In ultrarunning competitions, an athlete’s performance can be aided greatly by support from a well-organized “crew.” A crew – a group of friends, family, coaches, or other individuals – can help athletes with pacing, nutrition, race strategy, problem-solving and motivation throughout the race. Although it is certainly manageable to run ultras without crew support, those looking to make the most of their performance on race day should certainly consider investing time in organizing a crew.
Putting together a crew is not something that should be done at the last minute, Runners should spend time thinking carefully about the individuals best suited to help them succeed on race day. Listed below are my top considerations for building an effective crew and quick tips first-time “crewers” should be aware of when signing on to help their athlete achieve their race goals.
[PRO TIP: This past year I completed a 24-hour skate ski event in Leadville, Colorado with the support from an amazing crew of friends. Read about how my crew helped me in the race.]
How To Build Your “Dream Team” Crew
Know Crew Rules and Access Points
Most races have specific rules for pacing and crewing that must be followed. Failing to adhere to rules can, and often does result in a runner’s disqualification. One of the most important things to learn is where and what type of aid can be given (aid can refer not only to nutrition, but also running alongside a race participant or providing coaching) and if there is a limit to the number of individuals that can be in a runner’s crew . Most races have designated crew access points where the crew (which could be a specified number of people) is allowed to assist their runner. Outside of these points it is strictly forbidden to give aid and, as mentioned above, can lead to disqualification.
Another consideration is the type of aid or assistance that can be given. Certain races may allow a single “pacer” or “safety runner” to accompany their runner identified as such wearing a pacer bib. Pacers may only be allowed to join their runner at a certain mileage point or aid station in the race. Some races allow a pacer to carry gear or hydration and fuel for a runner (also known as muling), while others only allow a pacer as a “safety runner” with no muling allowed. There may also be aid stations that allow crew access, but not pacing and you should always be aware of where pacing is and isn’t allowed. It is also likely that the pacer will need to formally register at an aid station or before the race as a designated “Pacer,” so make sure as a team to plan accordingly.
Watch the Mountain Outpost’s entertaining video on “How NOT To Pace a Runner” for practical (and funny!) pacing tips.
Determine Crew Size
When building a crew, you don’t want “too many cooks in the kitchen,” but you also don’t want to be short on aid. Determining how many individuals you need on your crew is largely dependent on the race route and distance, but can also be determined by the rules of the race related to crewing. Typically, the longer the race the more crew will be required. The longer the race the more the runner will be in need of pacers, nutrition advice, massage, or perhaps even assistance with basic problem-solving skills. Ultrarunners can become sleep deprived, physically exhausted or even experience hallucinations, all of which the crew should be prepared to assist with.
In addition to distance, the race route is another determining factor of crew size. For example, a short loop course may require less crew members than a point-to-point course because there are fewer variables to consider in a largely controlled loop environment. This is especially true in point-to-point routes through wilderness or remote mountains that have limited access to places that could provide food, shelter or medical care should a runner be in urgent need of these things during the race.
Another consideration is determining what roles your crew needs to fill. Although this is dependent on a number of factors, my recommendation is to have at least one of the following: pacer, crew/runner shuttle driver, aid station “prepper”, and a crew “chief.. It’s possible that one individual may fill multiple roles, but it’s important that all of the roles are filled to ensure the best success for the runner and crew. Listed below are each of the roles explained in more detail:
Crew/Runner Shuttle Driver: This person should be in charge of transportation logistics and how to get pacers and crew where they need to be, as well as how to get everyone, including your runner, back home safely after the race. After finishing an ultra, it’s advised that your runner not drive home alone. They are likely sleep deprived, sore, and have lost enough function in their muscles that could make them potentially unsafe behind the wheel. The designated shuttle driver should also plan ahead to limit the amount of night driving they or other crew members have to do. For example, it might be necessary for a crew member to drive to an aid station during the night to assist a runner, but if there is any possibility that this crew member may be too tired to drive, there should be an accompanying crew member who can assist behind the wheel if necessary.
