In the ultra community you’ll hear this over and over again “my crew made all the difference in
the world” or “having a good crew can make or break your race” or…some other phrase that puts emphasis on the importance of a dependable crew during an ultra marathon. Of course, every runner knows that ultra marathons really are about making do with what you have and that having a crew is a privilege, but anyone who has ever crewed a race knows this does not alleviate any of the stress! And that stress level is taken up a notch when the race surpasses 100 miles and wanders onto the indefinite timeline of a last-man-standing race like the Big Backyard Ultra.
I’m not a mother, nor do I ever intend to become one, but the internet is full of mommy blogs (a few of which I have actually read) so I think I’ve gathered enough uncensored, unbiased, trustworthy information to make this statement…
Crewing a multi-day ultra is like bringing a newborn home.
The runner is the newborn, you and your fellow crew mates are ambitious, hopeful and optimistic parents. You start the race prepared with every imaginable piece of gear, box of food and layer of clothing. You’re confident in your ability to channel your maternal instincts and read your runner from miles away with grandeur plans to be caring yet firm with every situation that may arise.
Your runner starts out as a docile creature that loves life and blows smile bubbles at the thought of running on triple digit miles. There is a sparkle in their eyes and the world is a wonderful place full of possibilities. You head to the starting line excited to take on the challenges of the next few days together, as a team, one bouncy step at a time.
Eventually reality sets in and everyone begins to reconsider their dedication to something as unforgiving and brutal as an ultra marathon. The “awww, what a cutie” honeymoon period is over and your responsibilities as parents, er, an ultra crew, kick in hardcore!
Babies cry. Runners whine.
As the hours – and days – tick by your runner gets tired and whiney. While out on the trail and alone their brain has the time to process exactly what they need, even plans out complete sentences…but as soon as they arrive at the aid station all cognitive thought shuts down. That list of things they needed? Erased. Their plan to change shoes? Gone. The chill they feel as a reminder to grab a jacket? Forgotten. The reset button on their Garmin? Non-existent. So, what do they remember when they come into the aid station? The fun things…
“I’m hungry, but nothing looks good”
“My shoes are wet…again.”
“These shorts are annoying, why didn’t you bring the other ones?”
“This drink mix tastes wrong, did you follow the directions?”
“I need to eat but I’m too tired to chew.”
“I asked for a candy bar, this is a Reese’s Cup…”
You do your best to listen calmly while touching feet that haven’t seen fresh air in two days, refilling handhelds and coaxing them to eat something, anything. You force yourself to momentarily forget about your annoyances and smile happily as you tell them how great they are doing while pushing them back onto the trail for another loop.
Nobody gets to sleep. Nobody.
The point of a multi-day ultra is to cover as many miles as possible in the allotted time. This means more running, less sleep…or in the case of the Silverton 1000 Mile Challenge and the Big Backyard Ultra, no sleep. And this sleep deprivation isn’t limited to just the runner. As a crew you’re constantly available, both mentally and physically. Even when your runner is out running you’re thinking about what you need to prep for their return. With time you fall into a sleepless routine, if you’re lucky. At the Big Backyard Ultra the nightly routine went something like this…
:00 – Send runner out for 4.167 mile loop.
:01 – Crawl into sleeping bag on the ground, set alarm for 47 minutes.
:47 – Awake to alarm, wait for Laz to head over to stoke the fire.
:48 – Crawl out of sleeping bag, scamper over to fire and chat while we wait.
:55 – Start Coleman to heat soup or make grilled cheese.
:57 – Runner arrives, refill water + offer up various food, change clothes/shoes, etc.
:59.50 – Runner heads to the start line.
*repeat for 6+ hours*
With time the routine becomes comforting and the night after the race you’ll find yourself waking up in 47 minute intervals, even without an alarm. This has to be something similar to having an infant squawking for food every few hours right?
It’s all about eating. And puking. And pooping.
When you’re preparing for a multi-day ultra [or the arrival of a newborn] you spend a lot of time thinking about food. Your trip to the grocery store gets you weird looks at the register as you purchase copious amounts of candy, Pedialyte, Ensure, soups, bacon, rice krispies, butter and marshmallows. You spend hours discussing the best practices for keeping your runner fueled without upsetting their stomach and do your best to take in every ounce of advice. As race day approaches you become confident you know exactly the proper balance of water, electrolytes, fat, protein and carbohydrates.
During the race you master the art of baking rice krispie treats on a small Coleman stove and bring many smiles to your adoring runner’s face. Then, for no apparent reason, your runner’s stomach pitches a fit and starts rebelling. Uh oh, back to the drawing board you go – it’s time for trial and error testing to find something, anything, to get your runner’s stomach back on board! You toy with various combinations of food, give your runner plenty of space when they dash for the port-a-potty and stash a few wet wipes in their pack, just in case. If all goes well their stomach is back in the game within an hour or three…then you all just hold your breath until the next blow out.
Mutual understanding develops. Eventually.
Just in case you haven’t jumped to this conclusion yet you should know – there is absolutely
nothing attractive or glorious about crewing a multi-day race. You’ll find yourself muttering “man, my hands smell like feet” even as you repeatedly use those hands to shovel popcorn into your own mouth. Two days into the race you’ll notice that you haven’t changed clothes yet and are proud of the fact you remembered to brush your teeth, twice. Your runner will hand you a sweat soaked tshirt and you’ll toss it over your shoulder not even noticing the stench. None of these petty details matter if your runner is still out there, fighting their own battles and pushing themselves forward.
As time rolls by you and your runner come to a mutual understanding – you’re all tired and borderline cranky but you’re succeeding! You learn to read your runner’s body language as they approach the aid station. Muttered gibberish starts to make sense. Your runner remembers to toss out a quiet ‘thank you’ and you offer up words of encouragement each time you see each other.
See, I was right – crewing a multi-day race is exactly like bringing a newborn home! You just need to use your imagination a bit! Heck, for most people it’s probably preferred over bringing a newborn home – rather than keeping tabs on your runner for 18 years you can forget they exist as soon as they cross that finish line! Well, until you need them to return the favor as a selfless crew jumping at the chance to wait on you hand and foot just so you can spend a few more hours suffering out on the trail! That’s the beauty of crewing – eventually you’ll sign up for a stupid long race knowing someone out there owes you big time, kind of like getting old and using the “I raised you! Do you have any idea what a terror you were?!” on your own kids!
Side Note: This is a satirical take on my experiencing crewing for Jeremy Ebel at the Silverton 1000 Mile Challenge and the Big Backyard Ultra. In reality he is a fairly easy runner to crew for. He knows what he needs/wants, rarely whines about anything and adapts well if a certain request cannot be delivered. That said, after 50+ sleepless hours everyone is cranky…the runner’s brain stops working and the crew’s patience wears thin…and the drama of the above scenarios feels very real. Or maybe I’m just adding this Side Note so you get to thinking crewing multi day races isn’t “that bad” and take over my responsibilities…you decide.