Crewing Ultras – Who’s right for you?

Who needs crew? Back in the days of old, runners would rely on drop-bags and their own steely determination to break through the physical and mental pain barriers of racing. Nowadays the crew have become a somewhat permanent fixture in many races around the world in to be honest, add a sense of occasion and atmosphere to races too.

The importance of having the right crew became hugely apparent for me when I was part of a crewing team for the Coast2Kosci 240km race some yers ago. If you’re not prepared and have the right crew for this race, you’re not finishing. But just how do you go about choosing the right crew to help you with your race?

What struck me was the massive importance of having a crew who really knew what they were doing too. Granted, runners and their crew are like Guinness, some people love it, some people hate it, and we all have an opinion on whether it’s right or wrong. Some people refrain from having a crew altogether… however here we’re going to take a (somewhat) light-hearted, but also serious look at making sure you chose the right people to help you along the way, as well as provide a basic checklist to getting it right with your crew on race day.

What type of person are you?

I’d say that before you even set about picking a team of crew members, you need to work out what type of personality you are as a runner. Are you the kind that needs a ‘kick up the arse’ every now and again, or do you bolt the other way as soon as someone starts to bark orders at you? We’re all different and part of the joy of getting a crew right is actually understanding what type of person you are and for the race, what type of person you need to help you get through. There’s nothing worse than having someone crew for you that you end up clashing with. It can ruin your race after all of the hard yards have been put in for the months beforehand training your rear end off to get to the start line.

Above all however, your crew all need to have one thing in common no matter who they all. They need to be completely self-less. The race is not about them and their needs, it’s about the runner. So before you embark on choosing your next crack team, make sure that they (the crew) understand that handbags should be left at the front door! So who should you choose?

Family, friends or strangers?

  • Family

Ultimately your crew is going to fall into one of the three above categories (if at all). One of the most natural choices to make is to have a member of your family help you along your merry way. After all, they’re your flesh and blood and they know you inside out (in most cases!). They seem a logical choice to make and who wouldn’t do anything for their husband/wide/brother/sister/father/mother?

But, are they too emotionally involved in you as a person? Because they’re so close to you, is it hard for them to see you suffer when you’re staggering around after 135kms with dribble pouring down your face? Is it too easy to give into their caring tones because mother knows best? On the flip side, they could just be what you personally need to help you through some tough times.

I’ve had family crew for me before and for me it simply doesn’t work. They’re too close to me and perhaps too sympathetic. They don’t run ultras and don’t understand the different physical and mental states that I’m going through to know what I want or need to do. When the going gets tough, it’s too easy for them to agree with you that you should quit.

BUT… the sympathetic ear of a family member could be just what someone else needs. Mentally and emotionally they could be on the same level for you and understand what you want more than you understand yourself.

  • What about mates?

Friends can be great to have along and share the experience with you. They’re not too emotionally connected to you (sometimes!) and can be exactly what you need to gee you along. A joke here and some banter there will brighten up your day and lift your spirits when you get into each checkpoint.

But what if these mates have never run a race before, let alone an ultra? Will their inexperience show through as you get to the next checkpoint and they have no idea what it is you’re going through and need? Do you end up doing all the work anyway and grabbing what you need so that they’re more like an extra in a film than an integral central character to the success of your run? There’s nothing worse than a ‘hanger-on’ who clearly has no idea what you’re going through. So perhaps it’s best to look at the stranger option…

  • Stranger Danger

Picking a crew of complete strangers can be a big risk. They don’t know you and you don’t know them. Sometimes this can be a good thing as they’re completely removed from you as a person and might give you the ‘tough love’ you require. But it’s a big risk. If you have to rely on strangers, make sure that at least one person on your crew is known to you. Appoint them to be your crew leader so that they can designate roles and jobs to the other members of the crew.

The crewing checklist

So you’ve worked out who you want to crew for you (or maybe not!), now all you need to do is make sure they do the job for you. To help, we’ve pulled together some brief hints and tips that should set you along your way. As always, it’s not set in stone and we’re sure there are other things to consider too, but we’ve hopefully captured the main points that you need to think about when you’re working with your crew for the big race:

  • Look after your crew: This might seem a funny thing to say when the focus of crewing is on the runner, but if the crew does not look after themselves, they cannot look after you. It’s often said that crewing can be harder than actually running the race itself. There’s the lack of sleep to consider, the mental focus of being always ‘on’, not to mention the driving between checkpoints. It’s easy for a crew to forget their own needs when they are focused on their runner – and a busted crew member is no use to a runner.
  • PMA – Positive Mental Attitude: This is an old phrase that was drummed into me during my rugby playing days. Having a crew with a positive attitude is almost as important as having experienced ultrarunners. You will need people who can laugh, joke and smile not just at the starters gun, but at 3am, 21 hours into a race.
  • Preparation: Make sure you spend time with your crew preparing for the race well ahead of race day. Discuss the types of things you are likely to need at each aid station, agree which members of the crew will focus on particular activities and always plan for when things go wrong or don’t go to plan such as sickness or blisters. It’s often said that those who win races are those who can adapt to the changing race plan the best.
  • Organisation: Make sure your crew knows all of your gear inside out. They should be able to get things quickly and find anything you need at a moment’s notice. There’s nothing worse than having people tear through bags to find stuff, particularly if you’re at the pointy end of the field and minutes matter. Also, have your crew do as much preparation as possible before you reach each aid station. Get the gear you need out and instead of refilling bottles, have some spares that you can simply swap over at each checkpoint – it makes for very efficient change-overs if time is important. Giving your crew a written checklist is another useful thing to do.
  • Jobs for the boys (and girls!): Get your crew to multitask. In other words, have one person sort out your food, another is refilling your bottle, another is finding sorting out your clothing or talking to race staff to let them know you’re at the checkpoint.
  • Second sense: Let’s be honest, when you’re 80 miles into a 100 miler, you’re ability to think is pretty low. This is where picking people who ‘get you’ is really important. Your crew should monitor your state of mind and any issues that look like they’re creeping in. How are you running? Does your stride look lazy? Are you simply in a funk and need to change things up a bit? When you’re running it’s so easy to remain in a monotonous mindset that it can you can drift mentally, which ultimately affects your performance.  Having a crew member that can identify this, could ultimately save your race.

Now go find your crew!

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

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