However, this report is merely meant as a personal lessons learned and as the ultra saying goes "We are all an experiment of one" so what works for one doesn't necessarily work for others as well. With that disclaimer out of the way, there are certainly takeaways in this report that should be useful to anyone considering to crew/pace/run a 100 mile race for the first time.
Let me add one more disclaimer, I am certainly not vastly experienced in crewing someone in a 100 mile race, but as I have learned in my actual profession, once you become experienced and things are second nature, you quickly forget the struggles and mistakes you made early on. You take everything for granted, not realizing that you didn't know a lot of these things when you first started. With that in mind, I figured now is as good a time as any to write down what I've learned from having had the luxury of a crew/pacer and from having crewed/paced a couple of folks as well.
First, regardless of whether you are paying it forward, repaying a favor or just stumbled into it, volunteering to crew/pace someone is one of the most rewarding experiences ever. Lest not forget, you will have a ton of fun along the way, IF you are prepared.
When Cary first mentioned that he was going to attempt a 100 miler, I offered to help as crew and/or pacer. I had done it before and it was a lot of fun. I also suggested another fellow ultra runner and training partner of mine (Jerry Abbott) as an additional pacer. Cary added a buddy of his, Scott Bell (now a buddy of mine as well;-), to the crew/pacing team. Knowing Cary, I had no doubt that Scott would be a perfect match to the team and I was correct. Jerry, Scott and I complemented each other perfectly as part of team Hot Wing Runner and that is a very important aspect when putting together a crew.
Having had a crew myself during a 100 miler before, I also learned that 3 is the perfect number for a crew that also plans to pace a runner at certain stages. Usually, 100 mile races allow pacers/safety runners to accompany a racer starting at mile 50. That means that from that point on, one crew member is potentially acting as pacer, e.g. running with the racer, which bring the crew down to 2 members. Since crew members are out there just as long as the racer, it stands to reason that it is a good idea for crew members to get an opportunity to nap somewhere along the way, so while one crew member drives to the next aid station, the other might be able to get some shut eye. And again, once set up at the aid station and waiting for your runner, one of you can "try" to rest while the other watches for your runner to come in. Three just seems like the perfect number, especially IF you're doing double duty as crew and pacer.
Another comment on putting a crew together, even at the risk of not being PC. I think it is very important for a runner to look within themselves and to really understand their relationship with their girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, etc. before they decide to have them crew for them in their first 100 mile attempt. This is especially important for runners in their first 100 mile attempt and when their better halves are not runners themselves. To be clear, I think it is awesome to be able to include the entire family in an adventure like this, but one should be sure that this is the best decision for all parties involved. For example, some runners get more cranky that others when they have been moving for 20 hours or more. Other ultra runners understand this and won't take it personal, instead brushing it off. Sleep deprivation often causes "ultra brain", a condition (obviously not an official medical term) that causes runners to hallucinate or not think or speak clearly. Again, fellow ultra runners will understand the context provide the support needed. However, to a non-running spouse or partner, this might be a signal for serious concern, maybe more than necessary, potentially creating unnecessary stress for both the partner and the runner.
Then there are some runners, who just need their bottles topped off before they run on, no encouraging words needed. They just need their physical needs met (in this case food and drink). Other runners, on the other hand, need lots of emotional support and encouragement along the way. To them, a word of encouragement and sometimes a kick in the butt is needed to keep them focused and with the eye on the price (e.g. buckle). For those runners, a nurturing and loving partner not understanding the impact hours and hours of running can have on the emotional state of a person might not be able to give them the push or kick they need to go on.
Runners will experience multiple highs and lows in every 100 mile race. Some push right through it, some need some encouragement to do so, but all will eventually succeed and reach another high, UNLESS they drop. For that reason, I think it is a great idea to have an interested non-running or inexperienced partner or spouse join the crew to see what it's all about before being the person potentially solely responsible for the success of a racer, aside from the racer themselves, of course:-) Again, this is just a thought as every relationship dynamic is certainly different, but I figured it's worth mentioning. I certainly brought it up with every runner I've ever crewed for the first time.
