When Krar’s wife, Christina Bauer, and I arrived at a crewing clinic the day before that first ultra race, we were told that “crew” actually stood for “cranky runner, endless waiting.”
I've run a few ultra races now, in the earlier races I would watch in utter jealousy as runners met up with their crew to be offered the food they had chosen, have drinks pre-mixed and, more importantly, see a face they recognise, that can offer more encouragement than a marching band and cheerleaders.
During 2017 I had the opportunity to share crews with FAC OFF runners on both The Butcombe Ultra 48 mile race and the Salisbury 54321 50K. The difference was night and day. The Salisbury race was extremely warm and the aid stations tend to stock mostly water, but having the extra fruit, jaffa cakes and jelly beans to hand was a massive boost for us all. Butcombe, in the September, was also extremely hot and, although not planned, I ran the race with fellow FAC OFF runner Richard Corp and was allowed to dip into the endless goodies Emma Flexon supplied at various points around the course, even supplying us with ice-pops as the temperature soared and hills started to take their toll.
|Maria at the start of the Downslink Ultra in October 2017|
In the October of 2017, a good running friend and ultrarunner from my club, Maria Harryman, agreed to crew me on the Downslink Ultra from Guildford to Shoreham, we discussed my requirements and planned out the race accordingly. Maria, who is a dab hand with the map and compass met me at a few pre-arranged points and the checkpoints on the route. As I hit each checkpoint she would ask me what I wanted to eat, topped up my bottles and, very importantly, gave me advice. Making decisions with a tired body and mind can lead to simple mistakes, including taking or using the wrong kit or simply heading the wrong way out of a checkpoint. At the end of the race, having someone to drive is also worth its weight in after race pizza. Maria again crewed for me in February 2018 on Brecon to Cardiff ultra, reminding me at the last checkpoint that I had slowed down over the past few miles, cheers! I ran the last 6 miles at a faster pace, overtaking at least half a dozen runners before having enough energy for a paced finish. Once again, a pizza was on the menu.
|TP100 Henley Checkpoint - changed, fed and ready to go|
The next major race was the Thames Path 100 and I managed to recruit two very good friends, Ian Harryman, UTMB and MDS finisher, and Phil Zaloum, ultra running buddy and LC24 teammate, to both crew and pace for me during the race. It can be hard to find someone to take time out of their own busy life to not only crew for you but also travel through the night and pace you, while your mind and body are wanting to switch off and go to sleep. I asked them both as they had real experience running distance, Phil had run a few distance races and Race to the Stones with me in 2017 and Ian has always been happy to run silly distances and share his mountain of knowledge. I could trust them both and they would know what I was experiencing if only to tell me to shut up, stop whining and get on with it - gotta love ultra runners.
I've paced as well. I met Victoria Louise Thompson on the Thames Path 100 and we clicked. A few months on and I was driving down to Brighton on a Saturday evening to meet up with her at a deserted location on the South Downs Way to take over pacing at 3am in the morning. It's not just a case of running with the competitor but keeping them focused, ensuring they are fuelling and double check each twist and turn on the course. At times I would run slightly ahead, giving Victoria a target to keep up with, without verbal encouragement, other times I would just chat and keep her focused on the task. Dawn broke early and the morning sun quickly warmed the air, making the job easier. As we entered the sports track at the end of the 100 miles I stopped in the car park, allowing her to complete the lap and soak up the achievement, it was her race.
|Pacing Victoria on the SDW 100|
So what makes a good support crew and/or pacer? The best crew are normally runners, someone who knows what you are going through and can think ahead. It's useful if they know the difference between "I'm not hungry right now" and "I can't eat anything", can spot when the runner is drinking too much or too little and can understand that garbled slur at 70+ miles means I need jelly babies or get me a burger. Planning the race with the crew makes a massive difference, for the Thames Path 100 I set up messenger or WhatsApp conference calls to talk over every aspect of the race. This was especially helpful as one of the crew, Phil, lives 100-miles away in East London and would only be meeting us on the day.
During my packing for the race, I ensured everything was labelled and in bags before placing in two plastic containers, enabling Ian and Phil to find what I was asking for very quickly. On race day I went through the containers with Ian so he knew where everything was. It was my first 100-mile race and I planned for everything, except a tree root. During the race, we communicated by using the voice recorder function in a WhatsApp group to save me from stopping to type, this allowed me to ask (nicely) for any certain items at the next checkpoint. On the way into Windsor we ran along a path with nettles both sides, I called ahead for antihistamines and Phil had a tablet ready with water to wash it down. I had also printed sheets with information on each checkpoint, including address, miles to the next checkpoint and crew checkpoint, likely time of arrival and cut off times and things to check/remind me at each point. Much of this would seem over the top to experienced/seasoned 100-mile runners, but I was trying to ensure I covered all the bases.
|The best crew have run the distance and know the pain. Caroline crewing me in October 2018|
The Thames Path 100, like most Centurion 100-mile races, allows pacers from 50-miles, in this case, the Henley checkpoint, which I arrived at just after dark. We had discussed the pacing and already decided I didn't need a pacer until at least the Reading checkpoint at 60-miles. Did I need a pacer? Probably not, but a friendly voice with fresh legs and bags of enthusiasm can never hurt. It is also useful if they know at least a little of the background to the "shit" you'll offload on them at 3am, by that time you'll have thought through your life a few times, worked out world hunger, cured cancer, but still be only really thinking about the meal at the end of the race.
The crew have to be dedicated to the task, there is a lot of waiting around and so should be armed with lots of reading material, food, drink and a pillow. Flexibility is also an extremely important trait for a potential crew member, sudden requests for ice creams and slushy drinks are not unheard of, finding them at 2 in the morning may prove a little more taxing. They also need to be your friend, a true friend as they will see you at your lowest ebb and should know ways to keep you focused. Crewing is not for the selfish, it is an act of giving, an act of love.
First posted in the free online magazine UltraRunning World, issue 16