Aid Station Prepper: Someone should be in charge of preparing everything the runner needs before they arrive at each aid station. This includes having nutrition and hydration products, first aid kit, sunscreen, change of clothes/gear, etc. This person should also know if there are specific gear requirements for the runner upon leaving each aid station and prepare all gear (hydration pack, water bottles, running vest, trekking poles, gloves, hat, etc.) before the runner leaves. This person should also not be shy to help their runner change gear or literally shove food or drink in their runner’s mouth should the runner appear to be too tired to efficiently do these basic motions for themself. This role is very involved and may be best filled by two to three people for maximum efficiency at each aid station.
Crew Chief: A crew chief is essential to maintaining a well-organized crew. This person should be designated as the “crew chief” by the runner before the race starts and everyone on the crew should respect the decisions of the crew chief. This person is typically a mentor/coach figure who knows the runner extremely well and is willing to go above and beyond the duties of the rest of the crew in order to ensure their runner has the best possible race. A crew chief should be responsible not only for their runners’ needs, but also for organizing the crew and ensuring they are fulfilling their duties.
Pacer: Although not all ultras may require (or allow) pacers, you should plan to have at least one if there is the opportunity to do so. Pacers can help runners in several ways including course navigation, holding pace and staying motivated. Pacers should be prepared to move at their runner’s pace and know their runner’s preferences when it comes to having a running partner. Some runners enjoy the company of another runner, but prefer little conversation, while others enjoy the distraction of long conversations and stories throughout a run. Some runners prefer pacers to run ahead, while others to the side or slightly behind. There should be a clear understanding between runner and pacer before the pacing segment of exactly what kind of roles the pacer needs to fill.
Placing Your Pacers
There are races where one pacer is not enough and in order to make the most of your race performance, you should build a team of pacers. This tip is most important with longer ultras such as 100- or 200-mile races, as well as 24- or 48-hour endurance runs, where the burden of pacing is more physically and mentally demanding. For example, in a 250-mile race such as the Cocodona 250, a pacer may agree to pace their runner during the middle of the night for over twenty miles. That’s just one pacing segment! To most effectively crew your runner, you need to make sure your crew is recovering and getting rest, especially if they plan to pace for more than one section. Having a team of pacers allows you to rotate pacers and keep everyone on the team as fresh as possible.
Another advantage of having a team of pacers is that it allows you to strategize where certain pacers might be placed most effectively. If a pacing section has a difficult climb and you have a pacer who excels at climbing, you should plan beforehand that this pacer be assigned to pace during the climb. Always organize pacing duties based on your pacers’ strengths and how to use them most effectively. Another important consideration are the nights. For races where you are running through the night, only assign night pacing duties to pacers who have exceptional navigating abilities in the dark and who agree to taking full responsibility for route finding. Pacers can take the mental stress of route searching in the dark away from their runner and the nights can be one of the most important stages in a race to have a pacer.
Calculate Travel Time
For many ultramarathon trail races, traveling to aid station checkpoints can be a complicated process that involves hours of driving time. Speaking from personal experience at several major trail ultramarathons including the Moab 240, Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, The Leadville Trail 100 and the Cocodona 250, I can say that there is almost certain to be at least one aid station that will take your crew much longer than expected to reach. It’s not uncommon for more remote aid stations to require crew shuttling (typically due to lack of parking) or a 4WD vehicle. Spend time on the race website researching aid station access and determine where runners and crew can meet. It’s possible that driving time between aid stations may be so much that your crew will have to be divided into an “A” and “B,” team where crew A assists the runner at one checkpoint and crew B at another.
[PRO TIP: Some races such as the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run have pages on their website dedicated specifically for “Crew.” There may also be pamphlets or handouts in pre-race “SWAG Bags” that outline pacing charts and aid station crew access. Reach out to the race director to learn about all of the crewing resources you can take advantage of.]
Happy Crew, Happy Race
A crew cares best for their runner when they too are happy and cared for. As a runner organizing a crew, it’s a great idea for you to think of ways to lift the spirits of your crew while they are crewing you. This can include purchasing snacks, coffee, water jugs, or providing items they might need/enjoy while waiting for you such as music, blankets, gas money, games, etc. It’s likely that your crew will have to skip some meals or survive off of aid station food just like you, so if you are able to keep them well-fed that is likely the single most important thing you can do to keep them motivated and happy. Also consider ways after the race to celebrate their efforts and make the experience feel like a “running vacation” with friends or family, as opposed to a job. Consider sight-seeing or developing a list of things for your crew to do before or after their crewing duties.