The week before the race, you want to make sure to meet with your entire crew/pacers, if possible. This is a planning meeting, but also meant as an introduction for any crew members that do not know each other. It is also an opportunity to ask each other questions and discuss any concerns. There are many questions to be answered. What vehicle will be the crew vehicle? What aid stations have crew access and will we meet the runner at every single one of these aid stations? Who is going to accompany the runner as pacer/safety runner during what sections? Will the runner be using drop bags in addition to the crew carrying all essential in the crew vehicle? I strongly recommend runners make use of drop bags. There have been many instances where a crew failed to meet a runner at a designated aid station because they got lost, traffic got backed up, their car broke down climbing up a ridiculous jeep road in the middle of the mountains or they just mistimed their arrival calculating a runner's pace wrong. It can be extremely disheartening to a runner when they look forward to getting a dry pair of socks or shoes or a shirt or even a cold coke only to realize that their crew is not at the aid station. Drop bags can and will remedy these unforeseen circumstances.
Other questions to b discussed are around specific fuel requirements for a runner. Does he/she need specific food or drink items? Does he or she often have intestinal problems during longer events? How should that be treated? How about blisters? When they happen, what is a runner's preferred method of treatment? These and other questions should be discussed. Also, the crew should ensure that they have actually printed turn by turn directions that will take them from aid station to aid station, if necessary. May races are in remote locations (as was Thunder Rock 100) often without any cell coverage, so good luck if you are depending on Google Maps on your mobile device to get you from A to B. Trust me, we learned this lesson first hand (Scott, remember Starr Mountain?). Oh yeah, if at all possible, be sure to use a vehicle that is capable of operating on some washed out jeep roads in mountainous terrain. Usually, race directors with provide a crew guide that will provide details on access to various aid stations. This might not be an issue, but should be reviewed before you decide to drive down that ominous looking jeep road leading to the top of a mountain...in your Fiat Pinto. Believe me, it is quite hilarious for others to watch you struggle up the hill, but it can be a real problem when you do get stuck.
I also faintly remember one crazy story from Thunder Rock told to me after the race where the spouse of one runner completely lost it after driving up a single lane jeep road to the top of a mountain and an aid station, insisting that she would reverse her luxury SUV all the way down the mountain on a winding jeep road with no shoulder. True story and proof that ultra brain can affect runners and crew members alike;-)
Once you decided on a vehicle, be sure to discuss the runner's gear and fuel and how to organize it in the crew vehicle. After all, there will be both runner's gear and crew gear loaded up in the vehicle and there is nothing worse than having to climb all over the rear seat or trunk of a car in the middle of a moonless night in complete darkness. Trust me, even a headlamp does help as much as you'd like.
There are many items that can be stocked in a crew vehicle and my list is only a suggestion and by no means a complete list as everyone prefers different gear and different comforts. First, you want to make sure you have a large cooler (with ice, if at all possible). There is nothing better for a runner on a hot day than an ice cold beverage of choice. On that note, be sure to stock the preferred beverages as well as maybe a surprise drink for the runner (e.g. an ice cold can of Starbucks Double Shot Espresso for the middle of the night or the early morning can be a welcome refreshment for many runners, it was for me). Also remember to stock enough fluids and food for the crew. I suggest keeping crew and runner fuel separate to make access as easy as possible, if you have the space in your vehicle. Second, along with runner preferred foods, also have SCaps! or similar on hand as runners will have to make sure they keep their electrolytes in balance throughout the day...and night...and day. Again, folks have different food preferences, so be sure to address as needed. I do, however, strongly suggest to stay way from fiber rich foods during the race. It is bad enough to have to go #2 in the woods during a race, but you certainly do not want to "encourage" your body to do so (wink, wink, Cary;-). On that note, be sure to remind your runner before the event not to try new and untested food, fluids or gear during the race. It usually will result in disaster. And on that #2 point above, be sure to have the runner carry wet wipes AND body glide of choice, 'nuff said!