Tips For First-Time Crew Members
Pacers, Prepare For What YOU Are Getting Into
Although pacers only run section(s) of the course with their runner, that doesn’t mean pacers don’t have to be prepared for extreme physical and mental challenges themselves. If you are a pacer, make sure you fuel and hydrate properly before your pacing segment. When preparing at the aid station for your segment, make sure your runner has everything they need in terms of nutrition and gear, and make sure that you do as well. This is especially important at races in high alpine or altitude environments where weather conditions and air pressure change drastically. These changes can significantly affect your gear and nutrition/hydration requirements and pacers should NEVER have to rely on their runner for support because they were unprepared.
[PRO TIP: In addition to properly preparing your pacers, make sure the rest of the crew is also up to the challenge! This may involve designating sleep shifts and organizing crewing responsibilities in such a way that spreads out the workload, so that no one person in the crew is too overwhelmed with responsibilities.]
Know When To “Nudge” or “Hold Back”
Out of all of the tips in this article, this one can be particularly difficult and depends largely on how well you know your runner. There may be times during the race where your runner may have developed a disconnect between their mind’s expectations and what they are actually feeling. Your runner might say they feel good and want to rush quickly through an aid station when you know that it is best that they take the extra time to fuel/hydrate properly. Or perhaps your runner wants to sit down in a chair, yet you can tell that if they do they will sit for much longer than they actually need.
These situations require you as a crew member to make confident real-time decisions on behalf of your runner when they may not be in the right state of mind to make these decisions for themselves. You must learn to anticipate your runners needs, while also listening closely to what they tell you they are experiencing. As a general guideline, if your runner decides to make a major change from their pre race plan during the race (change of pace, nutrition, shoe swap, planned rest/nap, etc.), you should closely examine such a decision. You need to be confident enough to step in and make the decisions that will lead to their best race performance on the day.
Learn To Anticipate Your Runners Needs
Both before and during the race you should learn to anticipate your runner’s needs. Before the race, spend time getting to know your runner’s habits on their runs.
- Are there certain foods or drinks they bring with them?
- Are there particular socks/shoes they always wear?
- How does your runner respond to extreme heat or cold?
- What is their pre run routine?
Although your runner will prepare everything as best as they can, it is possible that they could forget (or run out of) some of their usual essentials during the race. You can carry extra of your runner’s favorite gels in case they should run out. If your runner has a favorite drink after a hot run, you can have this drink prepared at aid stations during the heat of the day. Don’t expect your runner to know all of their needs!
Furthermore, during the race you should also be observing what your runner is needing at every aid station and plan accordingly. If your runner has eaten watermelon and Oreos at the past two aid stations, then you should proactively think ahead and prepare a plate of these items to have at the ready before your runner arrives. Anticipating your runner’s needs at each aid station is the best way to get your runner in and out of aid stations in as little time as possible.
Printed Plans, Not Digital
I’ll admit I’m “old-school” in many things I do in life, and one of those is my affection for “print” versus “digital.” For ultrarunner crewing, printed pacing charts, course maps, and crew instructions have several advantages over their digital counterparts. Firstly, many trail ultramarathon checkpoints are in remote areas without cell service or internet connection. If you rely on digital, you will have to download all of the crewing information before going into these areas. Print sources have all of the information you need wherever you go. Secondly, ultramarathon running is unpredictable and technology has a higher chance of failing than print. Your runner may take several extra hours to arrive at an aid station than predicted and during this time your phone or computer may run out of battery. Temperature changes may also greatly affect battery life. Printed documents don’t rely on battery life! If you are like me and see the advantages of print in crewing, I advise printing small booklets or sheets (placed in plastic covers in case of inclement weather) for every crew member that outline the following:
- Each crew member’s cell number
- List of allergies, medical issues, or medications your runner takes
- What your runner needs are at each aid station
- Who is pacing where and for how many miles
- Your runner’s expected time of arrival at each aid station
- Driving time to each checkpoint
- Any other important crew notes (Airbnb/hotel coordinates and checkin times, airport flight times, etc.)
It’s much easier to outline all of the logistics beforehand and not during the race when YOU may be sleep deprived, sore or exhausted from your crewing duties!