While speaking about nutrition, most runners generally are fine all the way through mile 50, provided that they have run this far before and have some knowledge of the need for electrolytes and sodium and such. However, as a runner becomes tired during a 100 miler, both physically and mentally, or they start to have stomach issues, they often start to neglect proper nutrition, both food and drink. At this point, it can be essential that crew and/or safety runner keep an eye on their runner, e.g. make sure they take the appropriate amount of fluids and food and electrolytes, check their extremities (e.g. hands) for unusual swelling, signalling an electrolyte imbalance, etc. "Remind" them, gently or otherwise, to take the required fluids, electrolytes and food. I have seen many runners manage to finish a race without eating much during the final stages of a 100, but I have never seen a race end well for a runner who neglected fluids and/or electrolytes. Again, this is NOT a medical opinion, but rather my own personal experience only. I have crewed both types of runners, the ones that stay on top of it and only needed gentle reminders to take care of their nutrition and ones that needed a kick in the butt (yes, and even food gently shoved in their mouth) to make sure they fueled their bodies properly. Tip: Crew/pacers/runners can often benefit from carrying GinGins and similar ginger candy with them as ginger has shown to help settle a runner's stomach, when needed.
While on the subject of "encouraging" your runner, I wanted to address a couple of observations. There are some that need barely any encouragement to do what is needed to finish a 100 mile footrace. Others do need some encouragement here and there and it is up to the person crewing or pacing a runner to be aware of these differences. It helps to actually know your runner before the race as it will make for a much more pleasant experience for all involved. Know your runner and adjust your approach accordingly, but always keep their health as your number 1 priority. I know there is a saying that unless your bleeding profusely or a bone is sticking through your skin, you are probably ok to continue. Obviously, that is not true. There are many other reasons keeping a runner from completing a 100 mile race. Hopefully, this post will help runners and crew alike reduce the likelihood of cutting a 100 mile race short due to mistakes they made along the way. Everyone has good days and bad days, but with proper preparation, we might be able to keep the number of bad days as low as possible.
Finally, there are a couple more points to make for runners and for pacers. First, most 100 mile races are trail races, often in remote locations, often utilizing remote trails or trails used my hikers and runners alike. Realize that trail markers can often be blown away, misplaced on purpose or just not be as frequent as you'd like. With that in mind, remember that it is extremely likely that you will get lost during your 100 mile event. Don't worry about it, just accept it beforehand and prepare mentally so that you push right through and continue on. Trust me, everyone gets lost, so just accept it and move on. Second, if you are a pacer, know your runner, e.g. does he/she want me to lead, all the time, some time, never? Do I need to push him/her to run? Sometimes? Never? A lot of first time 100 mile runner wont be able or willing to talk much in the later stages of a race, so it is important that you recognize nonverbal ques of how to help them achieve their goal, which is crossing the finish line. Remember, this race is ALL about them, not you, the crew or pacer. So be sure to keep it positive, keep the runner moving forward, keep them entertained, if necessary and never ever complain about any issues you yourself might encounter or deal with. There are demons running inside all of our heads when reaching the late stages of a 100 mile race and there have been many runners that dropped from a race as late as mile 95 or later. Trust me, you don't want to be the reason your runner could not keep it together mentally after you spilled your guts about how bad you're hurting or how much this sucks;-)
Bottom line, there are certainly people that do not believe in drop bags or crews or pacers or safety runners. Then again, there are also people who believe in running a mountainous 100 miler barefoot wearing a kilt. I rest my case. All kidding aside, everyone has the right to their own opinion and if you have anything to add to this "lessons learned" report, please add it in the comments section below. I fully plan to add to this report as I remember a thing or two in the future, so please add your 2 cents below as well. This is definitely meant to give folks some food for thought as they prepare to crew for the first time, run a 100 miles for the first time or just remind themselves of the things they forgot the first time around. And if none of this matters to you, then you read way too much of this post and I apologize:-)